Before Brendan Fields arrived at Boys' Latin last summer, the Lakers' basketball team was at the bottom of the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association B Conference.
But that almost seems inconsequential in the context of where Fields was, and where he had been, before he arrived at the school.
Still, Fields' impact on the basketball team was undeniable this past season. With the 6-foot-4 senior on board, the team's fortunes rose dramatically — all the way to a 22-5 record and a conference championship berth. Fields averaged 10.3 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.4 steals per game as a center for the rejuvenated Lakers.
"He added a big, athletic inside presence that we haven't had much of," Boys' Latin coach Cliff Rees said. "I think he had an all-conference-caliber type of year. He was incredibly valuable, someone in the post we could get the ball to when we needed a bucket."
Fields' accomplishments were all the more remarkable considering the challenging and painful journey the 18-year-old has traveled to get to a place where he has found reward in his athleticism and stability in his family life.
'My mom is gone'
Fields and his seven siblings were living with his mother, grandmother and grandfather in Reisterstown, where Fields attended Franklin High School as a freshman.
Then, starting in late 2009, Fields lost both his mother and grandmother within a three-month span. His grandmother died that October.
Then his mother, Valerie Harris, died from heart disease and kidney failure at 41 in January 2010.
"I would think about what happened and realize my mom is gone," Fields said. "Sometimes, I would just leave school, go home and skip the rest of the day. It was really tough being there.
"I remember one time I missed a whole week of school. I was just really upset. I just didn't go to school that whole week. I stayed home, slept, stayed in the dark and really didn't talk to anybody."
Fields and his siblings continued living with their grandfather until he was diagnosed with diabetes and could no longer care for the family.
After that, Fields and his siblings bounced around. Fields attended four high schools and lived in as many households in two states.
Fields and his older brother, Jordan, 19, moved to Washington state in August 2010 and lived with relatives first in Takoma and later in Seattle. Fields' other siblings moved to southern Virginia to live with relatives.
When the Pacific Northwest wasn't a good fit, Fields and his brother returned to Baltimore in June 2011 and Fields entered foster care with the Baltimore City Department of Social Services.
"Going all over and moving, I didn't feel wanted," Fields said. "It was like people didn't care about me. When I got there, they would say, 'You don't have to worry about moving.' The next year I was moving again.
"You never know when you have to pack up everything you own and just move across the country or with another family member. It was definitely rough," he said.
During his junior year, Fields lived with a family friend and attended Southwestern Academy in Baltimore County.
It wasn't until last summer that Fields landed in a place that would give him a sense of family and stability.
'We want him'
He recalls the exact date — Aug. 5, 2012 — when he found a permanent home with his legal guardians, Norman Mercer and Priscilla Jones-Mercer, whom he refers to today as his godparents.
Priscilla Jones-Mercer, a social worker with a private practice, knew Fields through the AAU basketball team of which her son, Brandon Jones, a senior at Friends School, was also a member.
Jones-Mercer said she and her son would notice at games that Fields "never had family with him," she said.
She said the coach would often step into the role of parent and that she and her husband also reached out to Fields. "Brendan was always such a sweet kid. He was very respectful. He always stuck out. What we did for our son, we would do for Brendan," she said.
Jones-Mercer said Fields never revealed his past. In fact, she didn't hear him complain much. It was from her son that she learned more about Fields.
"It was my son who really stepped up. Brendan was apparently saying some things on Facebook that were going on in his life," Jones-Mercer said.
"Brandon always had a special bond with Brendan," she said. "Brandon came to us and said that Brendan is going through all this stuff. We later had a chance to sit down and talk to Brendan."
Jones-Mercer and her husband decided to work with the foster care system to get guardianship of Fields. Her expertise as a social worker helped the family move quickly through the foster-care system.
"Since Brendan is in the state system, he has an attorney and social worker assigned to his case," she said. "We told him, 'You know you have a place to go.' And we told them, 'We want him. We have always cared for him and we were willing to accept him into our home.' "
Fields said his new family's support has kept him on track during the most recent struggles in his life, including not seeing most of his seven siblings.
Basketball has been an outlet for Fields. He has developed his gift for the game, working hard to be a starter every year in high school. Fields said his love of basketball has sustained him.
"I try to be the first one on the court and the last one off," Fields said. "I go to the gym in my free time. There was never a day off.
"My motivation is that I always wanted to be successful," Fields said. "And I look at my younger siblings, and I work hard for them every day. I haven't seen some of them in probably two years, but I just try to be a great role model for them. Going through all the hard times, I want them to be able to look at me and know I am going to college. I want them to pursue that also."
He also has had the support and admiration of his aunt, Marion Turner, a 39-year-old educator, now a principal at Walter P. Carter Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore.
"He's stayed focused," said Turner, who has served as a mother figure for Fields. "I have seen a lot of things in my 39 years. A lot of teens get off course. But he has really worked to stay on the right path.
"He is very caring, very loving," Turner said.
Turner was instrumental in getting Fields enrolled at Boys' Latin. She wrote a letter telling school officials all that he had been through. "Most of the time, they won't take a child like him," she said.
But his story touched Boys' Latin Headmaster Christopher J. Post.
"I met Brendan last summer when he shared his story and journey with me," Post said. "I was immediately struck by his courage and his cheerfulness. (His) courage spoke directly to the heart of our mission and core values."
Post said that the school staff took a cautious approach to the admissions process. He said he asked several faculty members to meet with Fields so that the teen would have "the best opportunity for success," Post said.
"Brendan has seized every opportunity. He's been enthusiastic, hard-working and is focused on his goals of pursuing a career in medicine. He told me it's a way to give back to the people who cared so deeply about — those he loved. Brendan is a special young man."
'Always there to give us spark'
Fields' dreams of college basketball seem to be materializing.
Although he was recruited by local Division III schools McDaniel, Hood and Goucher, he chose Cabrini College in Radnor, Pa.
He helped his prospects by maintaining B-plus average for the last two years. Undersandably, he was struggling academically after the deaths of his mom and grandmother.
Now, Fields wants to be a pre-med major with a business minor.
"He plays harder and more aggressively than anyone I've coached in a long time," coach Rees said. "He was just always there to give us spark.
"There is no back-down in this kid. Pallotti had a 6-8 kid, Chapelgate had a 6-7 kid. He would go in and battle with them every night."
Rees marvels at Fields' resiliency.
"I think it absolutely takes a special kid to overcome what he went through," Rees said. "There were a lot of opportunities for an easy out, to go down the wrong road. And he never did."
For Fields, the ultimate goal lies ahead.
"I want people to look at me and say, 'Wow, this kid made it.' "Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun