It will forever be one of the iconic images of last year’s NBA championship run — Fred VanVleet on his back, arms outstretched, with his eyes looking up at the Oracle Arena ceiling while blood streamed from a gash under his eye.
It was nothing new to Anthony (Doc) Cornell.
VanVleet played for Cornell’s AAU team Pryme Time in his hometown of Rockford, Ill., and the coach said even as a seventh grader the Toronto Raptors guard had nerves of steel.
There was the tournament, Cornell recalled, where VanVleet reached in for a steal and took a headbutt to the eye.
“His eye literally is swollen shut, he looks like Rocky,” Cornell said. “So the physician at the tournament was like ‘Doc, this boy can’t play, he’s gotta go get stitches.’
“Fred looked at me and said ‘I’m playing.’ The doctor was like ‘Fred, you can’t see.’ Not only does Fred play, he leads us in scoring and assists with one eye in the championship game. People were like, ‘Man, Fred has one eye, and he’s killing y’all,”‘ Cornell said with a loud laugh.
“Those type of moments were always like ‘man, he’s just on a different level.”‘
The undrafted star out of Wichita State was cut under the eye and chipped a front tooth in Game 4 of the Finals against Golden State. His battered face lent another layer to the already rich story when he poured in 22 points, including a huge three-pointer, late in the Raptors’ title-clinching Game 6 win over the Warriors.
The 26-year-old has picked up where he left off last post-season, erupting for 30 points in Monday’s Game 1 win over Brooklyn in the opening round of the playoffs in Florida. VanVleet knocked down eight three-pointers and assisted on another seven.
On one late three-pointer, VanVleet pulled up to leave his defender, skidding by him like a puppy on linoleum.
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VanVleet said he’s been working on shooting from longer distance, sparked by conversations with coach Nick Nurse during last year’s playoffs. The six-foot guard was getting blocked too often, and the Raptors needed him scoring.
“So I started putting it in my game and I’ve just been working on it more and more since then,” VanVleet said Tuesday. “Obviously with the playoffs, it’s a little bit harder to get your shot off, and guys are flying around a little bit more. If you can knock it down from distance, it just makes it that much harder for the defence to run out to you. Sometimes you catch ’em off guard or you just avoid that extra couple inches of hand to contest.”
Cornell’s Pryme Time roster, which VanVleet helped transform into the most successful in Rockford AAU history, was unconventional. Where other AAU teams would load up with four or five bigs, Cornell preferred guards and shooters. They were the smaller team in any game. They usually played up an age group, often against powerhouse teams boasting shoe deals.
Other teams tried to woo him away.
“But he was always loyal, he’d say ‘Why would I leave? I’m the captain of the ship. These are my soldiers. I’m staying with my group,”‘ Cornell said. “As it turned out, he was the type of floor general and leader to help us get past all these bigger, higher-ranked so-called AAU giants.”
‘I told you we wasn’t going home’
Cornell has loads of stories of VanVleet’s heroics from the five years he played for Pryme Time.
There was a memorable Friday night game of a major AAU tournament. Pryme Time, which was short-handed, needed to beat the Wisconsin state champions to get to the bracket round. With about 10 seconds left, one of VanVleet’s teammates tried to set a pick to get him the ball.
“Fred yells ‘give me the damn ball!’ then Fred takes one dribble from outside the three-point line and shoots it right down the middle,” Cornell said. “Nothing beyond net. Walks off and says, ‘I told you we wasn’t going home.”‘
“I think I was 10 times more excited than him, I got on the phone and called his mom, I said ‘Sue, I know people say this all the time about different players, but this boy is going to the league.’ I said ‘You should have seen what he just did.’ He shot it like ice water in his veins, like it was nothing.”‘
VanVleet was the kid who only needed a foot in the door, Cornell said.
“His mindset going to tournaments was his bag was his briefcase, and this was a business trip to get him to where he intended to go in the future,” the coach said.
VanVleet committed to Wichita State ahead of his Grade 12 year, so Shockers coach Gregg Marshall caught most of his final two AAU seasons.
“Pryme Time was this little team out of Rockford, just a bunch of dudes, a ragtag group. But they were beating all of the great shoe-company, elite AAU programs and Fred was just orchestrating the whole thing,” Marshall said. “I’m sitting there going, ‘wow.’ I mean, he’s literally taking this group and winning.”
He did the same thing at Wichita State, taking the Shockers to the Final Four in 2013.
“No matter what the stage, he believes he’s put in the work, and he’s got the mindset and the calmness, and he’s precocious if you will,” Marshall said. “And he just seems to will his team to be . . . the sum is better than the individual parts, right?”
VanVleet was just a freshman when he led the Shockers to an upset of Gonzaga at the 2013 NCAA tournament. With just under two minutes to play, Wichita was up by a couple of points, and VanVleet fumbled the ball toward his team’s bench. He managed to retrieve it but not in time to fully turn to face the net.
“He didn’t hesitate, he just shot it, and as a freshman, to take a shot like that,” the coach marvelled. “And as it was going through the net, he just looked at me like, ‘Oh, that was good the whole way’ and gave me this little shrug.
“It reminded me so much of some shots that he hit in the clinching game for the title last year.”
Big payday awaits in free agency
VanVleet, who’s earning just over $9 million US this season, will be a hot commodity in free agency come October, and re-signing him should be a top priority for Toronto.
Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara believes there’s no putting a pricetag on VanVleet’s efforts off the court as well, and the guard’s commitment to his hometown.
“Kind of weird to say about someone with such star power as Fred, but he’s a better person off the court than he is a basketball player on the court,” said the 37-year-old McNamara, whose dad John was Rockford’s mayor in the ’80s.
The city of 150,000 is infamous for being listed among America’s most dangerous cities in past years, with a violent crime rate ranking worse than nearby Chicago.
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VanVleet’s roots there still run deep. He sells his ‘Bet on Yourself’ sportswear line out of his downtown shop. The city held viewing parties — “our own mini-Jurassic Parks,” said McNamara — during last year’s Raptors playoff run. He was presented with a key to the city. McNamara joked the city’s nickname would forever be “Fredford.”
“He’s made a lifelong Bulls fan into a Raptors fan,” McNamara said.
VanVleet organizes annual backpack giveaways for Rockford kids. He posted a message to Rockfordians at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic urging them to stay safe. When McNamara implemented the Mayor’s Office on Domestic Violence and Human Trafficking Prevention, he reached out to VanVleet for support.
VanVleet’s father — also named Fred — was shot to death in 1999 in what’s been reported as a drug deal that went bad. VanVleet was five at the time, and was raised by his mom Sue and stepfather Joe Danforth, a police officer who introduced him to basketball at a young age to steer him away from trouble.
Kids in Rockford look up to VanVleet, McNamara said, but the appreciation goes beyond what he’s able to do on the court.
“It’s different with Fred, it’s different because he is just such a class act. He is quietly, steadily showing how to just be a good human, not just an exceptional basketball player but someone who cares, and doesn’t forget about where he came from,” he said.
His story of perseverance, McNamara said, mirrors so many people of Rockford.
“He’s kind of the model of what we would call ‘the Rockford grit and toughness,”‘ said the mayor. “A lot of wonderful people just working exceptionally hard to excel.”