‘Unlikely’ is a word that gets used a lot when people describe Fred VanVleet. Which tracks. After all, in five short years, the 27-year-old guard has gone from an undrafted, undersized kid from Rockford, Illinois to an NBA champion and the Toronto Raptors’ acting leader. He’s currently the highest-paid undrafted player in the league’s history, holds Toronto’s franchise record for most points scored in a single game, and has already reached new career highs (in assists and rebounds) this young season. It’s the kind of storybook ascent that’s been hard to believe—for everyone but himself.
“I’m probably a little crazy to a certain extent, to be honest, but I’ve always believed this would happen,” VanVleet tells Complex Canada of his rise to basketball stardom. “If you talk to anybody who’s known me since I was a kid, they’ll tell you the same thing: I always knew that this was going to go like this.” His catchphrase isn’t ‘Bet on yourself’ for nothing.
For his next unlikely feat, the Raptors star has signed on to become the newest face of UGG Canada. Sure, VanVleet may not seem like the most obvious player on the team to rep the brand—OG Anunoby has been rocking the fluffy footwear since time—but the partnership makes sense once you think about it: just as UGG has defied stodgy norms in the fashion world, Fred’s shattered conventions in the NBA by following his own path.
Now, VanVleet wants to empower others to bet on themselves too. His campaign for UGG Canada was co-produced with Toronto-based agency YUTE Studio, who recruited local BIPOC youth to lead the set design, cinematography, and photography for the shoot. Dubbed “Make It Count,” the campaign sees the Raptor rock various styles from the footwear brand while acting as the voice in the back of your head, encouraging youth to face challenges head-on and never lose sight of their goals. Fred says he’s passionate about providing the next generation with inspiration and opportunities. He knows better than most that with enough self-confidence, you can accomplish damn well anything, no matter the odds.
We caught up with VanVleet to chat about the UGG campaign, the most stylish guy on the Raptors, his manifestation techniques, and what he’s got left to prove.
Fred, let me start off by saying: I’ve got you on my fantasy team, and I know you’ve been hitting some career highs lately. So, thank you so much.
[Laughs] All good, man. Yeah, I feel good. I feel like I’m getting better. I’m just continuing to try to grow and lead this team to as many wins as possible. And whatever comes in between, I just take it in stride. But I definitely feel like I’ve been finding my rhythm a little bit more and more. It’s a process.
With Kyle Lowry’s departure, there’s obviously a leadership void to fill on the Raptors, both on and off the court. How do you feel about filling those shoes? Are there any lessons you’ve taken from Kyle to help fill them?
Yeah, for sure, I learned a lot from Kyle. But I really don’t have to fill his shoes—I already had my own shoes on while he was here. So I’ve been building up to that for the last couple of years and now there’s definitely a void that he left, but I don’t really think it’s for me to fill. I think it’s [a chance] for some of the other guys to step up. We’re seeing that this year. Pascal’s been a lot more vocal than he usually was. Even Scottie, I think he has some leadership qualities. So there’s going to be chances for guys to step up and be leaders, but it takes more than one. I don’t want to act like I’m the only guy with a voice on the team, but obviously, I think people look to me as the natural leader.
Awesome. Well, with that out of the way, let’s just dive right into it: What made you want to link up with UGG Canada?
First and foremost, I like the brand. My family’s been using the products for a while in my household. It’s just a partnership that’s been developing over the last year, especially with UGG Canada being in Toronto. I think we’re aligned in some different areas and things that we want to do, especially with this campaign that we did where they took a young production company and allowed them to do the shoot.
“My girlfriend actually put me on UGG, but OG was the first male that I saw wearing them as casual wear outside of the house. I was just like, ‘Damn, I ain’t know you can do that!’”
The shoot looks dope! I love that local BIPOC youth got the opportunity to work on a big project like this. I noticed that you’ve been participating in several initiatives supporting underserved youth in Toronto as of late. Why is that kind of thing important to you?
It’s just something I’m passionate about. You know, we have to focus on the next generation and one way to do that is to reach back out, pull them along, and give opportunities to people that are very deserving and worthy, but maybe won’t get this chance due to their background or their age. So, this group for UGG Canada was very sharp and professional. They did a great job with the shoot. I think it’s important to bring people along with you and be assertive about the people you choose to work with.
