Fred VanVleet’s full circle moment came on Tuesday morning as he sat in front of a custom-made backdrop with his personalized logos staring out into the world.
Next to his initials, FVV, was the mantra that got him to where he is now. The letters BOY sat in a circle, with a bag of money filling the O. The phrase, of course, is the one that he brought to the Raptors as an undrafted free agent and one that he’s flashed in each step of his uncharted path to NBA success: Bet On Yourself.
On Tuesday, the bet officially paid off. While the Raptors don’t release financial terms of their deals, VanVleet has become the highest-paid undrafted player in NBA history. An unshakeable self-belief took him through a determined path in high school in Rockford, Ill. and on to a four-year stay at Wichita State. When few people gave him a chance to get through the Raptors’ training camp in 2016, he knew otherwise. Now everyone knows.
“It’s funny to see how far it's gone,” VanVleet says of how bet on yourself has become affixed to his name and story.
“It also means a lot to me. I know that what I'm doing is paving the way for a lot of guys after me. There are guys getting drafted now that I know for a fact wouldn’t have got drafted in my class or before my class, just because teams are looking at it like, ‘We don't want to miss out on the next Fred VanVleet,’ or, ‘This kid can be Fred or better,’ whatever the case may be.
“Being able to be that guy who’s kind of opening the lane and opening doors for other guys to come after.”
When news of VanVleet’s new deal emerged on Saturday there was a collective celebration from fans and media across the league, many of them rehashing that bet-on-yourself idea. It’s the slogan that’s been attached to what’s been an unlikely journey and what may make VanVleet the most relatable player on the Raptors’ roster.
Jeff Regular was backpacking through northern Thailand in 2001. A GTA kid that volunteered for the Raptors in their inaugural season, bringing fans onto the court for contests and setting up the trampoline for the Raptor (“it was one of the best experiences of my life,” he says), he had his life come together in a town called Pai.
His partner on an elephant ride happened to be a local nurse named Nuit. The two hit it off, him a die hard Raptors fan and her a high school and university basketball player.
A couple years later, they opened a restaurant in Pai called The Curry Shack. After her shifts at the hospital, Nuit would come in and cook for the restaurant. It was clear early on that Nuit had a gift and locals and tourists fell in love with the food. Jeff and Nuit married in 2004 and they eventually moved back to Canada, landing in Toronto on Jan. 22, 2006. Jeff remembers unpacking and seeing the Raptors with a lead in the second quarter against the Lakers in L.A.
“Then Kobe absolutely destroyed us. That’s when he scored 81 points, as we were unpacking our bags from Thailand,” he says, with Nuit groaning at the memory of her introduction to an all-time thorn in the Raptors’ side.
With help from family and friends, they opened a new restaurant, Sukhothai, in 2008. Just like in Thailand, people loved the food. Sukhothai led to the opening of Sabai Sabai, then Kiin and finally PAI Northern Thai Kitchen, named after the town they met in. They’re now opening a second PAI in uptown Toronto.
They’ve woven basketball into that growth with intra-restaurant staff games where each restaurant has unique jerseys. They book gyms, they pay for refs and they present the winners with a trophy. They have Raptor-themed cocktails and hang team photos in their restaurants.
In September, when the Raptors were fighting their way through the bubble in Florida, Jeff and Nuit took a logo designed by friends and put it on the front door of PAI: VanVleet and Eat, offering the then-pending free agent free meals at PAI if he opted to stay in Toronto.
They didn’t hear anything from VanVleet, but they made it clear in our conversation that the offer still stands.
Nuit has established herself as one of the top chefs in Toronto, with her cooking recognized twice by the Thai government. The glowing reviews, awards and Nuit’s appearances on the Food Network have elevated their establishment’s presence. Celebrities have dined there and they appreciate it, but as Jeff says, “bring me the ninth guy on a NBA roster and I’ll completely lose it,” he laughs.
“Like a little boy, happy,” Nuit adds, laughing.
They’ve had their share of NBA regulars. Jonas Valanciunas and Patrick Patterson frequently stopped in when they played in Toronto. James Harden comes in whenever the Rockets make their annual trip to Toronto and former Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni is a fan as well. The list goes on.
Even though he hasn’t come in yet, there’s a special connection for them with VanVleet.
Nuit thinks back to her time as a nurse. She made a career change and eventually left her life in Thailand for a new one in Canada. She didn’t plan that growing up. Few people have to bet on themselves the way that entrepreneurs do and that’s multiplied infinitely in a pandemic.
“Looking back to all of that I am very proud of us, being this far,” Nuit says. “The way that everything that's in front of me...it's like a dream.”
