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There will always be another LeBron

Jeremy Evans

This is a story about the best player you’ve never heard of, the player who was LeBron James before LeBron James. This is a story about Ronnie Fields.

Several years ago on a humid August night in Milwaukee, I was drinking a beer with some soccer buddies on the balcony of a house on State Street. Marquette University basketball star Brian Wardle, who is from the suburbs of Chicago, was on the balcony that night and someone asked him who was the best player he’s ever seen.

“Ronnie Fields.”

“What about Michael Jordan?” some drunk, obnoxious guy from Arizona named Jeremy blurted out, who obviously didn’t understand Jordan is never included in such debates. (Wardle had played with Jordan in pick up games, however.)

“Ronnie Fields. He was amazing.”

Was. He was amazing, those bolded group of three letters being the saddest word in the saddest story about the best high school basketball player ever.

Ronnie Fields played at Farragut Academy in Chicago from 1992-1996. His high school teammate was Kevin Garnett, who was a grade ahead of him. During those four years, Farragut never played a game in front of an empty seat. Nobody came to see Garnett, they came to see Ronnie Fields.

I have to keep calling him Ronnie Fields because anybody who has heard of him only knows him as ‘Ronnie Fields.’ That’s just the way it is.

People from all over the city and all over the country (college coaches and NBA scouts included) came to watch the 6-foot-3 guard known as the ‘Air Show.’

Ronnie Fields had a 50-inch vertical leap. In a 1996 game against Peoria Manual, he dunked over 6-foot-4 Sergio McClain, who was named Illinois’ Mr. Basketball and would later star at the University of Illinois. No, you don’t understand. Ronnie Fields didn’t dunk over McClain, he actually jumped over McClain and dunked on him.

Ronnie Fields averaged 32 ppg, 12.2 rpg, 5.1 apg, 4.5 bpg and four steals a game during his senior year. He was a McDonald’s All American and a first team USA Today All-American selection, just like LeBron James will be.

He had the second sweetest fadeaway in the Midwest behind Jordan. Even Michael himself would find ways to get a glimpse of the freak, much like current NBA stars do with LeBron.

Ronnie Fields was touted as an NBA first rounder while Garnett, his former prep teammate, was already making a name for himself as a rookie with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Ronnie Fields didn’t care because he knew, and everybody else knew, that he would eventually get there, too.

After all, he was the best high school basketball ever, just like LeBron.

At the end of his senior season, Ronnie Fields was in a severe car accident and broke several vertebrae. He never qualified academically for DePaul, the school he had committed to, and his name was never called on draft day and never has.

Ronnie Fields didn’t play basketball again until a year later, when he signed with the LaCrosse (Wis.) Bobcats of the Continental Basketball Association. He was waived by the Bobcats in November of ’97 and has since bounced around the CBA, IBA, PBA, USBL and ABA. There’s no need to define the other four leagues because nobody cares about them and nobody cares about Ronnie Fields anymore.

Since leaving Farragut and nearly losing his life, Ronnie Fields has played for eight teams in seven seasons. He currently plays for the Rockford Lightning of the CBA. The fact that he is playing at all and not dead or paralyzed is a miracle in itself. So why haven’t you heard of him? Why hasn’t ESPN done a special on a once spectacular basketball player whose career and life almost ended but is now playing pro ball, albeit in the CBA?

It’s because the minute Ronnie Fields landed in an ambulance, his NBA dreams were over and the rats, aka publicity hounds, scoured the country for the next Ronnie Fields. They always find one.

The year Ronnie Fields sat out because of the injury was enough time to erase his hype. It was enough time for the ‘experts’ to dub a new phenom as the best high school player ever. His name was Kobe Bryant and Leon Smith and Tyson Chandler and Korleone Young. The year off was also enough time to expose that Ronnie Fields didn’t have a jump shot. (He never had one.)

NBA scouts now say he is an undersized shooting guard and doesn’t have the handles for a point guard. In high school, though, Ronnie Fields was the ‘Chosen One’ before LeBron became the ‘Chosen One.’

James (last name is sufficient) was 8-of-24 from the field in a 64-58 win over Mater Dei High in a nationally televised audience earlier this month. He didn’t make a single 3-pointer but it wasn’t for lack of effort. He tried almost a dozen times.

James shoots 65 percent from the free throw line, 35 percent from behind the arc and makes over 50 percent of his shots from the field. When his shots aren’t dunks and layups, his field goal percentage drops into the 30s. That’s against high school kids.

Now I would never wish what happened to Ronnie Fields on anyone. But is it possible that all the Hummers, magazine covers and national TV audiences are covering up the fact that James couldn’t beat me in a game of horse?

Is it possible that James is just a product of our media-influenced society, where Dick Vitale, television, radio, newspapers and the internet dictate the next star?

Is it possible that if Ronnie Fields’ senior year was in 2002, and not 1996, his game with Peoria Manual and the dunk heard around the world (OK, Illinois) would’ve been on ESPN2?

Hopefully more broken vertebrae won’t answer those questions, but I doubt Ronnie Fields ever thought he’d be playing with the Rockford Lightning, the same team Brian Wardle now averages 12.9 ppg for, which is about three dunks less per game than the guy he once called ‘amazing.’

Jeremy Evans is a Nevada Appeal sportswriter.