Final seconds. The game is tight and so is your throat. You're hot, tired and you just don't want to take that last shot. What to do? If you're playing for Villanova University, you relax. You've got Rory Sparrow.
Sparrow doesn't only win an occasional game with last-second heroics—he's making a career of it. As a freshman he sent a game against West Virginia into overtime with a basket in the final second, and since then he has brought off the cardiac caper often enough to be dubbed the Buzzer Beater. Five times the Wildcat guard, now a senior, has won games for Villanova with just a tick or two remaining. Some examples:
•Feb. 4, 1978—Villanova trails George Washington 58-57 with 28 seconds to play. Unable to work the ball inside, Sparrow takes an off-balance 10-footer with eight seconds remaining. The shot goes in off the glass; Villanova wins, 59-58.
•March 3, 1978—In the semifinals of the Eastern Eight Conference tournament, Villanova and Pittsburgh have been in a virtual tie for more than seven minutes. With 20 seconds left, Pitt has possession and is playing for the last shot. With seven to go, a Panther is called for charging Sparrow, who takes the in-bounds pass and drives the length of the court through a press to hit a 15-foot shot with one second left. Villanova, 72-70.
•March 17, 1978—In the NCAA East Regionals at Providence, Jim Wisman scores with 39 seconds to play to give Indiana a 60-59 lead over Villanova. Again the plan is to work the ball inside, but again Sparrow has to take the shot. Another off-balance jumper goes in with nine seconds remaining. Though Indiana's Wayne Radford launches a futile 35-foot shot at the buzzer, Villanova wins, 61-60.
•Feb. 6, 1980—Twenty-seven seconds left in a 72-72 game with George Washington. Villanova's Coach Rollie Massimino sets up a play for Forward Alex Bradley but the ball is batted free by GW. Sparrow swoops it up and hits a 16-footer at the buzzer for the win.
•Feb. 12, 1980—Against Rutgers the plan is for anyone but freshman Stewart Granger to take the last shot. With five seconds to play, Granger nonetheless takes the shot from deep in the left corner. The long rebound comes out to Sparrow, who makes another off-balance bank shot at the buzzer to give the Wildcats a 70-68 win.
"At the moment it's a thrill and the attention is nice, but you still have to go to practice the next day," Sparrow says. That's it? "Well...all right. I mean I was a little kid, too. You always want people to know you, to whisper, 'He's the hero.' I've done it five times for Villanova, but if you count the projects I lived in, it's been at least 43."
The projects are in West Paterson, N.J., where Sparrow was raised. It was there that he decided the last seconds were the best part of the game.
"I really believe in that thrill of victory and agony of defeat stuff, and in the last seconds I feel that ABC camera right on me," Sparrow says. "There's no pressure. You can call all the time-outs and diagram all the plays you want, but it's going to break down somewhere down the line. Then it's just talent against talent. So you make sure that the wrist is hanging in the right spot and say, 'Let's go home, fellas.' "
Sparrow likes to tease about hanging wrists and looking pretty for cameras, but he can afford to. And in truth he is something of a student of rebound angles and high-percentage shots ("When you're off-balance or in doubt go for the glass because there's a wider margin of error to work with," he says).
The tease is a game the irrepressible Sparrow plays with himself as well as with those around him. Sparrow literally cannot keep still. The head bobs, the arms twitch, and a shrill cackle of a laugh comes forth.
But against Notre Dame on Jan. 15, he didn't have the last laugh—or shot. Driving the left baseline, he scored to give Villanova a one-point lead with three seconds to play, only to be beaten by a 35-footer at the buzzer by Tracy Jackson. That left Sparrow in an atypically speechless state.
"All I remember is when it left his hands I thought, 'That ball is getting awfully close to the net. That ball is going through the net.' People were just going crazy everywhere. I just sat there and shrugged." Against Notre Dame, Sparrow went scoreless in the first half and didn't get back into the game until only six minutes were left. Thereupon he scored 10 points and brought Villanova to the brink of victory. Sparrow's scoring total was just .2 of a point off his season average, which is the second-lowest among the Wildcat starters. Center John Pinone is the team leader with 14.1, followed by Bradley (13.5), Guard Tom Sienkiewicz (12.2) and Forward Aaron Howard (7.7). None of these numbers an All-America makes, but balanced scoring often produces a winner, which 19-7 Villanova obviously is.
For all his last-second heroics, Sparrow has a tendency to drift at less crucial moments, which leads to turnovers and inconsistency. As Massimino says, "For us to play well as a team, Rory has to play well as an individual."
Sparrow says he now realizes how much Villanova needs him the first 39:59. "The problem is that, with all the diagrams and patterns and plays, I get uncomfortable within my role," Sparrow says. "I feel like a robot out there. You're not playing basketball, you're just going through motions, just doing. But with my handling the ball so much I had to snap out of it and start getting everyone their shots."
Not that he has completely given up on a little variation in the script every so often. "I'd like to get my shots, too," he says. "There isn't a point guard in the world who wouldn't love to shoot more. The only one who wouldn't is little Joey Pointguard, who went to camp every summer for 10 years and never shot the ball. He would stop breakaway layups and look for a teammate to pass to."
An above-average student, Sparrow chose Villanova over Virginia and Kansas State, among others, because of his interest in its electrical engineering program, but there is still one more little boy's dream that Sparrow would like to try. "Some guys think about nothing but hoops," he says. "I'm not that bad, but still, you can't have grown up in the U.S. and not have thought about playing pro ball. It has to be a goal if for no other reason than the money." To say nothing of hanging the wrist, banking the glass and beating the buzzer in the NBA.
When the clock winds down, Sparrow starts to wind up.