From Rough Upbringing to NBA Finals Scar, Raptors’ Fred VanVleet Turns Pain into Triumph
LOS ANGELES -- Before they knocked out the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors in this year's NBA Finals, the Toronto Raptors were on the ropes. They were down 0-2 in the Eastern Conference finals to Giannis Antetokounmpo, the eventual MVP, and the Milwaukee Bucks. And Fred VanVleet, Toronto's plucky sixth man, was stuck in a shooting rut.
The day after a 22-point Game 2 loss at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, the Raptors gathered for what turned out to be a somber film session. In an attempt to lift his teammates’ spirits, Serge Ibaka stood up to share a story about how, in 2012, he and the Oklahoma City Thunder won four straight games to beat the San Antonio Spurs—with whom fellow Raptors Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green were both playing—in the Western Conference finals.
“[Serge] is, like, 'Yeah, we beat they ass! We beat Danny and Kawhi! They couldn't do nothing!’” Fred recalls to CloseUp360 on an August afternoon at the W hotel in West Beverly Hills.
“It kind of lightened the mood for everybody,” he adds. “We refocused and recharged, and really took what he was saying to heart. Then, we went out there and turned it around. We just got hot and we started playing the best basketball that we played.”
Serge's speech may have sparked something in the Raptors—they went on to hand the Bucks their first and only four-game losing streak of the 2018-19 NBA season en route to the Finals—but it didn't do much to end Fred's slump, at least not right away. He shot 1-of-11 from the field (including 1-of-8 from three) during Toronto's double-overtime win in Game 3 against Milwaukee.
But Fred found the mark after that. Over the Raptors' final nine games of the playoffs, he shot 51.1 percent from the field (52.6 percent from three) and emerged as a vital contributor to the first championship in the franchise's 24-year history.
Fred doesn't quite credit Serge for making his shots go in. Nor does he, as some in the media did, tie his turnaround to the birth of his second child (and first son), Fred Jr., on May 20, the night before Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Instead, for Fred, the solution to his struggles was already within him. He had bet on himself.
“Of course I expected it,” he says. “I always tell people, I feel like it's been there the whole time. It's always been there. I just took it in stride. The real ones know.
“To finally be in that position, on the biggest stage, against the best team in the league for the last five years now, that role just kind of presented itself to [me] to go guard Steph [Curry], and to be out there to make big plays and make shots. I just seized [the opportunity] and tried to be super aggressive, and it grew into its own thing where I was one of the focal points for our team.”
Fred VanVleet's turnaround during the Eastern Conference finals helped to propel the Raptors to their first NBA title. (David Chisholm)
Fred found basketball as a five-year-old in the form of a volleyball that he would use to practice dribbling on the gravel driveway in front of his family's home in Rockford, Illinois. There, he developed a deep love for the game to go with his innate sense of self-confidence.
“I just remember the first time I learned how to go between my legs and figure out how to dribble,” he says. “I just got really excited, then the love of it just kind of kept building from there.”
While many kids in his impoverished community fell into gang life and crime, he kept basketball as a priority. When his father, Fred Manning, was shot and killed in 1999, Fred quickly learned to always lock the doors and not to stray too far into certain neighborhoods. Growing up in a “tough environment,” he knew nothing else.
“You learn to become numb to it as a youth,” he says.
At seven years old, Fred got his first taste of NBA basketball when he started following the Los Angeles Lakers. By that time, in the early 2000s, Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls—who played at the United Center, less than two hours from Rockford—had long since disbanded, leaving a power vacuum atop the league that the San Antonio Spurs filled briefly before Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal led the Lakers to a three-peat of their own.
Rather than trek to the city to catch the “Baby Bulls” in their infancy, Fred more often found himself going over to friends’ houses to watch the Lakers play. While glued to the TV during the 2001 NBA Finals between LA and the Philadelphia 76ers, he became a massive Kobe fan.
“I remember just being in awe of Shaq and Kobe,” he says. “Kobe was my favorite player from then on. I became a fan of the game and from that day, I just always wanted to play in the NBA, win a championship and be one of those great players.”
