Ronnie Fields: Crashing the Dream

I once met Ronnie Fields in 1999 when he was a member of the Rockford Lightning. A couple members of the Lightning did some outreach at the school where I teach. He signed my copy of the Chicago Tribune back page of when he was Mr. Basketball in Illinois. He could still dunk then. But compared to 1994 and 1995, he was a shell of himself. He did not have the same hop, the same explosion. I always felt for him that he never made it to the NBA. A car crash his senior year made sure of that. But for three years, he was a human highlight reel for public league basketball. He seemed destined to go straight from high school to the NBA.

Chicago basketball is filled with tales of high school players with unimaginable skills. Some made it out of the city, some did not. Some made it to college but never made it to the pros. For Ronnie Fields, basketball was his release and the NBA was his dream. Basketball kept him out of trouble. And surprisingly to him, he was good at it. In seventh grade, Fields could dunk a basketball. When he arrived at Farragut Academy high school in the fall of 1992, the legend began. After his sophomore season, the six-foot three-inch Fields was already an all-state selection and a Parade All-American. He had a reported 51 inch vertical jump. But for Fields, he was averaging over 20 points a game as sophomore.

Fields said of his skills,

I didn’t watch as much basketball as a lot of people would think for some of the things I was able to do on the basketball court. A lot of it came natural. At the time, I looked at basketball as an escape, a way of getting out of trouble, and it made me want to play more. I started realizing the talent I was blessed with. It started in grammar school when the coach let me know where I was at talent-wise and put me in a position to be a leader, and from that point I started taking it even more serious. It really showed in my game. I was just a hard-worker that wanted to go out there and compete and win, and entertain fans, as well.

The sky was the limit. But in 1994, a new player arrived at Farragut Academy that would give Fields even more national attention. Kevin Garnett was one of the most lauded players in the country. At 6’11”, he could dominant a high school game with his presence at both ends of the floor. Add Garnett to Farragut Academy, and suddenly, the Admirals became not only one of the top teams in the state, but also the nation. In order for that to happen, the IHSA (Illinois High School Association) had to clear Garnett and declare him eligible to play. The tandem, along with their Admiral teammates, dominated the headlines of the Chicago Tribune Sports section for 1994-1995.

Garnett and Fields in happier times

  • Farragut 69, Rock Island 57: Ronnie Fields put on a Show
  • GARNETT, FARRAGUT STRUT THEIR STUFF
  • GARNETT, FIELDS FLY FARRAGUT TO CHAMPAIGN
  • ADMIRALS CLOSE OUT CARVER, CLAIM PUBLIC LEAGUE CROWN
  • TV DOESN’T BUY INTO PRIME-TIME DUO BUT FARRAGUT’S SIDESHOW SURE TO BE A HIT IN CHAMPAIGN

The dynamic duo of Fields and Garnett made it to the state championship series, but did not make it out of the quarterfinal losing to Thornton. That summer, Kevin Garnett was drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves. For Fields, many thought he would do the same a year later in 1996. His senior season numbers were ridiculous. He averaged 34 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, four steals and four blocks a game….those are video game numbers but they really were the stats Fields accumulated during his senior season. During one point in the season, he averaged 10 dunks a game! He was named Mr. Basketball in the state and was set to attend DePaul if he did not go pro. He was also selected to play in the McDonald’s High School All Star Game. Everything changed for Ronnie Fields shortly before the IHSA State Tournament was set to begin.

The Chicago Tribune reported the following on February 26, 1996:

RONNIE FIELDS, FARRAGUT STAR, HURT IN CRASH:
Ronnie Fields, one of the nation’s top high school basketball players, was seriously injured Monday morning in an automobile accident.
Fields, who will be 19 on Wednesday, was transferred to Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s spinal injury unit at 7:30 a.m. Monday. His parents requested that no information about his medical condition be released, a hospital spokeswoman said. Fields was driving alone in a Budget Rental car at about 1:15 a.m. when he swerved the 1996 Ford Contour to avoid debris in the road, according to the DuPage County sheriff’s office.
Fields was westbound in the center lane of Illinois Highway 38 (Roosevelt Road) where it passes under Interstate Highway 88 near Elmhurst when he tried to avoid what was believed to be a rock in the roadway. The car slid on the wet pavement, hit a guardrail, then continued to spin before coming to rest against the guardrail on the far right side on the road, police said.
He was removed from the car by the Yorkfield Fire Department and transported to Elmhurst Memorial Hospital.
An Elmhurst Hospital spokeswoman said Fields was transferred to Northwestern Memorial Hospital for treatment of a spinal injury.
Fields, a 6-foot 3-inch guard at Farragut High School on the West Side, hopes to attend DePaul University on a scholarship if he qualifies academically. On Feb. 3 he took his ACT examinations for the third time.
Fields has said he is likely to turn pro if he does not qualify.
According to the sheriff’s department there were no tickets issued to Fields as a result of the single-car accident.
Fields was selected this month as a member of the Associated Press All-State team. It was the third time he had been selected for that honor.
Fields is one of 22 players selected for the McDonald’s All-American game on March 31.
The game is to be broadcast live on CBS and will be played at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh.

