Don’t get it twisted: Fred VanVleet is competing for an NBA championship next season. He wants this to be clear.
The Toronto Raptors are coming off a so-called “rebuild year” that saw them obliterate expectations, finish fifth in the Eastern Conference, and put up a stouthearted fight against the Philadelphia 76ers. Add in the parity in the league, and that’s about all the convincing the team’s starting point guard needs that they can be chip contenders.
“I think that’s enough rebuilding for me at least. I’m not 20 years old, you know?” VanVleet tells Complex Canada. “As I’ve become the old man of this team somehow, I think it’s time to take advantage of these years.”
You can’t blame the 28-year-old for being ambitious. In his sixth NBA season, VanVleet cracked the All-Star roster for the first time, hit career highs in points (20.3), assists (6.7), and rebounds (4.4), and seamlessly emerged as the team’s clear leader in the wake of Kyle Lowry’s departure.
Playing a league-leading 37.9 minutes per game didn’t stop him from relishing the role off the court too. VanVleet was named a finalist for the NBA’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Social Justice Champion award for the way he went over and above for Canada’s disadvantaged communities this season—he created a University of Toronto scholarship for Black and Indigenous students, handed out backpacks in at-risk neighbourhoods, and launched a podcast amplifying BIPOC entrepreneurs. He’s also currently one of the faces of Amex Canada’s Blueprint, a mentorship and grant program that will help 100 BIPOC business owners across the country to keep betting on themselves.
We chatted with VanVleet about the future of the Raptors, his support for Canada’s marginalized communities, and a potential showdown between him and Drake.
At the end of last season there was this quote from you where you said, “I went from underrated to overrated very fast.” Can you talk about what you meant by that statement?
Nah, that was more so a joke for the Twitter people; you know, the people that like to play in the comments online. But yeah, I don’t actually think I’m overrated. That was more just a testament to reaching this level. And everybody who watches me is going to say, “How can he be better than that? What’s his next level?” People always put limits on me. So that was more so just a testament to how I view myself and how I challenge myself to be better and I’m not really ever satisfied with things that I’ve done because I know that I can do more. I’m just excited to come back a better player next year.
Are there any specific areas of your game that you plan to focus on this offseason?
I think priority number one for me is just to get my body back right. You know, to be able to sustain the amount of minutes and the wear and tear on my body. I suffered a couple of contact injuries that I couldn’t avoid, so I just [want to] get my body right, stronger, faster, quicker. And then obviously, I want to clean up my finishing at the rim, which is always going to be an adventure at my size; add the floater as another weapon in the toolbox and keep expanding on being a shooter. So I’m really looking forward to getting back out there with the team. We should be pretty exciting to watch next year.
“I think [Drake’s] ducking me. I think he’s ducking me. But we’re gonna set it up. I just told him we gotta play for money.”
We just passed the three-year anniversary of the Raptors winning the championship. So many priceless memories from that run, but the one I keep coming back to is that moment when you hit the clutch three in Game 6 and let out this scream. That moment’s iconic now, right? You still always see it on social media, it’s been immortalized in illustrations. What was going on in your head during that scream?
That’s just raw emotion. You know, it was hard for me to celebrate within the gameplay but I think they called a time out or something, so I could just let it out. It was a little delayed, but that was just raw emotion. And that was a build up from struggling in the playoffs to not playing to having a son—all of those things were building up into one moment. I just felt like that shot was the dagger, you know what I mean? The way the game was going at that moment, that gave us a big boost. So that was just raw emotion.
It seems as soon as your son was born you flipped a switch and became unstoppable during that playoff run. Is Fred Jr. aware that he’s kind of a living legend in Toronto?
I’m not sure if he’s aware, but there’s certainly a spoiled brat. Everywhere he goes, people love him and they gravitate toward him. So he’ll learn at some point or another.
Last season, everyone underestimated the Raptors. It was supposed to be a rebuild season and you exceeded expectations. Going into this next season, do you think there’s room to keep building towards something, or are you ready to just go for the throat?
No, I think it’s time. I think that’s enough rebuilding for me at least. I’m not 20 years old, you know? As I’ve become the old man of this team somehow, I think it’s time to take advantage of these years. And I think that the league has changed a lot. It’s just as wide open as ever and there’s more parity than ever. Boston was a .500 level team at one point in the season that found it and they took it all the way to the Finals. So I think it’s very doable and we have the tools; knowing what it takes to win a championship, we have the pieces. It’s just a matter of can we get those pieces to play in a way that’s going to help us compete for a championship?
You were a finalist for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Social Justice Championship Award this year. What did it mean for you to get that nod?
You know, it was a pleasant surprise for sure. It’s not something that I had on my radar or something that I even ever thought about. I know the NBA does the NBA Cares [Community Assist] Award every year, but this one wasn’t really on my radar. It’s not something that I was trying to win by any stretch of the imagination. But I think it’s cool to be recognized for some of the work that we’ve done, and this definitely sets a good precedent for the next generation to know that if you do go out here and do good and do your part—even if you’re not trying to per se—you could still be recognized for that. So it’s a huge honor to be even mentioned in the same sentence as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
I know that supporting BIPOC business owners in Canada is something that you’ve really been passionate about as of late, whether it’s through your podcast or programs like Blueprint. Why is that something that’s so important to you?
