WICHITA, Kan. — He made drug busts and responded to gang fights deep into the night, rarely finishing his shift with the Rockford, Ill., Police Department before 2 a.m.
Still, when Joe Danforth arrived at home, his routine was always the same.
He’d remove his gun belt, doze off for a few hours and then wake up and walk to the bottom of the staircase.
"Get uuuupppp!” Danforth bellowed, his voice a virtual alarm clock. "It’s time to gooooooo!”
Half asleep in a second-floor bedroom, 10-year-old Fred VanVleet buried his face under a pillow and pretended not to hear.
He didn’t want to begin his day at 5:30 a.m., when it was still dark outside. He didn’t enjoy those silent drives in the backseat of Danforth’s two-door Pontiac Grand Am, which usually pulled into the YMCA parking lot around 6. And he despised those games of full-court one-on-one with his older brother J.D., which he played while wearing a weighted, 30-pound vest.
Other times, Danforth put VanVleet through drills at a seven-story parking garage, screaming at his fourth-grade stepson as he ran up ramps and flights of stairs while the rest of the city was still waiting for the morning paper. When it was all over, he’d drop VanVleet off at school.
Danforth’s buddies at the police station often joked with him about the workouts—”They told me I was crazy,” he said—but Danforth wouldn’t relent.
“You’re not going to sit around and be a bum,” Danforth would tell VanVleet. “You're not going to be average. Anyone can be average. You’re going to be somebody.”
Danforth didn’t want VanVleet to follow the path of his biological father, who was shot and killed in a drug deal when VanVleet was five.
He refused to let VanVleet fall prey to the Vice Lords, Wacos or any of the other gangs that infested their neighborhood. And he was determined that VanVleet wouldn’t suffer the same fate as his eighth-grade teammate, Spider.
Danforth was on duty the night Spider was shot in the neck. He watched him bleed to death in the street.
VanVleet listened to his stepdad’s message, but it didn’t make his prodding any easier to absorb.
“He could be so mean,” VanVleet said. “He cracked the whip on me and my brothers, and I didn’t always understand. I just wanted to be a kid. I probably didn’t smile a lot back then.”
These days, though, VanVleet couldn’t be happier.
One of 10 semifinalists for the Naismith National Player of the Year award, VanVleet is the catalyst for an undefeated Wichita State squad hoping to reach its second straight Final Four.
The Shockers, 31-0, are the first team in 10 years to finish the regular season without a loss. If it wins this week’s Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, Wichita State will become the first team in 23 years to enter the NCAA tournament without a blemish.
Shockers coach Gregg Marshall said Wichita State’s success would’ve never occurred without VanVleet. In turn, VanVleet can’t help but wonder where he’d be without those 5:30 a.m. wake-up calls, without those workouts at the YMCA before school.
“He turned out to be a blessing,” VanVleet said. “If he had never come along, who knows what would’ve happened to me.”
VanVleet’s success as history-making point guard at Wichita State brought attention to a town in desperate need of positive press.
It was only a year ago when Rockford was ranked No. 3 on Forbes magazine’s list of “America’s Most Miserable Cities.” The article mentioned Rockford’s 11.2 percent unemployment rate.
VanVleet said an “air of hopelessness” hovers over Rockford like that cloud over Pigpen, creating the tension and angst that often leads to crime.
“There are no role models,” VanVleet said. “None of your friends have parents that are doctors or established businessmen. Nobody is in the NBA. Nobody is a famous rapper.
“I’ve got friends whose parents work three jobs. They don’t know where their next meal is going to come from. When you’ve got a bunch of people living in poverty like that, bad things happen.”
VanVleet was in kindergarten when that lifestyle claimed the life of his father, Fred Manning. And there were certainly opportunities for it to engulf VanVleet.
With no metal detectors at Auburn High School, VanVleet said it was normal for classmates to tote guns in their waistbands or backpacks.
A few weeks after being shot in the leg, a student returned to school wearing a bulletproof vest. A man was stabbed to death during school hours on a vacant lot across the street, and Danforth recalled multiple times when students returning from off-campus lunch were mugged in the parking lot by a student with a .357 Magnum.
“Drugs, prostitution, friends and cousins who were shot...it was happening all around me,” VanVleet said. “It’s weird seeing how people react when I tell them the stories. To me, it was all so normal.”
