This isn’t the way it was supposed to happen. This wasn’t what Landry Fields dreamed of as a kid in California or as a budding young professional in New York just a few seasons ago. Basketball—and life—was supposed to be a lot easier.
Following two solid seasons with the Knicks, Fields came to Toronto in the summer of 2012 with hopes of catapulting his career in Canada. But less than one month into his tenure with the Raptors, he was in an operating room having the ulnar nerve in his right arm worked on. His track to success has been off course ever since.
Fields appeared in only 51 games for the Raptors in 2012-13, spending major chunks of the season recovering from surgery and rehabbing elbow, a process that forced him to essentially reinvent his shot—re-training his body in an attempt to erase a lifetime of muscle memory.
That rehab spilled over into last summer but when training camp opened 12 months ago, Fields’ arm still wasn’t right. And midway through the 2013-2014 campaign, the Stanford grad was under the knife for the second time in just over a year.
Fields finished last season having appeared in a career-low 30 games; tallying only 322 minutes. More rehab, and plenty of questions, were on tap for the months ahead. It would be the most trying off-season of his collegiate or professional career.
“Really, I focused on my hand and arm issue, which I’m sad to say is still kind of going on,” said Fields as he reflected on this past summer. “I did everything [I was supposed to] and I’ve been taken into some new regime here in the pre-season.”
The disappointment and frustration is visible on his face when Fields speaks. But much of that surely stems from the confusion of not really knowing—nearly two years after his first procedure—what is happening to his body.
“It kind of just is what it is,” sighed Fields. “It’s what I’ve had to come to terms with. As silly as it sounds, it’s almost freeing because then I’m not sitting here worried or thinking about ‘Is it going to get better?’ It’s like now … kind of working with it, working with whatever adversity has been given to me, and just taking it as it comes and kind of going forward.
“Before it was—mentally—a struggle just because I didn’t know what was going on. I still don’t, really. But now I can [accept] that this is what’s going on so let’s just work with it.”
Working with it still poses major obstacles, though. Both Fields and head coach Dwane Casey have to figure out what role the swingman is best suited for, while assessing—as tough as it may be—the points when he may be a detriment to his team on the floor.
“I don’t think it’s a bad thing to play with but it does make it more difficult,” said Fields. “It’s tough for some people to understand, but I’m still able to do things that I think can help the team and that’s kind of my focus right now.”
Fields went on to explain that he has learned a great deal about himself and what it means to be a good teammate while dealing with this adversity. He said he has gained a new appreciation for the true meaning of a team and contributing to a greater good.
“There are times where my own ego and pride wants to be like ‘Oh, I wanna get on the floor and do everything I can.’ But, at the same time, I understand that the guy that comes first off the bench is just as important as the guy that [comes] last. If I was a guy at the end of the bench yapping and complaining and doing all that stuff, it’s a cancer for everybody else. And I don’t want to be that guy to bring down this team and what this team has built so far and what the organization is starting to come into [because] I think it’s a beautiful thing.
“Really it’s about putting that ego in check.”
Fields is entering the final year of an $18.75-million contract and knows he hasn’t lived up to the deal—his body hasn’t allowed him to. He has heard the criticism and catcalls from the fans and the media, as well, but he’s trying to stay positive about what lies ahead—in 2014-15 and beyond.
“There have definitely been times that I’ve thought about the contract and you look at the production and it doesn’t quite add up,” he said. “But at the end of the day, I didn’t give myself this contract. The Raptors came and took a beautiful, wonderful chance that I’m forever going to be grateful for. But at the same time I can only do what I can do … and I assure everybody that it’s much more than you think I’m doing! Whatever I can do for this team is what I’m going to do. Some people will never understand that but I have to be okay with that, otherwise I’ll send myself into a mental frenzy.”
Though his arm continues to be an issue, it’s the trickle-down effect of what the ulnar nerve may do to his career that is most stressful. Nobody knows whether this will be his final season in the NBA. If his production continues to fall and his body never truly heals, it’s entirely possible that no team in the league would be willing to gamble on the once-promising forward.
“One of the scariest moments this summer [was thinking about] life after basketball,” acknowledged Fields. “That’s in no way, shape or form me throwing in the towel right now. It’s just natural. It just popped in my mind. In 21 years of playing basketball, this has never crossed my mind—that life could be without [basketball]. But I’m not going there, yet. There’s still a lot of work to do this year and I’m going to exhaust every possible option for this [team].”