by Eldon Khorshidi | @eldonadam
Two years ago, the NBA and FIBA partnered to create “Basketball Without Borders,” an outreach program that, through camps and community service, promotes basketball and a healthy lifestyle around the world. The slogan “Basketball Without Borders” works for branding purposes, sure, but the essence of the catchphrase, in a literal sense, is kind of off.
In terms of miles logged, borders crossed and footprints left, Fields is among the most accomplished individuals you will find. Mike D’Antoni, the current coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, is the most common reference point when discussing American coaches who built their résumé overseas. D’Antoni won five Italian League and two Euroleague titles over the span of nearly a decade before landing a front office gig with the Denver Nuggets.
No disrespect to coach D’Antoni, but compared to Scott Fields, that’s light work. Real light work.
For the past 26 years, Fields has devoted his waking and sleeping hours to coaching basketball, continuing to gameplan, teach, motivate and learn. Year-in, year-out. New country, new culture, new players, new life.
Quickly glance at his passport, and you’d think Fields is a UN diplomat, not a basketball coach. He’s coached everywhere; Sweden, Austria, Germany, Lebanon, Luxembourg, Italy, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Puerto Rico, China. Division I, Division II, Junior College, NAIA, ABA, CBL, NBL, NBA Summer League and, now, Venezuela.
“I’ve definitely done my fair share of traveling,” says the 45-year-old Fields, in a tone that’s equal parts jovial and focused. Jovial because of his humanitarian, life-is-intrinsically-a-blessing mindset, and focused because, well, he’s in the business of winning and losing. “But I love my job. When I was done playing, I knew I wanted to stay close to the game that was so good to me. I immediately knew coaching was my calling.”
And what a calling it’s been. In ‘96-97, Fields took his first head coaching job in Luxembourg, where he inherited a 6-40 team and, in his first season, posted a 37-9 record and a Final Four appearance in the Luxembourg Cup. “That season kind of showed me that this was a niche of mine, and that coaching was something that I could grow and improve at,” Fields says. In ‘97-98, Fields ventured to Sweden, where he led the Jamtland Ambassadors to the best season in club history before the team filed for bankruptcy. In ‘00-01, he coached Al-Ittihad of Saudi Arabia, where his team averaged 95 points per game on offense while only giving up 57 on defense. Al-Ittihad went undefeated and won the league championship as well. In 2003, Fields won a league title in Lebanon. In 2004, in Qatar. In 2006, he returned to his home base of Salt Lake City, UT, where he coached the ABA’s Salt Lake Dream to a 13-0 record.
Fields lives in Salt Lake City, and in 2008 he secured an opportunity to work with then-Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, observing practices and consulting with Sloan on Xs and Os and scouting. In 2008, the Golden State Warriors came calling, with Keith Smart inviting Fields to help coach the team’s Summer League roster. The Warriors went a League-best 7-0 and finished in first place, and again Fields was back on the sidelines in the summer of 2009.
Scott Fields secured his first coaching gig while he was still a teenager, but the story is not as fortuitous as it sounds. What is usually a joyous time for most people—securing your first job, no less doing something you love—for Fields, his entrance into coaching came under the most taxing and trying circumstances one can imagine.
Growing up in basketball-crazed Indiana, Fields was a four-sport athlete in high school. He played football, baseball and ran track, but as natural order would have it, accepted a scholarship to play point guard at Montreat-Anderson Junior College in North Carolina. During his first semester, though, a bizarre accident changed everything.
In the mid-1980s, the board of education in North Carolina required a certain polio vaccine that Indiana did not. But when Fields received the vaccination shot, his body had a freak reaction and things went awry. Almost immediately, his immune system gave out. At the unripe age of 19, Fields lost feeling in his limbs, couldn’t walk straight, and was bedfast for months. Scholarship rescinded, playing days over, and a mountain of unexpected challenges to climb. With his legs having no foundation, appearing something like all-flesh-and-no-bone, doctors told him he may never walk again.