VanVleet, though, never let it become a part of who he was.
His family wouldn’t let him.
Three years after his father was killed, VanVleet’s mother Susan was introduced to Danforth at an AAU tournament, where Danforth was coaching against Fred's team. The two began dating and, within a year, Susan and her two sons moved into Danforth’s home on the west side of Rockford.
Danforth chose to live just three blocks from the public housing projects he patrolled, “because how can you serve a community that you work in unless you live there?” he said.
“I think God put us all together for a reason,” said Danforth, who also has two boys. “It just worked. We were a family from the jump because the kids got along so well. They were calling each other brothers within weeks.”
A 19-year veteran of the police force who also spent six years in the army, Danforth provided discipline that proved crucial to VanVleet during what could’ve been a vulnerable time in his life.
He was required to clean his room daily. He washed dishes after dinner, took the dog on walks and cut the grass during the summer. Talking back to Danforth or his mother was a no-no.
"I always told him, 'I don’t want to hear your opinion,'" Danforth said. "'If you do what you’re supposed to do, I’ll break my back to help you.'"
Danforth and Susan did exactly that.
It wasn’t uncommon for them to miss a mortgage payment to pay tournament fees for VanVleet and his brothers. If they needed money to take a trip with their AAU team, VanVleet’s parents provided it—even if it meant going into credit card debt.
Although they were better off financially than most of their sons' teammates' parents, Joe and Susan knew they wouldn’t be able to afford to send their kids to college. Basketball, Susan said, was “their ticket.”
Joe coached his sons on their AAU squad, Rockford Five-O, and also got a job as an assistant at Auburn.
“It became a job to them,” Susan said. “They had seen a lot of kids with so much potential get sucked right in by gangs or drugs or whatever. They didn’t know how to get past it. We told them, ‘Don’t be afraid to be different. Don’t be afraid to be your own man.’”
Two of VanVleet’s brothers earned scholarships—Darnell played at Illinois Central and J.D. is redshirting at Ashford (Iowa) University—but VanVleet was always the one with the most potential.
And the most drive.
He saw time on Auburn’s varsity squad as a freshman and earned first-team All-State honors as a senior, when he led his team to its first Illinois High School Association Final Four since 1975.
As an Auburn assistant, Danforth was able to monitor VanVleet’s progress and keep him motivated. And his job as a police officer enabled him to keep tabs of the company VanVleet was keeping off the court.
Not that it was ever a problem.
Rarely did VanVleet attend parties. If he wanted to go to a 10 p.m. movie with friends, his parents usually said “no” and suggested they go the following afternoon. Susan said Fred often grew frustrated and complained of boredom.
“Well,” Susan would tell him, “you’re going to spend four years being bored so you can enjoy the rest of your life.”
Instead of rebelling, VanVleet respected his parents’ commands.
Even if VanVleet had wanted to get into mischief, the troublemakers and gang members at his school wouldn’t have let him. By the time he was a senior, VanVleet’s celebrity had grown to the point where nearly everyone looked out for him. They wanted to see him make something of himself and bring pride to Rockford.
“Some people joked that I was ‘The Chosen One,’” VanVleet said. “But I never acted like I was bigger than anybody. I showed love to everyone and they showed love right back.”
Other basketball stars had come through Rockford before VanVleet. But none had achieved significant success at the Division I level.
“My dad was the living testament to that kind of story,” VanVleet said of Fred Manning, who starred at Guilford High School. “He was a 6’8” guy. He could’ve been more than what he was. But at the snap of the finger, he was gone.”
“I got tired,” he said, “of hearing all the stories about ‘this guy should’ve made it, but he had 10 kids.’ Or, ‘this guy could’ve gone to the NBA, but he started selling drugs.’
“I didn’t want there to be a ‘but...’ attached to my story. I didn’t want to be another statistic.”
Fred VanVleet wasn’t heavily recruited by programs from power conferences such as the Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC. Then again, he never gave them much of a chance.
VanVleet committed to Wichita State the summer before his senior year of high school and shot down any school that showed interest after that.
“There were some bigger programs that called the next fall and winter,” said VanVleet, who declined to name names. “But I never considered backing out of my commitment. I’m not the type to go back on my word.
“Plus, I was excited to be a Shocker.”
