Long before Rockford’s NBA champion, Fred VanVleet, adopted "Bet on Yourself" as a slogan, he reveled in taking down more highly hyped players and teams.
VanVleet did that regularly during his high school summers, leading a Pryme Tyme team that became the most successful Rockford AAU basketball team in history. That’s why Dana Ford, who recruited VanVleet to Wichita State, said the Shockers offered him a scholarship before ever seeing him play.
"We would prefer a guy like Fred, who is not on a shoe company team, but beats the shoe company teams. That’s a real player," Ford said Sunday on a Facebook Live segment with former Pryme Tyme coach Anthony "Doc" Cornell. Ford is now head coach at Missouri State.
"Once we saw him play, I knew he was going to be one of the best players who ever played for (Wichita State coach Gregg) Marshall," Ford said. "He was the No. 1 point guard in the country that summer (before his senior year). He played against all the best point guards and he outplayed everyone."
VanVleet spent five summers as the point guard for Cornell’s Pryme Tyme teams, starting in seventh grade. He joined Ford for Cornell’s most recent Facebook Live event about Rockford sports. The result was a long, intimate look at the basketball upbringing of the former Auburn High School and current Toronto Raptors star.
VanVleet first got on the radar of college coaches in ninth grade, when he starred in a national tournament he originally didn’t want to attend.
"Once I get on the court, everything else is out the window," VanVleet said. "I don’t care who I am playing against, how many rings you’ve got, what shoes you’ve got. They never should have let me in here. I’m about to go crazy. I didn’t want to be here, but now that you let me in, I’m going to show you that none of you all are any good.
"Once I saw the politics, I tried to prove myself and knock guys off the radar. I’d look at the rankings, know which guy was which, and every guard there I was going to go at them from the jump."
After a huge AAU season as a junior, VanVleet had many college offers. "I am swimming with the sharks," Ford said of the time when he tried to make sure VanVleet wouldn’t change his mind and switch to a bigger school. But VanVleet remained committed to Wichita State, where he went to the Final Four as a freshman, was a two-time Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year and went to four NCAA tournaments. In his sophomore season, the Shockers started an NCAA-record 35-0.
VanVleet didn’t take the biggest offer, but he took what was the best offer for him — just as he did when he elected to play for Pryme Tyme rather than with a Chicago all-star team each summer.
"I needed to be seen," VanVleet said. "The best way to be seen is to have opportunity."
He said he was better off playing with "my guys" in Rockford on teams that were good enough to reach the final four of national tournaments than he would have been "being third fiddle on a team just because they want to give me a free pair of shoes."
The same thinking went into his college choice.
"A lot of kids are picking their schools wrong," VanVleet said. "Go where you are going to play, where you want to go, where the school wants you. Don’t worry about what color the uniforms are or where the city is or what conference the school is in. Those things don’t matter. You’ve got to go where you’ve got an opportunity to play and win."
VanVleet expected to start immediately at Wichita State, but soon learned "my offense wasn’t quite ready at the time to play big, big minutes."
But he was Wichita State’s seventh man by the end of the season, and one of those early NCAA games on national TV stoked his burning desire to get better.
"I didn’t play well in one game early on and I couldn’t sleep that night," VanVleet said. "I decided the next time I am going to come out firing. I’m never going to have another regret. Let it fly. And it worked. I started playing with a lot more confidence. I fell in love with getting better and working myself into that spotlight."
He said he wanted to turn pro after his sophomore year, but couldn’t after the No. 1-ranked Shockers were edged in the second round of the NCAA tournament by Kentucky, which would reach the title game. VanVleet missed a potential game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer.
"I wanted to leave for sure. We went 35-0 and agents started coming around," VanVleet said. "But when you are in college, they make it sound like leaving for the NBA is a bad thing. They give you all these scenarios why it won’t work. And that last game against Kentucky, I didn’t play very well. I didn’t score well and I missed the game winner. I can’t end my career like that."
He also stayed after his junior year when he was projected as a second-round draft pick. He said he improved his senior year, but his draft stock didn’t; NBA teams project a bigger upside for younger players. He learned the day before the draft that a couple of teams wanted to pick him, but not until lower in the second round — and that those teams wanted him to play in Europe for a year or in the G League.
VanVleet wanted no part of any team that wouldn’t even give him a chance to make its roster, so those teams took a pass on him.
"I really, really, really wanted to get drafted. Who didn’t?" said VanVleet, who had invited journalists and friends to a draft party downtown but never heard his name called. "And then I threw that dumb-ass party. I am sitting there, knowing I am probably not going to get picked, but I can’t display that to everyone in the building. They don’t know nothing about the business. They are sitting there, thinking, ‘Fred’s better than him. Fred’s better than him. Fred’s better than him. How come he’s not getting picked?’
"And after 50 (midway through the second round), I am saying, ‘Please don’t pick me. Please don’t pick me.’ "
VanVleet, who led Auburn to a third-place finish at state his senior year, signed with the point guard-heavy Toronto Raptors and spent his rookie year shuttling between Toronto and its G League team, which won a championship. In his second year he was a finalist for Sixth Man of the Year. He won an NBA title with the Raptors in his third year. This season he was averaging 17.6 points, 6.6 assists and 1.9 steals for the Raptors, who had the second-best record in the Eastern Conference, when the season was halted by COVID-19.
VanVleet scored in the first seconds of his first NBA preseason game, going in for a left-handed layup while being guarded by reigning MVP Steph Curry.
"I must have watched that clip 100 times that night," VanVleet said.
In last year’s Game 6 title-clinching win over Golden State, VanVleet made five 3-pointers, scored 22 points and played tight defense on Curry.
"I was just trying to make it tough on him," VanVleet said. "It’s easy when you know this guy scores 30; just make him score 29 and that’s good defense.
"I was in such a crazy zone," VanVleet said of his own hot shooting. "All I was doing was catch-and-shoots and pick-and-rolls. I do that in my sleep."
He also said guarding the NBA’s best shooter made him more aggressive himself.
"I’m chasing him around; I figured let me make him work, too. I’m not doing all this defense for nothing. I’m about to get some buckets, too."
Matt Trowbridge: firstname.lastname@example.org; @matttrowbridge