“We knew that we had talent. I knew that Nuit’s cooking ability was crazy. We needed to figure out how to get other people to know it,” Jeff adds.
“It was such a crazy struggle. I think the first few months, nobody would walk into the restaurant, it was really tough. We were losing money every day but we kept going at it, knowing that it’s one little thing we need to figure out and once that happens, everything will fall into place. We completely trusted our ability to make it happen.”
As a basketball fan, Jeff’s always been about the underdog. Seeing VanVleet get recognized for his hard work the last four years was fulfilling for him.
“I like his attitude,” he says. “He's not a trash talker. It's all about his actions, not about his words. We're kind of the same. We just put our heads down and go to work and then we step back and we look and yes, we're happy with it but we never stop, either.”
“We know we can do better,” Nuit says.
Answering a random direct message on short notice, Nadia Lloyd only needed to see the name Fred VanVleet and the phrase bet on yourself to want to chat.
“He's such an inspiration in that way,” she said.
“In terms of believing in yourself, bet on yourself, don't dim your light. It gives other people permission to let their light shine, too.”
Lloyd and VanVleet are linked in a unique way, both finding strength to use their respective voices at a point when it felt like the world wanted to silence them. The murder of George Floyd on May 25 sparked a racial awakening in the United States that sent waves of unrest and overdue conversation around the world. It inspired Lloyd, a Toronto-based artist, designer and entrepreneur to design some Toronto and Black Lives Matter-themed facemasks.
A well-placed post in a neighbourhood Facebook group found its way to Roberta Nurse, the wife of Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. He bought masks from Lloyd (with $5.00 from every purchase going to Black Lives Matter Toronto) for his players and coaching staff in the bubble. Many of the players wore their masks for their media sessions and the images went viral. VanVleet took the time to give Lloyd and her son a shout out for the work.
“Feeling anger and hopelessness and confusion and sadness, feeling all of these emotions, all of that led to the design of the mask,” Lloyd explains.
“Not in my wildest dreams did I ever think that it would make it to the Raptors, but it did. Then that moment kind of came full circle, in a lot of ways.”
Almost a month later, VanVleet would be one of the more outspoken players in the bubble in the wake of the shooting of Jacob Blake. The NBA paused the postseason for two days as players weighed whether or not they wanted to continue playing or focus more of their energy into advocating for racial equality.
Playing in a contract year, VanVleet could have easily laid low or kept his opinions to himself to ensure he had a stage to show teams what he could do in the playoffs. Instead, he did what he thought was right and put himself out there. Basketball’s not as important as addressing serious, real-world issues, but VanVleet’s approach on the court is the same.
That resonated to Lloyd.
“When I was about 16-years old, I came across a thing that said, ‘You create your own destiny or someone else will,’” she says.
“That resonated with me, through every single cell in my body and it's how I've lived my life ever since. This is why bet on yourself resonates with me so well. It's because I've literally built my life that way.”
When she has an idea or a vision, she takes it on herself, be it the funding or the physical work of it.
“If I believe in something and I believe in myself and I believe that I can make it happen and materialize it, then I'm full speed ahead with blinders on,” she said.
“At the end of the day I'm a self-taught artist, entrepreneur and designer. Everything I do, I've taught myself to do. Betting on myself is in my DNA. It's how I live my life. And I love that he's putting that message out there to inspire others to do it. I absolutely love that.”
Lloyd’s son is nine and while she’ll give him this message his entire life, having it come to him from an athlete will surely register with him in a different way as well.
“His message can touch millions and can influence millions in such a positive way,” Lloyd said.
“If (VanVleet) is anything like me, he's doing it for himself. But what happens in the process is that it inspires others, then it gives others permission. That's really what I think is the beauty of this, is that he's doing himself and letting his light shine. In the process, he's going to help millions of people gain confidence so that they can pursue whatever it is that they'd love to accomplish.”
Near the end of his press conference on Tuesday, VanVleet spoke about the idea of the bet he made reaching beyond himself, out of the Raptors’ locker room and going out into the world.
“It means the world to me,” he says.
It’s not always this story, he adds, noting that his journey had lows in it and that the social media perception of every day being the best day of your life isn’t realistic. This has been a marathon, but as many people find when they chase their passions, the journey rewards you in its own ways.
“This is a way of life, man. I'm proud and excited and extremely humbled that I’ve started to see it transition from sports to regular life,” VanVleet says.
“We have people who work in regular jobs that come up to us and tell us that they hate their job and they have this passion and they want to pursue this passion. Those types of things mean the most to me.”