Lehi’s Matt Van Komen is 14 years old, a typical junior high kid making that often awkward transition through adolescence. He likes to spend his time playing video games, eating prodigious amounts of food and hanging out with friends.
Like most teenagers, there are times he’d just like to disappear, become anonymous. But that’s impossible, because Matt Van Komen is 7 feet, 3 inches tall.
People stare at him. Constantly. In restaurants and parking lots, even as he walks across the street. They ask him just how tall he is and if the weather is any different up there. They want to take pictures standing next to him, or they take pictures without his consent to share with friends and family.
Van Komen plays basketball, though only just recently with any amount of dedication. He’s learning to embrace his tallness and unique nature. On his own, he’s shy and reserved. On the court, he asserts himself.
At times, he dominates.
Van Komen is starting to realize the opportunities coming his way – as well as any 14-year-old can, anyway – because he is tall. Every day, he’s dealing with large expectations. He’s learning to live in a world where it’s difficult to find clothes that fit, beds are too short and he is taller than almost every adult he meets.
Van Komen’s parents both played college basketball. His mother, Lindsey Allen, prepped at Timpview High School. She played at College of Eastern Utah and Lewis and Clark State in Lewiston, Idaho. For her senior year, the 6-2 forward transferred to BYU. Van Komen’s father, Troy, is 6-5 and also played at Lewis and Clark State.
Matt Van Komen was 10.5 pounds and 19 inches when he was born, but from the second to third month, he doubled his weight and grew nine inches. The growth since has been steady. He reached six feet by the time he was 11 and cleared seven feet when he was 13. His growth plates haven’t closed, his doctor said, but it’s close. He wears size 16 shoes.
Young Matt wasn’t that interested in sports as a kid, according to his father. He was more likely to chase bugs and play in the dirt than pick up a ball. Later, he showed an interest in swimming.
Basketball has brought Matt into an unusual spotlight.
“Everyone wants to take their picture with him,” Troy Van Komen said. “Now that he’s older, he’s pretty famous around here. He gets lot of attention that way. Sometimes it’s too much, but other times he craves it.”
As long as he can remember, Matt has towered above his peers.
“It’s not like I just shot up,” he said. “I’ve always been taller than everyone else. It’s just a regular thing now. It’s fun to have people notice you, I guess.”
It wasn’t until about two years ago, when Matt moved to Lehi with his father, that he started playing basketball seriously. He joined an AAU team – the Utah Prospects 14U squad, coached by former BYU standout Kevin Nixon. Van Komen will be a freshman at Willow Creek Junior High this fall. He’s hoping to play junior varsity for Lehi High School.
“Expectations, that’s a big one,” he said. “I just work on playing my best, going 100 percent. I just kind of go with the flow and do what people tell me to do. Defense is probably my favorite thing. I love blocking shots.”
Since he’s usually at least six inches taller than his opponent, Van Komen gets leaned on, pushed and grabbed pretty much every time he takes the floor.
“I like the contact,” Van Komen said. “Well, I’ve learned to like it.”
Nixon has definitely seen improvement over the past two years.
“I’ve been impressed with the fact that he doesn’t back down,” Nixon said. “He’s fiery. He pushes back. I’ve seen a lot of growth there. He’s a pretty shy kid off the floor, but on the court he’s becoming very confident. It’s been a process for him. He blocks a shot and now he’s talking to the kid, ‘Not in my house, get that out of here.’ ”
Van Komen's skill are a work in progress.
“The thing that’s amazing about Matt is that he has a great shooting touch for any kid, let alone a kid that’s 7-3," Nixon said. "Two years ago he had a hard time getting up and down the floor, but he’s figured that out now. We’re an up-tempo team and we were concerned that Matt couldn’t play that pace at his size. But now he runs the floor and gets out on the break, and he gets back on defense.”
Nixon said Van Komen averages about seven or eight blocked shots a game and ends up altering seven or eight more.
“We stick Matt in the middle on defense and opponents don’t have to drive to the rim for him to be effective," Nixon said. "Even if they pull up from 15 feet, he’s blocking shots. Big kids inside have to be really crafty or jump really high to get shots off on him.”
Van Komen is already starting to get some recruiting attention. Nixon said he talked to two college coaches a few weeks ago who compared him to another former Utah 7-footer-and change – 7-6 Shawn Bradley.
“If you project it, with the progress Matt has made over the past two years and four more years of high school basketball, the sky is the limit. He can be a special kid,” Nixon said.
Van Komen’s favorite NBA player is Kevin Durrant – “I can relate to him the most,” he said – and he also admires Bradley. The two have met and Van Komen said the former BYU and NBA standout gave him tips about how to deal with being tall, both on and off the court.
“I think Matt is starting to see what the future could hold because he’s reached the age of a recruitable athlete,” Nixon said. “He’s a smart kid. He looks at it and sees how many seven footers are in the world and how many are basketball players. I think he sees as he commits to basketball that he continues to get better.”
Van Komen’s got them. He wants to play college basketball and get a good education.
“I’m hoping to go into business if I don’t make the NBA,” he said.
Recently Van Komen was in class and his teacher asked him to reach up and get something on the ceiling.
Why? Because it would draw too much attention. It would single him out.
Nixon said his AAU team was walking through a parking lot in Denver and a group of high school girls noticed Van Komen.
“They asked, ‘How tall are you?’ and the very next thing was, ‘Can we take a picture with you?’ ” Nixon said. “He’s a celebrity. He just stops traffic. When we walk into a gym, it’s funny to see the parents of the other team. As soon as they see him they’re on their phones, texting friends and taking video or pictures. It’s got to be hard for him. He acts like he embraces it, but it has to affect him. I hope he doesn’t hate it.”
Van Komen is working out with both his AAU team and Lehi High School this summer. At a recent practice during a half-court drill, his defender tries to steal the ball and gets out of position. Van Komen finds himself wide open at the 3-point line, so he takes the shot.
And drills it.
His teammates whoop and holler. Lehi’s new varsity coach, Sean Yeager, claps appreciatively. Van Komen’s cool 14-year-old façade cracks and he breaks into a wide smile.
Maybe this seven-foot world isn’t so bad, after all.