WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Fred VanVleet walks into the training room deep within Koch Arena. He gently pulls off his shirt to reveal a cut-up elbow, a bruised shoulder, a nasty gash on the palm of his hand.
He has just led No. 11 Wichita State to a victory over previously unbeaten Seton Hall, and he’s certainly worse for the wear. The blood keeps oozing, even as one of the trainers slaps a fresh piece of gauze on the point guard every couple of minutes.
“It could be worse,” VanVleet says with a shrug.
VanVleet is one of the rare success stories to come out of Rockford, Illinois, an old rust-belt city west of Chicago. His father was shot and killed in a botched drug deal when he was 5 years old. Yet guided by a headstrong mother and police officer stepfather, VanVleet blossomed into one of college basketball’s best players.
He helped the Shockers on a magical run to the Final Four as a freshman. He led them to a perfect regular season as a sophomore. Now a junior, he’s a first-team preseason All-American.
“I’ve always been a guy that doesn’t like to mess up a whole lot,” VanVleet told the Associated Press. “I like to watch other people mess up, so I can learn. I watch how bad they look and I’m like, ‘I never want to do that.'”
Those lessons lurked around every corner growing up.
Rockford was once a bustling city known for its manufacturing. But just as in other cities stretching from Ohio to Illinois, the factories began to shut down in the 1970s and ’80s, and every day more people were put out of work. Desperation all too often leads to drugs and violence.
There were days when VanVleet would walk home from school and see the Latin Kings on one corner, the Vice Lords on another. He would see kids he went to school with suddenly hanging out with the gangs, wearing their colors.
“It’s very easy, because especially here on the west side of town, that’s all around you,” said Bryan Orr, the varsity basketball coach at Rockford’s Auburn High School.
“It’s easy to follow that if that’s what you want to do,” he explained. “It’s very possible to choose an unfortunate path. The illegal economy is certainly there for anybody interested.”
Even now, VanVleet can recall childhood friends who are in prison or worse.
“Those are obviously people I still love and always have loved,” he said, “but you get to choose who you associated yourself with. And a lot of those things they were doing weren’t good for me to be around. My closest friends weren’t into those things, but people I went to school with since the sixth grade are in the drug game, in prison, even dead.
“People in my class should have graduated with me and they didn’t make it that far.”
VanVleet never showed much interest in the unsavory life, though. And while it would be easy for him to take the credit for it, he passes it all off on his family.
Susan VanVleet worked tireless hours to keep her kids safe. When she met Joe Danforth, a Rockford police officer, she suddenly had an ally in her cause. Together, they made sure VanVleet and brothers Darnell, J.D. and Tre and sisters Alexis and Aaliyah would have a future.
Not that it was an easy upbringing.
“We weren’t rich,” Fred VanVleet said, “but comparatively speaking to my friends, we were probably looked up to. We were in debt but they were filing for bankruptcy.”
Danforth, who also coaches the Auburn junior varsity, brought a military approach to the family. He would rouse his boys from bed long before the sun came up, putting them through drills that would help three of them go on to play some form of college hoops.
“You had a totally different guy, a policeman, very regimented, very structured and very tough, and Fred will tell you, he didn’t like it,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said, “but he dealt with it. He persevered through it. Hell, it’s a blessing now.”
VanVleet wasn’t highly recruited. Scouts said he was too small, or too slow. So he settled on Wichita State, a program that was already on the upswing but had not come close to reaching its current level.
That took VanVleet running the point.
Showcasing maturity beyond his years, he quickly became a reliable backup, and then moved into the starting lineup. With flawless decision-making, a reliable jump shot and gritty defense honed on the playgrounds and gyms of Rockford, he became the glue holding Wichita State together.
The Shockers advanced to the Final Four his first year and had eventual champion Louisville on the ropes before falling 72-68. Then last year, after a 35-0 regular season, the No. 1-seeded Shockers gave eventual national runner-up Kentucky all it could handle in a 78-76 loss.
“He makes everything look easy,” teammate Ron Baker marveled one day. “You aren’t paying any attention and then you look up and he has 18 points and eight assists.”
That was VanVleet’s stat line in that victory over Seton Hall this month.
Once he finally got patched up in the training room that night, and pulled his shirt back on, he walked into a quiet corridor. The crowd had long since disappeared, their roar evaporated into the cold December night. VanVleet tugged a backpack over his shoulder and headed for the doors.
He hesitated for just a moment, then turned and spoke.
“You know,” he said, “you have your naive dreams and expectations of how great you are, but I mean, I don’t think things could be much better. Besides winning a national championship.
“And hey,” VanVleet added with a smile, “we’re still working on it.”
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