What Fred VanVleet fights every time he tells his story, every time he goes to class, every time he plays basketball:
A city robbed of manufacturing jobs in the 1980s and economically damaged again in 2008. Crime. Racism. A city divided by the Rock River, east vs. west. A history of mediocre basketball at Auburn High, a history of Rockford athletes wasting their athletic gifts.
What Fred VanVleet accomplishes every time he tells his story, every time he goes to class, every time he plays basketball:
People believe somebody else can do it, too.
“People are not proud to say that they are from Rockford,” said J.D. Danforth, VanVleet’s brother. “He’s making it cool to say that ‘Hey, I am from Rockford.’ A lot of kids around here need that positive influence to know that you can make it out of a place that’s rough. You’ve got violence. You’ve got crime. Fred made it.”
VanVleet will end his Wichita State career soon. It is filled with great victories, unselfish play, confidence-bestowing moments and pick-and-roll artistry. His legacy is, in a way unique among college athletes, connected to his hometown of Rockford, Ill., and the young people of the city.
“The thing about Fred, it was never about his scoring,” said Steve Goers, who watched VanVleet grow up while coaching at rival Boylan Catholic High. “It was everything else about him. It’s his demeanor and attitude about the whole situation. It’s not just a kid who was a great athlete.”
VanVleet possessed everything a role model needed as he entered Auburn High, ready to do big things on the basketball court for the Knights.
First, however, he needed stop acting like a jerk.
“I was a jerk,” he said. “It was bad. Up until my sophomore year, I’m cussing my friends out and telling them they suck and how bad they are and why can’t they make a layup. I’m putting all this work in and I know they’re not. It’s frustrating. We all got the same 24 hours. You should be working on your game, too.”
Stepfather Joe Danforth saw the friction VanVleet’s impatience with imperfection created. He used his military training to convince his son that his teammates wouldn’t play hard for a point guard who insulted them. Fred was open to change, if it made sense and if it helped him win. Danforth sold him as the general who needed the loyalty of his troops.
“He kind of had that edge to him that ‘I know I’m smarter than you,’ ” said Susan Danforth, his mother. “He would tell kids on his team, ‘You suck.’ I remember Joe picking him up by his shirt in the middle of a summer game and dragging him out in the hallway. He came back in a changed man. No child of his was ever going to act that way.”
Telling his story
If nurturing his teammates early in his high school career became VanVleet’s first act of leadership, he followed it with a more difficult one, one that connected him directly to Rockford’s youth.
VanVleet’s story became Rockford’s story, in the mind of Susan Danforth when he started talking about the death of his father. Frederick Manning was shot and killed during a drug deal in 1999, when Fred was 5.
The death of his father, a former star player at Rockford’s Guildford High, bewildered and angered him. It did not, however, derail VanVleet’s life.
Susan Danforth met Joe Danforth at a summer basketball camp three years later, a perfect basketball start to the basketball life, blending of families and marriage that followed. By the time people noticed VanVleet’s basketball skills, most assumed Joe Danforth was his father.
“Constant fun, constant sports,” VanVleet said of growing up in Rockford. “Both parents were working. They put their lives on the back burner for us and did everything in their power to make sure we had opportunities.”
That made VanVleet the fortunate product of a two-parent household in the minds of most, one that lived in the northwest part of west Rockford, another sign that he enjoyed advantages most didn’t.
In middle school, VanVleet cried until his parents took him out of the gifted program. He avoided the spotlight and didn’t want to known as the smart kid. In high school, he saw the power of his example and grew into the spokesman for Auburn, Rockford and his journey.
“He wants this community to be better, to let other kids know … we didn’t have any more than anyone else did,” Susan Danforth said. “By telling his story, they understood that he really is just like us. He shared the same background that they do. A lot of kids here have a parent who is either dead or in prison. It’s sad, but it’s the truth.”
Basketball connects the family
Joe Danforth kept the boys – Darnell VanVleet, J.D. Danforth, Fred and Tre Danforth – busy with basketball, coaching their youth teams, waking them up for ball-handling drills and conditioning, making them wear 30-pound weighted vests. The oldest three (all one year older than the next) chose basketball as a profession. Sister Asja Danforth, 25, is the oldest of the children and Aaliyah, 4, the youngest.
