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Houston Rockets guard Fred VanVleet works to elevate youths in his hometown

VanVleet Family Foundation hosted 113 kids from Rockford, Illinois, at game vs. Milwaukee Bucks

MILWAUKEE – The 113 kids from Rockford, Illinois, were spent and restless from a long and glorious day as they waited to say hello to their hometown hero. And when Houston Rockets guard Fred VanVleet finally arrived after their game against the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday, the kids, ranging in age from elementary to high school, got a jolt of energy, yelled and screamed, “Fred!”

Before climbing into the stands to take a group photo, a beaming VanVleet proudly looked at his mother, Susan Danforth, and said, “These are my kids.”

“[Rockford] is the city and the community that made me who I am as a person,” VanVleet told Andscape. “It has afforded me all this success and all these things I get to do. This is payback for me. Also, the older I get I’m starting to see the generations that are coming up under me and the impact we’ve been able to have.”

VanVleet and the VanVleet Family Foundation hosted 51 elementary kids and 62 basketball players from his alma mater Auburn High School (Illinois) during Sunday’s 128-119 loss to the Bucks. The foundation and the Rockford Park District collaborated to purchase nearly 150 tickets from the Bucks for the kids and chaperones.

Danforth, who still lives in Rockford, rode the bus with the kids.

“My mom asked me, ‘Do you know how many kids are coming?’ I didn’t know until [Dec. 16]. I just let my mom do her thing with the foundation and we have a good little team. They’ve been doing some good stuff,” VanVleet said.

From left to right: Houston Rockets guard Fred VanVleet, his mother Susan Danforth and Milwaukee Bucks forward MarJon Beauchamp with elementary and high school kids from Rockford, Illinois, after the Rockets-Bucks game on Dec. 17 in Milwaukee.

VanVleet Family Foundation

Two buses took kids on the 95-mile trip from Rockford to Milwaukee for the game. Before the game, all the kids sat in the lower level to get a closer view of VanVleet and other NBA players while they worked out. The foundation kids cheered loudly when VanVleet came to the court for his pregame workout. He tossed the ball to his mother and hugged her before he took a shot.

Each kid received a $25 meal voucher, a foundation T-shirt, and postgame meet and greet with VanVleet and Bucks forward MarJon Beauchamp, who are both represented by Klutch Sports. Rockets forward Jabari Smith also made a surprise visit to the delight of the high school girls basketball players. Beauchamp offered some words of wisdom before giving every kid a goodbye Christmas gift that included science projects and backpacks.

“I just wanted to bring some joy to these kids before Christmas. It’s a blessing,” Beauchamp said.

The foundation, which provides lunch for the Auburn High School basketball programs before every game and also has an AAU program, brought about 30 Auburn basketball players to Van Vleet’s game last season in Milwaukee when he was playing for the Toronto Raptors. Danforth wanted to bring in more kids this year and succeeded. For many of the kids on Sunday, it was their first time attending an NBA game.

“I hope they get exposure and a hunger to do something bigger than our community,” Danforth said. “Where we live there are not a lot of things always to be hopeful for or to offer an example of things to do. I hope that coming here, just getting out of town allows them to see there are more things in life than just Rockford.”

The foundation’s mission is “to motivate, advance, and enhance the exposure of the youth.” A similar foundation wasn’t available to VanVleet when he grew up mostly without his slain father in Rockford.

VanVleet was born in Rockford on Feb. 25, 1994, to a Black father, Fred Manning, and his white mother, Susan, whose maiden name is VanVleet. Manning was killed in 1999 when VanVleet was 5. After Manning’s death, VanVleet’s mother got remarried to a Rockford police detective named Joe Danforth.

Danforth recalls the challenge of raising her two sons, Darnell and Fred, after their father’s tragic death.

“I kept pushing forward and working,” Danforth said. “I micromanaged them as a parent to make sure they didn’t make the same mistakes.”

Houston Rockets guard Fred VanVleet visits with kids from his hometown of Rockford, Illinois, after the Rockets’ game against the Milwaukee Bucks on Dec. 17 in Milwaukee.

