Rockford’s Fred VanVleet was snubbed by local schools but stars for Wichita State
BY RICK MORRISSEY firstname.lastname@example.org | @MorrisseyCST March 19, 2014 10:39PM
FILE - In this Feb. 22, 2014, file photo, Wichita State's Fred VanVleet flexes his muscles after making a basket against Drake during an NCAA college basketball game in Wichita, Kan. Bookmakers in Las Vegas have been watching the 31-0 Shockers win game after game this season with mounting anxiety as the NCAA tournament approaches. Although the Shockers were coming off a Final Four appearance as a No. 9 seed last spring and returned many of its players, bookmakers gave them long odds to win the national championship this year. (AP Photo/The Wichita Eagle, Travis Heying) LOCAL TV OUT; MAGS OUT; LOCAL RADIO OUT; LOCAL INTERNET OUT ORG XMIT: KSWIE301
Updated: March 20, 2014 12:27PM
A little more than a year ago, I received an email from Joe Danforth, a Rockford policeman who wanted to tell me about his stepson the basketball player.
I had just written a column about the impending dismissal of Northwestern coach Bill Carmody, and Danforth saw it as an opportunity to describe how recruiters from Illinois schools had ignored his kid.
I often get emails from people who believe their children would be on the way to greatness if only the world took notice. I told Danforth I wished I had a good answer for why only Northern Illinois had offered his stepson a scholarship. But the thought bubble above my head read, “Maybe because he’s not that good.’’
A month later, the nation had made the acquaintance of Fred VanVleet, Wichita State’s freshman point guard and Danforth’s stepson.
The unheralded Shockers made it to the Final Four, where they lost by four points in the semifinals to eventual champion Louisville. This season, they’re 34-0 and a No. 1 seed entering the NCAA tournament. VanVleet was named the Missouri Valley Conference’s player of the year. He’s one of 10 semifinalists for the Naismith Trophy, given to the nation’s best player, and one of six finalists for the Bob Cousy Award, which goes to the top point guard.
The kid can play. Anywhere. For anyone.
I figured a sheepish phone call to Danforth was finally in order. You were right, I told him, and, man, was most everybody else wrong. But how did this happen?
“A lot of these colleges, they look at AAU teams,’’ he said. “If you’re not playing for a particular AAU team and you haven’t been to a particular event, then you don’t get looked at.’’
VanVleet played for Pryme Tyme, a Rockford AAU team coached by Danforth’s cousin that dominated competition in the Midwest. Danforth figures if his stepson had played for one of the top Chicago-area AAU teams, he wouldn’t have needed to travel 670 miles from home to play college basketball.
“I think the recruiters were like, ‘Well, he’s from Rockford. There are better kids than him in Chicago,’ ” Danforth said. “I think that’s the way he got looked at. DePaul never recruited him. Northwestern, Illinois, UIC, Loyola — nobody in Illinois recruited him, except for NIU.’’
It wasn’t from a lack of effort on Danforth’s part. He sent tapes to coaches. He made phone calls that went unreturned. Coaches would see the stepfather at tournaments, tell him how much they liked the stepson’s game and then … nothing.
Teams miss on players. It happens. But this many, almost all at once? Some of the silence had to do with the fact that VanVleet committed to Wichita State the summer before his senior year of high school. But that doesn’t explain much. He was an exceptional player his junior year, too. Everyone had a shot at him.
“We just thought for sure that [the University of] Illinois would be salivating over him,’’ Danforth said.
Former Illinois assistant Jerrance Howard did like VanVleet, enough to get then-Illini coach Bruce Weber to make a trip to Rockford’s Auburn High School to watch VanVleet during an open gym. But the girl’s team had the court that day.
“He stayed for about 20, 30 minutes, talked to Fred and left,’’ said Danforth, Auburn’s sophomore coach. “Never heard from him again.’’
Academic performance was not an issue. VanVleet got a 27 on the ACT and graduated with a 3.5 grade-point average, according to his stepfather.
“I just knew for sure that, OK, Northwestern, just on grades alone, they’d probably be like, ‘We probably need to take a chance on this kid. He’s got good grades and he can play,’ ” Danforth said. “Not even a phone call.’’
Wichita State assistant Dana Ford, now the associate head coach at Illinois State, was at a game in which VanVleet played. He came back to see him. And came back again. Seeing was believing.
Here’s the oddest part — and the most incriminating if you’re a fan of hoops in Illinois: Toward the end of his high-school career, VanVleet started hearing from more out-of-state schools. Fairfield, Providence, Colorado State, La Salle, Boston College and St. John’s all called. Was he available, coaches wanted to know. How solid was that commitment to Wichita State? Rock solid, they were told.
All along, the silence from — in-state schools —was deafening.
While Illinois schools are busy kicking themselves today, they might want to do a little soul searching. Players are everywhere, some even close by. You just have to look. And return those phone calls.
“At the time, Illinois was my favorite team,’’ Danforth said. “I grew up watching Illinois. I mean, man, Kenny Battle and Lowell Hamilton and Kendall Gill. Oh, my God, I loved Illinois.
“… I thought if Fred could go there, no matter what he does, my son went to Illinois. That’s what we thought was going to happen. It just blew my mind [it didn’t].
“I’m still kind of a fan, but of course I’m a Wichita fan now.’’
“Oh, my God, no,’’ Danforth said.