Written by Shane Thomas
Screaming fans, mascots going insane, teammates celebrating, coaches yelling instructions—this is the life of a college basketball player.
On the court, Josh Sparks is an intense, energetic, high-flying forward who draws boisterous cheers inside the Valdosta State University P.E. Complex.
When the lights dim and everyone goes home, Sparks goes back to the normal life of a college student. A senior health and physical education major, Sparks takes to another outlet to ease his mind—the game of poker.
“I’ve been playing poker since I was in high school,” Sparks said. “I started seriously playing last summer. I get into flag football and other intramural things like that, but I play poker maybe four times a week.”
In a room appearing to have once been a garage, two tables serve as the battleground on a warm Monday night.
The room is lighthearted and loose, yet balanced with calm competitiveness.
The 6-foot-9 inch Sparks slouches comfortably into a chair with his long Nike socks and black pair of Vans resting in a vacant chair.
Sporting a UNLV snapback hat covering his blond Mohawk and white t-shirt with a mug shot of rapper Lil’ Wayne on the front bearing the words ‘FREE WEEZY’ above it, Sparks surveys the table with poker chips perfectly stacked in front of him as the sound of shuffling cards and clinking chips fills the room.
Across from Sparks is his friend Brittney Nelson who, like Sparks, is a senior forward on the VSU basketball team.
Their friendship has grown in large part due to the fact that they both arrived at VSU in 2010.
“I’ve been playing poker with Josh for two and a half, three years,” Nelson said. “He’s very outgoing, very humorous. He’s a lot like my brother [Ryan] in that respect, so that’s probably why we’re such good friends.”
Sparks and Nelson’s friendship is evident as Sparks, shifting his gaze from the stack of chips, calls out to Nelson with a sly grin.
“Hey Nellie, how mad would you be if I knocked you out of the game?”
Nelson didn’t respond, only raising her eyes from her hand and brushing aside her long brown hair as a bright smile flashed across her face.
Sparks, not expecting a reply, laughs and smiles to himself before turning his attention back to his hand.
This was just one of many small conversations going on among the 13 participants. At the opposite table, Sparks’ teammate, Lester “Tre” Moore, coolly watches the cards and chips as other play and make their move.
Suddenly, Moore leans back in his chair, grunting in frustration.
“Hey Tre Mo!,” Sparks yelled across the room. “C’mon Tre Mo, I trained you better than that.”
The room filled with laughter almost instantly. Moore, a sophomore guard, was a new teammate of Sparks this past season but acknowledges that he and Sparks became good friends through basketball three years ago.
“We were really cool since day one,” Moore said. “We played at the rec center and I think our competitive natures really helped us bond.”
The song “Voodoo Child” by Jimi Hendrix courses throughout the room from a laptop on the floor.
Sparks, almost instantly begins whistling the electric guitar arrangement as he shuffles and re-shuffles the deck of cards; plotting his next move.
Though basketball is his calling, Sparks looks quite at home sitting at the poker table with his friends.
Poker is a game of decision-making and cool composure. According to Sparks, that is what makes the game so much fun.
“Poker’s all about strategy and numbers,” Sparks said. “Things like odds, cards you’re gonna hit or not gonna hit, knowing when to put your money in the pot and when not to—I love mental stuff like that.”
Sparks, 22, is coming off a stellar senior season for the Blazers. The forward averaged 13.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 3.4 blocks in 29 games. Sparks also re-wrote the VSU record books, breaking the school record for blocked shots with 246.
When the chips were down and the stakes were high, Sparks proved to be the Blazers’ ace in the hole.
Sparks averaged 21 points and 11.7 rebounds to lead the Blazers all the way to the Gulf South Conference championship game. Though the Blazers fell short, Sparks looks back positively on the experience.
“With me being a senior, I didn’t want to be done early,” Sparks said. “I knew that if we lost, it was all over. We would’ve loved to win, but if we were gonna lose, I’d rather it be in the championship than in the first or second round.”
Sparks maintains that playing poker is just a fun hobby on the side. Basketball is still where his passion and competitive drive is most powerful. Sparks ultimately eyes the prospect of playing professionally.
“My goal is just to make it,” Sparks said. “Whether it’s in the smallest league overseas or a semi-pro league in America, getting paid doing what I love—that would be awesome. That’s always been my dream.”
His closest basketball buddies, Moore and Nelson, think that he has the character to make his dream a reality.
“He’s a winner,” Moore said. “He always strives to be the best, but he always makes sure everyone is on the same page.”
“I think he definitely has a chance,” Nelson added. “With playing overseas, it’s not about how good you are. It’s about who you know.”
For Sparks, life is about playing the hand that his talent has dealt. One thing is certain—regardless of the competition, Sparks will not fold without a fight. He’s all in.
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