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Canadian Nirra Fields, battles through JSerra defenders in their basketball game on Feb. 8, 2012. She now plays for Mater Dei High School, and has committed to play for UCLA. PHOTO BY CHRISTINE COTTER, FOR THE TORONTO GLOBE AND MAIL (CHRISTINE COTTER/The Globe and Mail)
Canadian Nirra Fields, battles through JSerra defenders in their basketball game on Feb. 8, 2012. She now plays for Mater Dei High School, and has committed to play for UCLA. PHOTO BY CHRISTINE COTTER, FOR THE TORONTO GLOBE AND MAIL (CHRISTINE COTTER/The Globe and Mail)

A Basketball Odyssey

Fields of dreams Add to ...

When her California high-school team, Mater Dei, suffered a three-point loss in last weekend’s Nike Tournament of Champions, Nirra Fields didn’t sleep restfully.

“Woke up today wanting to punch someone in the face ... I hate losing,” the Canadian phenom tweeted.

This past Wednesday, at JSerra Catholic High School in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., Fields – born in British Columbia, raised in Montreal – reacted by playing ferocious defence through the first quarter as her team scored the first 21 points in a lopsided game. Fields was all business on the court, smiled rarely, hand-slapped a teammate occasionally. When in possession of the ball, she demonstrated a shooter’s mentality in spite of struggling offensively at the outset, the sort of selfishness that characterizes scorers in any sport.

“She’s one of those rare players who thinks she can get her shot off and create her own shot any time,” says Cori Close, the UCLA women’s head coach, who won a successful recruiting battle to sign Fields to a full-ride scholarship. “A lot of girls expect the plays to create shots for them. They don’t have the sense of that the same way guys do. They want the offence to create that perfect shot opportunity. Nirra doesn’t need that.”

Fields is travelling a nomadic basketball odyssey, first from the Montreal area to Virginia, then to Cleveland, and on to Southern California, where she’s turning heads as a high school senior, bound for UCLA on scholarship next season, and named to the McDonald’s All-American game that is to be played in Chicago in March. In Cleveland there developed a friendship with Carolyn Brown, the wife of then Cavaliers coach Mike Brown, who was hired to coach the Los Angeles Lakers last summer.

The Browns have become Fields’s legal guardians. Their two sons, Elijah and Cameron, also attend Mater Dei in Santa Ana, a prep powerhouse. Brown, an affable and gregarious bundle of energy, doesn’t want to take any bows for his or his family’s contributions to Fields’s life, though he smiled when asked about what her presence in the household means.

“She’s great,” he answered. “She’s fun to have around and she’s fun to be around. We’re just trying to help her out.”

The Fields family declined to allow Nirra to be interviewed for this story.

Brown had spent five years handling the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, back when local sensation LeBron James was still wowing them on the banks of Lake Erie. Nowadays, he presides over Kobe Bryant and the artist formerly known as Ron Artest, Metta World Peace. Accordingly, Brown knows something about precocious basketball talent.

“With the way she plays the game, her upside is tremendous,” said Brown, indicating that Fields, also a part of the Canadian national program, has the talent to play in the Olympics. “If there are – and there may be – but if there are any girls in Canada better than her, then wow, all power to Canada. They’re going to have good teams in the future, because Nirra is one of the best girls I’ve ever seen.”

Fields’s back story is similar to the journey many teenage boys take to play junior hockey in Canada. Born in British Columbia, she grew up in the working-class Montreal neighbourhood of Ville Saint-Pierre.

Otis Delaney, former principal of the senior elementary school that Fields attended in La Salle, Que., first spotted her in the school yard.

“She was probably the best athlete in school, male or female,” said Delaney, a former captain of the St. Francis Xavier University varsity team, “and she used to dominate the boys.”

Fields, who grew up with her mother and two brothers in a family of modest means, played as an 11-year-old in the local boys’ football league. She began playing organized basketball in Montreal’s Little Burgundy neighbourhood through DJ Sports Club, a charitable group for youths founded by former Concordia Stingers standout Dexter John.

