Independent basketball players, coach help inspire each other

03/06/2013 7:03 AM

08/25/2013 9:03 AM

Get Rob Fields talking about coaching basketball and it won’t be long before he’ll swear to you that he’s seen it all.

His speciality is the rebuilding project, having never come across a destitute program that he couldn’t resurrect. His track record of turnarounds in Indiana, Missouri, Oklahoma and now at Wichita Independent is proven.

He’s experienced the euphoria of directing the Panthers to their first state appearance in program history, euphoria that comes less than four years after finding out his wife had cancer and then being fired from a coaching position. When Fields talks about being lucky, it’s hard to understand.

“I truly believe we are blessed,” Fields says as Independent prepares to play Nemaha Valley on Thursday in the first round of the Class 3A tournament at the Hutchinson Sports Arena. “Every day is a great day for me and my family.”

Get Rob Fields talking about his life and it won’t be long before you’ll swear that he’s as lucky as anyone.

“Give me three years and we’ll be somewhere.”

That’s all it took Milan, the Indiana high school Hoosiers was based on, to snap a 58-game losing streak. And that’s how long it to turn a one-win Sherwood, Mo., team that won 17 games before he left for Guymon, Okla., where he turned losers into winners again.

“We’ve been all over the country taking over losing programs and getting them back on their feet,” he says.

The key in turning around all of those programs, Fields says, was believing in himself through the difficult times.

When the losses piled up in the beginning years, Fields did not panic. He remain grounded in his beliefs.

“He puts his whole heart and soul into it,” his wife Terri says. “He gives you more than his 100 percent. That’s why he’s been so successful everywhere he’s been.”

“The only real illness in life is having a bad attitude.”

After a third straight losing season at Winfield, Fields was fired. He compiled a 74-121 record in nine seasons there.

It happened less than three months after Terri was diagnosed with stage three ovarian cancer in December 2008, which she called “a death sentence” at the time.

The decision, or at least the timing of it, still bothers Fields.

“Sometimes you can get stuck in that pity party,” Terri says. “You wonder how can this happen to us?”

Terri has fought the death sentence, undergoing chemotherapy and continuing to teach.

The Fields expressed gratitude for the support the receive at both Independent and Winfield, where Rob and Terri still teach and their son Connor goes to school. (“We’re Vikings by day and Panthers by night,” Rob says.)

Regardless of timing, the decision to fire Fields was made and the Fields say they have been blessed ever since.

“We were so blessed when it happened because we had so many people that took care of us and brought us meals,” Terri says. “You learn to count your blessings. We’re just so grateful.”

“It’s not what happens to you, it’s how you react to it.”

It is inevitable in basketball that the other team will make a run. Maybe even take the lead. Maybe even win the game.

But the great teams respond to adversity.

Fields says that though he may have lost a few games, he never lost belief in himself. He is the husband, father and coach that he wants to be.

“You look at everything that he’s been through and compare it to losing a basketball game,” says Brice Dean, Independent’s leading scorer. “It makes you really look at the bigger picture in life.”

Basketball is a passion for Fields, the great escape from the hardships of life.

“We see that passion he has for us,” Independent senior Matt Loveland says. “We see that and we play with the same passion out there on the court that he has for us.”

That’s what makes Independent a wildcard this week. The 18-5 record and the sixth seed are meaningless to the Panthers. They are a team united, bound together by their coach and his family.

“We can’t be satisfied with just making it to the state tournament,” Fields says. “We think we can go up there and make some noise.”

There will surely be an Independent parent who will find Terri in the stands this week to thank her for her husband’s work. It will be met a gentle laugh.

“That’s what most people don’t realize,” Terri says, “for as much as they think Rob did for Independent, Independent did just as much for us. They think they are the lucky ones, but we know who the truly lucky ones are.”

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