Bet On Rockford: How Fred VanVleet is Revitalizing Basketball Back Home

Written By: Joshua Howe

Impact is a fluid concoction of tangibles and intangibles, both on the basketball court and off of it, and there’s no one who epitomizes the term more than Fred VanVleet.

To this point in his basketball journey, the on-court impact has been vehemently clear. All one has to do is watch him. Whether it was teaming up with Pascal Siakam in 2017 to power the newly minted Raptors 905 to their first title, or becoming the spearhead of the Toronto Raptors’ Bench Mob in 2018, or, most stupendously of all, becoming a key cog in Toronto’s first ever championship run last season, VanVleet has always managed to defy the odds and exceed the premature expectations placed upon him by dismissive skeptics.

And now, with a ring to show for it, VanVleet has carved his everlasting imprint into the landscape of the NBA.
But off the floor, way off the floor—615 miles from Toronto, to be exact—VanVleet’s impact is being felt in a manner far different than that of saving a loose ball or draining a deep, contested three.

In Rockford, Ill., the Forest City, the pulse of which flows through VanVleet’s veins like blood and is steeped in the depths of his very core, the 25-year-old has built himself a legacy born out of accomplishment and grit, the likes of which have laid the foundation for him to shape something that few are afforded the opportunity to: The future.

VanVleet desires to revitalize basketball in Rockford, both by bringing pro hoops back to the area and by cultivating the young talent that already exists there. And so, back in early November, it was revealed that he had taken a tangible step towards this goal by unveiling a sponsored court at the BMO Harris Bank Center, the largest arena—it has a capacity of 6,000-7,000 seats, depending on how it’s laid out—the city has to offer.

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It’s here, with his now-famous logo emblazoned upon the hardwood, that VanVleet hopes to form a basketball sanctuary, a seed from which to grow a burgeoning desire that he knows exists.

“[Rockford’s] a big basketball town in terms of youth basketball, AAU, high school sports,” VanVleet said. “Basketball is a thing, but as far as local attractions, we used to have a CBA team before the CBA folded and so that was part of the deal was just trying to recruit basketball back to the area and me being a part of that.

“Obviously in the off-season I’ll do a lot of events there, whether it be camps, celebrity games, three-on-three tournaments, stuff like that. We’re just trying to liven it back up and bring basketball back—it’s a beautiful arena so we’ll get some activity going back in there.”

It was during the Raptors’ historic run in the 2019 playoffs that Troy Flynn, the general manager/executive director of the BMO Harris Bank Center, suddenly saw the same potential, and immediately proceeded to act upon it.

“Fred had been in the community,” Flynn said, “but we didn’t really connect the dots until we saw how many people were coming out to the watch parties and how Rockford really embraced everything because we hadn’t done a lot of basketball here in our tenure. So when we looked at it, we told ourselves, this makes perfect sense because he’s such a community asset. Fred got right on board.”

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From there, the process moved quickly.

Because the partnership and plans for the court began in the fall, arrangements had to be worked around the usual tasks associated with the start of a new AHL season, since the Rockford IceHogs, the minor league affiliate of the Chicago Blackhawks, are the arena’s main venue tenant. As such, Flynn and company were tasked with sharp deadlines not only to actually locate and plan for upcoming events to host, but also to refurbish the court itself, which took up to four days alone to cure and required the building to be hot—something that they had to shift as soon as the floor was complete so that they could subsequently cool the building down in order to put the ice in for the ‘Hogs.

Despite the hurriedness of it all, Flynn is pleased with the outcome.

“Our court was old and needed to be refinished,” he said, “and we really needed kind of a champion to take that on—Fred was willing to be that champion. … To be able to make this was a huge coordinated effort and ultimately really reflects well not only on Fred and what he’s done in the community but kind of the initiatives we have for the future. Fred’s going to be part of basketball in Rockford.”

Thus far, the court has been an early success. In its short existence, it has already played host to a G League double-header which featured the Windy City Bulls against the Iowa Wolves and the Sioux Falls Skyforce against the Wisconsin Herd. There are also plans to house the Harlem Globetrotters, and maybe even an NBA pre-season game, should the league approve.

“We have a court now that is world class,” Flynn said. “We can put anybody on it, and we’re going to start figuring our how to support basketball differently. Maybe we reach out to the WNBA, and we try something out with them. We’re talking to different universities, we’re talking to the local high schools for sure about tournaments, and we’re talking about touring entertainment.”

To fully understand why VanVleet’s desire to reinvigorate basketball in his hometown by doing things like sponsoring a new court is so vitally important to him, one must look to the intangibles, and it starts with getting a sense for how deep-rooted his love for the sport truly is, and how that in itself has spread amongst the community.

Few have born witness to that sort of display of passion from VanVleet, who often appears rather serious and cool, as if nothing in the world could shake him. But Bryan Ott, VanVleet’s high school coach who was at the helm when the team made their first IHSA (Illinois High School Association) final four appearance in 2012 and who remains the head coach of Auburn Knights, certainly has.