“It was a very depressing time for me,” Fields says. “It challenged me in many ways. I had to handle the adversity of things I wasn’t ready for in life. But I worked my way back up, and through it all, I definitely still wanted to stay close to the game. Luckily, once I fully recovered, the coach who I was playing for at the time actually offered me a position to come on his staff and coach with him. So I became a full-time coach at the age of 19.”
Fields joined his college coach, Randy Unger, at NAIA Huntington College in Northeast Indiana, and the rest is history. Unfinished history, of course, as Fields continues to coach, teach, motivate and advance in his career. He’s been coaching for 26 years, but to Scott Fields, every day is a new beginning, and a renewed chance to achieve greatness.
Cross paths with Fields and you’ll immediately notice an uncommon, and often unprovoked, benevolence. I did so this past September, at a high school showcase in Salt Lake City. Coach Fields was in the stands watching his adopted son, Brandon, who is a speedy, crafty point guard in the Class of 2014. He was there to watch Brandon, but pigeonholing him as just a supportive father would be wrong. Fields was there to motivate and guide the rest of his “kids” in the Salt Lake Community.
Fields’ impact around the city can’t be understated. In addition to motivational speaking and always being available to anybody who seeks his advice, he and former NBA veteran Thurl Bailey coach X-Factor Basketball, an up-and-coming AAU program in Utah. They work pro bono and solely for the kids. This year though, Bailey and fellow coach Tim Davis will have to handle X-Factor, as Fields has been tasked with reviving another international team, this time Guaros in Venezuela. A 17-19 record landed Guaros in seventh place in the LPB last season, a subpar season for any team, let alone one owned by Jorge Hernandez, who, as Fields says, is “the Mark Cuban of Latin America.”
With former University of Arizona standout Hassan Adams and John Millsap (older brother of Jazz forward Paul Millsap), and with Fields at the helm, Guaros has a chance to turn things around quickly and make noise in the country’s best league. The team begins its season this Saturday, January 26, against Cocodrilos, a team that finished atop the LPB standings last year. With a new coaching staff, system and roster in place, meshing all the elements together will be a challenge for Guaros. But with Fields leading the way, as we’ve seen in the past, it’ll certainly be possible.
SLAMonline recently caught up with Fields to discuss his preparation for the season, his past experiences abroad, the differences between the international and NBA game, his work in the Salt Lake community and more.
SLAM: Hey Coach, how’s everything going with you?
Scott Fields: Everything is going well. It’s been a very busy time the last few days, just getting ready for our season opener.
SLAM: What are some things you did to prepare for the season? You headed down to Venezuela real early—right after summertime, I believe—and I imagine you had a lot of work to do since it’s your first year with the team.
SF: Yeah, I headed down early to start preparing. Once I set up shop down here, I immediately started scouting and making my rounds to evaluate local Venezuelan players who could possibly fit on our team. We want to bring in the right pieces and talent for our team, and it’s up to the General Manager and me and to find the right guys. We had some tryouts, through which we signed some players, and we’re going to keep hustling and working to improve our team.
SLAM: Have you been keeping up with the NBA season at all?
SF: Oh yeah, everyday basically. I’ve been busy, but I’ve been watching a lot of practices, watching NBA TV and also the games in the evenings. I watch as a fan and supporter of the game, but also as a coach. I take a lot of notes, and I’m always watching to see which players are “bubble guys.” More so during Summer League, but even now—players who may not make an NBA roster, but still want to compete at a high level, could potentially fit on our team. So I watch for a multitude of reasons.
SLAM: Do you try to emulate NBA practice/training camp styles with your team?
SF: Well, yes and no; I’ve been coaching for 15 years now, and I do things that fit my philosophy and system, but as a coach you can never stop learning and growing, especially if you’re learning from the best league in the world. So I definitely try to pick up practice and training drills from the NBA. And even if you have a system in place, you may not have the players that fit your team, so you need to adjust.
SLAM: How were those experiences, in Europe and the Middle East? Is there one specific aspect of coaching that has re-appeared throughout your career?
SF: Being in Europe, being in Asia, being in the Middle East, the one thing that I learned about coaching was the value and the importance of effective communication. If you’re not able to communicate and you’re not able to teach, and if you’re not able to inflict your will as a coach when necessary, you’re not going to have success. Communicating with foreign players is obviously tough for both the players and the coach, so you have to start there because communication really is everything in the international game. So I think the two biggest things I’ve learned throughout the years are patience, and also the importance of being able to effectively communicate the roles and responsibilities of each player.
