Fred VanVleet swears the kid was 7 feet tall. Joe Danforth, his stepdad and coach at the time, said the eighth-grader was 6-8, maybe 6-9.
VanVleet was an undersized fifth-grader playing up on his older brothers team in an eighth-grade tournament in Akron, Ohio.
I didnt come to the guys waist, VanVleet said. He was up there.
The tall kid was getting physical with VanVleets brother, Darnell, who was about 5-10.
He was throwing some elbows and goes up and dunks, VanVleet said. He and Darnell get in a bit of a scuffle, so I run in between them like Im the big brother. Im a little runt.
Next thing he knew, someone snatched him out of harms way. He drew a technical for his efforts, but he had made his point.
He was like a little chihuahua, Danforth said. There is no fear in Fred.
No one has to explain that to anyone who has watched VanVleet play point guard for Wichita State. The 5-foot-11, 194-pound sophomore wont back down or be intimidated.
Good qualities to have for a point guard of any size. And vital qualities to have in the NCAA Tournament when teams that thrive almost always have point guards who bring a feisty edge but keep their emotions in check.
That describes Fred, teammate Tekele Cotton said. Nothing scares him, nothing rattles him.
Hes poised. No one speeds him up.
VanVleet ranks fifth in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio, averaging 3.9 assists to every turnover. That speaks to the numbers of someone who knows how to make scoring happen without flinching.
But you need to understand how he got to that point.
VanVleet grew up in Rockford, Ill., which is not an easy place to grow up. A town of about 150,000 people and 85 miles northwest of Chicago, it still has double-digit unemployment percentages because of heavy losses in manufacturing jobs.
Before VanVleets ninth-grade year, one of his teammates was shot to death. VanVleets father was murdered when he 5.
As long as VanVleet can remember, Danforth has challenged him and his brothers when they faced a daunting opponent by saying, What are they going to do you? Is he going to shoot you? Is he going to stab you?
But its true, VanVleet said.
Danforth is a 19-year veteran of Rockfords police force. His beat for many of those years was at the housing development. He saw VanVleets boyhood friend die.
He goes to work everyday seeing real problems, real bad people, real criminals, VanVleet said. This game is fun.
Youre supposed to play as hard as you can. But if you love, it, youll have fun with it.
Understand also that VanVleet didnt always swallow Danforths advice easily or take to his coaching. In fact, he didnt like the whole idea of Danforth marrying his mother, Susan, about five years after his father was shot to death.
Me and my mom and brother were really tight for so long, VanVleet said. Darnell was my dad. He was taking complete care of me. Then my mom and Joe meet, and my life flips upside down.
I hated that situation for a long time.
He hated it when Danforth made him get up 5:30 each morning, so he could go practice basketball with his brothers. One of Danforths sons, J.D., was Darnells age and all three spent those early-morning hours in a gym under following the tough cops directions.
Usually it was a YMCA gym, sometimes at an elementary, VanVleet said. Dad would find a way to make it happen no matter where it was.
Notice he called him Dad. In talking about Danforth now, he mixes Dad and Joe, although he said he always addresses him as Joe. Things have changed between them over the years.
But when he was young, he resisted Danforth.
Im a guy who wants to roll the ball out and play five on five, VanVleet said. And this was structured drills, ball handling and all the hard stuff. I hated that stuff.
I wanted to to just hoop.
So sometimes hed sneak off to a gym and play without Danforth around.
VanVleet played with his older brothers on Danforths Five-O team as a third grader through late in his sixth-grade year. Actually, he didnt play much because he was not only two or three years younger, he was so small.
I had to watch a lot, VanVleet. I rarely got in. Just sat on the bench.
And that made him mad.
I felt I was good enough, he said, but Joe always told me I was too little and I wasnt ready.
Just as Danforth wouldnt let his sons play in pickup games and made them work hard at fundamental drills, he also was particular about who coached them.
At the time, there werent a lot of good guys in the area who were doing teams for Freds age, Danforth said. They didnt know what they hell they were doing. I didnt want one of my boys being messed up, just someone rolling out a ball.
