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December 13, 2011
Spradling's father prepared son early
"I was seriously looking around for a woman," he says.
People laugh. It is Martavious Irving remembering aloud the moment he met Will Spradling. The sophomore guard's high-pitched voice is fodder for jokes like this in Kansas State's locker room and the thing people first notice when they encounter the 175-pound point guard. His physique isn't particularly overwhelming, either. Instead, that's a work in progress.
He's reserved and stringy in the arms and legs. A few pimples still take up residence on his strikingly adolescent face. Nothing about Spradling's appearance suggests he's a hardened Division I athlete with a knack for the big moment, or someone who has to hold back a smile (even an internal one) when Frank Martin launches a verbal missile at his face.
Yet this is who he is.
"The last thing I ever worry about is Will," Martin said. "He understands it."
For Spradling, Martin's public undressings are mild -- simple constructive criticisms delivered with enthusiasm. It's a scene that has been witnessed in various arenas and beamed into living rooms across the country for a year and a half now: K-State's head coach using expletives and a death metal voice to remind his floor general that he needs to do better.
But what some view as ruthless tongue-lashings capable of leaving scars, Spradling sees as the status quo. He's experienced tough coaching, and Martin's style isn't it. He's survived his share of locker room tirades, and his current coach's antics don't top the list.
"It was way worse with my dad," said Spradling, who played AAU basketball for his father for the bulk of his childhood. "Frank really gets into me and stuff, but you think Frank has a bad mouth on the court? My dad's mouth was way worse. And this is when we were younger, too. You didn't see this on other teams back then. Parents on other teams didn't know what to think."
The routine was constant back then. Mistakes in basketball, or in life, always came with a price tag. So the K-State coach with a nation-wide reputation for being hard on players has a ways to go to catch the disciplinarian back home. And in Manhattan, Spradling's comeuppance for a bad decision doesn't follow him to the dinner table.
"We had a lot of uncomfortable meals, and my mom would sometimes try to get involved and baby me, but my dad wasn't having that," Spradling said. "That's when things got bad. But, what could I say? He was my dad. He was always right."
Writing Spradling's empty halftime stat line on a dry erase board between periods in an early-season game with Charleston Southern inspired a 15-point second half, but Martin's sarcastic style of grilling him over a lack of production still came off as mild. Until he forces his sophomore guard to leave the locker room with tears rolling down his cheeks, Spradling will claim to have seen worse -- much worse -- from the AAU coach that shares his last name.
"The worst ever was in eighth grade during nationals in Indiana," Spradling recalls. "I had a terrible first half. We were down by, like, 15. My dad just ripped me at halftime. I was crying the whole second half. I scored 25 points in the second half, but I was crying the whole time."
This isn't a case of Shannon Spradling being especially tough on his son. His offspring's tears weren't the only ones spilled on game days. He once inspired current Alabama guard Trevor Releford, a former AAU teammate, to a big second half in the same fashion, leaving him to ride welling eyes to success.
Often times, when the waterworks turned on, so too did Shannon Spradling's teams.
"My dad would get into you, but it would make you do better," Will Spradling said. "It was never just tearing you down for nothing or just being negative for no reason. He knew it would make you try harder."
It wasn't just results on the basketball court Shannon Spradling, a former player at the University of Tulsa, was after. These were, according to Spradling, life lessons. The toughening-up process was complete well before the current K-State guard graduated high school, and the plan wasn't executed by accident.
At a young age, Will Spradling trained with NFL players such as Eddie Kennison at a facility in Overland Park and broke the former Chiefs wide receiver's complex record in at least one drill. He was forced to play up two-age groups on the AAU circuit. His nose has been broken twice on the basketball court and all the recruiting attention that surrounded him during his junior year in high school was garnered while playing with a broken bursa sack in his hip.
"I'd just tell him to shake it off and move on," Shannon Spradling said. "I was equally tough on everyone. I always told him I'd have him prepared for life, so I guess I was true to my words."
So here stands Will Spradling the college athlete, -- a pile of high-pitched voice and bashfulness -- the most unassuming tough guy on Earth. As a freshman at K-State a season ago, he was one of two players to appear in every game and hit his share of big shots in the process. He's on pace to shatter the school record for charges drawn in a career and regularly slams his body into a cold, wooden floor despite lingering pain from the four-year-old hip injury.
Will Spradling isn't just a Frank Martin-style of player. He's the steel mold from which they're cut.
"Shannon did a hell of a job preparing Will for college," Martin said. "Will is going to succeed in a heck of a way because he's been prepared. When you get guys like that, you can coach them. They're going to respond to coaching. The problem is there are too many kids these days that haven't been challenged."
The kid with the squeaky voice and bulletproof spirit has just less than three years of college basketball left to his name. Three years of curse words. Three years of absorbing maniacal screaming and being chastised for microscopic missteps. Martin is not changing his ways anytime soon.
"As coaches, I guess we're expected to go hug them and kiss them," Martin said. "It doesn't work like that K-State."
And that's just fine by Will Spradling. He's never known another way.
"I don't think I'd like playing for a coach who just sits back and relaxes," he said. "I've never played with a coach with that style. I don't even think I could deal with that. I wouldn't know how to respond."