Raptors’ Fred VanVleet describes his COVID-19 experience: ‘Nothing like anything I’ve ever had’

Fred VanVleet practiced with the Toronto Raptors in Detroit on Tuesday, following a two-and-a-half-week absence triggered by a positive COVID-19 test result. On a Zoom call, the Raptors guard said that he had “two really bad days” of symptoms while “bunkered down” in isolation. 

“I tested positive, had symptoms pretty soon after that,” VanVleet said. “Back sore. Body aches. I just (felt) like I just played three nights in a row. Sore, headache, my eyes were hurting. I didn’t have the shortness of breath or anything like that. I had a fever for a day and a half, two days. But definitely nothing like anything I’ve ever had. I could feel that it was something different. I just felt the sickness, I could just feel it in me, I could feel it in my bones and my blood and my muscles.”

The disease was “kind of just taking over my body for a short period of time,” he said. VanVleet described it as “pretty rough,” but he rested, had “a lot of Tylenol” and waited it out until the only lingering effect was fatigue. 

“It was a whirlwind, definitely an experience that I won’t forget,” VanVleet said. “I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. But I’m here, I’m alive, I’m breathing. And I know that there’s a lot of people that didn’t make it through COVID, so my thoughts and my heart is with the families and people that’s been affected by this thing that weren’t as fortunate as I was and as I am.”

VanVleet last played on Feb. 26 against the Houston Rockets, the game in which the Raptors were without Pascal Siakam, coach Nick Nurse and five other members of their coaching staff due to the NBA’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols. After testing positive, he immediately had to go into isolation in a hotel, away from his family. 

“Obviously, it’s lonely in there, man,” VanVleet said. “I’m not a phone guy, either.”

By the time he was symptom-free, VanVleet would pass the time playing “a lot of video games,” watching television and going on social media. If he felt hungry when he woke up, he’d have breakfast. Sometimes he wasn’t, so he’d just “wake up and lay on the couch or lay in the bed and watch TV for as long as I could. Go sit on the balcony, read a little bit.” The “big moment,” he said, was when he could watch his teammates play. Toronto lost all five games that it played with VanVleet, Siakam, O.G. Anunoby, Patrick McCaw and Malachi Flynn all sidelined because of NBA protocols, along with several members of the coaching staff. 

“I had all day to look forward to it, so you can imagine how happy I was with what I was seeing on the TV,” VanVleet said. “That was the highlight of my day.” 

Back at home on Sunday, VanVleet couldn’t sleep. This was partially because he was watching over his son, Fred Jr., who had “busted his eye up,” he said, and partially because he was so excited to work out the next day. 

“I caught myself walking into the gym just smiling, man,” he said. “Just smiling. I forgot how much I love this shit. I really love this game. I love basketball. I love being in the gym.” 

VanVleet is listed as doubtful for the Raptors’ game against the Pistons on Wednesday, and if he isn’t cleared by then, he said he hopes to play on Friday against the Utah Jazz. The process of returning to play involves multiple negative COVID-19 test results, cardiac testing and a gradual ramp-up toward participating in practices and games. Repeatedly, he said he was happy to be back with the team. 

“You just go cold turkey, nothing,” VanVleet said.”You’re just in the room, by yourself. You don’t get to practice, you don’t get to shoot on your own. I couldn’t do a pushup. And to be back here, I’ve been giving out more hugs in the last 24 hours than I ever have in my life.”

During Toronto’s losing streak, VanVleet was “just trying to talk guys off the ledge,” he said. Initially, he gave teammates pointers and asked coaches questions about strategy. After the Raptors’ one-point loss against Atlanta last Thursday, which was decided by a Tony Snell 3-pointer at the buzzer, he pivoted to encouragement mode, insisting that they just needed to get one win. “But that one never came,” he said, “so I ended up just keeping the guys locked in, and just (saying), ‘Listen, we’ll be back, we’ll have our team back at some point, we just gotta keep pushing ahead and use this experience to make us better.'”

All of Toronto’s players are in Detroit, and all but Anunoby were cleared to practice. VanVleet was happy to “get my energy and my confidence and my swag around the group,” he said, because “it’s been a rough stretch for everybody, not just the guys that were locked up.” He expressed particular sympathy, however, for the coaches who have been away from the team, and took issue with a tweet from The Athletic’s Shams Charania that cited sources saying inconsistent mask-wearing among members of the coaching staff accounted for the spread. 

“If I was named in that tweet as part of the blame, I would’ve been really, really mad,” VanVleet said. “So, as a player who loves my coaching staff, I’m pissed off for them that that was even put out there. Shams is my guy, and I get it, he was reporting something that somebody told him. But whoever told him that is a few words I won’t [say in] public.”

VanVleet continued: “I think it’s just an impossible situation, trying to make this season work, given the climate. And the NBA is doing a good job. We’ve been doing a good job of trying to make it work.” He pointed out that the Raptors were the 27th team to have a game postponed because of health and safety protocols. 

“So join the club.”