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Utah’s BFGs: 7-footers have built-in advantages, but challenges might be bigger

First Published      Last Updated Jul 07 2016 10:06 pm


Basketball » For 7-footers like Eaton, Van Komen and Hamson, it’s all about being comfortable in your own skin.

Mark Eaton loves telling the story about the question he always hated hearing: Do you play basketball?

Eaton's life changed when a junior college coach approached him about the tiresome subject one day in the southern California tire store where he worked as an auto mechanic, then urged him to give basketball another try. Tom Lubin's prodding — after 15 visits and 14 rejections — eventually led Eaton to a 12-year career with the Jazz as one of the best defensive players in NBA history, while he fulfilled societal expectations for a 7-foot-4 person.

Anyone who's that tall is supposed to play basketball, right?




Asked if he always has been happy with his height, 7-3 Jazz center Tibor Pleiss was perplexed by the question. "It really helps me in the sport I love, so I don't want to be small," said the Germany native, who turned his face toward an imaginary sky above the practice court and joked, "The air is better, always above the clouds."

In "The BFG," Steven Spielberg's new movie, the big, friendly giant stands up to bigger bullies. In real life, side effects of being tall can include getting stuck in a car on Disneyland's Space Mountain ride, as happened to Alan Hamson, or being called "Freak" and "Lurch," as Eaton endured in high school. Other big issues for 7-footers are health problems related to height, fast-growing children being expected to act and learn at the level of older students and strangers who want to know how tall they are (former Jazz center Greg Ostertag likes to answer, "Five-foot-twenty-six") and if they play basketball.

"It took me a long time to get comfortable with myself," Eaton said in a recent interview, following one of the dozens of corporate presentations he delivers annually. "You're center stage all the time, the minute you walk out the door. … The hardest part is having an expectation placed on you [about basketball] that you didn't put on yourself."

The continual questions have some factual basis, considering 17 percent of 7-footers living in the United States will play in the NBA at some point, according to the book "The Sports Gene." Kevin Nixon, whose AAU team of 15-year-old Utahns includes 7-4 sophomore Matt Van Komen of Pleasant Grove High School, said, "I could see him playing in the NBA. … I'd actually be more surprised if eventually he didn't make it."

Growing pains

Expecting anyone to become another Shawn Bradley is asking a lot, though. Only three of 33 former players 7 feet or taller on the all-time rosters of Utah college programs have reached the NBA, and two were international players — Australia's Andrew Bogut and Austria's Jakob Poeltl, both from the University of Utah. The 7-6 Bradley, who grew up in the central Utah town of Castle Dale, is the American exception, having played nine years in the NBA after spending one season at BYU.

Bradley grew 3 inches per year after kindergarten, when he already was so tall that Emery High School's basketball coach begged his parents to stay in town. Although he weighed only 185 pounds as a 7-4 junior, Bradley had grown so steadily that he was coordinated enough to run up and down the court, play baseball and golf and even dabble in football.

Van Komen's growth spurt came early — in his second month. He added 9 inches, doubled his weight to 20 pounds and "just never stopped from there," said his father, Troy. His mother, who played basketball for BYU, is 6-1; his father stands 6-5.

On his way to 6-7 by sixth grade, Van Komen struggled in elementary school, by his father's account, with teachers expecting him to behave like an older child and other children unable to relate to him. He blended in better in junior high and is uncomfortable with his height only "in the halls, just looking over everybody," he said.

Van Komen is gaining confidence on the court, although his father said, "Sometimes I think he doesn't realize how tall he is and how dominating he can be."

He's getting there. "Swattin' people" is his favorite thing, he said, and he's known to waggle his finger after blocking a shot, more out of playfulness than arrogance. Van Komen is good-natured, but he's "not like that in games," he said, confirming a story of fighting back against players who tried to bully the 205-pounder during a recent University of Utah camp.

"He's always a marked guy," said Lynn Lloyd, his AAU club director.

Opponents of the Exum Elite 2019 team are surprised by Van Komen's ability to run, figuring they should beat him down the court. Offensively, he has gone from having trouble catching the ball to learning multiple moves in the post from Pleasant Grove coach Randy McAllister. "We need to do a better job of getting him the ball, because he has developed his game," said Nixon, whose No. 7-ranked team in the 15-year-old age group will play in tournaments this month in South Carolina, California and Las Vegas.

Van Komen averaged 16 points, eight rebounds and three blocks for Pleasant Grove's JV team and played regularly for the varsity as a freshman reserve. McAllister looks forward to working with him for three more reasons, observing, "His height won't ever take a night off." McAllister benefits from having coached Alan Hamson, who stood 7 feet as a senior in 2012 — before surgery to correct curvature of his spine stretched him to 7-3 and alleviated the "awful" pain he'd played through, Hamson said.

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AT A GLANCE

Utah’s all-time 7-foot list

Player Height Years

Utah

David Cecil 7-0 1982-83

Cameron Koford 7-0 2000-02

Andrew Bogut 7-0 2003-05

Luke Nevill 7-1 2005-09

David Foster 7-3 2006-13

Jason Washburn 7-0 2008-13

Dallin Bachynski 7-0 2012-15

Jakob Poeltl 7-0 2014-16

Jayce Johnson 7-0 2015-16

Weber State

Richard Smith 7-1 1976-80

Shawn Campbell 7-1 1984-86

Gordon Schmidt 7-0 1985-86

Cameron Koford 7-1 1997-98

Utah State

Larry Bunce 7-0 1966-67

Ed Gregg 7-0 1973-76

Leo Cunningham 7-0 1981-82

Nathan Wickizer 7-0 1991-95

Larrell Redic 7-0 1996-97

Anthony Diloreto 7-1 2009-10

Leland Miller 7-1 2010-11

Carson Shanks 7-0 2013-14

Bilal Begic 7-1 2014-15

BYU

Fred Petty 7-1 1971-72

Steve Lackey 7-0 1971-73

Paul Vos 7-0 1977-78

Dave McGuire 7-0 1977-81

Carl Pollard 7-2 1983-85

Shawn Bradley 7-6 1990-91

David Anderson 7-0 1996-97

Dan Howard 7-0 1999-2003

Alan Hamson 7-3 2015-16

Southern Utah

Bob Evans 7-1 1983-84

Carl Pollard 7-3 1989-90

Nate Bloom 7-0 1999-2000

Brad Kanis 7-2 2006-07

Dallin Bachynski 7-0 2009-10

Utah Jazz

Brett Vroman 7-0 1980-81

Rich Kelley 7-0 1982-85

Mark Eaton 7-4 1982-93

Steve Hayes 7-0 1985-86

Walter Palmer 7-2 1990-91

James Donaldson 7-2 1992-95

Luther Wright 7-2 1993-94

Felton Spencer 7-0 1993-96

Greg Ostertag 7-2 1995-2004, ‘05-06

Olden Polynice 7-0 1999-2001

Curtis Borchardt 7-0 2002-05

Paul Grant 7-0 2003-04

Mikki Moore 7-0 2003-04

Aleksander Radojevic 7-3 2004-05

Kyrylo Fesenko 7-1 2007-11

Kosta Koufos 7-0 2008-11

Francisco Elson 7-0 2010-11

Andris Biedrins 7-0 2013-14

Rudy Gobert 7-1 2013-16

Tibor Pleiss 7-3 2015-16

Jeff Withey 7-0 2015-16


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