There is no doubt that Ronnie Fields was the most sensational high school basketball player ever produced in the Chicago area. He was a human highlight film, a high jumping, high stepping, high flying and high rolling athlete who was the champion slam-dunk artist of his generation.
But he wasn't better than Jamie Brandon.
Brandon did all of the things that Fields couldn't or didn't do. He was a pure scorer, a good shooter, a good ball-handler and an exceptional floor leader who guided his King team to an unbeaten record and state and mythical national championships in 1990.
Fields was the master of "wow" and "ooh" and "aah" but he had no game.
Brandon was a three-time All-Stater. He was Illinois' Mr. Basketball in 1990. He scored 3,157 points in his career, third most in state history. He was a freshman starter on King's 1987 Class AA runner-up that was led by Marcus Liberty. He led King to the Public League final in 1988, to third place in the 1989 Class AA tournament and to the 1990 title.
"Those were great moments. It was one of the best times of my life along with playing with Shaquille O'Neal at LSU," Brandon said. "I was a young kid then. I had great teammates. Playing for (King coach) Landon Cox was a great experience. I felt I was already in college when I was playing at King."
Old-timers still recall Brandon's sensational half-court shot to beat South Shore in the 1989 Public League semifinals at the UIC Pavilion. "People still talk about that shot today. Some still think my shot came after the buzzer," he said.
Brandon and Fields had something in common. Despite all of their talent, neither made it to the NBA. At 41, after years of keeping out of the public eye, he has broken his silence and has returned to the game he loves. He is a basketball official, runs a basketball camp, trains boys and girls and is trying to obtain funding for a documentary of his life.
"I want to show people that you can still make it in life, that it isn't all about dribbling a basketball. There is always a second chance even if you don't make it to the NBA," Brandon said.
"Don't give up. Put God in your life and you can reach your potential. When I was a little kid, my mom had me go to church. As I look back, the way life and times are now, I wish I did a few things better in my life to better myself as a person and for my career.
"But I have no regrets. Life is short. I'm a survivor. A lot of kids didn't make it out of the hole. I wish I had made better decisions and better choices, listened to myself and not be so nave and hard-headed. I wish I would have involved myself with more positive people. I wish I had put my career in my own hands."
Brandon grew up in Robert Taylor Homes, at 53rd and State, across from Beasley Elementary School. He started playing basketball in the projects. He was dribbling in third grade. From the beginning, however, he realized that learning to survive on the streets was more difficult that learning how to master a jump shot.
"It was a hard environment, very tough, lots of gangs. You couldn't walk down the street, in the hall or in the elevators or the stairway. Gangs were doing drugs and smoking drugs. The halls smelled like urine. There were needles in the halls," he said.
"My project, 5523, three buildings surrounding each other, was called the hole. There was a gang rivalry, the Gangster Disciples versus the Vice Lords. They shot at each other. It was a very dangerous environment. You'd come home from school or the candy store or the grocery store and you'd have to watch out for bullets or a gang fight.
"I didn't have any friends get killed in a crossfire. But some got jumped on and warned not to walk through a gang's territory. I was an athlete. My mom was there for me. She had my back. She kept me out of trouble. My stepfather told me to stay out of trouble and steered me in the right direction. Gangs never bothered me because I stayed by myself.
"In those days, gangs respected you if you were an athlete and let you go your way. Today, it doesn't matter. They try to recruit you for the gang, no matter who you are."
Brandon had a good friend, Jerome, who attended Beasley and played basketball for coach Tom Green. He told Green about Brandon. "Jamie, you are gifted. You have potential. You can make it somewhere playing ball," Jerome told Jamie. Green liked what he saw. Brandon enrolled at Beasley in sixth grade. Later, he attended Beale at 60th and Peoria, where he met future teammate Johnny Selvie.
Selvie played for Charles Redmond, who later coached at Robeson. Redmond tried to persuade Selvie and Brandon to join him at Robeson. They were leaning in that direction. But Landon Cox was building a powerhouse program at King and everybody wanted to play at King or Simeon, the two Public League powers in the 1980s.
"Cox took a lot of criticism from a lot of people," Brandon said. "They didn't like him because King and Simeon were the go-to schools. A lot of coaches didn't like Cox because they said he stole players and was arrogant. But he was a real good guy to play for. He was a real nice guy. He never gave me any problems. He also stood by his players. He stuck by his word.
