Wichita State Shockers

Fred VanVleet on his first public return to Wichita: ‘The love, it can never waver’

It’s easy for Wichita State fans to love Fred VanVleet for what he accomplished on a basketball court, but that’s only part of the reason why the former Shocker is so revered in Wichita.

The adoration from Wichita was evident over the weekend during VanVleet’s first public return to Wichita. Many fans waited for over an hour in 90-degree heat to attend VanVleet’s pop-shop in the Waterfront that was selling exclusive Shocker-themed apparel.

It wasn’t just die-hard Shocker fans, either. There was an elementary school teacher who respected VanVleet for being a role model for children. There was a father who brought his basketball-playing sons to show them the Toronto Raptors guard’s humility in person. There was an elderly lady who delivered a handwritten letter to VanVleet thanking him for representing the community so well.

“It’s hard to put into words the feelings I have for this place and the people here,” VanVleet told The Eagle. “The history that is here is something that can never be taken away from any of us. So for the love to stay true the way it has is something special to me.”

“The love, it can never waver”

There was some “mixed feedback” from Wichita, according to VanVleet, after allegations surfaced in February that he received impermissible benefits while at Wichita State.

VanVleet was hurt that some WSU fans were so quick to vilify him (the allegations are still unproven). He questioned if he wanted to come back, at least this soon, but ultimately decided to return to Wichita on his gut instinct.

“It got a little distorted with the scandal thing that came out,” VanVleet said. “It soured it a little bit for me, but I put my big boy pants on and came back and found out exactly what I thought all along: the love, it can never waver.”

That news never affected the outlook on VanVleet for WSU fan Nonie Wilson, who stood in line for a hour at the pop-up shop to meet VanVleet for the first time.

“He’s exactly what I thought he would be: pleasant, humble, nice,” Wilson said. “I think that’s why everyone likes Fred. Plus he was such a hard-working player who was always scrambling to make the big play.”

After three hours meeting with fans, VanVleet had zero negative feedback.

“I’ve always had that connection with Wichita since the first day I ever set foot in this place,” VanVleet said. “It’s something that grew over four years. This place genuinely feels like home. The fans, the community, the kids, we have a special bond.”

“We’re so fortunate to have him”

VanVleet has a reputation for being authentic.

Fans hear stories like the one when VanVleet randomly bought the lunch of 100 people in his hometown of Rockford, Ill., then they meet him in person and that same genuineness comes through.

“Everyone loves the quality of basketball player he is, but I think people love the quality of individual Fred is,” said Harlan Moore, a WSU season-ticket holder. “We’re so fortunate to have him.”

It would have been easy for VanVleet to put on the pop-up shop to sell his merchandise without being there in person. And he didn’t have to sign autographs and take pictures for three hours.

But he did.

“That’s something that’s written in my code and my DNA,” VanVleet said. “It’s not something I can start or end. There’s no choice for me, really. That’s just who I am as a person. If I’m there, I’m going to be nice to people.”

“What better message can you send?”

Rhonda Holt was an elementary physical education teacher for 33 years in Wichita, and she wishes she was still teaching so she could make sure kids are aware of VanVleet’s story.

“It’s the classic story of people telling someone they’re not good enough, then them working to overcome the odds,” Holt said. “His determination, his will to never say no and listen to the skeptics is inspiring. I love good role models that we can share with the kids and Fred VanVleet is certainly one.”

VanVleet has made “Bet on Yourself” his catchphrase, and many fans feel like it’s applicable to all different kinds of people in different situations.

“What better message can you send out?” WSU fan Dale Beddow said. “He’s showing everyone what can happen if you work hard and bet on yourself. Now look at him, he’s a millionaire 18 times over.”

VanVleet loves playing basketball, but he also recognizes the platform he has to share a message.

For every fan he’s gained for his basketball career, it seems VanVleet has two more that have found hope or inspiration from his life and “Bet on Yourself” message.

“It’s something I’ve lived for 24 years of my life,” VanVleet said. “For other people to feel the same way that I do and connect to it, it doesn’t matter how, then that’s special and it means a lot to me.”