Matt Van Dyk Rises From Walk On To The Heart of the 2016-2017 Michigan State Spartans
East Lansing, MI
Don’t feel bad if you have never been to Imlay City before. Don’t feel bad if you have never heard of Imlay City before. This rural beautiful Michigan community of just 3,589 people is a short 81.2 miles northeast of East Lansing. I have been there hunting many times and the fertile soil raises strong crops and strong people. It is the bedrock of Americana and the poster child of a Norman Rockwell painting.
But neither Hollywood nor a young child shooting baskets on a basket tacked up on his father’s barn could have written the script for the success that Imlay City’s favorite son Matt Van Dyk has had at Michigan State.
He isn’t the biggest player to have ever played at Michigan State. He isn’t the fastest or the strongest and his jersey will never hang in the rafters or be called on NBA draft night. But his impact will resonate through this program and he will be the topic of conversation long after this sports writer is gone.
This former walk on has grown to being on scholarship and being a key contributor on Tom Izzo’s most talented squad of freshman and an unquestioned leader, mentor, and friend. He has been a foundation rock on a team in need of leadership and beloved by a group of stars that call him brother.
To understand Matt Van Dyk you have to grasp that in a sport dominated by ego and testosterone, he is perfectly content being who he is. He isn’t trying to convince himself that he can jump like Miles Bridges or be a player that will dominate the stat sheet. What he does isn’t quantified by stats, but it doesn’t make him any less special.
Earlier this year after the Spartans lost to Penn State at the Palestra and Izzo said he was the only Spartan to play well, I asked him what that praise meant to him. He told me, “The guys on the team are great. They help me out and have made me improve. I am loving that I have been allowed to take more responsibility. I am truly honored and blessed to be able to play for a Hall of Fame coach who I think is the best of all time and every time I check into a game wearing that jersey and playing for this program and then look at who I am on the court with; I know this is an honor. I know that this is a blessing and I won’t take even one second of a game or a practice for granted.”
You won’t see him pull on his jersey or draw attention to himself after a dunk or a rebound because that isn’t what he is about. He is about the team. He told me after his first start this season, “I know this team isn’t at its best when I am starting and I want my teammates healthy so when you get opportunity I don’t want it to be because of others being hurt. I look at this team and these great players like Miles, and Cassius and Tum and Joshua and Nick and all of them and I am humbled to be on the team with them.”
I asked Izzo about his young protégé’s comment and he emotionally said, “I wish I thought that way about the Hall of Fame coach. I look in the mirror and I don’t even like the guy that I’m looking at right now. For Matt, he gets it. He grew up a farmer. Which means he worked 15-hour days. His first year when he was here he’d farm half the day then drive here to play at night. This summer he was going to work because it’s a profession that he’ll probably, it’s a big farm, and so he’ll probably take over his father’s business. Very good student, too, so he knows how to work. And yet basketball meant enough to him, I remember his dad and I sat down and worked out something where he could be here enough. He’s an undersized, underskilled, he’s under everything except he’s got a heart as big as this podium. He has a very intelligent way of looking at things that’s helped him. And he gets along with everybody and the players love him because he does all the dirty work. You always need a guy like that on this team. The first half I didn’t play him much and we got to figure out a way to work him in a little bit more because he brings some things to this team that maybe this team lacks a little bit.”
Miles Bridges, certain NBA first round pick and teammate of Van Dyk (MVD), was moved when he heard what he said of him. “I do love him. He is a great guy. On the court and off the court, basketball or life he will try to help anybody. He is what you think of when you are being recruited to Michigan State and Coach Izzo talks about the family. I got that idea in my mind what being a Spartan was and then I got here and he showed us. It is like rebounding. That is about heart and work. He is a great rebounder and will go to the glass and play defense. The little things that make you a great basketball player he works so hard at. He is just a great guy. He is a special person that I am proud to call my friend and teammate, really forever a brother. He is a good leader that we all learn from. I have just as much respect for him that he has for me. I am honored to be on the court with someone like MVD. When you look at how far he has come with a love for the game of basketball, the honor is to be on the court with him. I get to play with Matt Van Dyk and that is a real blessing to me.”
