All around him is joy, so he can laugh at the pain now and talk about the anguish. Both have made him what he is, at this moment, which he wouldn’t trade for the world.
Will Spradling is sitting here at Kansas State’s basketball facility, and you could do worse for a picture of relentlessness, of steadiness, of constant pursuit. His four years here are almost up. Just four games over two weeks, and then the postseason.
At some point, the skinny coach’s son with the high-pitched voice from Shawnee Mission South grew up. In May, he will graduate with a degree in business management. He’s always been underappreciated, but he’s helped leave a mark on the K-State program much deeper than you might think.
Funny. They say that college rushes by in the blink of an eye, but Spradling has packed so much in. He’s been in the front seat on K-State’s growth from a creation of Michael Beasley and Jacob Pullen to the kind of sustained success that’s been just out of reach for most of the program’s history. By the time he is done here, only Steve Henson and Pullen will have played more minutes in a K-State uniform.
With Spradling as a makeshift point guard of sorts, covering an unexpected hole left by Angel Rodriguez’s transfer, K-State is in good position to make a fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history. Last season, Spradling keyed the program’s first conference championship in 36 years. Earlier this month, he hit that three-pointer from the corner in overtime, the game’s biggest shot as K-State beat Kansas for just the fourth time in 52 tries.
It’s not just the stuff they put in his team bio, either. Spradling has traveled to Europe. He’ll be married in August. He wants to play professionally overseas somewhere next year, but if that doesn’t work out, thinks he’ll try coaching. And ifthat
doesn’t work out, he has some nice job leads.
“I’m excited,” he says. “It’s exciting to not know what’s going to happen. Right now, I’m trying to focus on ending the season out strong. But it’s hard not to look into the future. And I’m excited for it.”
This is the time of so much possibility for Spradling. So many options, and we’re just now getting to the part of his senior year that people will remember. Already, though, Spradling has packed a decade’s worth of memories and obstacles into his time at K-State.
Most of them, people don’t know about. Less than two years ago, he was ready to transfer. Less than one year ago, his chest burned with every deep breath, he couldn’t lift his arms above his head and needed 25 shots to play.
Bruce Weber’s cell phone wouldn’t stop ringing. This was the spring of 2012. Frank Martin had left for South Carolina, and Weber agreed to replace him at Kansas State.
Weber knew the job would come with specific advantages and disadvantages. Martin had pushed the program back into the national conversation, and left a roster that would begin the season in the top 25 if it stayed intact. But as the phone calls kept coming for Weber, it didn’t take long to sense a theme.
“The first thing you better do,” Weber remembers hearing over and over, “is try to keep Will Spradling.”
College basketball is a small world, and the word spread pretty fast. Spradling was ready to get out, ready to leave Manhattan.
He wasn’t the only one — “We both were probably going to transfer,” senior Shane Southwell says — but Spradling may have been the most certain about his decision, and furthest along in the process. Weber says he heard from more than one coach that Spradling had started exploring his options.
Spradling won’t talk about that specifically, but with two years of perspective, articulates what was going through his mind after playing his first two years under Martin.
“The intensity is good to a point,” he says. “But if you keep going and keep going, it gets old and it kind of wears you down. That was the biggest thing. I feel like at the end of every season, that’s where we struggled and started to lose games. Everybody was tired.”
When Martin left, that changed. Spradling essentially spun 180 degrees in the week between Martin’s departure and Weber’s arrival. Part of that was just basketball. Spradling is a hoops junkie and knew that Weber emphasized a motion offense and man-to-man defense — two things Spradling has been doing his whole life, really, ever since he first started dribbling a ball around 2 years old at the AAU games his father coached.
But those basketball reasons were just the beginning. The more important part, really: Spradling loved everything he heard not just aboutwhat Weber coached, but how
“A lot more freedom,” Spradling says.
All of which made it much easier for Weber to follow up on those phone calls he got about needing to keep Spradling.
