Five minutes with WSU’s Fred VanVleet at the NBA Finals
One chipped tooth and seven stitches later, Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet is one win away from becoming the first Wichita State player to become an NBA champion since Cliff Levingston in 1992 with the Chicago Bulls.
VanVleet has been the breakout star of these NBA Finals, averaging 33.3 minutes and 12.8 points per game off the bench through four games.
The legend of VanVleet’s toughness only grew after Friday’s 105-92 Game 4 victory over the Golden State Warriors, as the Raptors took a 3-1 series lead with a sweep at Oracle Arena. Early in the fourth quarter VanVleet was struck in the face by an unintentional but vicious elbow from Shaun Livingston that left VanVleet crumpled on the ground, a stream of blood trickling down the right side of his face. Part of his right front tooth was captured by ABC cameras in the lane.
In the hours since, a VanVleet selfie — grinning, chipped front tooth on display — has gone viral. Raptors super-fan and musical star Drake (who called VanVleet his “twin”) has offered to pay for the dental repair with his “free health care.”
It’s good to be Fred VanVleet right now. His star is on the rise and the Raptors are on the brink of eliminating the two-time world champions. And VahVleet and his high school sweetheart, Shontai Neal, welcomed their second child and first son, Fred Jr., into the world on May 20.
Before Game 4, VanVleet sat down with The Eagle for an exclusive one-on-one interview to talk about how much his life has changed in the last month, and what’s allowed him to remain level-headed through it all.
“Life is crazy right now, but I try to enjoy that and appreciate that,” VanVleet told The Eagle. “This is definitely a dream come true. Everything you work so hard for and everything you dream of as a basketball player is playing at the highest level on the highest stage.
“I’ve been through some things in my life, so to be here in this moment right now is a huge blessing. I never want to take any part of it for granted, even when things aren’t going the way I want them to.”
Things not going his way seems to draw out the best in VanVleet.
Not even a month ago, VanVleet was mired in one of his worst scoring and shooting slumps. He missed 21 of 24 shots in a second-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers, then shot 4 of 20 in the first three games against the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals. There was talk about whether Toronto coach Nick Nurse should stop playing VanVleet all together.
An undrafted player going through the first deep playoff run of his career, VanVleet could have been broken. Instead, VanVleet told The Eagle that it was actually “refreshing.”
“Having my back against the wall, being back at square one where nobody believes in you and everybody’s counting you out, thinking about how bad you are because of a couple of bad games,” VanVleet said. “To be back at that point, it kind of put me back in my natural element where I like to be most of the time.”
Why is that his natural element?
“Because that’s where I spent most of my life, being the underdog and being disrespected and being counted out,” VanVleet said.
He developed that mentality growing up in Rockford, Illinois, where gun violence killed his father, Fredderick Manning, and many of his friends. For the first 18 years of his life, the stakes were literally life or death.
The thought of being intimidated by a moment like the NBA Finals seems silly to VanVleet. Whether right or wrong, he has always believed he belonged on this stage.
“No moment is ever too big for me,” VanVleet said. “I’ve always felt like that. That’s part of the reason why I’ve had some success. My confidence never wavers. I always feel like I belong because I do. I put in enough work in to feel comfortable and to be confident. The rest is just going out there and playing basketball.”
VanVleet has never lacked for confidence, but he gives credit to Shockers coach Gregg Marshall and the Wichita State program for helping to elevate it even more. It was WSU that first believed in VanVleet and it was Marshall who trusted him with the ball.
The rest is history: a Final Four run, an undefeated regular season and an All-America career. Now VanVleet (51 points through four games) has scored more points than any Shocker ever in the NBA Finals, surpassing Dave Stallworth’s 49 points in seven games in the 1970 Finals for the New York Knicks.
VanVleet is still a major source of pride for Shockers fans, who delight in seeing him take his “Play Angry” brand to the NBA. And he is still beloved by teammates and coaches and teammates at Wichita State, who saw his top-rate work ethic up close and now celebrate VanVleet’s success on such a big stage.
“That’s life-long love right there between the fans, the community, friends, old teammates, coaches,” VanVleet said. “What we did in my four years there will go down in history for a long time. Those relationships and bonds and just the love that you build over that time, that’s not going to waver.
“It was a great time at Wichita and it propelled me into my NBA career, and I’ll always have a lot of love and respect, not only for the people, but also for my teammates and my coaches I had there.”
WSU fans haven’t been surprised by VanVleet’s knack for coming up big in clutch moments. His game-sealing 3-pointer in the Raptors’ Game 3 victory, a rainbow shot over Draymond Green, was reminiscent of the 3-pointer VanVleet drilled to seal WSU’s victory over No. 1-seeded Gonzaga in the 2013 NCAA Tournament en route to the Final Four.
Being WSU’s go-to option in the clutch made VanVleet comfortable taking the big shot. He’s now become a fixture for Toronto in crunch time — and in VanVleet’s mind, it’s the same concept.
“I played at the highest level in college, we went to the Final Four, went undefeated, countless championships, so each of those pressurized moments give you some type of experience and it allows you to stay even-keeled,” VanVleet said.
Another thing Wichita State fans have seen before is VanVleet getting up after being bloodied.
In his senior year, during a First Four game in Dayton against Vanderbilt, VanVleet absorbed an elbow to the head, which opened up a cut on his forehead. Famously, VanVleet tried to in-bound the ball with blood streaming down his face before a referee stopped him.
Although VanVleet didn’t return on Friday after exiting the game with 9:35 remaining in the fourth quarter, he said he could have played if needed. Playing through blood and stitches was fine with VanVleet, but he wasn’t a fan of missing part of his tooth, even if it meant his Canadian fans embraced him even more.
“No, if that’s what being a Canadian is, I’m not sure I want it,” VanVleet said, laughing. “I don’t play hockey. I have a lot of respect for those guys and what they do, but losing a tooth is not fun.”
Life is changing so fast for VanVleet that the 25-year-old said it has sometimes been overwhelming.
On the verge of winning an NBA championship — Toronto can clinch the trophy with a Game 5 win at 8 p.m. Central time Monday — VanVleet is also juggling being a father of two.
“I’m still working on my patience,” VanVleet said. “It’s hard to put this feeling into words. Only parents can understand. Having two kids has been the biggest blessing in my life and something I hold very close to my heart. Those things will change you as a person, especially me as a young man. Trying it figure it all out has been a great challenge.”
If VanVleet has a best trait, it might be his ability to keep things in perspective.
Reflecting on where he came from to where he is today, VanVleet said the 15-year-old version of himself would be extremely proud of the man, the basketball player and the father he’s become.
“I’m happy that I did it the way that I wanted to do it,” VanVleet said. “I had to get it against all odds. And I’m not done. I’m not satisfied, I’m not content. I want to keep going and strive to become greater as a basketball player and greater as a person.”