Cullen the coach: VanLeer utilizes education roots to mentor teammates

Cullen VanLeer, a sophomore guard on the Missouri men’s basketball team, has helped his young teammates transition to Southeastern Conference basketball.
Sophomore guard Cullen VanLeer, 33, watches to see if his shot makes it into the hoop during the home game against Western Kentucky on Dec. 3.

When many children his age were still learning their ABCs and 123s, Cullen VanLeer learned the game of basketball next to his dad.

John VanLeer, who is in his 24th season as head coach at Pacific High School, often brought his toddler son with him to scout opponents. Throughout the games, Cullen watched his dad write down notes about specific players and plays that might work against the opponent in the future.

Despite Cullen’s age, John didn’t have to worry about watching him and the game at the same time, though.

“It wasn’t like I had to give him a video game,” John said. “He would actually watch the game.”

Cullen’s early exposure to basketball has turned him into Cullen the coach, who has become an extension of the Missouri coaching staff on the floor. Cullen’s basketball IQ has proved even more valuable this season as the education major helps freshmen transition to Southeastern Conference basketball.

Cullen didn’t acquire a wealth of basketball knowledge by accident.

At an age when many children watched cartoons, Cullen watched basketball film. Every day before elementary school, Cullen spent 90 minutes at school with John, who also teaches physical education. The early mornings provided Cullen with time to absorb more basketball information.

He didn’t wait long to apply what he learned.

When it came time for recess, Cullen, to no one’s surprise, typically played basketball. A pick-up game filled with boys and girls trying to make highlight-reel-worthy baskets just wasn’t enough, though. Instead, Cullen the coach made an appearance as he put his friends and classmates through basketball drills.

Turning recess into his basketball practice was just the beginning of Cullen passing on the basketball knowledge he gained through hours spent watching basketball with John.

“I just try to use my IQ to help everybody else and boost their IQs,” Cullen said.

Fast forward to college, and not much has changed. Cullen isn’t putting his teammates through basketball drills, but he still mentors and instructs them.

“He can teach you every position,” freshman Willie Jackson said. “If you need help going over plays, you can talk to Cullen.”

Cullen doesn’t just mentor Jackson. He offers up his knowledge to all freshmen who are willing to listen. Freshman Frankie Hughes, who leads Missouri with 14.1 points per game, attributes his fast start in part to Cullen’s guidance.

“Cullen is kind of like my backbone,” Hughes said. “He helps me out so much in practice and in games.”

Still, Cullen isn’t vocal. Described as a quiet guy by his teammates, Cullen sticks to one-on-one conversations. Jackson said he typically talks to Cullen after every practice as Cullen offers words of wisdom.

Because he is a quiet individual, Cullen’s words to the team carry more weight.

“If Cullen speaks up to say something, there is a reason,” freshman Reed Nikko said.

It took someone else speaking up for Cullen to realize he wanted to pursue a degree in education. A local high school coach spoke to Cullen’s class during the summer before his freshman year about following passions. The coach said it never felt like he had to go to work because he did something fun every day.

Immediately, Cullen thought of his dad.

Growing up, Cullen spent time with John, watching him enjoy every day of his job. It became clear to Cullen which direction he should take his career.

“[I enjoyed] seeing how he impacts people and players and how they come back after and rave about what he has done for them,” Cullen said. “I really decided then that was the path I wanted to take.”

He soon decided he wanted to join both of his parents in the education field. His mom, Lori VanLeer, serves as the Lake Washington School District superintendent in Washington, Missouri, and coached volleyball for 11 years.

Lori said Cullen wants to teach biology, possibly physical education and, of course, coach basketball. She sees that combination as the perfect fit for her son.

“I have always told Cullen that his brain is his bank because his body is going to wear out,” Lori said. “It is the best of both worlds. He will be able to teach and help young people, but also stay connected to sport.”

And with the wealth of basketball knowledge Cullen started to accumulate on scouting trips with his dad, he doesn’t want to keep it to himself.

“When you have a lot, you should share a lot,” Cullen said. “That is what I try to do.”

Edited by Tyler Kraft |

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