VanVleet didnt play on a team with boys his age until shortly before his seventh-grade year. Danforth approved of him playing for Antonio Davis, a former Bulls forward who coached an AAU team in Chicago that included his son, A.J., who now plays at Tennessee.
That opened the door for VanVleet to spend about six weeks each summer living with the Davises in Chicago, playing in AAU tournaments and loving every minute of it.
But he also began to realize that Danforth knew best.
When I went back to playing with my peers, VanVleet said, I was way better because I was always playing tougher competition. It helped my confidence and made me better.
He also figures all that sitting on the bench of Danforths team taught him the patience that helps in running a college offense at a high level.
I think you can learn a lot by watching other people do well and mess up, VanVleet said.
However, he had more tough lessons to learn.
VanVleet had a 3.5 grade-point average in high school and is still a strong student as a sociology major at WSU.
Hes a smart kid, Danforth said. But one thing about smart kids is they dont understand why others cant keep up and do the things they do.
All that patience VanVleet learned by sitting on the bench and shows on the court for the Shockers wasnt there initially when he was playing with kids his age.
I was frustrated with other kids because they werent up to par, he said. I wasnt the best teammate I could be. I took the Kobe Bryant approach, getting in guys faces and yelling at them.
Your friends dont respond to things like that.
So he backed off.
But he didnt back down.
As a senior on an Auburn High team with all players under 6-foot, the Rockford school went 31-2 and finished third in the state for Illinois large-class schools.
To make state, Auburn had to beat a Chicago school stocked with kids in the 6-4 to 6-9 range. But then if VanVleet could take on a 7-footer as a fifth-grader, whats a 6-9 kid as a senior?
When you get put through the fire all the time at young age, guys pushing you around, Danforth said, you learn to be tough. Freds a gladiator, a warrior.
But Danforth saw one more glitch that VanVleet needed to clean up in high school.
VanVleet has always been low key. Very low key.
You guys think Im calm now, he said, but until late in my junior year I showed zero emotion. I never smiled.
When other players were stretching before tipoff, VanVleet stood there with his hands in his jerseys showing no expression.
I was that calm, he said. Thats what I was feeling, so thats what I was showing. It took my dad telling me, `Hey, recruiting is picking up. These guys might take things the wrong way.
He was just saying, Theres a better way to show that calmness. Stop being too cool for school. Thats when I started getting more excited. I have to give him credit for that.
Dont expect to see any outbursts of emotion. If he shows any, itll be at the end of the game, when I know were going to win.
You can be too emotional, VanVleet said. Theres a balance for everything.
And his balance is now on display for the Shockers at the most high-pressured time of the year.
You certainly dont need a hot head at point guard, a guy who is going to lose his composure, WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. Fred is the antithesis of that.
Hes solid, mature, steady. Hes not only good at getting himself to do the right things but at getting the rest of the guys to do the right thing.
Danforth still drops reminders to VanVleet to make sure he stays on course. He delivered his shoot-stab message before last years tournament game against Ohio State, when VanVleet shared duties in going against defensive ace Aaron Craft.
VanVleet played well, Craft got into early foul trouble and the Shockers moved on to the Final Four.
By my last year in high school, I began to appreciate what Joe was doing for me, he said.
This tournament may bring challenges that the Shockers didnt see last year, when they surprised the field.
I expect everyone to be ready for us, VanVleet said.
Scouts also know that the Shockers are at their best when he has the ball in his hands and directing the offense. Keeping the ball out of his hands by ganging up on him could throw WSU off its game.
To pull it off, a team would have to have enough good athletes to make it happen. Not something the Shockers saw during the season.
But the possibility of that strategy doesnt concern VanVleet.
We have a lot of talent, he said. If you want to play four on four, Ill take our chances any day.
If you want to take me out, we have a lot of guys who can score and do things on their own. But Im not a guy who will go away easily.
Sounds like a warrior on the court.