By Brian Paglias
In the airless gymnasium on the oldest hardwood court in Clayton County, Jimmy Fields stared at the organized chaos before him. His Jonesboro girls basketball team, the one he inherited as its new head coach this season, executed one of its regular practice drills.
When teachable moments arrived, when someone dared to pass the ball over the hands of teeming defenders, when someone failed to summon the hustle and position to box out for a rebound, Fields was sure to blow his whistle and call out the perpetrator by name.
Ten months ago, the names and faces didn't matter to Fields. Before he brought Jonesboro (30-1) to the Final Four of the state basketball tournament, before he learned how to meld this group, he just wanted to work closer to his home in Clayton County. Who he would be coaching, what kind of potential they had, what kind of success or failure he might encounter - well, that was secondary.
"I didn't know any of these girls from nowhere," Fields said. "After I applied for the job, I just went online...just to see how many kids they had coming back. But I didn't know what the talent level was, and I didn't see them play. I didn't know what they had, who was what. I didn't know who (Drameka ) Griggs was, who (Joi) Holyfield was or none of that stuff."
By now, the story is well-documented, that Griggs and Holyfield form one of the state's most fluid and dominant backcourts and that Fields figured out how to position the rest of the pieces to win 29 consecutive games, a streak that's life depends on beating nationally-ranked Fayette County (30-0) Wednesday at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
Which brings Fields back to his profession's zenith. Across the Georgia-Alabama border is where Fields began his precipitious rise, where he tutored under former University of Alabama men's coach David Hobbs as a graduate assistant, falling off when Hobbs resigned in 1998 only to land into a high school girls program that he coached to two state championship games, triumphing once.
The year Fields won a state championship, Alabama put a hiring freeze on teachers in the state's school systems, motivating Fields to finally accept the persistent recruiting effort from his sister in Stockbridge, hoping her youngest brother would move to Georgia. He drove one morning to Mt. Zion High School, intending to take a job from the first school that offered. Lovejoy offered him on the spot.
"The first county that took a chance on me was Clayton," Fields said. "So I knew all about Jonesboro. It wasn't a strange place for me. When I saw (the job opening), I said it's a chance to get closer to home and get back in the county where I started."
So Fields left as boys basketball coach at McNair. He returned in time to lead the Lady Cardinals in their summer league, leaning on assistant Leon Samuel for his encyclopedic knowledge of the roster's complexion, soon forming a cohesive staff.
"We've always had the communication," Samuel said, "where if I felt something that needed to be done, I'd communicate it to him and he'd ccept it or we'd make adjustments. We've always been on the same page. I guess it was just the way the Lord put it. We were just seeing the same things all the time."
The summer league was over. Jonesboro had survived afternoons of running under the mid-summer sun. They thought they had endured the worst from Fields.
"He was kind of tough," senior forward Chanee Key said. "I thought it was just him coming in trying to be tough at first, but then lay off of us, but he hasn't laid off us yet. He really pushes us."
On July 2, Fields treated the Lady Cardinals to a barbecue at his home. He shed the tie, the pressed shirt, the strict coaching manner and began building a bond, one that brought Jonesboro to an unprecedented moment.
"I wanted the girls to believe in me, first of all," he said. "I wanted to give them a lot of respect, so they could respect me. And I think that's how we started off. I wanted to come in and say, 'Look, we're all in this thing together. It's not about me, you or one particular person. In order for us to be successful, we're going to have to be a team.'"