VanVleet hated the drills, until he began to see them pay off on the court. Then he merely disliked them.
“Even to this day, I would just rather play,” he said.
The four brothers played backyard basketball games that produced blood, profanities and fights. They pulled socks over their knees to protect their skin and sometimes wore the weighted vests. When the backboard began to fall apart, the boys took lids from rubber storage tubs and duct-taped them on each side of the hoop.
“We played so much the backboard broke,” VanVleet said. “We played in the rain. We played in the snow. We never had the rim at 10 feet; we were just trying to dunk on each other. Basically like football.”
The older boys begged and threatened Tre to play. When he didn’t, that left VanVleet as the youngest.
“We beat up on him a lot,” J.D. Danforth said. “With him being younger than us, it toughened him up.”
Joe Danforth boxed in the Army, punching his way to the state finals, before returning to Rockford and joining the police. Now a detective, he is entering his 21st year on the force. His driving tour of west Rockford includes his old neighborhood, the place where he witnessed his first shooting and the first murder he caught on the job.
“A lot of Fred’s mentality comes from me not treating them like babies,” he said. “When it was time to work, it was time to work. There wasn’t no coming to the gym and giggling and all that garbage. When you’re coaching your kids, they’ve got to be 10 times better or else other parents complain.”
As a sixth-grader, VanVleet joined the high-powered Illinois Ice AAU team, based in Chicago and coached by former NBA center Antonio Davis. The team played a national schedule and its roster included future Duke star Jabari Parker.
Joe Danforth’s discipline and demands began to make sense when paired with his glimpse at Davis’ life in Chicago and life on an elite summer team.
“He got it,” Susan Danforth said. “He saw that he could have all of this from this little orange ball. It made sense to him all the way back then.”
His older brothers played college basketball. His parents worked and sacrificed and drove carloads of basketball players to tournaments to help their sons use basketball to go to college. Rockford, Joe and Susan Danforth tell their sons, is always home. Come back, they say, because you want to come back, not because life drags you back to the west side of town.
The economic despair of Rockford
Rockford is a city of around 150,000 with a reputation for violent crime and the FBI statistics to back it up. In the 1980s, its manufacturing jobs, many in the tool-and-die business, began to disappear or move overseas. In 2008, the city lost jobs when local companies sold out.
“Rockford made fasteners, motors, drives, machineries for other industries,” said Bob Evans, Rockford University associate professor of economics, business and accounting. “That’s one of first thing business cut back on. The old joke is that if there’s a recession, Rockford is first in and last out.”
Evans said Rockford’s unemployment rate rose to around 25 percent in the 1980s. In 2009, it peaked at 16 percent before dropping by half, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“The rest of the country went through a recession (in the 1980s),” Evans said. “Rockford went through another Great Depression.”
Those economic blows hit the west side of Rockford hard, tearing up neighborhoods, inviting gangs and giving crime and liquor stores fertile places to prosper. The west side of Rockford is the side where visitors are told not to bother looking for a hotel. People must cross the Rock River to shop at the east side’s grocery stores, department stores and malls.
This is the side of town VanVleet may one day return to change.
He may coach basketball, after he is done playing. He is addicted to winning and addicted to working toward winning. However, he watches Wichita State’s coaches and sees the demands, the craziness of entrusting your job to teenagers, and the strain on families.
“You’re putting your whole life into strangers,” he said. “You can get fired at the snap of the finger.”
He may return with business ideas. Or ideas for a community center or school. He doesn’t understand why a recreation center, designed to keep young people out of trouble, requires an entrance fee that keeps people away.
“Hopefully, I play a long time and I’ve got a nice bank account,” he said. “I’ve got a million-and-one ideas, business ideas, investments. It’s all going to revolve around being around people and helping people.
“My mind is spinning constantly. Something needs to change.”
