BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- It is half past seven on a cold Tuesday night in March, and Koreen Thomas is walking quickly because she knows what happens after dark in the Brownsville housing projects. "You learn early not to be outside after certain hours," she said. "It's not the safest place to raise children."
Dressed in black from head-to-toe, the mother of Levance Fields, Pitt's pass-first point guard, slows as she comes upon an open area. Motioning toward a patch of concrete under the fluorescent lights, she explains where she used to find her only son when gun shots would ring out during his youth. "There was a basketball court here," said Thomas, a personnel assistant at a local vendor agency. "The city stripped the rims and put in a sprinkler a few years back. No one wants a sprinkler. The court occupied Levance, saved his life."
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 Mike Tyson. "We'd develop there," said Terrance Portis, Fields's cousin, "then graduate to better courts."
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 Kyle McAlarney, who has played against Fields since high school. "He's made Sam Young and DeJuan Blair."
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 Jack Alesi watched Fields play in a jayvee game the next November that he was noticed. "He was a combo guard," Alesi said. "Part point guard, part fullback."
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 Jessie Sapp, he helped win tournaments across the country. "I wanted him traveling," Thomas said. "I knew no college coach would just come to Brownsville."
Unable to pass the eyeball test with many recruiters, Fields captured the attention of Pitt associate coach BarryRohrssen who saw him fitting a Khalid El-Amin or John Bagley mold. A Xaverian alum, Rohrssen had recruited Xaverian forward Chris Taft two years earlier and was the first to see Fields.
Just like classmates Young and forward Tyrell Biggs, Pitt was the first and only official visit for Fields. On his trip, Rohrssen took Fields to the 7 C's -- a greasy-spoon diner in the Little Italy section -- for breakfast. "The waitress was talkin' trash while flippin' my pancakes," said Fields, who chose Pitt over St. John's that December. "I felt at home."
The neighborhood still tugged at Fields, though. One night, Xaverian president Sal Ferrera drove Fields home, but when he reached the student's block, Fields would not get out. Drug dealers were standing on the corner. They wanted the hoops star to sell for them. "He had options," said Ferrara, who arranged for Fields to live with a teammate's family for two weeks. "He made the right choice."
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 Carl Krauser as a freshman and has developed under former Pitt star Brandin Knight, now in his third year as an assistant at his alma mater. No matter the challenge, whether it is his weight, last season's broken left foot or last week's sore back and groin, Fields has overcome all obstacles. "The toughness never had to be taught," Knight said. "He took the baton from Carl."
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 Mike Cook, who served as Fields' training partner that summer, to a serious right knee injury. Down two points with 4.7 seconds left, Fields dribbled between his legs from left to right at the top of the key, then crossed back over on Duke guard David McClure. Looking for separation, Fields jab stepped, sprang backward behind the arc and buried the game-winner. "He's an assassin," one NBA scout said. "He plays for the big moment."
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."