From a Montreal gym to the home of Lakers coach Mike Brown, Nirra Fields seems destined for basketball stardom.
by Dave Zarum
Emerson Thomas isn’t easily impressed. So you can imagine Dwight Walton’s surprise when he got a phone call from his fellow Team Canada basketball alum one afternoon seven years ago. “Dwight,” said Thomas, “I just saw the greatest girls’ basketball player I’ve ever seen in my life.” Nirra Fields, in Grade 7 and not yet 13, was the only girl on a court full of older boys in the Montreal borough of LaSalle. And she was dominating. Dribbling behind her back, weaving through the lane like an ambulance speeding through rush-hour traffic, absorbing contact and finishing at the rim with ease, it was obvious Fields was a special player. “She was doing things at 12 that you can’t teach,” says Walton. Raised by a single mother in nearby Lachine and the youngest in a family of brothers, Fields was used to the competition. She even played running back for the boys’ team in elementary school as early as age 11. “She’s a strong individual, and you’d have to be,” Walton adds. “It’s taken her where she is today.”
Which, it turns out, is as far from Montreal rec-league ball as it gets, living with Los Angeles Lakers head coach Mike Brown and his family in sunny California and starring as a senior at Mater Dei High School in nearby Santa Ana. The third-highest-rated guard in the U.S., and the brightest young star in the Canadian national women’s program, Fields may just be the most talented female player our country has ever produced. Earlier this year, she turned down scholarship offers from Michigan State, Louisville and UConn, committing instead to UCLA, where the five-foot-nine combo guard is expected to start as a freshman for the Bruins in the fall. That Fields is excelling at the highest level is no surprise to anyone who’s seen her play. But nobody could have predicted the path she took to get there-five schools, four cities and three guardians in four years. It’s a familiar route for Canadian boys looking to break into the NCAA (save for the whole “living with an NBA coach” thing), but it’s one that very few girls have travelled. Not that it should be a surprise. When it comes to basketball, Fields isn’t like the other girls. She’s better.
Two things were apparent as early as middle school: Fields was good enough to earn a full ride to a top U.S. college, and that opportunity wouldn’t present itself if she stayed to play high school ball in Montreal, due to a lack of exposure.
Oak Hill Academy, a prestigious private boarding school on a sprawling campus tucked deep in the Virginia woods, is the kind of place where talent gets noticed. A basketball factory, it has produced the likes of Kevin Durant, Rajon Rondo, Carmelo Anthony and WNBA star Khadijah Wittington. By 2010, Fields was a junior at Oak Hill, halfway through a journey from Montreal to Los Angeles. A year earlier, her mother had made the difficult decision to let Fields leave home, knowing the reward would be a top-level education and a potential basketball career. So guardianship was signed over to Mike Duncan, an AAU coach in Cleveland, allowing Fields to attend and play at Regina, a private high school in Ohio, while also playing for Duncan’s Ohio Basketball Club team. It was a fortuitous decision that would put Fields in touch with fellow OBC player Elijah Brown-son of Duncan’s close friend and then-Cleveland Cavaliers coach Mike Brown. When Regina unexpectedly closed their doors for good at the end of the 2009-10 school year, Duncan contacted Oak Hill coach Mike Rodgers, who offered Fields a scholarship.
Fields stood out from the moment she stepped on the court in Mouth of Wilson, Va. She was the Warriors’ MVP, averaging 26.6 PPG on a team that scored about 72, but Rodgers was more impressed with how she carried herself. “She has a will to win,” he says. And she understood what it took to get better. “That’s something we talked about a lot. She’s very tough, and it comes across in her work ethic.” Fields returned to Cleveland on her breaks, staying with Duncan and frequently visiting the Brown household, where she was quickly developing a strong bond with Brown’s wife, Carolyn. The Browns have two teenage sons, but no daughters, and Fields had been away from her mother for more than two years at that point. Each filled a void for the other.
In May 2011, Brown accepted the head coaching job with the Lakers. With the blessing of Fields’s mom, a new plan was hatched: the Browns would take guardianship of Fields, and she would spend her senior year at Mater Dei. Shortly after the decision was made, Rodgers received a phone call from Mike Brown. Rodgers was happy Fields was getting the opportunity, but concerned; Fields’s grades were improving and she’d settled in well at Oak Hill. Plus, she was his best player. “It’s great that you’re going to support her,” Rodgers told Brown, “and she needs that. But can you see your way to supporting her while she completes her education here at Oak Hill?” There was a pause. “She’s like family now,” replied Brown, “and we really wouldn’t send any of our own kids to boarding school. So that’s not going to happen.”
The longer they spoke, the more Rodgers came around to the idea. “They were talking about having dinner as a family, you know, having a family home life,” he says. “For two years, she didn’t have a family life. I was happy for her.”
All the while, Fields was in Victoria, B.C., with the Canadian U-19 squad, preparing for the 2011 World Championship in Chile. She had starred for Canada the previous summer with the cadet team when, despite Canada’s fifth-place finish, Fields led the tournament in scoring at 22.4 PPG. U-19 head coach Rich Chambers expected the same out of the then-high school junior, and placed her in his starting lineup with four girls who each had a season of university experience.
Carolyn kept in close touch with Fields, sending her textbooks and materials for an online science course she would need to complete in order to attend Mater Dei in the fall. For two weeks, Fields practised twice a day (sometimes more), and hit the books at night. Not a day went by that Carolyn didn’t check in. “When Mrs. Brown called it had nothing to do with basketball,” says Chambers. “It was all about books.”
“There’s no personal gain for them, nothing self-serving,” says Mater Dei head coach Kevin Kiernan. “They’re trying to help her and the progress that she’s made, just academically, getting her to UCLA has been an amazing process.”
The basketball, as always, would take care of itself. Mater Dei was the two-time defending national champion. Joining a team of its stature would have been a difficult adjustment for most kids, but Fields wasn’t fazed. “There’s never been a point where she’s been intimidated,” says Kiernan, the very notion eliciting a big laugh. “You can tell it’s been a winding road for her,” says Kiernen, “but she’s hit the ground running and she’s never looked back.”
She’s never had to: leaving Montreal has worked out better than anyone could have imagined. In two weeks, Fields will be playing in the McDonald’s All-American Game, the first Canadian female to do so. On March 3, the Lady Monarchs claimed a state title behind Fields’s clutch play-15 of her game-high 19 points came in the second half.
On the personal side, it’s worked out just as well. Her long, strange trip began by leaving her family but, in a way, that family has only grown. Carolyn Brown remains a mother figure and is a presence at all the Mater Dei Monarchs’ games. Mike Duncan often flies from Cleveland to California to watch her play, and the two speak on the phone frequently. Last month, the Browns flew Fields’s mother down from Montreal to watch her daughter play, the first time she’d seen her in action at Mater Dei. “Fields is going to be one of the all-time greats if she wants to be,” says Rodgers. “And the beautiful part is, as good as she is, the kid wants to get better every day. That’s the thing I miss most about her. It was just a joy to work with a kid who wanted to push herself that hard.” After all, that kind of player doesn’t come around very often.