BET ON YOURSELF: Fred VanVleet’s Journey to a Championship

by February 06, 2020
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It’s all in the details. There’s a big-ass Raptors logo on the back of this satin bomber jacket, one that reads, “The Best in the World, 2019 Champions.” An OVO Owl sits on the left breast pocket, while another Raptors logo is stitched on the right arm, trailed by the entire roster from last year’s squad. Then, on the left arm, the Canadian and American flags sandwich four words: “Steady Freddy, AKA ‘Twin.’”

The jackets were gifted to Fred VanVleet and his teammates from Drake after they took down the Bucks, Sixers and Warriors last season. And whether Drake calls him “Twin,” “Steady Freddy” or “Champ,” the respect is there. VanVleet has earned the love of Drizzy and every other Raptors fan in the world. Because his game is in the details. 

A clutch three. A body-to-body layup. A pick-and-roll pocket dime. An extra swing pass. A perfect ball-denial defensive possession. 

That’s where Fred VanVleet makes his money, doing the things that show up on the highlight reels and everything else that doesn’t. It might look like the 25-year-old came out of nowhere to become a key hitter for the reigning champions, but his devotion to play the game isn’t anything new. This is a 20-year journey.  

“I hoop just for the love, man,” VanVleet tells SLAM. “I’ve had a desire to play basketball since I can remember.”

VanVleet’s life kicked into high-gear when he was only 5 years old. His father was murdered that year, which was also when he remembers starting to fall in love with hoops. He only ever wanted to be outside with his older brother, Darnell, getting shots up. He details how much of his childhood in Rockford, IL was spent facing difficult circumstances, and how even when he and his brother were young, they’d see things that kids shouldn’t ever have to see. 

We’re with VanVleet at a hotel just outside of Toronto on a bitterly cold day in January. The sky is grey, white snow flurries dot the air and the wind bites with every new breeze that rolls through. The champ’s words about his hometown come slowly, pointedly, ringing with weight all these years and miles and memories later. Rockford, for all of the hardships, is home for him. And home, through all of the pain, is home because it’s where his dreams started. 

He once posted on his Instagram about how he wanted to make the people in Rockford proud. Nearly seven years have gone by since then. 

“I hope so,” VanVleet says when asked if he thinks his hometown is proud of him. “The biggest thing for me was not about what I did or how much I accomplished—it was the fact that I rep my city no matter where I go. And everybody who knows me knows where I’m from and what I mean to that community.

“In Rockford, basketball is huge,” he continues. “It’s one of the only outlets people feel like they have, especially when I was growing up. It was basketball and football. Obviously I made the choice to play basketball and that was my outlet to get to college and ultimately get to the pros. It’s that outlet for kids that don’t really have much. It’s a safe haven and it’s a safe place where people can come together.”

The game helped FVV to bond with his stepfather and his two new stepbrothers while he was growing up. They would constantly go through drills, working on ballhandling, stamina and strength. He was an extremely expressive kid. He couldn’t handle losses. He couldn’t stand playing poorly. He used basketball to channel everything that he was feeling and thinking between fifth, sixth and seventh grade.

“It’s funny because now people always see me as this super-calm person, but when I was real young playing, I used to cry a lot,” he says with a grin. “If we lost or if things weren’t going my way, I would get so mad that I would end up crying. I eventually got over that as I got older. From a young age, I always played up. I played up with my older brothers and I had to sit on the bench and watch. I didn’t get to play and I felt like I was good enough. That was, like, fifth, sixth and seventh grade, dealing with that.”

VanVleet was just wearing his real, valid, legitimate NBA championship ring. It’s so heavy that it gave him a blister after having it on for only 10 minutes. You need some damn sunglasses to even look at it. But when he thinks back to playing ball as a kid, he still can’t shake one loss, even with that rock on his finger. 

“One I remember real well was I had just started playing with a new team and we went to a summer tournament in Notre Dame or something,” he says. “We were playing in the auxiliary gym. We was getting smacked. I remember I started crying in the game. They took me out and I went to the bathroom in the middle of the game. They had to come get me out and calm me down. That’s one thing that sticks out in my mind. Any time we was losing, I was hot.” 

But the years have changed VanVleet. He went through a few more adjustments during his high school and college careers. He wouldn’t show any type of emotion during his freshman and sophomore seasons at Auburn High School. He could have 30 and his face would look like he hadn’t scored at all. That switched up when his stepfather encouraged him to vocally and passionately lead his teammates. The new, outwardly impassioned VanVleet then went to Wichita State, where he could routinely be seen pumping his fists and screaming after hitting huge shots. 

VanVleet’s four seasons with the Raptors have been defined by a serene and tranquil approach, the end result of all the moments from growing up in Rockford, becoming a star at Auburn High and hooping with the Shockers added up. It’s an unshakeable confidence, one realized through those hours. Fans, opponents and teammates know him for his toughness, both mind and body. 

VanVleet knows his family members for their toughness. He mentions his mother and his grandmother, praising them for all they made it through. His stepfather, a member of the Rockford PD, also gets a shout out. His friends, he says, for staying steadfast even when the neighborhood tried to take them down. The ballplayers who came from his city before him for laying the foundation. Those are the people he thinks of when he thinks of toughness. 

“For me, I think mental toughness came with how I grew up,” he says. “Losing my father at an early age sped up my maturity process. It made me grow up fast. I’ve seen a lot growing up. And those things give you great perspective on life. Whether it’s what you went through, your friends or your family members, where I come from, we’ve all seen a lot of things that kids shouldn’t see. So when I go play a game, it’s always a game. And nothing that can happen within that game amounts to any of the real stuff that goes on in people’s lives.”

Now the big picture comes in clearer. His single-minded focus in last season’s Finals makes more sense. His ability to play through chipped teeth and stitches can be traced back to his days running around Rockford. His rise from undrafted rookie has been certified. 

He bet on himself and he came up with a royal flush. 

AND1 took notice. They’ve partnered with the champ to help him take his FVV clothing line to the next level. And in return, he’s been playing in the Attack 2.0, AND1’s newest basketball silhouette. There’s a signature sneaker in the works, though VanVleet says with a smile that he can’t “speak on too many things that go on behind closed doors.”

“You think about the history of where it started and how it started,” VanVleet says about AND1. “If you really know the history behind it, then you have a different level of respect for it.”

That’s just like his own story. It’s all in the details. 

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Max Resetar is an Associate Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Portraits by Charlie Lindsay.