There’s cheesy grits and pancakes, moussaka and Nutella cake, a stuffed baked potato — not just with the bacon bits and cheese sprinkled on top as a garnish, but with everything pre-mixed by hand and baked inside — something called “Chef’s surprise,” which turns out to be spaghetti. These are the sweet, secret sustenance of the pros, specifically Kyle Lowry, Luka Doncic, Julius Randle, and A’ja Wilson, respectively. More specifically, these are the holdover food from their childhoods that their moms will still happily make whenever they ask.
These are the kinds of career-forming facts that don’t get as much publicity as what players accomplish on the court. They’re also the kinds of close and comforting details that Wendy Sparks, host of the Court-Side Moms podcast, asks the moms of NBA and WNBA players to share every episode.
“I remember my very first episode, writing out like 1,000 questions — I didn’t know what to write, I didn’t know what to do, I had no idea what to say,” Sparks says over the phone from Tampa, where she’s joined her son, Toronto Raptors recent addition Khem Birch, after not seeing him in person since Nov. 2019 due to the border restrictions between Canada and the U.S. “I was so nervous.”
There’s no trace of those early nerves in any of the weekly episodes of the show. Sparks is a warm and thoughtful host, inviting the moms of some of the best and biggest pro ballers in the world to share the path players traversed as they went from awkward, rebellious, or carefree kids into the person we know best by a name and number on the back of a jersey.
For Sparks, every step of Court-Side Moms, from concept to spontaneous pitch, came from time she’s spent in gyms and arenas supporting Birch. And inevitably, some of that time has been spent sitting anonymously alongside fans who have a lot to say about players.
“They would either love the players or absolutely hate the players, and that used to drive me crazy. You’re talking about someone’s child,” Sparks says. “You don’t understand the struggle, you understand what it takes to get these kids where they are today.
“It’s a game, they’re playing their game,” Sparks adds. “They’re playing it just like how we go to work, and at the end of the day we go home, it’s the same thing for these players. And I kept saying, I need people to hear this. I need people to understand where all this is coming from.”
You’ve asked and we delivered!The episode with Marie Holloway @blessedmom07 mom of Kyle Lowry 🏀🏀 of the Toronto Raptors is out wherever you find your podcasts 🔥🔥#WeTheNorth #Courtsidemoms #MomsRaisingPros #BasketballLife #NBAMoms #ProudMoms #womenupliftingwomen pic.twitter.com/z4PciZz2A7
— Wendy Sparks (@wensparks) May 5, 2021
It was more than a parent’s vigilance, there were years of formative, intimate details that were being left out. This, in Sparks’ eyes, opened up an opportunity to add meaningful context that we’d never hear otherwise.
“Athletes’ stories are so important,” Sparks stresses. “People often think that it’s easy. And it really isn’t the case, right? For example, there’s only 450 NBA players, and even less, 144 WNBA players, for starters, per year. So the sacrifices, the struggles, the love and passion behind this, coupled with the kids’ talents on the court, is so vital for our kids being selected from this giant pool of basketball players.”
It was at a basketball camp Sparks did with Birch in Nova Scotia that would offer a serendipitous opportunity to tell those stories. During a break in action, Sparks and Kurt Benson, CEO of the sports agency Tidal League, started talking about basketball in the province. The conversation shifted easily to Sparks’ own journey — a fierce and talented point guard born and raised in Montreal who set her career aside to raise Birch — and the gap she kept coming back to in the way players’ stories are told.
Sparks says Benson went “very quiet” before encouraging her to pursue the idea in earnest, offering the help of Tidal League to bring the concept to life. Court-Side Moms has since become the company’s flagship podcast.
“When I was told this is going to be a reality, then the panic set in,” Sparks says with a laugh.
She doubled down on her research. Determined not to have any part of the space she’d soon invite her guests into be “fly by night,” Sparks ventured beyond the stats-forward and news cycle-driven scope of most basketball podcasts, into travel and family shows, to better understand what it was that kept people engaged. Wanting to go beyond a sports podcast’s typical demographics and reach new audiences, including families and younger listeners, the approach the show’s team takes is “very analytical,” Sparks says. “It’s important. So I needed help to show people that this is possible for anybody.”
