Six people in Rockford, Ill., gathered in the living room of Fred VanVleet’s house Saturday to watch Wichita State’s game against Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament. When their boy made that shot, they experienced all the typical emotions, except surprise.
“It was a Fred shot,” said Sue VanVleet, his mother. “He makes those shots all the time.”
The story of Fred VanVleet making that shot starts in fourth grade with one-on-one basketball games at 6 a.m., with him deciding basketball and school offered a way to earn a scholarship and with his parents demanding he stay away from drugs and gangs and other troubles.
The story winds through playing up in age groups, AAU basketball, through committing to Wichita State and sticking with the Shockers when other schools called, scoring 105 points in a men’s league game and another eerily similar big shot in the state playoffs.
“I knew he was going to hit it,” said Joe Danforth, his stepfather. “In our state run last year, he hit almost the exact same shot. It was like it was replayed.”
A few steps away from the living room is VanVleet’s old bedroom, and that’s part of the story, too. When the family bought an American Idol game for PlayStation, he declined to play. One day his mom found him practicing alone in his bedroom.
“You can’t play nothing if you’re going to lose,” he said. “I didn’t know how to play.”
So he mastered that game just like he did basketball.
“It didn’t sound good, but somehow I was getting the high score,” he said.
His strategy to dominate game night during the holidays didn’t surprise his mother.
“Of course he did,” Sue VanVleet said. “He hates to lose.”
Or his father.
“It was competition-based and he was competitive,” Danforth said. “He will play the hell out of American Idol.”
Ninth-seeded Wichita State led top-seeded Gonzaga 67-65 with under two minutes to play when VanVleet took a pass from fellow freshman Ron Baker, giving him 13 seconds on the shot clock. With five, he lost control of the ball and it bounced away. He regained it with three seconds remaining and shot over guard David Stockton, a rainbow that swished through with one second on the shot clock. The Shockers led 70-65 with 1:24 to play and Gonzaga never recovered, rushing upcourt and throwing the ball away, starting a chain of Wichita State free throws that clinched the 76-70 win.
“We believe in him,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said, pointing out he wanted two rookies — VanVleet and Baker — on the court with the season in balance. “That was a big-time dagger.”
Danforth flashed back to a win over favored Warren in the Illinois Class 4A sectional championship last March. He remembered taking Fred and his two older brothers to the Rockford YMCA for an hour of one-on-one games, while wearing 20-pound weighted vests, before school. He thought of Fred standing up to bigger names — such as current Indiana freshman Yogi Ferrell — in summer games.
“I don’t mean to brag on my kid, but Fred tore that kid up,” Danforth said.
Danforth, a former boxer, an Army veteran and a policeman, raised six children to be tough and independent. He told them they didn’t need to work so they could focus on school and athletics. As long as they stayed out of trouble, he provided for them.
That foundation of discipline and love produced three brothers who played college basketball. Darnell VanVleet played in junior college. J.D. Danforth is a junior at Kentucky Wesleyan. They helped mold Fred, the youngest of the trio.
“We had a bunch of battles, my brothers and I would get in fistfights over one-and-one,” VanVleet said. “I was the little one and they made fun of me. When I was real young, I would cry when I lost. Then as I got older it started turning into fistfights.”
For all the physical toughness those sessions rooted in his son, Danforth won’t take credit for his mental toughness.
“Fred is calculating, one of his qualities you can’t teach,” Danforth said. “There’s not too much that can break him. That boy can be an assassin.”
VanVleet always played on his brothers’ teams, playing up in age by two or three years. His parents say they did it more for convenience than grooming.
“I think that’s where I got my feel for the game, from having the game so fast and so strong when I was younger,” he said. “When I played against kids my own age, it was so much slower and I got a better feel.”
The parents say they knew at an early age their son would either play basketball or coach for his profession. He locked in on the sport and made it his job. He earned As and Bs in school, taking gifted classes and hiding his affection for math.
Now he is exactly where he expected to be, playing for a top program and moving on in the NCAA Tournament, where more opportunities to make big shots await.