Delaney recommended Fields to a basketball program run by Sun Youth, a Montreal community organization that helps underprivileged kids. Sun Youth, which combines sports with school work and has more than 60 players plying their trade in U.S. colleges and prep schools, exposed Fields to top-flight competition.

She played briefly at Montreal’s Lakeside Academy (where she also won a city 100-metre sprint title in the 11-13 age group) before moving on to Lower Canada College, a tony private school, for a year. From there, she moved again to Mouth Of Wilson, Va., to play for Oak Hill Academy, an American high school powerhouse, where she averaged 26.5 points a game.

She lived for a time in Cleveland, but the school she was to attend, Regina, closed, leaving her high and dry. In the end, needing a place to play, she accompanied the Browns to California, where eligibility issues permitted her to practise, but not play, with Mater Dei, a two-time national champion, until January.

She’s making up for lost time. Along with teammate Jordan Adams, who has committed to rival USC next year and was also named to the McDonald’s All-American West team, Fields has the No. 2-ranked team in the state poised for a deep playoff run.

Close, the UCLA coach, met Fields years ago when she was coaching at Florida State and “recruiting Ohio real hard. We signed a player from her old high school, Regina, and that was my first exposure to Nirra Fields. So it’s really fun that it ended up this way. The first time I spent any time talking to Nirra, we spent the whole time talking about people that we mutually knew.

“I had a chance to meet Nirra’s biological mother, and that’s a big sacrifice for her – to entrust these people she’s never met with her baby, and really hope they’re giving her the opportunities she’s dreamed about. It’s very interesting. I never thought about it before, but she is living out the Canadian boys’ hockey dream in the girls’ basketball situation.”

Fields has represented Canada multiple times already – at under-16, under-17 and under-19 championships. Last year, as the Canadian team pulled off the unthinkable by knocking off the United States at the FIBA U19 championships in Chile, she averaged 15.9 points and 5.4 rebounds in the tournament games.

She is ranked as the No. 11 prospect in the 2012 high school class by ESPN HoopGurlz, and the No. 3 guard.

“It takes a lot of courage to leave your family, come to the States and pursue this educational dream as well as her basketball dreams,” Close said. “To have to move around and develop relationships in strange new cities all through high school, that’s a very difficult situation. I’m very glad she’s landed in L.A., not only for us to have a chance to coach her in the future, but with the Brown family. They are spectacular in terms of caring for her and providing a great environment for her to finish her high-school career.”

In the game against Serra, Mater Dei led 70-24 with a minute left in the third quarter when Fields came out of the game. After having a hard time finding the range in the first quarter, she put up a quiet 18 points to lead her team. Afterward, the celebration was subdued.

“Nirra Fields can flat-out play,” Serra coach Mary Rossignol said. “She’s confident, she’s experienced and you can tell she’s played against some top competition as a young kid, all the way until now, and it pays off when you play against older kids and guys.

“She’s fluid. She basically can hang in the air. She can shoot. She has the mid-range game and she can take the ball to the hole. For a lady basketball player, she’s all that. I mean, I’m thinking she’s going to be great at the next level. She’s one of the best around that I’ve seen in my 25 years of coaching.”

Off the court, Close says the relationship between the Browns and Fields has set Nirra for the future.

“Carolyn Brown is really the salt of the earth and she has worked so hard to make sure Nirra has what she needs academically, to make sure she takes preparatory classes for the SAT and ACT [college entrance exams] to really love having a girl and go shopping with her. Just the investment of time and energy for Nirra’s preparation has just been unmatched. Mike Brown is a wonderful man and people love to talk about him because he’s the coach of the Lakers, and he’s a great guy, but his wife is spectacular and she’s done such a great job with those two boys and Nirra.”

Seven years ago, to find some competition in the hockey haven of Montreal, Fields was playing hoops on the playgrounds with boys. Helped along by solid mentoring, compelled by basketball powers, she’s on her way to UCLA.

“It’s a wonderful story with a storybook ending,” said Sun Youth basketball coach Les Hughes, who had Fields on his team for a season just before she started high school. “If this principal [Delaney]doesn’t pick up the phone, who knows what happens?”

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