Freshman point guard Cassius Winston is quick to chime in on his brother and teammate. Like Izzo and Bridges, he loves the pride of Imlay City and respects him. “He does it all. You need a guy like him on any team. He will do any of the dirty work that some people don’t want to do. He is a great example to everyone on this team at how things are supposed to be done. He doesn’t need or ask for any praise or any reward. It is about the team with him. A lot of people want awards and recognition for all that they do, but not him. He is the biggest supporter of the team. He does it first because he loves the game, but he also loves us as people too. That is why this team loves him. He is a great person. That is why you come to Michigan State. This is a brotherhood. We are a family. There is no one on this team that can or would question if Matt gives us everything and he is a great example and I love him for it. As long as he can play basketball and as long as he does anything it will always be about giving his best. I know he loves me and I hope he knows I love him.”
Talk to anyone about MVD and it is always about being real. About being genuine. One of his teammates told me, “Don’t use my name because I am not being disrespectful, but is he isn’t the most talented player on this team. But Coach always tells us that hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard and that is why he is a winner. He outworks everybody.”
Bridges and MVD have grown close and I asked him what he thought of Bridges saying he was, “a fan” of his. He looked down and said, “He is a real genuine guy. He is such a great basketball player and so fun to play with and get to watch in practice, but I think what is lost and I feel bad about this is how special and amazing he is as a person. He is so genuine and real and such an amazing person that brings amazing energy to life. He is such a great basketball player and I think we all know how amazing of a player he can become even more, but he knows what fake people are. He knows how to look at people. To look at me and feel that way feels really good.”
Getting freshmen to respect you when your coach does is easy, but when the captain of the team does it speaks volumes. On this team that means LouRawls TUM TUM Nairn. He doesn’t like MVD, he loves him.
Tum told Spartan Nation for this article, “He just comes in and brings it every day. He is just an incredible person as well. He comes in and works hard and watches film and does everything right. He is a great example of a great teammate as he works extremely hard. He has an amazing work ethic. To have a guy like that on your team is a blessing. He is the Colby Wollenman of this team. I am so proud to be on a team with him and I am so thankful to have him on my team. His love for basketball pushes us all and his love of Jesus inspires me. I love Matt.”
So what was it that inspired MVD to be the young person he is and the role and respect he has on this team? What can he attribute it to? He told me, “I don’t know what I did. My parents always told me that it doesn’t matter if you are at church or school or with coworkers or just being with friends to be that same person. To just be genuine and real with people. I hope they appreciated that I am genuine with them. I would think that all of us want people to appreciate that we are genuine with them. I know that it might shock some people, but being genuine goes right out on the court with you also. I am not going to try to get one over on them or try to be anything that I am not. I know who I am and what I can and can’t do and I will do everything that I can to help this team, my teammates, and my coaches reach their goals and dreams.”
To understand MVD you have to go back to Imlay City. When you meet his parents you see MVD in Doug and Beth. They won’t tell you that they are the premiere lettuce farmers in the Midwestern United States. They don’t try to flash their way to attention. They beam with pride around their children and nearly burst with their grandbabies. They are mild mannered salt of the earth people; they are Matt.
Very uncomfortable talking about himself, MVD was quick and talkative about his parents. “They mean everything to me. All of the sacrifices that they have made for me and our family. I look at how much they have sacrificed in their lives for their family and I am really blessed. To play here is a huge sacrifice. You have to sacrifice a lot of stuff and they never complained. They made their lives about others reaching their dreams and they are such an amazing example. They have been such an example.”
