For Ronnie Fields, the thunderous dunks and scoring binges went far beyond the gym inside Farragut Academy, extending past the scare he set into opposing high school coaches. Between his career in Chicago, 1992 to 1996, Fields had spent summer after summer training against NBA players who came home, who came for the competition the city provided.
He was a 6-foot-2 shooting guard, but Fields had been assured his athleticism and scoring, experience and prestigious high school career left him a first round draft pick into the NBA. “No doubt at all,” Fields says. “I was going against pros every summer, so I had the confidence to play against them in the league.”
Yet, fate put its own scare into Fields, a twisting spiral as one of the best guards in the country 17 years ago to a professional career that never reached the level for which he’d been destined. Kevin Garnett and Ron Eskridge, his old teammate and coach, always told Fields he would grace the NBA one day. It never happened: a fractured neck derailed his senior season and kept him out of critical games, there was a supposed fallout of his personality, and no opportunity came.
“I really wasn’t that surprised I didn’t get a shot in the NBA,” Fields told RealGM in a phone interview. “I really wasn’t. I look at the circumstances of what people assumed and the timing and the position playing at the time – I was a two-guard, a scorer, but it was a big guard era. It’s more about what I learned: life is bigger than basketball.”
The relationship that Fields cultivated with Garnett will forever be grander than basketball, but that’s where it began. Eskridge coached Garnett in a camp with Nike in 1994, and Fields doesn’t remember bonding so soon with the lanky big man, but the competitive spirit he brought out of the scrimmage games where they played on separate teams. In the end, Garnett was Fields’ stiffest supporter and played a major role in his insightful, powerful documentary, “Bounce Back: The Story of Ronnie Fields.”
They first saw each other at the Nike camp, but it wasn’t until later in the summer that Fields and Garnett could form a bond. This time, they traveled to Portland for a Nike tournament called Fab 40 – gathering the 10 best players in each high school class. Fields knew Garnett might transfer out of his school in South Carolina, but he insisted there was no recruitment to get Garnett onto Farragut.
“The crazy part about it is I really never even said nothing to him about coming to Chicago,” Fields says. “A lot of us guys got in trouble because we took gifts you aren’t supposed to in Portland. But the camp ended up with Kevin being my roommate and we would talk every night – him asking me how Chicago is and I would explain to him as we were falling asleep.
“Fast forward, the summer rolls around, and he’s in Chicago. From that point, we just built a bond and were able to do things that weren’t seen at the high school level.”
Ultimately, Garnett left for Chicago before his senior season and joined Fields, and they led Farragut to the state championship game. In their minds, the NBA had been a forgone conclusion for both. It wasn’t about whether they would make the NBA, but when it would happen.
“We never even talked about playing in the NBA at all, and that’s what was so remarkable,” Fields says. “We were just young kids enjoying the time and what we were doing, enjoying the places we were playing. It was like we were already in the NBA.”
Nevertheless, Fields understood he had to prove his ability to lead Farragut when Garnett was drafted No. 5 in 1995. So, Fields put together one of the most dominant seasons in the country in 1995-96, but he was in a neck brace a week before the city’s playoffs, fearing his basketball life.
His accident coincided with his old friend’s Minnesota Timberwolves in town to play the Bulls, and Garnett had come to the hospital to meet Fields on an off day with a message: Get strong, get healthy, and I’ll see you back on the court soon.
“It was so surreal, because Kevin was taking it harder than me,” Fields says. “I’m in the situation, so to have that support from him was amazing. Just positive, positive energy.”
When Fields looks toward Garnett’s NBA career, he marvels over his longevity and persistence. Next season will be Garnett’s 19th, and Fields believes the best thing that has happened to his former teammate was the trade to the Brooklyn Nets.
“As we get older and you got to find that burn deep inside, an opportunity to win a championship with that talent, Kevin is going to bring it all,” Fields says. “The [Nets] are a mixture of young and older veterans, which they needed. They’re going to feed off Kevin, and he won’t have to play as much because he has pieces there that can spare him consistently. I like their chances.”
Fields eventually recovered from his neck injury, but he never was able to fulfill his commitment to DePaul University and had setbacks with off-court issues. He went from team to team – from country to country – but didn’t find a franchise in the NBA ready to take a chance on him. In his documentary, Fields released he nearly landed comeback opportunities with the then-New Jersey Nets and the Phoenix Suns.
Still, Fields admits his body took longer than expected to adapt after his neck injury. Mostly it was his mind saying one thing, his body prepared to handle another. There were other teams interested in bringing him in as late as the 2000s, but he’s at peace now about why his shot never came.
“It was more mental than physical,” Fields says. “I never really had any rehab. I just had to take my halo off and had to let the balance in my head get back in order. Getting the balance back, getting off the neck brace, the confidence took a while.”
“There were NBA teams interested, but it can be a bunch of different circumstances that arrive, the timing. How I looked at was just competing, enjoying playing, and that kept me going. After a while, I was like: You know you’re good enough. When the opportunity comes, you never know. To do things at a high level, the only level I didn’t do that at was the NBA level.”