I come from one of those communities that’s forgotten about and not paid attention to. Growing up, there were a lot of times where I wished my community had certain things or people to come back and just shine a light on it or put money or time or resources into it, because it can change somebody’s life. So me being in this position now, I feel like I owe that to the communities that are similar to the ones I come from. I’ve been doing a lot of work in my community for a long time now, and as I take on a new chapter in my journey professionally and try to be one of the staples in Toronto, I think it’s just as important to put my roots down in this community as well.
Do you see any parallels between Toronto and Rockford?
[Laughs] No, no, not many. But I will say I always gravitate towards people that are similar to me. I found that Toronto has a lot of my similar mindset, which is the underdog mentality and just feeling like you have a chip on your shoulder all the time, feeling eager to prove yourself. But since I’ve been here in my six years, I’ve seen the city blossom and grow into something beautiful. So it’s just cool to be a part of it.
So, I know that OG Anunoby is a big fan of UGG. I’ve seen him rocking them off the court. Did he put you onto UGG?
No, he didn’t really put me on them, but I will say he was the first person I’ve seen that wore them casually. Like, I definitely knew about UGG and had them as far as house slippers and things like that. My girlfriend actually put me on UGG, but OG was the first male that I saw wearing them as casual wear outside of the house. You know, he would wear them anywhere. So I definitely got to give him credit for that. Like, he was wearing them to the game. I was just like, “Damn, I ain’t know you can do that!” But he definitely had the swag to pull it off.
“It’s just about gatekeepers. We have this fixation with people who are in positions of power and thinking they’re way smarter than we are. That’s really not the case in most scenarios.”
We’ve been seeing players in the NBA become fashion icons in the wider culture. There’s more eyes than ever before on what players are wearing to games. How important is style to you?
It’s very important to me, but I don’t really dive into the actual fashion world, you know what I’m saying? I do it pretty selfishly. It’s a personal thing for me. I just like to look good. I like what I like, and I like to take the time to shop and put the outfits together. That’s something I enjoy doing. But as far as trying to impact other people, I really don’t care what people think about my style. There’s a lot of things that are considered fashionable or not fashionable that I don’t agree with. My style is kind of personal to me.
How would you describe your style?
It’s grown over time. There’s been ups and downs, highs and lows [laughs]. I’ve tried things that didn’t work. But if I leave the house feeling good, then I’ve got a good fit on. I’ve definitely worn stuff that wasn’t the best-looking back in the day, but I just try to keep it clean and not as loud as some.
Any examples of fits that didn’t work?
Uh, some sweatsuits. I like sweatsuits, but sometimes the designs can get a little crazy when you look at them in a picture. That’s the thing. When you put it on at home, it looks good, but sometimes when you see it in a picture, it don’t hit the same. So I definitely had fits early on that I probably wouldn’t wear now, but that’s the good thing about style: it changes and it changes pretty fast.
I know Serge Ibaka could probably lay claim to the title of ‘most stylish man on the Raptors’ a couple years ago. Who would you say is the most stylish player on the team now?
The most stylish? Definitely Gary Trent Jr. He’s one of those fashion guys that’s in that world, with the name brands and some of that flashy stuff. He’s got that box checked off. He could do Fashion Week and all that for sure [laughs].
Your whole story has been about taking the unconventional path. ‘Bet on yourself’ has become your trademark and sort of a mantra for other players who’ve had to claw their own way to the NBA. When did you first coin that phrase?
It was in 2016, right after the draft, when I went undrafted. My agent at the time said it to me. It’s something that I feel like I always had in me, but that was the first time I ever started to just actualize it into words. And I think I tweeted it that night. I put it out there, and it just stuck with me, man. It’s just something I just kept with me and I kept repeating it to myself and sharing it. I was amazed by how many other people that it resonated with. And now I see it everywhere. Almost every day now, I see ‘Bet on yourself’ somewhere. So it’s great that it’s become a mainstream phrase.
“I want to be even more paid. I want another championship. I want to be the All-Star. I want to be the guy leading this team that nobody thought was going to be any good to the playoffs and winning in the playoffs.”
What would you say you’ve learned from taking an unconventional path?
Really, I learned that I was right the whole time. I learned that people really don’t know as much as you think they know. When you come from certain places or you feel like you’re being counted out, you trick yourself into thinking that these people in positions of power know what they’re talking about. And they really don’t. Everybody is guessing. And once you get to the other side, you can see that clearly. I think you’ve just gotta stay confident, give yourself the best chance, and understand that it might not always go your way, but you have just as good a chance as anybody. Politics are everywhere in every aspect, but at the end of the day, I picked up a profession where if you’re good enough, they’ll find you. And that’s what I kept telling myself.