Wichita State couldn’t be a better fit for VanVleet. Among his teammates are shooting guard Ron Baker, a walk-on-turned-NBA prospect from a one-stoplight town in rural Kansas; small forward Cleanthony Early, a former Division III Junior College Player of the Year, who leads the Shockers in scoring and rebounding; and wing Nick Wiggins, the less-ballyhooed older brother of Kansas star Andrew Wiggins, the potential No. 1 pick in this summer’s NBA draft.
It’s a blue-collar team in a blue-collar town led by a blue-collar coach in Marshall, who tells the Shockers to “play angry.”
“The people in this city are gritty and hard-working, just like us,” VanVleet said. “Our coaches are grinders. They haven’t been spoon-fed. They don’t come from a Coach K-type of lineage. They’ve coached in junior colleges and worked their way to the top.
“We’ve got a roster full of players who have all been through tragedies and adversities. We’re one big melting pot of guys like that. It helps build chemistry when you can relate to people.”
VanVleet arrived at Wichita State in 2012, knowing he’d have to earn his way onto the court. Oregon transfer Malcolm Armstead redshirted the previous season, and with only one year of eligibility remaining, he’d been all but guaranteed the starting point guard job.
Still, VanVleet made his presence felt.
He contributed 16.2 minutes off the bench and averaged 12.5 points in NCAA tournament upsets against Gonzaga and Ohio State.
In the win over No. 1 seed Gonzaga, VanVleet picked up a loose ball that he’d dribbled off his leg and then swished a three-pointer from 23 feet. The basket gave Wichita State a 70-65 lead with one minute, 28 seconds remaining.
“He took the shot, held his follow-through and then looked at me and winked after it went in,” Marshall said. “I thought, ‘He just won the game for us.’ He’s so calm, cool and collected. I sleep easy at night knowing I’ve got him as my point guard.”
This season, there’s no question the Shockers are VanVleet’s team. Marshall said the sophomore is the loudest voice in the huddle—”We need a stoppppp!” VanVleet will scream during timeouts—and the calming force on the court.
Teammates can’t remember a time when VanVleet appeared rattled. He ranks third in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio (4.0) and has only had four games with more than two turnovers.
For the season, VanVleet is averaging 11.9 points, 4.0 rebounds and 5.3 assists. His scoring numbers may look modest, but the main reason he’s one of 10 semifinalists for the Naismith Award is that he doesn’t force shots or try to be a star. His selflessness makes everyone around him better.
“The more you make it about individual, the less it’s going to help your team,” VanVleet said. “As long as we keep that zero in the loss column, everything is going to be fine.”
VanVleet knows that won’t be easy.
Even though they won their 18 MVC games by an average of 15.6 points, the Shockers are hardly expecting to coast through this week’s league tournament, which they haven’t won since 1987. And even if they do capture the title, things will only get tougher in the NCAA tournament.
A handful of college basketball analysts made a habit the past few weeks of questioning Wichita State’s merit, refusing to label the Shockers as an “elite team” because of a resume that’s short on victories against quality opponents. It’s as if last season’s Final Four run never occurred.
“They can talk about our strength of schedule all they want,” VanVleet said. “I don’t care. We’re still undefeated. No one can ever take that from us.
“We’ve got nothing to be nervous about. We’re chasing history right now. We’re enjoying it, embracing it. I know people with real-life problems, people who don’t know if they’re going to see tomorrow, people who don’t care if they see tomorrow.
“This is just basketball. It’s supposed to be fun.”
Even more than his success, comments such as those are what makes Susan VanVleet proud of her son. The early mornings at the YMCA, the AAU trips and nights spent at home instead of out with friends...all of it has paid off.
“It’s nice,” she said, “to see him enjoying this. It’s nice to see him smile.”
If the Shockers advance to the Final Four for the second straight year, Susan vows she’ll be in Arlington, Texas, to watch her son compete.
Financial difficulties kept both of VanVleet’s parents from attending last year’s event in Atlanta, so Susan stayed home while Joe traveled to the Georgia Dome, where Wichita State lost to Louisville, 72-68, in the national semifinals.
Watching from the stands, Joe said he couldn’t help but get teary-eyed when VanVleet took the court. The phone call he received a few weeks later touched him even more.
“It all makes sense now,” VanVleet said he told his stepdad. “Now I understand why you pushed me so hard. I wouldn’t be here without you.
“I love you.”
Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.