As gripping as the action has been on the court, the real excitement in the Smith Spectrum begins shortly after the conclusion of halftime. As the opposing team steps to the free-throw line for the first time in the second half, a 27-year-old, 300-pound college senior named Bill Sproat climbs on a table and does his level best to distract the shooter. Only at that moment, he's not Bill Sproat. He's "Wild Bill," a larger-than-life character who dresses in hilarious, outlandish costumes. One night he's a Hula dancer. On another he's Winnie the Pooh. Sproat has dressed up as Cupid, Barney, The Little Mermaid and Peter Pan, all in hopes of bestowing his beloved Aggies with a one- or two-point advantage. "Everybody looks forward to it, including the opposing teams," said Tai Wesley, a 6-foot-7 senior forward. "I even caught the refs laughing the last game."
Sproat's antics, combined with the team's stellar play, has elevated Wild Bill to cult status. He is prominently featured during game coverage and has been invited to ESPNU's studios in Charlotte. Last week, Wild Bill was a topic on an episode of Pardon the Interruption. ("He misses the foul shot because some fat guy who dresses like a teapot is in the stands!" co-host Tony Kornheiser averred.) Not surprisingly, Wild Bill's act has gone viral. "I can't go anywhere in Logan without being stopped for autographs, especially by little kids," Sproat said. "It makes you feel cool."
It is remarkable that a state with such a conservative populace has embraced this flamboyant cartoon character. What's really remarkable, however, is that in order to perform his circus act, Sproat first had to come back from the dead. Literally.
It happened last summer at the Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, Utah. Sproat had been suffering from major health problems for months, but for a long time he refused to go to a doctor because he had no insurance. Twice he suffered coughing spells that were so violent he broke a rib. Bill's mother finally forced him to go to the hospital after he coughed up large amounts of blood.
When Sproat was examined in the emergency room, doctors discovered that his heart was functioning in what he calls the "dead range." Unbeknownst to him, a virus had attacked his body and caused his heart to become enlarged. He had enormous blood clots in his lungs and heart, and his kidney and liver had shut down. Sproat was immediately admitted to the hospital but was eventually moved out of intensive care.
Then one day out of the blue, Sproat started feeling lightheaded. He asked his sister to get help. Next thing he knew, a nurse was standing over him pressing a defibrillator machine to his chest. Sproat's heart and breathing had stopped for seven minutes before he was revived. He was as good as gone. "Everybody asks me if I saw a light or anything like that," Sproat said. "I don't remember seeing anything. I just remember feeling kind of disappointed to be back, to be quite honest. It was almost like a good feeling to be away on vacation."
It didn't take long for Wild Bill to be revived as well. "The first thing I said was, 'There better not be any BYU fans in here. I'd rather die,' " Sproat said with a laugh. "Of course the nurse who was doing the chest compressions on me was a BYU alum."
The burgeoning legend of Wild Bill has provided Utah State with some much-needed notoriety. This program has long been one of college baskeball's best-kept secrets. The Aggies are piloted by Stew Morrill, an old-school, 6-foot-8, 58-year-old graduate of Gonzaga who in his 13 years in Logan has won nearly 76 percent of his games. Yet for all that success, Morrill's program remains overlooked even in its own state, wedged as it is between Jimmermania in Provo and the daunting specter left behind by Rick Majerus at the University of Utah. Though Utah State has reached the NCAA tournament seven of the last 11 years, its lone tournament win during that span was a first-round victory over Ohio State in 2001. The last NBA player the program produced was Desmond Peniger, who played 10 games with the Orlando Magic in 2004.
Yup, this program is boring all right. All the Aggies do is win a ton of games by playing smart, efficient, unspectacular basketball, year after year after year. Their senior class is on the verge of winning its fourth consecutive WAC title. The team has won at least 23 games in each of the last 11 seasons. (Gonzaga and Kansas are the only other programs that can say that.) In three of the last six years, Utah State has led the country in field-goal percentage. Last year the Aggies led the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio. Nor is there any Jimmer in sight: Seven different players have led the team in scoring this season, and five are averaging between eight and 15 points per game. "I feel like we're more balanced than anybody we play," Wesley said. "It's a team sport, and we play that way."
If that philosophy seems uncommonly mature, it's because the players are uncommonly old. The roster includes six players who took two years off from school and basketball to serve Mormon missions. The starting lineup features four seniors and a junior. Three of those starters are former missionaries. "It's a bit of a double-edged sword because they don't touch a basketball for two years, but we get the benefits on the back end when they're 24 or 25," Morrill said. "Those guys give us a recruiting base of kids who have high character and are very coachable and mature from their two years out on a mission."
That culture yields more than just a high field-goal percentage. "Off the court, we really get along. We all have the same values and morals," said Wesley, who is 24. "I feel like each guy next to me is a person with character."
Besides leading the team in scoring, rebounding and field-goal percentage, Wesley is also responsible for midwifing the legend of Wild Bill. He and Sproat have been friends for years, but Sproat never showed interest in Wesley's game. "He hated basketball and he used to make fun of me all the time," Wesley said. "I said, 'Dude, you just gotta come to a game.' "
Sproat finally took Wesley up on his offer last season. He was immediately hooked. At one of his first games, the students around Sproat encouraged him to take off his shirt to distract the free-throw shooter. He later got the idea to write words on his belly. When BYU came to town, Sproat decided to take things a step further and dress himself up as a Chippendales dancer. It went over so well that for the next game against Saint Mary's, he put on a costume he wore on Halloween of Nacho Libre, the title character of a movie starring Jack Black. "People kept saying, 'What are you going to do next?' They pushed me into doing more," he said.
Sproat has since worn a different outfit for every game. He makes most of the costumes himself, but he gets some others from a local store. His favorite get-up from this season was a Christmas tree. For the game against Nevada on Jan. 22, he dressed up as the teapot from Beauty and the Beast. As Nevada forward Dario Hunt stepped to the line, the crowd serenaded him by singing, "I'm a little teapot, short and stout...." Hunt missed the free throw, naturally.
When Utah State played its first-round NCAA tournament game last year against Texas A&M in Spokane, Sproat brought his Wild Bill act to the arena, only to have a security guard tell him to put on his shirt and remain on the floor. Sproat, however, has bigger problems than humorless guys in ugly sport coats. After his teapot dance three weeks ago, he started feeling lightheaded and was taken to a training room, where he drifted in and out of consciousness. He has been to the emergency room several times in the last few weeks. "I've been instructed that if I go to the games I should only do the costumes and not cheer and get too crazy," he said. Sproat has lost 70 pounds and tries to exercise and eat right, but he is a long way from being healthy. He also has more than $200,000 in hospital bills and no idea how he's going to pay them.
One of the few advantages to spending so much time in the hospital was that it gave Sproat a chance to think up new ideas for Wild Bill. His nurses and doctors offered suggestions, too, and he says his list now tops 100. That's why he doesn't feel any pressure to meet the expectations of fans and television viewers. Should Utah State finally break through and win a few games in the NCAA tournament, Wild Bill will be ready. "I have something that I think would blow everybody's socks off at the Final Four," he said. "I'm not too worried about having to figure out what I'm going to do next. I'm pretty creative when it comes to being an idiot."