UPDATE on May 24, 2019: Someday Fred VanVleet will have a great story to tell his newborn son about the week he was born. The Toronto Raptors guard was in the midst of round three of the NBA playoffs when his girlfriend, Shontai Neal, went into labour earlier than expected. Fred Jr was born on May 20, 2019. In the days afterwards VanVleet shuttled between Rockford, Illinois where his family is staying and NBA playoff games in Toronto and Milwaukee. Functioning on very little sleep he managed to have two of the biggest games of his career, even setting a team playoff record hitting seven three point shots when coming off the bench in game 5 of the series.
ROCKFORD, Illinois -- Stepping off the team bus in the bowels of the United Centre in Chicago, November 17, 2018 was just another road game for the Toronto Raptors, but for Fred VanVleet it was the crowning achievement of his professional life.
On this night, the small point guard was named a starter for the first time in his basketball career.
“This is as close as I will get and a special place to play. It means a lot to play in the United Centre as an Illinois kid,” he said.
One by one, getting their tickets scanned, Fred’s family and friends began filling up over 300 seats in the arena. They also all recognized what this night meant to the 24-year-old.
They didn’t have to travel very far, the United Centre is just over an hour down highway I-90 from Rockford, Illinois, Fred’s hometown.
For decades, Rockford made national headlines -- rampant unemployment, gang violence and murders became commonplace. When Fred was just five-years-old, his father became another statistic. Fred Manning was a troubled but talented basketball player. One night during a drug deal in an inner city apartment, he was shot to death.
“I went to the basement, and you know, my mom, and grandparents, and brother, everybody's down there crying. And I just, I didn't understand, I was trying to understand why, and then they told me, you know, that my dad was never coming back,” said Fred.
Eventually, his mother Sue met and start dating Joe Danforth -- a local Rockford police officer and single father of two. As he did in his job, Joe brought the strong arm of the law to Fred’s life, which included 4 a.m. wakeup calls to bring him and his brothers down to a nearby parkade to run stairs, or to the local YMCA to play hours of basketball.
Tough love to keep them off the streets.
“I hated him. I hated him from the day I met him, um, you know, for a very long time. It was bed checks and making sure your room was clean, and doing dishes, and vacuuming. It was almost going to boot camp you know, like overnight,” said Fred.
Hate it or not, all of those mornings left a lasting impression -- Fred’s work ethic became his biggest asset. In grade 9, Fred did something rarely done, he walked on to his high school basketball team, earned a starting position and began smashing every city record on the books.
“I mean, his scoring is ... [He's] the all-time leading scorer in Rockford Public School history. So not just Auburn High School but there's four public high schools here in town,” said his former high school coach, Brian Ott.
But for every success, Fred faced even greater adversity. He was passed over by every university in his state. Then, after an amazingly successful four years at Wichita State University, where in 2013 he led them to a perfect 35-0 season, Fred was passed over again by every NBA team in the 2016 draft.
“I always took it personally, and it's probably the way that I still am to this day, I just have a chip on my shoulder. But still the self-doubt comes in, because you're doing everything right, you're winning," said Fred.
But there was one offer from the Toronto Raptors -- a place on their minor league team where there were no guarantees he would ever get to play in the big leagues.
Just as he had time and time again, Fred buckled down and tapped into that work ethic instilled in him at a young age. In 2017, Fred led the Raptors 905 team to its first Development League Championship.
Almost immediately, the big club took notice, calling him up to join them on a permanent basis. Eventually, the Raptors recognized just how valuable Fred was, and offered him a two year contract for $18 million.
Skip ahead to November 17, 2018 and Fred’s first start for the Raptors against the Chicago Bulls. In front of his family and friends who have been with him all along, Fred did what he had done at every level of his sport -- he dominated. Fred led all players on the court with 18 points and helped his team beat the Bulls, 122-83.
After the game, Fred celebrated with his supporters. And while he downplayed his efforts, it was clear the Raptors head coach, Nick Nurse, finally saw what they had in Fred.
“He has been unnoticed and the underdog for a very long time," said Nurse. "He's not so big, he's not so fast, but he can play, man. He has a winning spirit, a winning attitude, his work ethic, his IQ. Those things are contagious and really help our team."
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