Well, first of all, I identify as a minority, I identify as an entrepreneur, I identify as a small business owner. So these are all things that are near and dear to my heart. I try to find things that I’m passionate about and find partnerships that make sense and this is certainly one of those things where it’s a match made in heaven, where I found Amex, we found each other, and started this program. So the Blueprint program is dedicated to helping BIPOC entrepreneurs and small business owners. And this is the second year doing it; the first year was very successful. So we’re excited about it and it’s just something that I’m passionate about.
“I just want to be some type of hope, because I know what it’s like to be helpless and I know what it’s like to stand next to kids who are raising themselves.”
It’s really dope to see you create opportunities for marginalized youth, especially when you consider that statistically, it’s often these communities that are struggling the most from gun violence. And oftentimes it’s due to a lack of opportunities in those areas. You come from Rockford, which is in a very similar situation. So you must know better than most how something like a scholarship can change the life of a kid from an area like that, right?
There’s this old saying that if you change one person’s life, then you’ve done your job. And so that’s the mindset that I’ve had since I was even a teenager. I just wanted to get myself to the point where I could affect one person’s life. You know, I start with my family and branch out from there. So I’ve been able to impact and influence or just inspire a lot of people and a lot of kids, and that’s something that I take a lot of pride in. I’m not a perfect man. I don’t try to pretend to be a saint or anything like that, but at the end of the day, I care about people. I try to make things better and I try to contribute, create value wherever I go.
And you speak about marginalized youth—I was one of those kids. I did lose my father to gun violence and my life could have gone a whole ’nother way, you know what I mean? And I’m still here. So to be able to make it through that—and I had a pretty good upbringing compared to my friends and people that I grew up with, having two parents at home most of the time. My stepdad came in and really was a major part of my upbringing. But I just want to be some type of hope, because I know what it’s like to be helpless and I know what it’s like to stand next to kids who are raising themselves.
You may have just answered this, but was there one person in particular who had that kind of effect on you and changed the course of your life?
The difference was just, you know, coming from where I grew up, there was really no access to celebrities or professional athletes. We don’t have a pro team. We don’t even have a division I or a Division II college team. We had some junior colleges, but there was really no access to those beacons of hope and light, and people coming into the community. So you just leaned on community leaders. My stepdad was a basketball coach and a police officer. My high school coach taught African American studies and he’s a pastor. So, I had positive role models in my life and I’m just trying to do my part and carry the baton.
The Toronto police just released data showing that Black, Indigenous and other racialized communities have been more likely to be subjected to use of force by cops than other groups. The police chief issued an apology, the mayor issued an apology. What’s your reaction to hearing that news?
Well, that’s the way things are. I think that if the police are going to step up and acknowledge that, the mayor is gonna acknowledge that, I think that’s a step in the right direction because I live in a place where that’s certainly not the case. And I grew up in a place where that’s not the case. We don’t get too many apologies from the government or the police. So, you know, we can’t change the past, but we can definitely change the future and correct our ways along the way. And that’s one of the things I like about living in Canada, it’s that things seem to be getting addressed and maybe not as fast as the people that are being discriminated against would like, but you know, I live a super privileged life, so it’s not really my place to say. But definitely being a minority or a BIPOC person that identifies with that, you face certain challenges that the average person wouldn’t really understand.
Absolutely. What’s your advice to a BIPOC kid who feels like the odds are stacked against them, and who’s got countless roadblocks in the way of achieving their dreams?
To just, you know, bet on yourself. [Laughs.] Never stop believing. I really live that every day. Be your biggest fan, keep the confidence, and understand that just because things are the way they are doesn’t mean that it has to stay that way. It doesn’t mean that you have to accept that reality, but face the reality for sure and understand what that means to you and your situation. I think there’s always a way out. You just have to work a little bit harder, do a little bit more, and be a little bit greater. I’m challenging people in my position and other businesses and brands that are dealing with it to step up to the plate and help ease that process.
Speaking of betting on yourself, something from this season that really warmed my heart was when you and Norman Powell released that Bet on the Grind collab between your personal brands. I love that you guys are still tight like that, even after he left the team. Are you still boys with a bunch of former Raptors? Do you guys all have a group chat going?
Yeah, no, we don’t do the group chat. But most of the time, once I meet somebody and we develop that brotherhood, that’s going to be for life, at least on my end. So me and Norm are still really close. We spend time together and that was something that just presented itself. I thought it was really cool because I was the first one to jump out there with a brand. I remember everybody thought I was crazy when I did it, but Norm just started picking my brain day by day to see how he wanted to do his. So he ended up launching his own line. And then this collab was all them. Him and his team put all that together and all I had to do was sign off on it. I thought that was a cool moment where everything came full circle. Sometimes I’ll jump out the window and do crazy stuff that everybody else wants to do, but they may not have the wherewithal to go do it. So I’ll take the bullets for everybody else.
It’s always a big moment in Toronto when Drake drops. He’s got such a huge presence on the team; he’s incredibly vocal at games. What’s your relationship like with The Boy?
He’s just a good dude, man. He’s a good dude. We love having him at the games. We love having him as a Raptors fan. He’s just a super cool guy. Obviously, I was a fan before I met him. So just to be able to create a relationship with him over the years is really dope. And he means a lot to the city and to the country as one of the more famous Canadians of our time. I think he’s a great ambassador for basketball and for Canada.
And he plays ball too. I know there’s that clip of him playing Lowry this season. Have you ever played Drake one-on-one?
Nah, I think he’s ducking me. I think he’s ducking me. But we’re gonna set it up. I just told him we gotta play for money. But we’re gonna set it up.
How much are you gonna put on the line?
I don’t know. That’ll be up to him. He’s got way more money than I do, so we’ll see.