That’s really interesting what you just said—that we tend to give people in positions of power too much credit.
Yeah, I mean, it’s just about gatekeepers. We have this fixation with people who are in positions of power and thinking they’re way smarter than we are. That’s really not the case in most scenarios. Now, they do have their expertise or experience, but it’s not like it’s a hidden skill or a talent. Most times, everybody can do it or everybody has the opportunity at least. You just have to try to create the opportunity.
There’s a lot of youth in Toronto who might feel like these lofty positions or fancy job titles are way out of their reach. What’s your message to them?
I just try to share my confidence with people, especially young people, because one thing I’ve noticed is that everybody doesn’t have that. There’s a lot of talented people out there, all over the world, who really don’t believe it because of their circumstances. So, I just try to help people understand that if you’re good at what you do and you work hard and you believe it, it’s possible. Like, you’ve got to really believe it every day until somebody else believes with you. My story went that way; I had to make people believe. It’s definitely possible, but it’s an uphill battle.
It kinda sounds like you believe in manifestation.
Yeah, absolutely. Before I even knew it was a thing, it was something I would do. I would visualize things as a young kid. Me and my brother had a gravel driveway we would play basketball on. We’d play one-on-one and he would beat me up and we would practice game-winning shots and do the countdown and imagine we were playing in NBA arenas. That visualization is powerful. I would visualize what it would be like to go to college and go to the Final Four and all of those things. I started writing my goals down as I got a little older, and everything that I started to put my mind to started to happen for me. It just kept growing. So, it’s something that I definitely believe in and that I practice daily. I visualize daily, I write goals down, I adjust my goals, I find new things that interest me. I just try to be positive and continue to train my brain to be strong.
When you say your brother beat you up, you mean that figuratively, right? Not literally?
Yeah, no, both [laughs]. It was like the neighborhood joke; everybody would come to our house and we would fight in the living room or fight in the garage. We would just be going at it. He’s definitely the reason why I’m crazy now, and part of the reason why I have my toughness and I’m not scared of anybody, because I had to fight him my whole life.
So that’s where you get it from! I feel like the Raptors are a perfect example of a team that’s bucked tradition and had to forge its own path.
I mean, absolutely. We’re the only team not in the United States. Just that alone presents its own challenges. We’re just not really looked at the same way as some of the other top teams. If you look at the last couple years, the Raptors were near the top of the league in terms of wins. We won a championship and we still aren’t looked at as some of those other teams. But it’s just crazy because I feel like that’s what I attract. It was the same thing in college and high school—I’ve never played for the front-running team. I’ve never played for the favourite that got all that media hype and attention. So that’s where I’m comfortable. Again, going back to what I said earlier, it doesn’t really mean anything at the end of the day because people don’t really know—the experts aren’t really experts in most cases. So you just gotta go out there and play. Everything else will take care of itself.
Obviously, the Raptors are a new-look squad with a lot of youth on it. At the start of this season, you again had your fair share of doubters in the media. Do you try to inspire the younger players on the team to bet on themselves as well?
I’m not over-exaggerating when I say that I really try to spread my energy and confidence to every person that I come across. And that obviously applies to the team. They know my personality, they know what I stand for. We have a lot of guys that fit that mold. We have a lot of young guys that are trying to make a name for themselves for the first time, and we have guys trying to prove themselves again. We’ve got a good mixture of everything, and I think we’re just playing hungry and inspired. These guys are playing their butts off and we’re going to have to continue to do it all year.
You’ve proven a lot of people wrong over the course of your life and your career. And now, you’re the highest-paid undrafted player in the NBA. You’re a champion. You’re Steady Freddy! What do you still have left to prove?
Everything. Everything. You know, those are just accomplishments along the way. But I want to be even more paid. I want another championship. I want to be the All-Star. I want to be the guy leading this team that nobody thought was going to be any good to the playoffs and winning in the playoffs. I want to be on All-Defense. I’m very ambitious and I’m not shy about it. I work extremely hard to try to check these goals off. But all in all, I always just try to put winning first and let everything else fall where it is. I sleep pretty good knowing that I go out there every night and lay it all on the line with a pure heart and take whatever comes with that.