In the 1994-95 season, the best basketball duo in Chicago was a bald dunk-machine wearing No. 23 and a do-it-all forward. And remember: Michael Jordan was playing baseball until March.
No, the duo was in high school at Farragut Academy: junior guard Ronnie Fields and senior forward Kevin Garnett. Garnett was a transfer from South Carolina. Why did he come to Chicago? To play with Fields. If you've never heard of Fields, that's all the credentials you need.
Fields was Illinois' Mr. Basketball in his senior season, but while Garnett went on to a Hall of Fame-worthy NBA career, Fields' fortunes dropped. From February to September 1996, Fields broke his neck in a car accident, was ruled academically ineligible at DePaul and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor sexual abuse charge. He served two years' probation for the latter.
Many thought his story had come to an end, but in fact it was just beginning. Fields left for Greece in 1996 to begin a 15-year pro basketball career that brought him around the world. Now retired, Fields mentors children in Chicago and is starting a career as an assistant coach at Fenwick High School. He also is the subject of a documentary debuting Thursday called "Bounce Back: The Ronnie Fields Story."
Fields sat down with RedEye to discuss his travels, life lessons and what he wants to see for Chicago's youths.
Tell us about your first trip playing ball overseas.
When people watch the situation that went on in Haiti, Asia or wherever, it's different when you watch it on the news. But when you're actually there … [pauses]. I'm there as a ballplayer, so I'm coming to their country to give them hope. Have fun, enjoy a game, give back. To see kids with no shoes, no clothes, living in cardboard boxes or brick houses with no electricity … . You have to wash up in the river.
It was like, "Wow." That settled me down in life. It made me look at everything different. It was like "OK, I gotta do something." They give us a bunch of meal money, and I'd give that away. Clothes, shoes, I give that to them. Or kids I would take under my wing.
Do you have a favorite story from working with kids?
Oh yeah. I was over in the Dominican Republic, in San Pedro. [2011, playing for the San Pedro Flyers.] And kids play baseball next to the arena. Baseball is huge. But there was one kid who they wouldn't let in the [Flyers] games. He didn't have money. So during the whole tournament, I was like, "From now on, he's with me."
Every day, I would take him to hang out with me. I would get him some food, get him some clothes, buy him little things. He had to be about eight-years-old. He used to come just in shorts and flip-flops. No shirt. I basically gave him a job with the team, just helping us with water or Gatorade.
What was his name?
Miguel. He played shortstop. And I haven't been back over there, but that vision still sits in my head. I remember that last shootaround. I got a call to go back to Venezuela, so instead of me getting back to the game that night to see him, I had to get on a plane, because when they call you [snaps fingers] you gotta go.
Have you been in touch with him at all?
No. I think the toughest thing was not knowing what could happen to that kid. There's not a lot of safety there. I went to church over there and it was outrageous. I had to go through the town that [MLB shortstop] Jose Reyes grew up in. And I'm thinking all these Dominican players got all this money. And to go through your country, and you ain't done nothing? It was unreal.
But with the little boy, it was sad. I have a daughter here, so God willing she knows that she'll see me. My little boy, he'll see me. But I played all over the place, so the chances of me going back there was very slim. At the time I had to leave, he was like, "Are you going to come back?" and I'm trying to put everything into perspective. It was hard.
You were talking about feeling like Dominican ballplayers aren't putting money back into their community. Could you say the same thing about Chicago and basketball players?
No, because I've seen what Dwyane Wade has done—a magnificent job with his program. And Derrick Rose is doing a lot of stuff as well. If they do something there, it might just be going to a used baseball diamond and saying, "We're going to have baseball tryouts and have a tournament." It's not rebuilding. From the times I was over there, they weren't doing that. And with all the guys from that country, I mean, Manny Ramirez, Jose Reyes, Adrian Beltre … if you put maybe 10, 11 Dominican players together, that's about a billion dollars. It would be easy. But they don't think like we think here.
So with everything going on in Chicago, from your perspective, what do Chicago kids need most?
I'll tell you something: when I got back [from overseas], I brought some of the kids to Lucky Strike out there in Lombard. My friend runs the bowling alley there, and I told him I wanted to bring the guys out to bowl, eat and have fun, just so they could see the environment. They see people going to dinner, families having fun, driving nice cars. I said, "Let's walk around the mall area," and they couldn't believe it could be that peaceful. You hear them saying, "Man, I want to live out here. It's quiet. They're eating good."