When a car accident in France ended my professional basketball career, I wanted to curl up and die. While struggling to rehabilitate, my physical therapist in Paris, saw my despair and said, “Don’t cry. Call Henry Fields. He’ll help you out.”
“McKinzie,” Henry said when I called. “Oh yeah, I remember you. Shot the eyes out of the basket. Need a job? Great. We need a coach.”
So I began coaching at American School of Paris under the tutelage of Henry Fields, dubbed the Father of French basketball, and one of the first Americans to play in Europe. After winning the military world championship while stationed in Orleans, France, in 1962 he was invited to stay on to play for Paris University Club for $50 a month. Not only did he rack up championship titles, he won over the heart of the entire country and paved the way for other American players to follow.
Though he earned accolades as a player, his greatest impact may have been as a coach, where he dedicated his life to developing ball skills in youth at the various clubs where he starred. As a teacher and coach, he built a dynasty at ASP, the first American school with an international community in Europe established in 1946.
After retirement, he and his lovely Norwegian wife, Ragna, resettled in Auterive, south of Toulouse (southwest France), to be closer to their daughters. When he found out that the community didn’t have a basketball program for kids, he built one for them.
From Hank, I learned international basketball rules and insider tips, like it’s okay to yell at a ref as long as you buy him a drink after the game. He showed me how to make sure that each player had a role and felt valued.
He exemplified the true spirit of the game. Basketball is more that X and 0s, back door cuts, and match-up zones, it’s about bringing people together from every race, nationality and walk of life.
A few days ago, when I saw on a Facebook post that the gym in Auterive, had been named Halle Henry Fields, I pumped my fist and cheered.
“Pat, I had no idea,” he said when he called to tell me about the surprise ceremony. “They told me to wear a tie and come coach a game. When I got there, they sang happy birthday and dedicated the gym to me. Friends from teams back in 60s and 70s came to join in the celebration.”
“Oh Hank,” I said. “I wish I could have been there.”
“You were. You’re a part of everything I do.”
I feel the same way; we share the magic of mentoring. Over time, the wisdom of mentors becomes part of the mentees’ psych.
In the highest level of sport, coaches give back, pass on, and pay forward, becoming immortalized in the hearts and minds of those players who shared their love of a game.
What greater tribute to offer an ambassador of the game than to name a gym in his honor?
Henry Fields, granddaddy of basketball in France, a man with all the connections, believes everyone who loves the game is related.
To me, he will always be family.
What a neat tribute, Pat. It blows me away that you have this in your history. Your book was fantastic.
Thanks Lynne. At the time I didn’t realize how fortunate I was to be influenced by so many important mentors, but in retrospect I realize that from my grandpa, to my dad, to my college coach, to Henry Fields, I have been shaped by some great people.
Thank you for showing me the way to the rabbit hole this Saturday morning. Wonderful to read about you, your mentor, your early days, your challenges. Can you even believe all the changes to the game in the last forty years?
Thanks for stopping by Mithra. Since the passage of Title IX, the game has changed so much, it feels surreal almost as if I inventing stories about how backwards it was for women in the 70s, but the pioneers who were there know how painfully real it was back then and can feel proud of the road they helped pave for today’s young girls.
Aw, this is just beautiful, Pat! Sadly, too many mentors never really know how appreciated they are by those who come after them — sounds like Henry is well-appreciated. Gee, girl, you’re rubbing shoulders with some of the greats (and some of their greatness is rubbing off on you!)
Thanks Debbie. Yes, I was so happy to see Henry being honored while he is still with us. Not sure if any of that greatness rubbed off on me, but I know I am better person for having grown as a coach under the guidance of this good man.
Pat, you were that mentor for me when you called me after the mother daughter game at the school gym. I played a bit in high school and and even less in college because we didn’t have a team so we put one together. But I loved the game and you sensed that. You pulled me in to coach with you and you taught me everything you knew. I always admired the way you always knew exactly what to say. Remember you gave me a book of your famous sayings to take with me when I moved away. I also took away with me your commitment and inspiration to work with these kids and make them believe in themselves. You always did that for them.
Thanks Tina, but you are under estimating your own contribution to our dream teams during those years. I may have had the knowledge of the game, but you were the energy and enthusiasm and sheer drive behind the creation of every team. Together we were a great combo. The life lessons and values we passed on through our shared love of the game remain in the hearts of our former players today including our daughters.
Aw, I wish you could have been there at the ceremony as well. But I am sure it made you proud after hearing about the tribute. It was a beautiful reading about Henry and you Patt!
I sure wish I could have been there too for the tribute, but it was so nice hearing from Henry after the event. Thanks for your kind words.
That’s great. I wish he was alive to see this.
You’re a lucky person
Great tribute to a wonderful man. I was fortunate enough to have had Coach Fields as a mentor during my years at ASP from 1981-84 playing basketball, as well as running track and cross-country. One of the highlights of our return trip to France in 2016 was a chance to visit with him in Auterive and shoot a few baskets in the gym now named in his honor. Merci for the memories!