VanVleet’s effect on people, especially young people, plays out when he speaks at Auburn’s graduation ceremony, when he returns to work summer camp or drop in a practice during a break. It plays out when Rockford friends and family flock to Shocker game at Loyola or Bradley to get a handshake or take a picture.
It plays out at WSU when he exits the practice gym to see a crowd of 25 people who decorate their social media with his picture, tell him congratulations and thanks.
“I was signing autographs as a junior and senior in high school, just seeing some of the younger kids and how they gravitate towards me, I kind of woke up and was able to realize I could have an effect,” he said.
This is his reward for telling his story.
“I get a lot of messages on Facebook … kids that I know … ‘Hey, keep doing what you’re doing, I respect it,’” he said. “’You being on TV is making me pursue things I want to pursue or keeping me out of trouble or making me want to go to college. That kind of means the most to me out of anything I could do.
“Those interactions with people, real people, it helps a lot.”
The VanVleet effect in Rockford
On Tuesday, Auburn will play in the Illinois Class 4A super-sectional after senior Trayvon Tyler scored 18 points in last week’s sectional win.
In the halls of Auburn and around west Rockford, they call this success a continuation of the VanVleet effect. People point to his success, and that of the 2012 Knights team that went “downstate” and placed third in the Class 4A tournament in Peoria, as inspiration and rejuvenation for the school and the city.
“It was huge when he came to Auburn,” said Tyrone Fambro, dean of students. “Kids want to come here because of Fred VanVleet and what he did here. They saw someone who made it out. They respect that. Fred was that kid in the community.”
VanVleet, in addition to his basketball skills, was a strong student who mixed with every group of students and teachers. He knew how to get teammates to do their schoolwork, come to practice and stay out of trouble, sometimes with a quiet word, sometimes with his example and charisma.
“He could get people to follow what he was doing,” former teammate LaMark Foote said. “It made you want to be like that. Go to class. It was easier to listen when you have a player doing the same thing.”
Tyler, a point guard, tries to pattern his game after VanVleet’s control of the game and his vocal leadership. Teammate Daveion Dixon wears No. 23, as VanVleet does, and often practices in Shocker shorts. VanVleet, gone from Auburn since 2012, remains a presence for many reasons.
“He went to college, which made more people come to Auburn, thinking ‘They might have some talent.’ ” Tyler said. “When they see him, they say ‘I want to be like Fred, I want to be like Fred.’ So it makes people do good in the classroom.”
Auburn coach Bryan Ott took over a bad program in 1999, one that went 27-105 in the five previous seasons, according to the Rockford Register Star. It took eight seasons to get to .500. In VanVleet’s junior season of 2011, the Knights won their first conference title in 33 years.
Their success continued after VanVleet’s departure. The Knights went 29-2 last season and three players from that team are at NCAA Division I schools – Antoine Pittman (Bradley), Laytwan Porter (Northern Illinois) and Delundre Dixon (Chicago State).
“Those guys, as well as others, certainly look at Fred as a role model, something to aspire to,” Ott said. “If I were to quantify, or try to, a VanVleet effect I would say it is that.”
Like in many towns, the public school-private school rivalry is intense and filled with backstories of class and privilege and history and emotion. In Rockford, Boylan Catholic long dominated football and basketball in the city and region. It was often assumed, VanVleet said, that the best athletes ended up at Boylan for high school, regardless of where they attended elementary school.
VanVleet grew up going to the Fightin’ Titan basketball camps of Goers, then the Boylan coach. Goers, who retired in 2011 with a state-record 881 wins, hoped to coach VanVleet. VanVleet considered going to Boylan.
Instead, he followed his older brother to Auburn. While Goers missed out on coaching a special talent, it is now obvious that VanVleet ended up where he was supposed to, at the school that needed him. At Boylan, he would have been a great player in a long line of them.
At Auburn, his legacy is so much more.
“Fred would have had a great impact no matter where he went,” Goers said. “Him going to Auburn has a lasting impact in Auburn’s history, athletic and academic history. It’s not a kid that was just a great athlete.”
That is his story. And every time his story is told, it means someone else can do the same thing.