He went on to add, “That is where my work ethic and being genuine comes from. My dad every day waking up at 4:30 AM to go to work and being the first one there and working until 8 PM or 9 PM in the summer. He never complains. My mom is really his biggest fan and supporter. My mom will always take time out of her day to help others. The self-sacrifice and work ethic is so important. I think that my parents are genuine in their faith. They have lived it and because they have done that it became important to me because they are such genuine and real people in every part of their life.”
But if you want to understand MVD, you have to understand his parents. To understand the entire clan you are never far in the discussion from faith. While you know him as a Spartan basketball player and the business world knows them as one of America’s premier lettuce farmers, they want to be known for their faith. It is who they are. Talk to anyone about them and they will mention it.
When I had a couple of days in January to go hunting in Imlay City I had dinner one night with my son, brother, nephews and some friends. I asked my waitress if she had ever heard of Matt Van Dyk. She told me she had heard about him, “The Michigan State basketball player. We are so proud of him, but his parents are great people of faith and a real cornerstone of our community.” You see even in the part of America that gets overlooked by so many, the Van Dyk family is known for what really matter to them.
MVD told me, “That is everything to me…my faith. My parents have built their life on their faith. They have been such great examples to our family of what their personal walk with God means that it something that I wanted. The Bible tells us that you can gain the whole world and lose your soul. It has been huge in my life to not just have them take me to church or talk about faith, but my parents have lived it in everything that they do and no matter where they are at. They never set out to get rich or to please everybody; my parent’s goal in life is to live for the Lord and to build His kingdom. Seeing them live that has been huge and the greatest honor of my life to get to see and learn from. They are the greatest role models that you can have and what a great gift. Calling them my parents is just wonderful.”
I caught up with his pastor, Dave Spoelma, who told me, “Both of his parents grew up Christians. It is a family that values their church and their faith above all else. They have had a lot of problems with the farm. Farming is the most risky business on earth. Between bugs, drought, disease (and other problems) that is one family that doesn’t get riled up. They are one of the biggest lettuce farmers in the Midwest.”
Spoelma went on to say about Matt, “I think Matt grew up watching mom and dad and nothing riles them and that God is in control no matter what. They exhibited and modeled their faith to their son. He was always in Sunday school and youth group and did his own personal devotions and prayed. Those things are incredibly valuable to staying connected in your relationship with God. That in a nut shell is what makes up Matt Van Dyk and he hasn’t lost that now that he has come into a little bit of fame, it hasn’t changed him.”
In a world where media run to tell the latest hijinks and mistakes of student athletes, sadly the Matt Van Dyks of the world get ignored. They get quickly washed aside for the next attention grabbing headline. Don’t take this the wrong way, but Matt Van Dyk isn’t hurt if you don’t know his name. He is always about the team. But if you know the names of the Spartan stars and the Hall of Fame coach, you might want to know that they know him and they value him.
I have covered Tom Izzo for a long time. Tom Izzo is my friend and Tom Izzo is brutally honest. So when Tom Izzo said of Matt Van Dyk, “I don’t know of another player I have enjoyed coaching more than him. He has impacted me. Long after I am done I will be able to say he made a difference in me. He is a special guy.” That says something.
Or freshman Joshua Langford said about MVD, “I not only like Matt, but I respect him. Respect is a big thing and it matters and there isn’t one player in this locker room that doesn’t respect him. He is real as a man and as a believer. I hope when I am a senior people respect me the same way. I am blessed to call him my brother. It is a blessing.”
Covering him is the same way. The Spartans will tip off the Big Ten tournament tomorrow and almost certainly get Izzo to his 20th straight NCAA tournament. That matters. But winning is made sweeter when you can do it with the right people.
Earlier this week MVD won the team Scholar Athlete and Unsung Player awards. The unsung player may be true for the fans, but where it really matters is in the locker room. A locker room full of stars and a Hall of Fame coach that see him as a real star, a genuine star, and an important fixture on a very talented team and to them there is nothing unsung about him. That is the recognition that matters to MVD. Don’t believe me? Just ask the waitresses at Lucky’s the next time you head to Imlay City hunting.