"If you got into trouble outside of basketball or school or had family problems, he was by your side. He stuck by you. He was always there for me, like a father figure. When my stepfather was killed at the end of my sophomore year, Cox was there for me. When Selvie got into trouble, Cox stood by him and got a lawyer for him."
Brandon said "the greatest point of my career" was when he and his King teammates went Downstate to win the state championship in 1990.
"We had been through so much. People said Cox had great teams and the best players but couldn't win the big game," Brandon said. "My senior year was the best year of my career. We were 32-0 and the No. 1 team in the nation. Cox wasn't a good coach. He was a good X and O guy. It was more than talent. He worked very hard and put a lot of energy into his work. He knew how to put the right people in the right place."
As excited as he was about winning in 1990, Brandon admitted he was just as disappointed when King finished third in 1989. "I remember it like it was yesterday. We lost to East St. Louis Lincoln in the semifinals. We were underachievers. We weren't hungry enough. We weren't together as a team. We went through a lot of adversity. I wasn't as focused as I was as a senior. I didn't take it seriously as a junior."
After finishing third, Brandon and his underclass teammates got together and pointed fingers. Brandon said they didn't play hard enough. Cox said that wasn't the problem. He said East St. Louis Lincoln outplayed King, that King wasn't ready to play, that they had barely beaten South Shore in the Public League semifinals.
"People expected us to do better," Brandon said. "We said we would win it as seniors."
After the 1990 season, Brandon was recruited by all of the elite college programs, including Illinois, North Carolina, Indiana, LSU, Ohio State, Georgetown, Syracuse, Nevada-Las Vegas, UCLA and Kansas.
He wanted to go to Georgia Tech and play with Kenny Anderson, whom he had befriended at the Nike camp in Princeton, New Jersey. He also seriously considered Illinois, Syracuse and UNLV. But UNLV went on NCAA probation.
Finally, he chose Illinois. He liked coach Lou Henson and assistant Jimmy Collins. They had recruited a lot of good players, including Nick Anderson, Marcus Liberty, Kendall Gill and Kenny Battle. Brandon had patterned his game after Anderson. He watched the Flying Illini in 1989 as they advanced to the NCAA's Final Four. "I fell in love with Illinois," he said.
Then Brandon's life began to come unglued. Illinois was on NCAA probation for the Deon Thomas controversy. The program was under a microscope. Brandon's grades were "up to par" for high school but he needed to attend a summer bridge program at Illinois to put his academics in order. However, he wasn't certified for it. And Illinois officials said they didn't want any more trouble from the NCAA.
"Henson and Collins said it was out of their hands," Brandon said. "So Cox contacted other schools. I talked to Ohio State and Dale Brown at LSU. I fell in love with LSU. I was tired of the cold weather in Chicago. I felt I could win an NCAA title with Shaq, Stanley Roberts and Chris Jackson. Brown said I could play my game."
It didn't happen. Roberts flunked out. Jackson declared for the NBA draft. Together, Shaq and Brandon took LSU to the Sweet Sixteen, where they lost to Calbert Cheaney and Indiana. Then Shaq left for the NBA, leaving Brandon all by himself. Mentally, he wasn't prepared for what was to come.
"I didn't come into my own until after Shaq left. I played out of position at point guard with Shaq," he said. "As a junior, I was averaging 17 points per game as a small forward. I never complained. I played my game. I left school after my junior year and went to the NBA draft. My body was ready at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds. But my mind wasn't.
"My body kept telling me I was ready. But my friends and coach Brown said I should have stayed in school for my last year. He said I could have gone high in the first round. An NBA scout said the same thing. But my family had money problems and I was tired of seeing my mother work hard. I wanted to do nice things for her."
Brandon went undrafted. "It was real disappointing. I cried. My mother cried. It was the biggest disappointment of my life," he said.
He went overseas to play in France, Croatia, Finland and Honduras. "I kept dreaming I would get a chance to play in the NBA," he said. He hired an agent, Lamont Smith, who had mostly NFL clients like Jerome Bettis, Willie Roof and Chris Calloway.
"If I had it to do all over again, I would be better in charge of my career," he said. "I would do a lot of things on my own rather than listen to a lot of people who steered my career. I would have stayed at LSU for four years. But I was a young kid. Now I want to give back to kids."