TORONTO -- He started his remarkable journey alone in a hotel room in a new city and a new country, trying to do what no one expected was possible except him.
And in those moments Fred VanVleet would close his eyes and hope that others would see what he believed he could be.
“In training camp as an undrafted rookie… [I remember] just literally being on my knees praying before I went to bed to make the team, like every night,” said VanVleet, one of the most unlikely all-stars in NBA history. “[I was] just pouring out everything I got during practice and workouts and things like that and just praying that somebody was seeing it.
“It’s not really about praying that I’ve done my job, it’s more so for the recognition because I’ve always believed in myself but you know, I’ve never had someone else believe in me like this… that moment right there is something I circle back to as a positive memory for me because I’m a man of faith and just having those times where you’re by yourself and you gotta get through those situations -- everything comes full circle.”
VanVleet got through it.
“I had a pretty good first day of camp,” he said of his rookie year in 2016-17 when he didn’t have a contract and was in a crowd, battling for the 15th spot on the Raptors roster.
“[But] you never know what they’re looking for, I wasn’t even sure we needed a point guard at that time but some of these things are just written before you even go out there.”
The storybook keeps getting better.
On Thursday night when VanVleet learned he had become just the fourth undrafted player -- and the first point guard -- in NBA history to become an all-star, he wasn’t alone.
He heard it first from the crowd -- even if there were just 500 people allowed in Scotiabank Arena, they were able to share the news. They chanted his name.
“They were loud, and you could hear every conversation that’s going on,’” said VanVleet. “So, somebody started screaming right before the anthem or something like that, and that was it.”
He was instantly surrounded by his teammates and then embraced by Chicago Bulls All-Star DeMar DeRozan, one of the veterans that helped VanVleet find his way early in his career. Not that it took too much. VanVleet was a quick learner.
That first day of training camp? He went right at Kyle Lowry, then the Raptors' all-star point guard, opening eyes and getting noticed.
“I think the first play he baited me into a foul like he used to before they changed the rule, a little grab foul,” said VanVleet. “I come down and score, he scored, I scored, he scored, I scored -- it was like a couple of those in a row and you could kinda see everybody in the gym like, ‘OK, this kid can play a little bit,’ and it was on from there.”
VanVleet and DeRozan duelled a little bit on Thursday night -- there was after all a game that interrupted the brief pre-tip All-Star celebration.
“'Don’t spoil the night, don’t spoil the night,’" joked VanVleet. “I thought we played extremely hard.”
The Raptors emerged as 127-120 winners in overtime over the Bulls. In a close contest a long three and a long two by VanVleet seemed to split things open as the Raptors went up eight with 4:35 left in the fourth quarter. DeRozan helped the Bulls come back and force overtime with a quick six-point burst and added two more quick buckets early in the extra period. But a pair of threes by OG Anunoby in overtime helped blunt the Bulls' momentum before VanVleet whipped a cross-court pass on a rope to a wide-open Gary Trent Jr. who cashed it from three for the difference-making blow with 16.5 seconds left.
The win was the Raptors' fourth straight, improved their record to 27-23 and lifted them into seventh place in the tightly packed Eastern Conference. They finish a difficult stretch of five games in seven nights Friday against Atlanta. The Bulls dropped to 32-19 and into a tie with Miami for first place in the East.
VanVleet had 21 points and nine assists on his big night, while Pascal Siakam -- who could easily have been named an all-star with the way he’s been playing since early December -- added 25 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists. Anunoby, Scottie Barnes and Trent Jr. all had 21. Chris Boucher had 16 points and 10 rebounds off the bench for Toronto who took 23 more shots than the Bulls thanks to a 22-12 edge in offensive rebounds and a 17-10 advantage in turnovers.
The Bulls got 28 points, six rebounds and seven assists from DeRozan, while Nikola Vucevic had 30 points and 18 rebounds.
But it was VanVleet’s night. He was one of seven Eastern Conference reserves voted on by the league’s coaches, joining the five starters voted in by fans, media and players announced last week.
It’s the ultimate respect.
“That’s what I play for,” he said. “I never sought out to be a fan favourite, certainly respect and admire the passion and obviously the fans are a large part of what we do in this business, but I always sought out to be respected by my peers first and foremost and the coaches right after that.
“That one would have stung a little bit (to be passed over by the coaches) considering the season that I’ve had if they didn’t pick me but… it definitely means a little bit more coming from them.”
VanVleet’s journey never gets old. In the retelling: the underdog kid from Rockford, the small city west of Chicago that is no place for the meek. Raised in a blended family after his father died when he was five. Overlooked and underestimated and yet eventually triumphant, at every level.
Each new chapter builds the legend.
Even after training camp the rewards came slowly for the seventh Raptors' all-star. He played 26 seconds in the first 16 games of his career and didn’t get a bucket until the 19th. His first start came in his third season, and he didn’t become a starter until this fourth. Two years later he’s part of the league’s elite.
The message is simple: Believe in yourself first and don’t waver. It’s easy to say, and it makes for a cool slogan -- “Bet on Yourself” has been VanVleet’s -- but it’s hard to live it day by day.
— Fred VanVleet (@FredVanVleet) February 4, 2022
But when you do start from that premise and you’re willing to commit to an endless project of self-improvement on the simple belief that good things will happen, oh the places you can go.
Now VanVleet is going to Cleveland -- “Big Rockford,” he jokes -- as an NBA all-star.
“These are just dreams and goals that you have as a kid and you put them on a wall, and you aim high, and you hope for the best,” he said. “Sometimes you land on them, sometimes you don’t, it’s not always pretty, it’s not always easy, but I’m just blessed to be a part of the conversation and it’s just the beginning for me in year six.”