While quick not to take credit, there is an engrossing warmth to the way Sparks sets the space up for the moms who join her each episode.
“I try to keep, well, I do keep it very professional, but very sisterhood-like,” she says. “First and foremost for me, it’s about making the mother comfortable. Understand you have a lot of mothers that went through a lot of sacrifices, and sometimes they’re worried about sharing. Worried about how you’re going to use that information. Worried about how I’m going to put it out there. Because once you say something, whatever platform, you’re really putting your story in somebody else’s hands.”
Thankfully, Sparks’ hands are deft and tender. They also flip through a digital Rolodex of NBA and WNBA contacts most agents, media, and GMs would drool over. She relishes any chance to bond with other basketball mothers — despite Birch moving on from Orlando, she is still a member of the tight knit Magic Moms — and as a result has built up a large and constantly expanding network over the years.
“We have Zoom calls, we have a lot since COVID,” she says. “That made it easier for us, because now I get to see a whole bunch of mothers at once from everywhere. Before, we would have a moms weekend in New York City and we’d have 60 mothers, but that’s it. Well, where are the other 390 moms, right? So now we do Zoom calls, everybody’s invited.”
The result is one giant collective that intertwines and stretches beyond conferences or team allegiances.
“It’s like, if your son needs anything, you let me know, or, if you’re coming to Atlanta come see me,” Sparks says. “People say, ‘Oh, you’re NBA moms, you guys shop, you have millions.’ No! We all work. We’re laid back people just like anybody else. We still drink the same wine, still drink the same coffee, sit on the same couches like everybody else. And we complain about our kids like everybody else.”
— Wendy Sparks (@wensparks) April 21, 2021
Asked if there’s a dream mom she’d like to interview now that she’s in this space and Sparks gently corrects, “All moms are dream moms.”
“I do not want to make it seem like ‘Oh my gosh, I landed this mother,'” Sparks says. “I never want a mother to feel that her son or daughter is inferior to another. For example, you have superstar Kyle Lowry, and then next week we have another player who is not getting so much visibility. For me, that mom, I’m treating her no different than Kyle Lowry’s mom. Or no different than Kevin Durant’s mom. Because at the end of the day, we’re all moms. We’re all equal. We all went through the same struggle.”
It’s this equalizing outlook that Sparks returns to again and again, and part of what makes Court-Side Moms so captivating. Because even if you are the kind of person more compelled by the numbers, the process of hearing a player’s story told by the person who was closest to them during its every twist and turn offers a novel and slower look at the lives driving the NBA’s perpetually accelerating narrative. The show offers an immediately immersive lens to fans who are both constantly hungry for more and desire welcome respite, especially against the backdrop of such a tumultuous season.
Besides asking for the culinary comforts of their children, Sparks closes out every episode with rapid-fire questions, like what would you say to a mom who disagrees with a coach, or if you could only give one piece of advice to another court-side mom, what would it be? Borrowing from her format, I ask Sparks at the end of our call what advice she would offer to fans on the game or their favorite player from a court-side mom.
“The first thing I would ask them is to be respectful,” she says. “Understand the truth behind an athlete, understand the stress of these athletes coming out and having to be perfect in the public eye, every single time they come out on the court.
“These guys or girls are playing because they love the sport, first and foremost,” Sparks continues. “They’re human, just like the fan. So I always say the players are playing for themselves, they’re playing first for that. And then after that, they’re going to try to deliver the best they can.”
Moms, unfortunately, read Twitter. Sparks knows fans on the platform’s propensity to oscillate, often wildly (“You look at the biggest player and they have a great game and oh my goodness, they’re the best thing since sliced bread… God forbid they have a bad game”). And while she admits she’s had moments where she’s been guilty of yelling at the TV when a layup is missed, or a team loses, she mostly asks that fans are able to take a step back.
“Just show love,” she says, “and understand that not everybody has that 60-point game day.”