“This is better than
coming!” the fourth grader shrieked.
Girls screamed, grabbed, hugged and took pictures with Darius Sparks, a surprise visitor to the aptly (and unmistakably) named “Sparks” traveling basketball team. Dreamy boy-bands aside, none of the girls cared that Sparks had recently lost a basketball championship.
They didn’t know that when Sparks was their age, finding his next meal and place to sleep was his primary concern. Not basketball.
A week earlier, Sparks and some of his teammates made another surprise visit. This time, the eyes of a team of fourth grade boys widened as their idols entered the gym. After some five-on-five, autograph signing and a game of lightning with the star-struck kids, Darius and his fellow seniors on the
St. Mary’s Central High School boys basketball team
started to realize they were a part of something bigger than themselves.
Four days earlier, the season ended for Sparks and his fellow Saints—a seven point loss in the N.D. state championship game. The sting of defeat and a sense of failure hit the team…hard.
Two months earlier, Sparks, 18, met his father for the first time.
“I’m definitely a spitting image of him,” he said, a grin spreading across his face. In that moment, the loss was far from his mind.
Putting things in perspective
After sitting down with SMCHS seniors Ben Weisbeck, Grant Dvorak and Sparks one month after the championship game loss, it was clear that recovery was progressing at different speeds for each of them.
Case in point: Days before our visit, the players had just received a DVD of the fateful game.
Sparks: “I watched it this weekend.”
Weisbeck: “I don’t know how long it’s going to be [before I watch it], but it’s going to be a long time.”
Dvorak: “I’ll watch it some day. I don’t need any video to tell me what emotions I was experiencing that day.”
For Weisbeck, it was the bite of looking into his teammates’ eyes after failing to meet a goal they had set for themselves “back in fifth or sixth grade.” For Dvorak, it was the “sadness that it’s gone;” the loss of a brotherhood and the realization that life is quickly moving beyond the walls of SMCHS. While the basketball season offered a convenient distraction, he recognized that some “big decisions” in life are now looming.
In the case of Sparks, it was a familiar taste. “I’ve lost so much in my life,” he said. “And I always find a way to get back up.”
Sparks wasn’t just talking about basketball. In fact, he never had the opportunity to play on a team until the seventh grade. He arrived at SMCHS for the first time as a vulnerable freshman with a broken past. First taken into foster care at age 12, he moved from home to home and learned to “shoot the three ball” at the park near Jeannette Myhre Elementary School.
“I didn’t have a father growing up to show me what was right and what was wrong or to show me sports,” he said.
Instead, he found a team. “Great guys” that prayed with him, challenged him and taught him throughout his high school career. Friends, brothers, role models. A family centered on faith.
“No matter if you win or lose, you’re still praying,” Sparks said, referring to the team’s pre- and post-game habit. “It’s like outside in the real world with life. When something goes wrong, you shouldn’t stop praying, you shouldn’t forget about your faith. It’ll just go worse then. With your faith, you feel stronger. You feel like you have hope and there’s a brighter day.”
The real reason
If you looked closely—
closely—you would have noticed a mark on Ben Weisbeck’s basketball sneaker this season: G.W.
“Many times throughout the season I had to remind myself the reasons why I was playing.”
It’s a good question; and a deep one if you let it sink in.
do we do what we do?
Those initials are one reason why Ben plays basketball. G.W. stands for Gene Weisbeck, Ben’s grandfather. About 10 years ago, an undiagnosed condition suddenly left Gene chronically dizzy, uncoordinated and off-balance. Once an active man who loved playing horseshoes, the accordion and bowling, he hasn’t been the same since.
“For 10 years he hasn’t given up. He has perseverance to move on. That inspired me so much,” Ben said. “I might lose, I might have a bad game, but it’s about so much more. If my grandpa can make it through all the suffering he’s been through, I can do that, too.”
Gene wasn’t at the state championship game to see his grandson lose. In fact, he never made it to one of Ben’s basketball games. But he listened to every game, thanks to the radio.
Ben may never fully understand how his career impacted his grandfather; what went through his mind as he sat—suffering, listening and imagining his grandson driving to the hoop.
Why does Weisbeck play basketball?
“The real reason is to make an impact, to affect others and make a difference in the world. We didn’t take home the state championship, but I think we took home a lot more.”
As Dvorak ponders his future—which he admits may not include basketball—he knows that championship trophies are nice, but it’s the intangibles that change lives.
“[Playing basketball] made me a better man by allowing me the opportunity to sacrifice every day,” he said. “It took emotional fortitude to get to practice every day. By putting it all on the line, we sacrificed for each other.”
Sparks doesn’t know what his life would look like if it didn’t include the sacrifices his basketball brothers made for him…or the love he’s received from his foster parents and fans (including the infatuated fourth graders).
“Whenever I look back on my life, that’s the one thing that comes to mind: I’m very blessed,” Sparks said. “I have everything that I could ever want. Now that I’m at that place, I feel like I need to be doing more and giving back to underprivileged kids or young adults who go through struggles. Kids need to see that there is hope. Once you’re given opportunities, you can go far.”
“I’ve got the rest of my life to look forward to,” Weisbeck said in light of the loss. “We all do.”
• Kurtz is director of communications for the Bismarck Diocese and editor of the
Dakota Catholic Action
newspaper (Follow him on Twitter:
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