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 didn’t come to the guy’s waist,” VanVleet said. “He was up there.”
The tall kid was getting physical with VanVleet’s 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 I’m the big brother. I’m a little runt.”
Next thing he knew, someone snatched him out of harm’s 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 won’t 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.
“He’s 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 VanVleet’s ninth-grade year, one of his teammates was shot to death. VanVleet’s 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 it’s true,” VanVleet said.
Danforth is a 19-year veteran of Rockford’s police force. His beat for many of those years was at the housing development. He saw VanVleet’s boyhood friend die.
“He goes to work everyday seeing real problems, real bad people, real criminals,” VanVleet said. “This game is fun.
“You’re supposed to play as hard as you can. But if you love, it, you’ll have fun with it.”
Understand also that VanVleet didn’t always swallow Danforth’s advice easily or take to his coaching. In fact, he didn’t 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 Danforth’s sons, J.D., was Darnell’s age and all three spent those early-morning hours in a gym under following the tough cop’s 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.
“I’m 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 he’d sneak off to a gym and play without Danforth around.
VanVleet played with his older brothers on Danforth’s Five-O team as a third grader through late in his sixth-grade year. Actually, he didn’t 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 wasn’t ready.”
Just as Danforth wouldn’t 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 weren’t a lot of good guys in the area who were doing teams for Fred’s age,” Danforth said. “They didn’t know what they hell they were doing. I didn’t want one of my boys being messed up, just someone rolling out a ball.”
VanVleet didn’t 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 Danforth’s 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.
“He’s a smart kid,” Danforth said. “But one thing about smart kids is they don’t understand why others can’t 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 wasn’t there initially when he was playing with kids his age.
“I was frustrated with other kids because they weren’t up to par,” he said. “I wasn’t the best teammate I could be. I took the Kobe Bryant approach, getting in guys’ faces and yelling at them.
“Your friends don’t respond to things like that.”
So he backed off.
But he didn’t 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, what’s 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. Fred’s 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 I’m 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. “That’s what I was feeling, so that’s 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, ‘There’s a better way to show that calmness. Stop being too cool for school.’ That’s when I started getting more excited. I have to give him credit for that.”
Don’t expect to see any outbursts of emotion. If he shows any, it’ll be at the end of the game, “when I know we’re going to win.”
“You can be too emotional,” VanVleet said. “There’s 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 don’t 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.
“He’s solid, mature, steady. He’s 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 year’s 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 didn’t 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 doesn’t concern VanVleet.
“We have a lot of talent,” he said. “If you want to play four on four, I’ll 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 I’m not a guy who will go away easily.”
Sounds like a warrior on the court.