SLAM: How you ever not been able to communicate with a player? Like, literally, because of the language barrier…
SF: Well, I’ve always had assistants on my staff to help with language barriers, but there have definitely been some tough times. The toughest was probably in China; I needed a translator 24/7, because the language is so nuanced and tricky. The northern part of China exclusively speaks Mandarin, and then when you go south, toward Hong Kong, people speak Cantonese. So the dialects were actually different, and even with a translator, it was sometimes difficult.
Even if I couldn’t communicate verbally though, I could always tell how my players were feeling because I’m a detailed guy, and I’m able to watch a player’s body language and communicate that way. So, traveling the world has definitely taught me the importance of communication in a variety of ways.
SLAM: I imagine you’ve seen a ton of interesting things coaching abroad. How has your worldview expanded, just by being exposed to different cultures and living within different societies?
SF: It’s definitely been interesting, to say the least, and I’ve definitely picked up things from different cultures and religions. For instance, in China we were under a communist government. So everything we did had to be filmed, documented and handed over to the government because they were the ones paying our salary.
In the Middle East, it was mostly a Muslim base. So when it was prayer time, it didn’t matter if it was the middle of the third quarter, the game stopped and everyone prayed. So, to adapt to those things, you can’t go in there with such a strong ego, thinking that you’re going to change everything and everybody. You have to be the one that is flexible, and be able to adjust and so forth.
SLAM: How was it working with Keith Smart and Jerry Sloan? Seems like two great guys to learn from and work with.
SF: Keith has been such a great friend for years, and when he was with the Golden State Warriors, he allowed me to come in for Summer League, be on the court and work with the players, and just observe and soak things up. Just as coach Jerry Sloan and the Utah Jazz did for me for two years, allowing me to come in and observe.
And you know, learning from a hall-of-fame guy, the little nuances on a daily basis, the things I could pick up and use with my philosophy have helped me more than I could ever explain in words. The work ethic, steadiness and the hard nose and mental toughness that you pick up from a hall-of-famer in Jerry Sloan, and then again seeing things with Keith Smart, who is a real player’s coach and has a great rapport with the athletes and does a great job teaching. There are different things you can pick up from every coach. Just like now, when watching the NBA, you go around and you see young coaches like Monty Williams doing a great job teaching life lessons, and you see Doc Rivers being a great motivator. So it’s fun, because there’s always room to learn.
SLAM: What are some differences between the international and NBA game? Some people say the NBA game is more of a two-man game, with pick-and-rolls/pick-and-pops. It’s more of a transition game, while the European game is more spacing-oriented. As a coach, how do you see it?
SF: Well, your finger is on the pulse. It’s a different style; the U.S. game is a high-flying athletic game, where you don’t have quite the shooters, and the European game is more fundamental, there’s more spacing. European teams can space you out, which is sometimes a problem for NBA defenders. So if you’re able to incorporate both styles—an aggressive pick-and-roll philosophy from the US game, for instance, and the pure fundaments of European ball—and make them work, you should have a good chance to succeed.
SLAM: Does your mindset have to completely change when you go from coaching in the summer league to coaching in Venezuela or some other country? Do you have to be like, OK, let me put aside what I know and start from scratch, because it’s a different game?
SF: The mindset doesn’t really change, but the way you coach does have to change because the FIBA game is a little different—the court is structured differently and the rules are different. So let’s say you have a big-man, who is used to grabbing the board on a rebound, now you have to condition him that you can now take the shot off the rim, on a jumper or a free throw, and it’s not going to be a goaltend.
Also, in the international game there’s more places for guys to fit in and have a role on the team. Like, there may be a great 7-footer who is a good player but may not fit the NBA game because he’s not offensively polished, but he may fit the international game because he can play above the rim, alter shots and get your fast break going. So in the international game, I think there’s more small fits for every player.