In a place like Rockford, where examples of greatness are few and far between, the Lakers’ dynamic duo gave Fred something to shoot for. More often than not, he noticed how for kids in his hometown with hoop dreams, their talent simply wasn’t enough to reach the grandest stages.
“For me, it was more so just trying to avoid that—not being another story or a statistic,” he says. “I really took that to heart, to try to be the one who made it all the way through—not just a high school or to college, but to make it to the NBA.”
By the time he was 11, Fred knew he could pursue a career in basketball. Playing against three older brothers—his biological one (Darnell) and his step ones (J.D. and Tre)—helped to accelerate his game. So did the discipline instilled by his stepfather, a local police officer named Joe Danforth.
Early-morning workouts at the YMCA. Full-court one-on-one against J.D. Sacrifices made by Joe and Fred’s mother, Susan. All of it helped to mold Fred into an on-court problem among his peers.
“It was unfair when I played with kids my age,” he says, “so I started to see, like, 'Okay, I'm pretty good. I'm way better than this guy and we're the same age. I'm damn near as good as the guys that play with my brother.'”
Through his years at Auburn High School and on his stepdad’s AAU team, Rockford Five-O, Fred made major strides towards a career in basketball. He caught the attention of and committed to Wichita State early on and stuck with the Shockers when bigger-name programs came calling.
As a backup point guard during his freshman year, Fred helped Wichita State reach the Final Four of the 2013 NCAA tournament for the first time since 1965. Over his final three years in Kansas, he was named an honorable mention All-American three times and the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year twice.
Basketball came naturally to Fred in college. The culture in Kansas, though, did not. With roots in a rough neighborhood, he realized how different life could be in other parts of the country as he encountered the people and community of Wichita.
One night, in particular, stands out in Fred's mind. He was at a bar with some friends when a fight broke out. In a matter of minutes, the local police showed up, broke up the fight and restored peace to the bar—much to Fred's surprise.
“It was the craziest thing to me,” he says. “You see something like that back at home and somebody's gonna get shot. You start running when you see commotion. It was just a different way of life, in a good way.”
Fred started to see how real his NBA dreams could be during his sophomore season at Wichita State. He assumed a starting role and led the Shockers in assists (5.4 per game) en route to a 35-0 regular season. As agents and scouts began to approach him, he felt one step closer to achieving his goal.
“It was really refreshing to go down there and kind of become who I am as a man on my own, away from my family,” he says.
Draft night, though, was a different story. Between his successful four-year run at Wichita State, his 18 pre-draft workouts with NBA teams and his own self-confidence, Fred had every reason to believe he'd be selected—and that the family and friends who came to his draft party would have reason to celebrate.
But as the 2016 draft proceeded and pick after pick passed without his name being called, Fred realized he wouldn't be chosen. The gravity of the situation set in over a phone conversation with his agent at the time, Christian Dawkins.
Still, Fred didn't let his circumstances bring him down.
“[Christian was], like, 'I know you know that you're gonna make a team, so just bet on yourself,'” he says. “And when he said it, [it] was like a movie. I just kept repeating it in my head.”
Bet on yourself. Bet on yourself.
The phrase personified Fred’s entire mentality and everything he worked for since he was just a kid dribbling an old volleyball on a gravel driveway.
He grew up admiring rappers-turned-business tycoons like Jay Z, Drake and Nipsey Hussle, as much for their music as their drive for success. After signing with Toronto as an undrafted free agent in 2016 (after playing for their Summer League team), he worked his way up from the G League to earn a roster spot with the Raptors during his rookie season.
Once he reached the NBA, Fred found the inspiration he needed to turn his personal mantra into a fashion brand.
“I remember seeing Kyle [Lowry] walk on a plane wearing something with his own logo on an adidas jacket,” he says. “I'm, like, 'Damn, that looks cool. I want my own.'"
During those long flights with the Raptors, halfway through his rookie season, Fred began doodling logo ideas in a sketchbook for his soon-to-be brand. Within two weeks, with the help of a graphic designer, the FVV logo was born.
