BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- It is half past seven on a cold Tuesday night in March, and
Dressed in black from head-to-toe, the mother of
Raised in this rough-and-tumble neighborhood, the nation's leader in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.87-to-1) spent countless hours in The Middle -- the centrally-placed court surrounded by six brick buildings, including the childhood home of
Commencement day came in mid-August 2001 at 284 Park -- a fenced-in proving ground where grown men controlled the runs. Granted an opportunity to perform, Fields challenged the youngest player, executing a double crossover and reverse lay-up. After landing, a defender crashed into his left leg, snapping the rising ninth grader's tibia and exposing the bone. "Typical Levance," Portis said. "One step forward, two steps back."
Fields returned to The Middle on crutches two weeks later to watch Portis and a friend play. Sensing something askew shortly after 8:30 that night, he suggested the trio leave the bench area. Ten minutes later, they heard gun shots and Fields saw bright flashes. "You have to duck," Fields said, "and watch for strays."
Instinctively, Fields fell to the ground. Portis and his friend scurried away. "They weren't shooting at us," Fields said. "But I was dead if they came in our direction."
When the gunfire faded into the distance, Portis and his friend returned to Fields and lifted him up. "Levance can see things before they develop," Portis said. "The vision you need in the projects helps him see it all on the court."
It's that sense of awareness that has allowed the 5-foot-10, 190-pound Fields (7.6 assists per game) to run his transition game to Pitt, where he has the undersized Panthers primed for a NCAA run as the East Region's No. 1 seed. "He's never even a half-second off hitting a cutter," said Notre Dame guard
Finding Fields as a freshman at Xaverian High -- an all-boys Catholic school in Bay Ridge -- was not an easy task. Immobilized, he did not try out for the basketball team. Just another sub-6-foot body, he took two trains and a bus each day to attend classes, complained about having to wear a tie and stood in the background of the basement gym. It wasn't until varsity coach
He earned playing time immediately and ventured north that spring to join the New York Gauchos AAU program at their gym -- an abandoned warehouse on a remote South Bronx street. Running with future Georgetown guard
Unable to pass the eyeball test with many recruiters, Fields captured the attention of Pitt associate coach
Just like classmates Young and forward
The neighborhood still tugged at Fields, though. One night, Xaverian president
On the court, Fields also struggled. When Alesi sat his star player for three games, the coach said publicly Fields had caught the flu after a middling stretch, but, in reality, it was a cover. "He was suffering from the disease of 'me'," Alesi said.
Adds Fields: "I was being kind of a cancer to my teammates."
The message clearly resonated with Fields. The Clippers, who were 12-11 before Fields sat, won all three games without him and parlayed Alesi's gamble into city and state titles with Fields directing the team. "Great players have his selfishness," Alesi said. "He had to gain composure."
There were things Fields needed to learn when he went to Pitt. At the Panthers' first weight-lifting session, Biggs, Fields' roommate, noticed the stocky guard struggling through bench presses. Asking if he was OK, Fields reassured him, but then disappeared. Searching for him, Biggs saw vomit on a backroom door and then happened upon Fields throwing up into a bathroom toilet. "He's hit the iron hard ever since," said Biggs, a chiseled forward.
Extending Pitt's lineage of New York metro area point guards, Fields played behind Bronx native
Fields' unwillingness to back down backfired on Sept. 16, 2007. Exiting a nightclub in Pittsburgh's Strip District, Fields had a confrontation with an off-duty police officer that resulted in him being tasered. Fields was charged with disarming a police officer, public drunkenness and aggravated assault.
After completing 50 hours of community service and entering an Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program for alcohol offenders, all charges were dropped and he missed no games. On Dec. 20, 2007, the ninth-ranked Panthers faced No. 7 Duke in a marquee battle at Madison Square Garden. Rallying from a 16-point deficit to force overtime, the Panthers lost senior small forward
Atop a dresser in her second-floor apartment, Thomas preserves a photograph of her son's biggest basket in a black-and-gold frame. After retelling the tale, she walks into her son's bedroom, motioning to a corner where a Fisher Price basket once stood. There, in the compact space, she details his first neighborhood challenge. Playing one-on-one against his mother, the 8-year-old boy was defenseless to her dunks. "He'd cry," Thomas said, reenacting her moves. "I'd say, 'Stop it. No one will give you anything. You have to earn it'."
All these years later, it is Fields, who gives the projects denizens something. "Hope," she said. "When neighbors see him, they think they can make it, too."