‘Basketball is what I know, so it’s the way that I am going to provide an outlet to the kids.’
By Jim Hagerty
ROCKFORD — It was life in a larger city for Fred VanVleet when basketball took him from Rockford to Wichita, Kansas back in 2012.
When he pulled into Toronto four years later to suit up for the Raptors, VanVleet knew he wasn’t in Kansas, or Rockford, or something like that, anymore.
With a population of 382,000, Wichita is twice the size of Rockford proper, but it’s no Chicago – or Toronto. But Fred was in town to play Division I basketball, which meant he’d see a lot of the country in his four years with the Shockers. On the other hand, he was like most young people away from the sanctum of familiarity for the first time.
As it played out, VanVleet is not most young people. He’s among the .03 percent of high school players who make it to the NBA.
So, basketball did, in fact, take him far from the NIC-10, where he earned All-State honors and led Auburn to a third-place finish in one of the most storied state high school tournaments in the nation.
Exactly a year later, VanVleet was the hot-handed freshman the big stage hadn’t heard of until Wichita State raced through the brackets to its first Final Four in 48 years. It was clear. He made it out. But that’s not to say he escaped. He dreamed of playing at the next level, and the level after that, since he took his first shot, which meant leaving if he truly wanted to make it.
Armed with what he learned at home and the gyms and classrooms of RPS 205, Fred VanVleet was ready to face the next challenge.
“Once you go somewhere else, it’s like a breath of fresh air to expand what you think you know,” VanVleet said.
VanVleet led Wichita State to a 31-0 regular season record his sophomore year, was the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year twice, earned AP All-America honorable mention three times and finished as the school’s career assists leader.
Although he went undrafted, it wasn’t because nobody wanted him. He passed up draft offers but the interested teams proposed sending him to the D-League for $26,000 per year with no clear path to the NBA.
Instead, he opted to test the free agent market to showcase his talent in the NBA Summer League. It turned out to be the right decision. VanVleet signed with Toronto a day after the draft, had a strong summer showing, inked a multi-year deal with the club and became the first Rockford product to make an NBA opening-night roster.
VanVleet’s basketball camp comes to downtown’s UW Health Sports Factory next month. Photos, RACVB
So, what’s it like coming back with his rookie season under his belt? Since he has always been someone who’s given back, he is somewhat used to it. Even while playing for Bryan Ott at Auburn, he’d make time to mentor young players. However, his upcoming FVV Summer Camp & Fan Fest is his first major event since becoming the Rockford Area Convention & Visitor Bureau’s first official sports ambassador. And with that distinction, this one is special, and there will surely be more. As he becomes more of a fixture in Toronto, there will be chances to get involved there. But it is Rockford he can’t seem to shake.
Although the city is on the rise, it has seen its share of troubles since VanVleet left for Wichita. Rockford averaged 20 homicides per year during his collegiate career and even more armed robberies and home invasions. When he left, there were only nine killings.
Sadly, VanVleet is no stranger to any of that. When he was 5, his father was gunned down in a botched drug deal. Yet it doesn’t change how he looks at the city. It’s not that he doesn’t notice the blight. He does. Overgrown parking lots of a silenced industrial din still mark familiar brownfields, but when VanVleet drives through town he thinks of more than that.
It’s even more than basketball at times. Rockford is one thing for him: home. What he took from here allowed him to put things in perspective at Wichita State and soak up life in Canada’s largest city without forgetting about anything along the way.
“Rockford’s got that small-town vibe to it, so being in the city with skyscrapers, traffic and millions of people, I enjoyed it,” he said. “There’s just something about this place. Rockford has a lot of people who can do great things.”
And if he can have a say in what those things will be for the next generation, VanVleet is all in.
“I am in the position where I have these opportunities to put something together. The (UW Health Sports Factory) wasn’t here last year, so we now have these outlets right here in our hometown and it’s great. I can’t stress enough how proud I am about what we are going to do.”
While his camp is about basketball, VanVleet’s message is multi-pronged. He knows the amount of work it takes to get where the game has taken him and that it is the same work ethic that got him through early morning workouts with his brothers and stepfather growing up. It’s the same mindset required in every area of life.
“Basketball is what I know, so it’s the way that I am going to provide an outlet to the kids. It’s about opportunity. We have to create opportunities. I am here and I am a basketball player, so I hope I can help them in that way.”
The FVV Summer Camp kicks off Friday, June 23, with Fan Fest, followed by two days of basketball for kids K-12. Both events are at the UW Health Sports Factory, 305 S. Madison St., downtown. Registration and information is available HERE. R.