VanVleet Family Foundation

“There aren’t too many things people can lean on in the community [of Rockford] when tragedy strikes. We’ve helped out for different funerals. If a family house burns down, we are there to help people. We always try to be that force in the community that we didn’t have growing up. We take a lot of pride in that.” — Fred VanVleet

VanVleet began playing basketball in his youth and was most inspired by two NBA games he attended in Chicago and Milwaukee. He also used to go watch the Rockford Lightning, who played in the now-defunct Continental Basketball Association.

Danforth said going to those two NBA games inspired her son to work harder to become a standout basketball player.

“Chicago, I sat in the nosebleeds. My head was touching the rafters against the [Minnesota Timberwolves],” VanVleet said. “In Milwaukee, we went to a [Los Angeles] Lakers game. I got to see Kobe [Bryant]. It was crazy.”

“Fred wouldn’t remember, but one of the games was with his middle school kids and the other was with the Junior NBA [program]. Someone got tickets. Those were the only two games he had ever been to, but it had an impact on him. It made him so hungry. He told me playing in the NBA was what he wanted to do in life,” Danforth said.

VanVleet was a three-star basketball recruit at Auburn High School and was ranked as the 83rd best prep prospect in the nation by ESPN in 2012. The 5-foot-11 guard went on to Wichita State where he became a two-time Mountain West Conference Player of the Year and played in the 2013 Final Four.

After going undrafted in 2016, VanVleet ended up making the Toronto Raptors as he won the final roster spot over five other players. In seven seasons with Toronto, he blossomed into one of the franchise’s greatest players, becoming an NBA All-Star in 2022 and winning a championship in 2019. He averaged at least 19 points and six assists in his final three seasons with the Raptors. Van Vleet departed to the Rockets last offseason after signing a three-year, $130 million contract.

“I was really happy for him,” Danforth said. “At the end of the day, he was undrafted. There is a lot of underappreciation that goes with someone that is not drafted. I finally felt that financially someone was truly appreciative of who he is as a basketball player.”

Van Vleet said there wasn’t much for him to do in Rockford during his youth other than go to the Boys & Girls Club. There weren’t many Division I basketball players from his hometown to emulate. He also said he was raised on “cautionary tales” of what not to do instead of having an opportunity to meet someone inspiring.

“My thing growing up was I didn’t want to be one of those [unfortunate] stories. It went the other way,” VanVleet said. “I didn’t really have an idol or someone I looked up to that showed me how to do it or what to do or how I wanted to do it. I just know I didn’t want to fail.”

It is also very important for Van Vleet to be present back in his hometown.

VanVleet lives in Rockford during the offseason, engages with his basketball camp and, through his foundation, has a weekend celebration that includes a party. He began doing a turkey drive in Rockford in 2016 and the foundation was created in 2018. He also owns several buildings in Rockford and has donated autographed memorabilia for auction to Rockford Promise, a nonprofit organization that has raised more than $1 million for college scholarships for area youth.

“There aren’t too many things people can lean on in the community when tragedy strikes,” VanVleet said. “We’ve helped out for different funerals. If a family’s house burns down, we are there to help people. We always try to be that force in the community that we didn’t have growing up. We take a lot of pride in that.”

Danforth retired from the health insurance industry around five years ago to run the foundation full time with the help of Jade Folk. Van Vleet credits his mother, who still lives in Rockford, for teaching him the importance of giving back.

“She has always been nurturing and healthy,” VanVleet said. “She loves to raise kids. She has a big heart. She wants to help everybody. She always been like that. She always taken in people during my childhood. If someone [who needed help] came along, they knew they would be taken care of. When it came to the foundation, we were already doing so much in the community with basketball camps and backpack giveaways, so we just started putting structure around it the last couple of years.”

Said Danforth: “It fills my soul to be able to reach out help someone else. I know what it is like to not have nothing and to think, ‘I got to get to the next day and the day after.’ You have to find a way. And then sometimes along the way someone reaches out a hand and pulls you in. And I want to be that person to pull the masses.”

Who knows if Van Vleet will inspire another NBA player to come out of Rockford. But with his presence, he is inspiring the Rockford youths to do something bigger with their lives than what is offered in their hometown.

“He is an inspiration, showing us that anything is possible to make it out with basketball,” Auburn High senior center Darius Beasley told Andscape. “He just tells us to keep going and to never give up. We all look up to him. And if we all make it out of Rockford, we can all be an inspiration like him.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.