Into The Shadows
In the summer of 1995, NBA fans, and members of ownership were abuzz with an inevitability that had not happened in 20 years. A high school basketball player was going to be selected in the draft, and damn near the top of it too.
As the story goes, Kevin Garnett worked out for the Minnesota Timberwolves, and showed such passion and intensity in his workout, that General Manager, Hall of Famer, and former Boston Celtic champion, Kevin McHale said to coach Flip Saunders, “We are going to draft a high school player at number 5.”
And that they did. But this story is not about KG, and how his jump led to so many prep ballers following his lead, that the league would eventually ban the move altogether. It's not about his success, nor is it a cautionary tale of the players who didn’t work out. It is a story of Garnett's high school teammate, who by some accounts, was even better than him. And who many today, don’t know at all.
Faragut Academy in Chicago may have been put on the map by KG, when he made his bold move from prep to pro ball, but prior to his arrival there, they already had a star player. A player college coaches, some of whom had never heard the name Kevin Garnett, would salivate for. Ronnie Fields. A 6’3 guard with a reported 50-inch vertical, would wow crowds, and fill basketball gymnasiums beyond standing room only.
After being rated as the #1 eighth grader in the country, Fields chose Faragut over other more prominent Chicago public and prep schools. Entering the 92-93 season, ESPN called him the best freshman in the country. He would electrify with fast breaks that ended in highlight reel dunks, that to this day have only been seen by the eyes of those in attendance. One story has him doing a 360 over a 7 foot rival.
In the summer of 93, Fields was invited to Nike’s basketball camp for the top players across the land, and became the first sophomore ever to play in the Best of the Best game, stealing the spotlight from Allen Iverson, and future national players of the year, Kevin Garnett, Tim Thomas, and Ron Mercer.
It is at these camps that he befriends the soft-spoken Garnett, a wiry prospect from South Carolina. They click instantly, and begin to talk of what it would be like to someday play alongside each other, and all the championships they’d win together. Before the start of his junior year, Fields is shocked to see Garnett entering his school in Chicago. And now what was once talked about as a dream scenario for both, becomes a reality.
Faragut Academy becomes the biggest ticket and town, and the ticket most sought after by college and pro scouts alike. Fields credits the tough streets of Chicago for bringing the “dog” out of Garnett. The task of beating the duo seems insurmountable. Garnett is named the high school basketball player of the year, and Fields is named to his second consecutive Parade All-America team.
When the commissioner calls Garnetts name in the summer of 95, there is no doubt that Fields name will be called the following year. Faragut starts the season 11-1, with Fields leading the way. He is averaging 32 points, 13 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals, and 4.5 blocks per game. The air show is out in full force as well, with two handed dunks from the free throw line, and alley-oops over 4 defenders.
Fields is named a USA Today, Parade, and McDonald’s All-American. He is the 2nd highest rated high school player in the country behind a kid from Philadelphia named Kobe. He is interviewed by Slam Magazine, and asked what NBA team will take him in the 96 draft.
But on February 26, 1996, all that “could have been” disappeared into the night on the streets of Chicago, in a one car accident that broke Fields neck, and almost left him for dead. He would not play in the state tournament, nor in the McDonald’s game. He would spend the next grueling months of his life in a halo, trying to heal his neck.
Though he is the third all time leading scorer in the history of Chicago public schools, with over 2600 points, he is forgotten more every day he is not on the court. Chicago’s DePaul University gives Fields a scholarship, hoping that when his neck heals, the legend will continue, and he will put a spotlight on their basketball program like he did for Faragut. But before he even suits up for a practice, he is declared academically ineligible.
Sympathy is short lived, as a few months later, Fields pleads guilty to a misdemeanor count of sexual assault on a former girlfriend. He declares for the CBA draft, and is chosen by the LaCrosse Bobcats in the 7th round.
His neck still not fully 100% from the accident, and now a kid, playing against grown men just a step away from the NBA, Fields almost never leaves the bench. He declares for the NBA draft in 97, then withdraws his name. He declares again in 1998 and goes undrafted.
Though he eventually becomes one of the CBA’s all-time leading scorers, and the only player in league history to lead in scoring and steals in consecutive seasons, the NBA never comes calling. To make ends meet in the offseason, he plays abroad, in Venezuela and Greece.
When Faragut Academy wants to honor the Chicago legend with a mural in its gymnasium, Chief Executive of Chicago Public Schools, Paul Vallas makes the comment, “Make sure you add his ACT scores to his statistics.”
2020 finds Fields doing small speaking engagements, and coaching 8th grade basketball. The superman who once soared over entire teams, now flatly planted on the ground. The name that once hummed loudly through Chicago courts, almost as loudly as Michael Jordan, cannot even be heard as a whisper around the young team he now coaches.
The only remnants of the legend he once was, are short YouTube clips so amazing, you’d think they were edited in post-production. A career that once seemed destined for the brightest lights of the basketball world, is now evaporated, and drifted off, into the shadows of the Chicago streets.