HOLMES TOWNSHIP – Sports create friendships that last a lifetime. Wynford is no exception to the rule.
Fellow offensive linemen turned basketball big men James Ort and Nate Sparks are the Royals’ towering example. Sparks towers at neckbreaking 6-feet-8, while Ort is no shrimp at 6-5. They both love to control the paint on the basketball court as much as they loved double-teaming opposing linemen on the football field.
Their friendship started at a very young age because of the one major thing they had in common — they both loved sports.
“We have been friends since fifth and sixth grade and we have played basketball together for a long time,” Ort said. “We go to his house all the time and we are all really good friends and he was my strong-side buddy in football. Now he is my big boy buddy in basketball.”
While Ort is the starting center, Sparks subs in frequently for his teammate. Sparks takes it upon himself to get his fellow big man psyched up for a contest.
“We played on the strong side all year in football and grew a pretty good friendship, and we were both the big guys last year in basketball,” Sparks said. “So, I figured I would make up a little handshake, a little chest bump and a couple high fives to get him going. I made it up and I don’t think he had a clue about it.”
The duo spent last season making shots, and shots and some more shots. Ort was among the Northern 10 leaders in shooting percentage blazing the nets with a 57 percent average. Sparks shot even better with a 75 percent average, but did not attempt the minimum number of shots to be listed among the league leaders.
The pair spent this fall lined up beside each other on Wynford’s dominating offensive line that produced two 1,000-yard rushers in Zach Hoffman and Nick Looker. Their teamwork on the line has transferred to the basketball court in a way that not many teammates can experience together.
“I enjoy playing with Ort,” Sparks said. “For some reason, we have a brain connection on the floor where we know what each other is doing all of the time. If he is going to the hoop, I know it, and when I am going to the hoop he will hit me with a pass.”
Ort credits football as well.
“We talked a lot during football to the point we knew exactly what each other was doing on every play, and now it is transferring to the court,” Ort said.
First-year coach Jason Engel feels fortunate to coach two big men. The shorter Engel often has to remind Sparks he is 6-8 and to just shoot the ball. But he also knows he has two special players in the paint, even if they like to joke around.
“They do have a passion for the game and work really hard,” Engel said “They are very likable and respectful. The biggest thing is their parents have raised them the right way and that has made them coachable. They know when to have fun and know when to be serious.”
Engel enjoys the practice battles between Ort and Sparks, who guard each other in drills. Even when his two big guys are dominating the paint on Friday nights, Engel remembers the drills during the week.
“We do a one-on-one war game in the post and whoever scores five points first, wins,” Engel said. “They don’t have to take it back. They just get the rebound and go after it and those guys really get after it. They have the mentality we need when we play Friday and Saturday nights.”
“We work each other in practice really hard and go at it every day to make each other better,” Sparks said.
All of the years of playing football and basketball together has built a bond. Sparks admits their friendship on the court is built on trust that stemmed from the football field.
“I have a lot of trust in him when we would doubl- team in football and if I have the trust in him to make a block, I have a lot of trust in him to make a shot or a stop,” Sparks said.
Last Friday, the Royals faithful witnessed the duo on the court at the same time – something that does not happen a whole lot. The Royals were hosting the Temple Christian Crusaders in a tight season opener.
The Royals were leading by three with time winding down and Engel decided to have his team foul so the Crusaders could not tie the ballgame up. After the first foul shot sank, Engel looked as if he had a light bulb go off. Sparks was sitting five feet behind him on the bench. Engel grabbed Sparks and inserted him into the game, saying, “We need you to get the rebound.”
The plan paid off and the Royals earned a 1-point opening night victory.
“A lot of coaches would not want both of those guys on the floor at the same time because it creates matchup problems defensively,” Engel said. “But when they are both on the floor at the same time, there is not a lot of teams out there that can stop them offensively. They do a lot for us and they are leaders and captains.”
The big men will lead their team to Ridgedale High School on Saturday with victory on their minds. Fortunately for Ort and Sparks, now they only have to pave the way on 84 feet of hardwood instead of 100 yards of gridiron.