Fields underwent surgery, and the Doctor assured basketball fans that Ronnie Fields would return to world class form. But questions about what Ronnie Fields was doing in a rental car lingered. It would be a rough few months for Fields. Not only did have to answer questions about the accident, but he also did not academically qualify in July to play Division I basketball at DePaul. He would have to follow his dream via another route.

Fields in his halo after the surgery

His recovery would take months. By the time he was ready to play again, the NBA Draft would be over. No team in their right mind would draft a player who just had neck surgery.
Fields stated about his own frustration,

In high school, with so many things going on, and how big basketball had gotten from my freshman year on up, we were doing so many different things that so many young kids don’t get a chance to see. Being able to have things that you never had. At times, being a young kid, we take those things for granted. It [the injury] put things in perspective of maybe moving too fast, not really understanding and appreciating that it’s not all about me, and really working and focusing not just on basketball, but other things in life. The accident had me so mentally frustrated. Basketball was something that I loved doing and escaped me from so many things.

After the accident, my feelings were most set on getting back out there playing. To be a fully aggressive player, that kind of changed my way of playing. As I started playing professionally, I started to slowly get all that back — the mental part and the physical contact.

It changed my life, it changed my outlook, it changed a lot of things. The Lord gets your attention, and you realize how important life is in every aspect. You figure you can do things the way you want, but it catches up to you. Sometimes it’s a good thing. If you’re always living in the dark, thinking that it’s all your doing, sometimes the Lord has a way of showing that it’s not your doing.

Ronnie was electric above the rim

Fields entered his name in the Continental Basketball Association Draft. He was drafted by the LaCrosse Bobcats, but wound up playing for the Rockford Lightning and Chris Daleo. He would play professional basketball through 2008, but he never made it to the NBA. While he would be the third leading scorer in the history of the CBA, he never got the call. He may not have had the hops he had in high school, but he could still play basketball.

Since his retirement from basketball, Fields goes around to schools telling his tale of how basketball is not the only thing in life. Fields says of his life,

“I can talk about it, look back at it and be thankful I’m still here today and still have every day to move forward to improve myself as a person and as a father. I’m happy in terms of what I’m able to give back and share with kids. To be able to help people, I’m thankful for it.”

In recent months, a documentary of Fields’s life is in the works. Called Bounce Back, the film is close to being finished. The lesson for most people about Fields’s life is how he was coddled for ability to dunk. As a sophomore, he was suspended four games by the IHSA for his association with Nike. IHSA Director Dave Fry said,

“I believe it’s a situation where people are capitalizing on opportunities right now the rules do not give good coverage to. So we again have blown the whole concept of high school athletes being recruited out of its proper educational shape.”

After the car accident, Fields was arrested for sexual assault. In September of 1996, he received probation for the crime. His assistant coach who helped get him the car he crashed was banned from associating with any of the Chicago Public Schools. His tale caused many in the press in Chicago, and some rumored at DePaul, to question how these young kids were being treated. Former CBS College Basketball analyst and Chicago hoops legend Quinn Buckner said in 1996 after Fields’s accident,

The whole sports business has changed, and I don’t know if it’s done changing. But the high school sports are the purest of all the sports. What does that mean? I don’t know when you see some of the things that are going on. Is it becoming big business? I don’t know.

It did become a big business.

But for Fields, he recognizes the lessons and the tragedy of his own life. However he doesn’t let it get to him.

For young kids, whatever they want to do in life, my message would be to always have your family life, and focus on being the best person you can possibly be. You’re going to make a mistake, but it’s the forgiveness that you ask for, and how much you’re willing to sacrifice to get better as a person or in whatever work you do.

Source Information
Chicago Tribune Newspaper Articles form 1993-1997
All Ronnie Fields quotes: http://www.slamonline.com/online/college-hs/high-school/2010/03/catching-up-with-ronnie-fields/
Scott Powers: http://espn.go.com/blog/chicago/high-school/post/_/id/3072/legendary-fields-more-than-a-cautionary-tale

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