The life and career of Ronnie Fields took a disruptive fall on a rainy night in late February of 1996 when he lost control of a car he was driving and suffered devastating neck and head injuries.
Until then, a privileged aura radiated in all direction around the dynamic 6-foot-2 senior guard from Farragut. He was the best high-school player in Illinois and ranked the No. 2 shooting guard in the country behind Kobe Bryant. He was named to the McDonald’s All-American team.
In the years since, Fields’ name conjured a connotation, one nobody wants to be associated with. His life was a cautionary tale of squandered promise. Every time another bright Chicago basketball prospect, such as Imari Sawyer or Leon Smith, similarly saw their basketball dreams crushed by outside factors, Fields’ name was invoked.
Fields’ tale did always fit an easy trajectory. The story of his spectacular rise and dramatic fall and what happened next is the subject of the new documentary film, “Bounce Back,” by the young filmmakers Ryan Mayers and Thatcher Kamin.
Three years in the making, the film debuted last week at the Park Community Church on the near North Side. Beginning immediately, the film is available as a digital download at the www.ronniefieldsbounceback.com.
Subtitled “The Story of Ronnie Fields,” the movie utilizes archival news footage that showcased Fields’ aerial flights and majestic on-court play in tandem with Kevin Garnett in the late fall of 1994. Garnett came to Chicago from rural South Carolina, was the nation’s top-rated prospect, and turned Farragut into a city powerhouse.
The film stitches together interviews with Garnett, Farragut coaches William “Wolf” Nelson and Ron Eskridge, former DePaul coach Joey Meyer and journalists David Kaplan, Scoop Jackson and Clyde Travis of the Chicago Sun-Times to bring startling first-hand testimony of Fields’ flair and personal expression on the court. “At (aged) 16, he was bigger than everybody,” Garnett marveled.
Fields and Garnett powered Farragut to the 1995 city title. In a shocking upset, the Admirals lost 46-43 to Thornton in a Class AA quarterfinal. Garnett was named Mr. Basketball. He made history by bypassing college and becoming the first in 20 years to make the leap to the NBA directly from high school. The Minnesota Timberwolves selected him with the fifth pick of the NBA draft.
Fields’ path appeared equally blessed when he averaged 32 points and powered the Admirals to a Red-West section title the next year. The accident, in suburban Lombard, changed everything.
“When I think about the car accident, and the whole downward spiral that came about, I can envision myself in the car,” Fields said in an interview before the start of the film.
“Looking at my story, it can’t get any worse than being one of the top players in the country, and then simultaneously going through car accident and not getting into school. A lot of transpired in this short period of time. People don’t realize I could have been dead, or rolling around in a wheelchair now.”
Fields quickly went downhill. He committed to DePaul, but the school denied him admission because of his poor academic performance at Farragut. He also was charged with sexual abuse. In a plea bargain, he was given two-years’ probation.
The optimisitic, inspirational nature of the film notwithstanding, the filmmakers address directly Fields’ difficulties, originating from a sense of entitlement that proved his undoing.
A serendipitous encounter between Fields and producer Kamin three years ago in Logan Square proved the genesis of the documentary. Kamin grew up in west suburban LaGrange.
“When I was in seventh and eighth grade, Ronnie was a junior and senior in high school, and my dad would take me and my friends down to watch their games,” Kamin said.
“He represented a big part of my childhood, because those were memorable events. After meeting him in Logan Square, I started researching and discovered so many people remembered him like I did. At first we were just going to film some clips and put on YouTube. From talking with Ronnie, it became apparent how interesting the story really was.”
Kamin recruited his creative partner Mayers, a basketball fan who had done some work shooting material for the Bulls. The two had made some music videos together.
“I’m not from Chicago, so I didn’t really know Ronnie’s story,” Mayers said. “I saw the stuff and thought it was pretty fascinating.”
The two shot 45 hours of footage. Using the Kickstarter campaign, they raised money to pay the licensing rights to the archival footage. The question of whatever happened to Ronnie Fields has been answered. It alters F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous lament about there are no second acts in American lives.
“I really didn’t go away,” said Fields, who recently was named assistant boys basketball coach at Fenwick. “I was just away in terms of my career was somewhere else.”