WICHITA, Kan. - A murder-mystery writer, a schoolteacher, and the owner of a design firm walk into a bar.
It's a Friday night at Buffalo Wild Wings in Wichita, and this isn't the setup to a joke, but the scene more than an hour before tipoff between the Toronto Raptors and the Dallas Mavericks. About 50 fans pack the bar area, and if there's any question as to why they're here, all the Wichita State apparel should provide the answer.
Fred VanVleet was named the most outstanding basketball player in the Missouri Valley Conference twice in his four seasons with the Shockers. As a freshman point guard, the Rockford, Ill., native was instrumental in helping the school to a Final Four appearance in 2013 - its first in nearly 50 years - and an incredible 35-1 record the following season.
The 6-foot VanVleet, undrafted but now a reserve guard with the Raptors, had to overcome plenty of adversity just to get a chance to play for the Shockers. VanVleet's father was shot and killed when he was 5 years old. His stepdad, Joe Danforth, and his older brother J.D. pushed him hard with 5:30 a.m wakeup calls for workouts when he was just 10. In Rockford, VanVleet saw people in his community hold multiple jobs just to get by. He saw up close the difficulty of overcoming the odds.
In Wichita, VanVleet could relate to the underdog attitude of the town and its basketball supporters. In his four years at school, he also grew close to families who supported the basketball team and invited players into their homes for dinner.
"I identify with a lot of these hard-working, blue-collar people in a Midwestern town," VanVleet recently told theScore. "It's my second home. I went to Wichita and fell in love with the city, the people, and the community. The love and support that they bring - it's a place that I'll always go back to visit. I have love for that place forever."
VanVleet estimates about 90 percent of his most loyal fans are from Wichita. Many of them have made the trek to Buffalo Wild Wings to watch the 5-0 Raptors tangle with the Mavericks, a week after I reached out to them about getting together to hear about their connections to VanVleet. He ends up being ruled out with a toe injury; though initially deflating, it actually works in my favor, allowing people to share their favorite VanVleet memories without the game being a distraction.
Robert Castleberry, a fifth-grade teacher at Enterprise Elementary School, became friends with VanVleet when they attended Wichita State together. Now, he displays photos of the player in his classroom.
"He's never about Fred," Castleberry told theScore. "He's the most down-to-earth, humble guy I've ever met."
He recalls VanVleet's senior night, when the graduating point guard saluted the fans in every section of the arena and reduced Castleberry to an "emotional wreck."
"All of Wichita was," says Angie Prather, who works at the Chamber of Commerce. Later, recounting the Shockers' 2015 NCAA tournament upset of Kansas, she declares, "It will always be one of the highlights of my life."
Though Wichita is the most populous city in the Sunflower State, with about 390,000 residents, Castleberry and Prather explain how little real estate the Shockers occupy in the region's college basketball news cycle compared to bigger programs like the Jayhawks.
In VanVleet, they had a player who helped stake Wichita's claim to more of that space - and continues to proudly represent them even though he's moved on. VanVleet held a pair of one-day youth basketball camps in Wichita this summer, and also set up a pop-up shop for his Bet On Yourself clothing line, making sure to offer shirts, hoodies, wristbands, and hats in Shockers colors.
By the time I chat with Alan Kahmeyer, who graduated from Wichita State in the 1970s and went to his first game in the 1950s, I've seen a lot of people's photos of VanVleet. Kahmeyer's picture, though, is the best one I'll see that night.
Kahmeyer owns a commercial design firm and helped with the renovations of the men's basketball locker room at Charles Koch Arena while VanVleet was on the team. Cardboard cutouts representing every player were made, but on VanVleet's cutout, his name was spelled incorrectly. Kahmeyer pulls the photo up on his phone and shows it to me: the real thing posing with his knockoff, Fred VanFleet.
"The first time I met him, I just knew he had that something," Kahmeyer said. "... Even as a freshman, he commanded the other players' attention. He's just a wonderful person. I'm proud to say I know him."
Asked if he was surprised by VanVleet's success with the Raptors, Kahmeyer simply responded: "I'm surprised it has taken this long."
Jon and Sheryl Markwell travel with the basketball team on a regular basis, though VanVleet made his first impression on Sheryl off the court. Before his freshman season, she met him at a barbecue at their house.
"I had no clue how good he was at basketball," Sheryl said. "But he was just a joy to talk to. I looked at him and said, 'You're going to be something special someday.'"
To the surprise of few Shockers fans, but more than a few scouts, Sheryl's evaluation was accurate. VanVleet went undrafted in 2016, then earned an NBA contract and a spot on the Raptors' roster by impressing the team at summer league and training camp. After splitting time between the NBA and the G League in his rookie year, VanVleet appeared in 76 games in his second season. He led all Raptors players in fourth-quarter minutes, finished third in Sixth Man of the Year voting, and earned a two-year, $18-million contract this summer. By carrying the same work ethic and underdog mentality from Rockford to Wichita to Toronto, he's become one of the most important players on a championship contender.
Though VanVleet's confidence and drive have helped get him this far, he's underestimated himself at least once, and Sara Orr Jones knew it.
Everyone at Friday's event identifies Jones, who helped organize the gathering, as his biggest supporter. This summer, while VanVleet's pop-up shop was setting up in Wichita, she drove by and offered to help unpack and unfold the shirts. "I hardly said a word because we had a job to do," Jones says, but she did tell the guys they didn't bring enough shirts. Sure enough, everything at the pop-up sold out.
The sixth generation of her family to live in Wichita, Jones graduated with an English degree from Wichita State. She later became a florist and ran three flower shops in downtown Dallas during the 1980s. Alongside her passion for the Shockers, Jones has picked up genealogy as a hobby in recent years. Inspired by discovering a distant relationship to an actor who played a detective, she's written two murder-mystery comedy plays to help raise money for a non-profit.
While Jones was never a basketball fanatic, when her husband's health declined in recent years, she found herself watching the Shockers at the time when VanVleet joined the team. His unselfishness on the court quickly won her over.
Explaining why she's so preoccupied with VanVleet's career, she became visibly emotional.
“A lot of things I do is therapy for me,” she said. “It keeps me out of the pool hall and shopping malls. It's good medicine.”
Motivated by VanVleet's offseason training sessions, Jones also developed her own "Bet On Yourself" workout routine.
"Over six months, I lost 30 pounds, and since last year I've stayed within two pounds of it," she said proudly.
As I considered why seemingly everyone in Wichita loves VanVleet, I couldn't find a one-size-fits-all explanation. For some people, it comes from spending years or even decades supporting a college basketball team and then experiencing the joy of witnessing it succeed. For others, sports offer a distraction from the difficulties of everyday life and a source of inspiration when facing its challenges.
But on reflection, these people have the very same qualities they see and admire in VanVleet. They come from a city that doesn't get much recognition, and that's given them a Kansas-sized chip on their shoulder - especially when it comes to their basketball team. They're also unselfish and welcoming; even in the few hours we spent together, and in our later interactions through social media and e-mail, I got a sense of the warmth that VanVleet must have encountered during his time in Wichita.
VanVleet's fans love him because they feel he's just like them. Now, they get to watch him succeed in the NBA, and his time in Wichita becomes more significant with every step he takes in the league.
As I head to the airport two days later, that's what stays with me: the way a specific team and player can help bring a community together, forging bonds that last a lifetime and connections that wouldn't otherwise exist. Wichita will always remember Fred VanVleet. Of course, the feeling is mutual.