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“His senior year, we made it downstate,” Ott recalled, “and it had been a long time coming that we’d been building towards that—the year before we fell one game short. He was determined, his classmates were determined—we had a terrific run his senior year: We were 32–3, and we finished third in the state.
“What I’ll never forget, though, is that on the way down he was in the minivan with me, and he was sitting in the front seat. He was so giddy, like a little kid. He must’ve said to me, like, a dozen times on the way down there, just interrupting whatever else was going on—[his teammates] were celebrating, having a good time—‘Coach, we’re going downstate, man! Can you believe this? We’re going downstate!’ I mean, he was just like a little kid at that point. So in love with basketball and so happy to be going downstate. It was such a huge thing at that point in his life, my life, for all of us, and that kind of pure joy and exuberance sticks out.”

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It is precisely this exuberance that has captured the hearts and minds of the general public. Even if his personal moments of pure jubilance are reserved for more intimate situations, his game depicts that quality for all to see.

In fact, VanVleet became such a sensation during the playoffs last post-season that Rockford elected to fabricate their own, smaller version of Jurassic Park, the name now given to Toronto’s outdoor Maple Leaf Square where fans gather in droves to watch Raptors playoff games. And just like in Toronto, the so-called JP Rockford attracted a wide variety of participants, generating a uniquely diverse audience.

“Everybody [at the event] was united and cheering on the hometown hero,” Flynn said. “Fred giving a shoutout to Rockford with his busted tooth—I mean, that was half-hockey, half-basketball, all Rockford. You just couldn’t have scripted it any better.”

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VanVleet’s ensuing elevated status has only made things easier for him in terms of continuing to place emphasis upon nurturing an organic affection for basketball. Now more than ever, people push to get their kids into VanVleet’s camp, which he has held every summer for the past three years. But the rush to partake in the event isn’t solely based upon connecting to VanVleet’s social prestige—no, it’s also because of the notable level of personal involvement he has in each outing.

“It’s not like the typical camp that’s named after somebody where maybe [the person] makes an appearance one day and gives a half hour talk and that’s it,” Ott said. “He’s literally there every day of the camp and he’s literally leading the drills and he’s officiating games and all this kind of stuff. He’s hands on with them, and I think people appreciate that because he’s real and he doesn’t forget where he’s come from.”

There’s an authentic element to VanVleet, a genuine willingness to shed his aura of celebrity in order to be closer to the things he truly cares about. That’s an intangible that, whether done consciously or not, has only served to heighten the respect and adoration his hometown populace has for him.
VanVleet has essentially debunked his own mythology, a feat not so easily—or voluntarily—done by most in his rarified position.

“Fred walks around,” Flynn said, “he’s not hard to find if he’s in Rockford. He’s in Target, he’s in shops downtown, he’s out doing an appearance someplace. He’s a very tactile person—you can touch him.”

Perhaps VanVleet makes such an effort to be present because he understands what it feels like for there to be a lack of basketball presence, and just how difficult that can make the first steps of following one’s dreams. After all, if one has no anchor to a desire, if there is nothing to foster the potential love for something, then it is almost certainly a fait accompli that such desire will dissipate.

VanVleet is hoping both he and the court can be that anchor.

“I think I played on a court like one time in my whole life growing up and I don’t even remember what it was for,” VanVleet said, “but it wasn’t even like an option, so to have that … It’s different playing in an arena. It gives kids dreams. You see kids come out and be able to shoot [at Scotiabank], obviously this is a grand arena, but even on small stage like that—to have the bright lights and the big court and just seeing the NBA three-point line, all of those things are important.”

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Fulfilling dreams is the goal. But VanVleet isn’t impractical when it comes to the process required to make such things happen. He knows the saliency of ticket sales, of communicating with local school boards and larger organizations, of spreading the word about the existence of the court throughout the city.
Even still, the groundwork has been laid for success, and VanVleet is confident that Rockford is ready to jump at the opportunity he’s provided them.
“I think it’s just getting people in seats,” VanVleet said. “It’s simply just having events and having opportunity to go to something. We have this nice, beautiful arena that we didn’t really use for basketball—I don’t even think there was a basketball court there for the last few years, so this is the court there, and just to use it whether it be for high school games or anything, just to have a stamp in the community of our downtown where this is the arena, the big arena for big events, and have something that people can use going forward as an outlet, an opportunity to build.”

Impact is a fluid concoction of tangibles and intangibles. It’s something that’s impossible to completely pin down, something that can be seen on a basketball court and merely felt off of it. But as the people in Rockford will tell you, both parts are equally potent, equally moving.
They should know. They’ve witnessed them both firsthand.

And they will tell you that there is no one—no one—who epitomizes the overall meaning of the term more than Fred VanVleet.
“He empowers people to dream big,” Ott said. “You know? Like, if he can do it, then maybe so can I.”

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