It was one of the championship games of the Holcombe Rucker Community League’s summer session in New York. The game was held in a gym in the projects of the Bronx in New York City.
A high school kid from Newburgh, New York had the ball in his hands. He was 5-foot-8. He wasn’t from the city, but he’d been there plenty of times. He didn’t like the Knicks and he still thought that football might be his future.
His team was playing four on five due to injuries and foul trouble, but still, he knew he wasn’t losing this game.
“He took over the game,” his dad said. “They couldn’t double team him and they even tried triple teaming him, but nothing worked on him.”
The kid from Newburgh put up 41 points in this championship game to lead his team in an improbable win.
That kid—now man—is Donovan Fields.
Fields went from Newburgh, New York to Concord, North Carolina to Odessa, Texas and now to San Luis Obispo, California. His journey has been long and lucky, making it out to the West coast as an up-and-coming Division 1 college basketball player.
Fields was given a basketball as soon as he could walk.
Newburgh, his hometown, is about an hour north of New York City and is known for its crime and gang violence.
Fields didn’t grow up in the city of Newburgh though, unlike many of his friends and teammates throughout his childhood. He grew up in the suburbs of Newburgh, not as dangerous and not as connected to gang activity.
“My life was a little different growing up,” Fields said. “Some of my friends were exposed to things at an early age that I didn’t have to go home to. Some of the things they had to deal with, no kid should have to experience that. I respect them because they came out stronger. I feel lucky I didn’t have to deal with any of that.”
As Fields grew older, his dad, Michael Fields, mentored him. Michael was Fields’ single biggest influence in life and in basketball.
“Donovan is very open,” Michael said. “He knows how to get his point across. He listens very well and that sets him apart from a lot of people.”
They watched Knicks games together every night and Michael taught Fields about basketball. He was Fields’ coach up until he was 15 years old.
“Donovan’s IQ was and is high,” Michael said. “He was smart. He was a sponge. He wanted to get good. Just being a good kid made a huge difference and helped him a lot.”
Two sport kid
By age seven, Fields was played two sports full-time: basketball and football. He was a quiet kid that played sports and video games, and that was it.
“There was almost no time when I wasn’t playing basketball or football,” Fields said. “When I wasn’t doing that, I was either eating or sleeping. It was fun. I was just playing with my friends, so that’s all I wanted to do and that’s really all that we did.”
Fields played in rough Newburgh leagues, where toughness was almost as important as skill. He was fouled constantly coming down the court, but both him and his father think it was necessary.
“I wanted that edge, that toughness instilled in him,” Michael said.
He stayed like this until he was a sophomore at Newburgh Free Academy, the only high school in Newburgh. The school was a sports powerhouse in the area and Fields wanted to live up to that reputation.
Fields went unnoticed, though. He was known as a solid football player that also had some — just some — skill on the basketball court.
“Nobody knew who I was. Nobody expected me to do what I did,” Fields said.
He started 10th grade coming off the bench for the varsity basketball team. After a few games, he was given a chance to start. He didn’t waste it.
He quickly became the full-time starter, showing he was more than just a fast football player.
He continued to work on his game, but his size continued to be questioned.
“He’s always been the underdog,” Fields’ prep school coach said. “He’s always had a chip on his shoulder because of his size.”
In his free time, Fields played American Athletic Union [AAU] basketball with another family friend, Harold Rayford Sr. Rayford Sr. has known Fields since he was a kid and watched him fall in love with the game of basketball.
“[He was the] only kid that ever really came to me and asked me to constantly get in the gym and put up shots,” Rayford Sr. said. “There’s a difference between a kid that wants to play basketball and a ballplayer. Don is a ballplayer. He’s a player that will put up shots after a game until midnight.”
Rayford Sr.’s AAU 17-and-under team went to the AAU national basketball tournament when Fields was still in high school. With Fields leading the way, the team finished third in the country, making it Rayford Sr.’s most successful team he’s ever coached.
During Fields’ senior year, he was the starting quarterback for the most prolific offense in his high school’s history. He was a natural-born leader, mainly because of his work ethic.
“When you’re always there and your effort is never questioned,and you do the right things in and out of school, people listen,” Newburgh’s Coach Bill Bianco said.
Bianco knew that Fields was a basketball kid, but also knew that his work ethic allowed him to be just as successful in football.
“He basically ruined any excuse to miss a practice,” Bianco said. “I tell kids now that if Donovan could do it and hold a 90 average and be a two-sport star athlete and always be around, then you can be here, too.”
After losing in the conference finals for football, it was his last basketball season and he was going to make it count.
Newburgh made it to the conference championship against their rivals, Kingston High. They had lost several players because of eligibility rules.
Fields put up 36 points in one of his final high school basketball games, purely due to willpower.
“I wanted it so badly. I told myself I wasn’t losing that game. It’s not slipping away,” Fields said.
After getting offers from Army West Point, Rutgers and other schools for football, along with a few offers from smaller schools for basketball, Fields decided to carve his own path.
A different path
Fields decided to take a post-graduate year at Concord Prep Academy in North Carolina. He took his team to the final four of prep nationals.
His coach at Concord was Harold Rayford, a family friend, a life mentor and son of Rayford Sr.
“People have taken a chance on him and he’s always willing to take a chance on other people and make new relationships,” Rayford said. “His work ethic is phenomenal. With his work ethic, he has pro potential. He doesn’t need anybody to wake him up in the mornings. His passion wakes him up.”
Fields de-committed from Morgan State in Baltimore and decided to go to Odessa community College in Odessa, Texas.
After playing for one year in Texas, he got a call from Cal Poly men’s basketball coach Joe Callero.
A couple of weeks later, he was on the Cal Poly campus, committing to a school he’d never heard of in a place he’d never been.
Fields is one of the few people to make it out of Newburgh and he knows he’s blessed to be having this opportunity.
“A lot of the guys on that high school championship team and a lot of the guys that were really good from the inner city, they keep me motivated,” Fields said. “They tell me to keep grinding and keep putting on for the city. I feel like I represent the city.”
Now at Cal Poly, Fields has big plans for the future.
With one year under his belt, he is looking to get more comfortable and to continue to make a bigger impact for Cal Poly. His skillset is wide and his passion is irreplaceable.
“It’s more than one thing,” Michael said. “He’s very unselfish. He doesn’t mind the spotlight being on someone else. Donovan plays basketball like chess. Every move is calculated.”
His leadership role is expanding, but those around him believe he’s ready for it.
“He can be the Derek Fisher of the locker room,” Rayford said.
“He always has a knack for saying things at the right time,” Bianco said.
With a couple years left on his eligibility, Fields has one goal for his time at Cal Poly.
“By the time I leave here, I’ve gotta bring another Big West championship back to Cal Poly and get to the [NCAA Tournament],” he said.