Raptors guard Fred VanVleet

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Bernstein: Great To See Rockford Celebrate VanVleet

Playing in the NBA Finals, Fred VanVleet has created bonds back home.

Dan Bernstein
June 13, 2019 - 2:40 pm
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(670 The Score) It does my heart good to see residents of Rockford, Illinois gathered en masse to celebrate a professional basketball game remotely, sharing a connection that crosses cultural lines and defies an ugly history.

It's their unique version of the "Jurassic Park" watch party in Toronto as the Raptors battle for their first ever NBA title, and it carries with it something more profound than just the 2,000 fans and a television screen at the downtown Rockford City Market Pavilion, located steps from the Rock River's eastern shore. It represents something new and wholly positive for a community long beset by segregation, prejudice, poverty, unemployment and violent strife, this public show of solidarity over the success of one of their own.

Raptors guard Fred VanVleet is a product of Rockford's west side, where he starred at Auburn High School. And that matters. The neighborhoods west of the river can still seem a city unto themselves, the area with much of the rampant crime that causes Rockford's annually high placement on most dangerous U.S. cities lists. The racial divide the river represents is sadly real as well, and it's something I experienced first-hand when I lived there years ago.

As the broadcaster and PR director for the Rockford Lightning -- then the Continental Basketball Association's minor league affiliate of the Bulls -- I had a vested interest in selling the city on professional basketball, both literally and figuratively. Our team offices were downtown across the street from the Metro Centre where the team played, but the bulk of my time pitching tickets and advertising and speaking to community groups and schools was east and north of there, where the organizations and businesses were that had discretionary income. That's also where I lived, after seeking advice on where to find an apartment and being informed in no uncertain terms.

It was a big lift to convince people that it was safe to be downtown for games mostly at night and also difficult to broaden the enthusiasm for local high school hoops to that of the local pro team, a difference notable at least in part because of skin color. As one area tool-and-die shop owner explained to me all too memorably, "I'd rather watch our own kids play right over there than drive down and pay good money to watch a bunch of n-----s."

If that seems surprising, know that this is the same city that was slapped down by a federal judge in 1993 for institutional racism in their public schools, punished for having in his words "committed such open acts of discrimination as to be cruel and committed others with such subtlety as to raise discrimination to an art form." These policies that existed for years exacerbated the sociopolitical and geographical divides from which Rockford is still working to recover.

And VanVleet is going to help them do that, both by being who he is and doing what he does. He exited the Raptors' charter in San Francisco wearing an "815" hoodie for a reason, in that he's proud of his connection to his hometown.

VanVleet knows better than most how violence touches the community, having lost his father at age 5 when he was shot and killed in a drug deal gone bad. His basketball stardom helped pull him up toward opportunity, but he never abandoned his local AAU club to join a higher-profile Chicago team, a decision that may have cost him attention from major college programs. So he starred at Wichita State. After being passed over completely in the NBA Draft, he signed on for a Summer League tryout with Toronto and made the team, eventually becoming a finalist for the Sixth Man of the Year award in 2017-'18 and earning a two-year deal worth $18 million last July.

And he remains a fixture in the local Rockford hoops scene, often visiting his old practice gym on South 5th street and hosting basketball festivals and kids summer camps, working with schools and coaches.

The ties are real, and they're bringing people together right in front of our eyes.

Best of all as we see pictures and video of the festivities at the market is the diversity of the crowd, all kinds of smiling faces sharing a fandom for a Canadian sports team just because it happens to feature a cherished native son eager to return the love whenever he can. They're coming to this from both sides of the river to stand alongside each other with common purpose.

It's downtown Rockford, at night, a party with food trucks and pop-up stores and thousands of people, for pro hoops. And come Thursday night, Fred VanVleet will try to become the first player from Rockford to win an NBA title.

He'll be more than happy to share it with a city that can appreciate all the positive energy.

Dan Bernstein is a co-host of 670 The Score’s Bernstein & McKnight Show in midday. You can follow him on Twitter @Dan_Bernstein.