SLAM: I imagine it’s tough when a player from a high DI program comes to play overseas, because many times players only go abroad as a last resort…
SF: For sure. A lot of the time, once players get overseas and play for a few years, they start to get a little complacent and pick up bad habits. So it’ll be my job to get guys back to that same work ethic, that same mental toughness and edge they once had, and to let them know that they still have a future in the game, and that the NBA can be an option once again.
SLAM: In your opinion, are overseas players playing for the moment, or are they trying to get to the NBA? Do they play with the mindset of, This is just a stepping stone to the NBA, sort of like Summer League or the NBA D-League? Or are they trying to play and win for the team they’re currently a part of?
SF: Well, I think that everyone deep down inside of them, whether they speak about it or not, wants to play in the NBA. But players usually adapt to the team-first mentality, and they’ll soon realize that the best way to get noticed individually is for the team to win, because NBA teams aren’t looking for the next superstar in international leagues. NBA teams just want someone who can excel in a very specific role, and help the team in small areas that ultimately make a difference in the team’s success.
SLAM: You’ve coached all over the world, but what excites you about this opportunity in Venezuela?
SF: You know what, I think the opportunity to work with this owner, Jorge, is truly a blessing and something that I’m real excited for. He’s very ambitious, he wants to win, he wants to put together a quality product, he goes against the grain. To me, he is the Mark Cuban of Latin America. He’s gonna give the players every opportunity to be successful. He’s going to treat these guys first class, he’s going above and beyond to make them comfortable. And that excites me—he’s that eager, he’s that hungry. And he cares. He’ll be the first to tell you that he doesn’t know a whole lot about basketball, but he loves entertainment, and the fact that he wants to win and do some things that have never been done before in Latin America, and in FIBA, how can you not be excited about that?
SLAM: What are your goals for the season?
SF: The team has not had success. Last year they finished about .500, and I know they are eager to have success. That’s why I want to change the mentality, change the culture of the team. I aim to bring a high level of professionalism and work ethic to get them to the first step, which is the Playoffs. And once you get into the Playoffs, it’s a matter of making adjustments and seeing how far we can get. I know the team is eager to win, and I think expectations will be high just because I’m coming in and some of the guys we already brought in are real good players. I believe we will turn things around, and that’s why I am excited for this challenge.
SLAM: You’re very active in the Salt Lake City community, from coaching X-Factor basketball and also the motivational work you do in SLC. Why are you so involved?
SF: You know what, I think that’s just me trying to give back. I was very blessed that when I came up with the physical challenge that ended my playing career, I had options on the other side. If there are young players out there who have a passion, who have a desire and who want to get better, I am thrilled and I’m gratified to be a part of that process.
So I mean, if there are young players out there who are aspiring to play in college, since I’ve coached at that level for more than a decade, I can teach them the mental toughness that’s required, I can teach them the work ethic that’ll help prepare them, I can help them in their development so that they’re prepared, and I can help them with the transition from high school to college. I was blessed to work with Thurl Bailey, and the things we were dong together with the X-Factor program were really positive. So, I was just blessed for that opportunity.
SLAM: I feel like there’s a lot of hidden talent in Utah… Outside of Lone Peak, you don’t hear much in terms of high school recruits.
SF: Well, Utah at the high school level is kind of on an island. It doesn’t get a lot of national exposure or recognition, and that’s why I’m so passionate about the X-Factor program. It’s great to see young kids maximize that opportunity. Like my son Brandon, who just turned 16, who has a young Brandon Jennings-type game, who can go out there and showcase and play on a good level. If the exposure is right, and the right eyes get on him, I think he will have that opportunity.
SLAM: It seems like you always maintain a high level of enthusiasm and energy. Where does that come from, and isn’t it tough to maintain on a day-to-day basis?
SF: [Laughs] You know what, basketball is my life, is my livelihood. It’s my passion, it’s what I think about the most. And to me, how can you not be excited about an opportunity to do what you love, and help and develop players, and hopefully bring these guys to a level that they’ve never even imagined themselves. I want to develop these players so they can play for the national team in their country. I look at a young guy like Greivis Vásquez, who is from Venezuela, and I wonder to myself, Who is the next guy?, because I want to find and develop that next guy.