Fred then took the designs to Rockford Art Deli, a t-shirt printing company in his hometown, to produce the first 15 tees. From there, the FVV line took off. Once that first batch sold out, he ordered a few hundred more. He sold them out of the back of his friends’ and family’s cars, in city markets and even via Facebook posts.
Thanks to that support for his grassroots clothing business, Fred was able to launch an e-commerce business as well as a brick-and-mortar store in Rockford last year.
“To open up a store as 23-, 24-year-old black kids and to own your own stuff,” he says, “it was amazing.”
Through FVV, Fred has not only manifested his life’s mantra, but also provided employment for people in Rockford, including his own cousin, Airmis Clark.
“He was working like 80 hours a week, not bringing home any money,” Fred says. “So I said, ‘Man, just quit.’ He didn't know I was working on getting the store. I just kept asking him, ‘Would you want to run a store?’ And he's, like, 'Yeah, of course.’”
After researching commercial real estate in downtown Rockford, Fred found the perfect location on East State Street to open the FVV Shop, where he would give Airmis a managing position.
Today, some of his line’s best-selling items are inscribed with his “Bet On Yourself” mantra. With the brand’s success thus far, Fred plans to evolve FVV even further with newer, original designs for t-shirts, as well as premium quality tracksuits and polo shirts.
It’s been two months since the Raptors ousted the Warriors from the Finals in six games. Fred sits in his hotel on a warm summer afternoon in Los Angeles, relaxing after a team workout at UCLA as part of a Raptors' mini-camp. Soon, he’ll be back on the court, surrounded by some of Toronto’s younger players at Rico Hines’ famed runs. For now, he’s keeping company with a few water bottles, workout clothes, sneakers and an Xbox.
The essentials. No frills. Fred is here to work.
With all of that room for clarity, the memory of that run is still fresh in his mind. So is the shiner on his face, just below his right eye.
The latter came in Game 4 of the Finals, courtesy of a vicious elbow to the face from Warriors guard Shaun Livingston. Fred hadn’t worn a mouth guard—nor had he ever, really—but as he laid on his back underneath the basket, all the while feeling pieces of broken teeth sloshing around in his mouth—he regretted not taking that precaution.
“That's just the worst feeling in the world,” he says, “'cause you know you should be wearing a mouth guard.”
A tear of blood streamed down his cheek. Chips from his broken teeth sat on the court and on his tongue. But all Fred could think about was getting back into the game.
He laughs now, but at the time? After the game, when he saw how mangled his front teeth were, he became so frustrated that he threw a chair clear across the Raptors’ locker room.
He suffered through stitches, a root canal, a crown to replace one of his front teeth and weeks of pain—even after Toronto had taken home the Larry O’Brien Trophy. To Fred, it was all worth it.
“It takes me back to that moment, which, unfortunately, hurt pretty bad,” he says. “But at the end of the day, it's a battle scar and something that you can really take with you. Luckily, we won and it means something now.”
The lines of the suture are still visible under his eye, but Fred doesn't mind the scar. Though he’s received countless unsolicited suggestions of cocoa butter and aloe vera remedies for it, he now accepts the mark as part of his persona.
“Now, every time I look at it, it reminds me of the championship,” he says.
Fred takes pride in the bruise under his eye from the 2019 Finals, but regrets not wearing a mouth guard that could've protected his teeth. (David Chisholm)
For every hurdle he's overcome, for every broken tooth and bloody eye through which he's persevered, Fred credits the inner drive and confidence that made "Bet On Yourself" such a fitting slogan to adopt. Ever since draft night in 2016, when he tweeted it for the first time, he’s made it part of his public persona.
“That's always been my mindset, which is why I portray it like that because it really is like a lifestyle for me,” he says. “It's a way of thinking and it makes up who I am as a person and my personality."
Even with a championship, Fred still has that same chip on his shoulder heading into his fourth season as a pro. He looks forward to continuing to silence doubters, showing them that he had it within himself, that he was betting on himself all along.
“People always have different expectations or they put limits on you,” he says. “Everybody has an opinion on everything. For me, I was just, like, this is what I was made to do. This is what I work for.
“All I do is wait for opportunity, and it just presented itself so clearly.”