“I didn’t really have to do much,” Weber says. “Because of the reaction, I didn’t have to do much. I talked to him, talked to his dad. Other guys, it was a little harder and took a little more time, which is ironic because (Spradling) was the one that was going to leave and then he was the easiest to keep.”
They got along straight from the beginning, perhaps because each sees a little of himself in the other. They are both the sons of intense coaches, for instance, and maniacal competitors. Weber made more than a dozen trips to the emergency room before he turned 14. Spradling once punched his best friend in the stomach when one game got too heated (they quickly apologized to each other).
Right from the beginning, Weber helped build Spradling back up. Specifically, they worked on his shooting. Spradling still isn’t sure if it was mechanical or mental, but he lost his shot his sophomore year. One of Weber’s first charges was to help Spradling get it back, two men with so much in common, instantly connected with a mutual bond to do whatever it took to help each other.
Neither could’ve known how painful it would end up being for Spradling.
Spradling laughs about it now. When those around him think about it, they still cringe, as if they’ve just seen a pile of maggots.
The pain came from a screen that Spradling set on Texas guard Myck Kabongo. At the last moment, Kabongo lowered his shoulder into Spradling, inadvertently driving into Spradling’s sternum. Spradling felt the pain immediately. He grabbed at his chest. But he kept playing.
In the moments immediately after, the simple act of taking an open jumper sent enough pain through his body that he motioned to Weber, who mistook it as a celebration of hitting the shot. At the next dead ball told his coach he couldn’t breathe.
Spradling and the coaches did as much as they could to downplay the injury, but those around him describe it as gruesome. He couldn’t lift his arms, and deep breaths felt like a mountain climber’s. He hardly practiced after that but missed only one game. For the rest of them, he wore a protective vest and received up to 25 shots in his chest to mask the pain.
The shots and the impact turned Spradling’s chest a nasty palate of colors. Blue, black, pink, purple, brown. The pain and recovery may have been worsened by an astounding discovery by doctors: Spradling, then a 21-year-old Division I basketball player, was still growing. That meant the sternum was still made up of cartilage, where it would’ve been bone for the fully grown.
Anesthetics did only so much, and not just because they tended to wear off by the end of games. Spradling was slower, his shot went off again, and perhaps most noticeably, he stopped taking charges. That had always Spradling’s signature of sorts, the thing he did better than anyone else on the team, the thing that set Bob Knight off on a verbal love letter during broadcasts.
Before the injury, Spradling’s plus-minus — the cumulative score when a specific player is on the court — was by far the best on the team, even 60 or 70 points ahead of Rodney McGruder, who made first-team All-Big 12. But by the time the season was over, McGruder had passed Spradling.
Spradling never said much about the injury. Excuses aren’t his thing, even as there were days he couldn’t walk to class. For several weeks, the pain was so bad he couldn’t even sleep in his bed. He had to sleep in a chair, sitting up.
Which is when the laugh comes. Of all the pain and inconvenience and frustration of not being able to help his team as much as he wanted, at least he found a comfortable chair for those long nights.
“I mean,” he says, laughing, “it had to be.”
The burning chest and discontentment with Manhattan are both behind him now. Spradling is happy now, and healthy. In the last two or three weeks, he is playing as well as he ever has, and at just the right time for a team again set to exceed what outsiders expected.
The college experience, particularly for athletes at high-level programs, does not always go like this. Some 40 percent of players who enter Division I basketball out of high school leave by their sophomore year. Spradling was set to be part of that statistic, but instead is one of the relatively few to play at the same school for four years.
That journey is in the final stages now, the role for which people will most remember Spradling almost complete. He went only two hours away for college, but in every significant way has grown from a boy to a young man in Manhattan.
Much of that is in the pain and the frustration he’s been through along the way. He’ll graduate knowing that despite everything that went wrong, he and his teammates made sure enough went right that they’ve helped keep K-State going in one of the most successful runs in program history.
But Spradling isn’t ready to think about all of that. Not just yet. He still has time to make it even better, and personally, he’s never been in a stronger position to do it.