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Tokoto's signing with Carolina all part of an eventful day

Gratitude a big part of the process for Falls' star

Nov. 14, 2011

It was a long, interesting day when it came to Menomonee Falls basketball star J.P. Tokoto, his family, North Carolina coach Roy Williams, the Menomonee Falls basketball program and the students of Riverside Elementary School on Nov. 9.

In the end, the high-flying 6-6 Tokoto did as expected, signing his national letter of intent with the Tar Heels, posing for family pictures and closing the first act of the circus that has been his life in basketball the last three years.

"Some people call it that (a circus)," said first-year Falls coach Dan Leffel, "but I see it as more of a positive thing for as long as he and we continue to show character and keep moving forward it is a good thing."

And there were many good things that came out of that blustery and occasionally snowy day on Nov. 9. The actual signing was a far more low-key thing than the loud and booming atmosphere of Dave & Busters last March when Tokoto formally announced that he was going to Carolina.

Here, in the small but well-appointed gym at Riverside where Leffel teaches, there was more of a sense of community. There was a table set up for people to bring in donations to the Menomonee Falls food pantry and then there were the eager and bright faces of the Riverside students who were treated to the returning Falls' varsity players taking groups of them to various spots in the gym and reading a book to them.

You could tell that the small fry (Riverside is a kindergarten through fifth-grade school) got a huge kick out of 7-2 Ryan Bross trying vainly to squish himself down in order to get closer to them.

Bross himself seemed to be getting a big laugh out of his "giant among the munchkins" status telling them later with all sincerity that "really, I was small, just like you once."

And then there was Leffel's repeated noting that Riverside is a school where high expectations start early. That the kids are eventually expected to go to college. To reinforce that point, he had all the varsity players tell the kids how important school was to them and what their own plans are for the future.

Class, character and heart

"One of my missions," Leffel said, "is to get my players to understand that we're more than just individual people here. That if we continue to give back to the community and develop skills like being unselfish that will only benefit us in the long run.

"… One of the things I wanted to get across was that there are so many positive qualities about our players here. You see so many negative things in comment pages, blogs, etc. There's a huge amount of positive information that needs to get out about these kids. That they have class, character and a lot of heart."

The team put that on display at the end of the day, forming a tunnel for the Riverside students and slapping five with each and every one of them as they exited the gym.

But then there was the business of the signing itself to tend to.

It was a bold move last spring when Tokoto announced that he was coming back for his senior season, because after former coach Ben Siebert's sudden departure and the discouraging end to the 2010-11 campaign, rumors swirled that Tokoto would transfer to a high-level prep school in order to better prepare himself for the rigors of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

His father, Trevor Trimble quickly got out in front of that story, stating that that was not going to happen and that Tokoto and the family were committed to J.P. finishing out his schooling in the Falls.

Not a victory lap

And you get the feeling that he's genuinely excited about his last upcoming prep campaign. That this is not just going to be about him taking a victory lap before he heads off to high-level NCAA Division I basketball.

"From the first time I verbally committed (last March)," said Tokoto, "I felt tremendously relieved, but I've been thinking about this day (the actual signing) for days now. I was a little bit nervous, but now I'm better.

"I feel motivated (heading into this season). Last season had some rough spots but we're a lot closer now. I honestly feel we're a better team. In a way, I can sit back and relax a little. The whole (recruiting) process was fun but it was hectic. Now I can focus on basketball and my family.

"I loved the attention all this brought to my team, and it was great attention for the community. We're honestly looking forward to big games and excellent crowds. That kind of stuff always helps us a lot."

But then, he could not help but look into the future and see himself on the big stage.

"I went to some games last year (in Carolina) and then during time outs, I would look around and imagine myself in their huddle. Just crazy little thoughts like that. I'm so looking forward to it. … Over the last few years of talking to the Carolina people and to Coach Williams and getting to know them, the more I feel that I really fit in with the program and what they're all about."

The feeling was mutual, as in the morning conference call that Williams held with area reporters, he was quite effusive in his praise for Tokoto and the family.

Compared to Vince Carter

"He does have a burning desire to succeed," Williams said, "to become a great player. He knows he will face kids as big as him, as strong as him and as fast as him out there.

"… It's hard to get into comparisons (with other great Carolina players), but he does have some of the same athleticism that we've seen in other players we've been fortunate to bring here (like Vince Carter). They're similar, but J.P.'s game is different. It will be interesting. Every coach has to put together a puzzle and see if he can find the right pieces to make it all work. … But I feel his versatility will help us out in the long run."

And on a more personal note, he said Tokoto has the right character makeup to make it in Division I basketball.

"I'm really keeping my fingers crossed," Williams said. "Joe Wolf (another great Wisconsin prep player who went to Carolina) turned out to be a great thing for us (in the 1980s). I've seen J.P. in Vegas (AAU competition), high school games and workouts, but what I also saw was a wonderful young man, who had his head on straight, and I saw a family who didn't coddle him, but who helped him grow."

And that seemed evident in the selection of the place for the signing. Tokoto's younger siblings go to school at Riverside and were among the cheering little throngs, who couldn't help but create another form of the circus by chanting "J.P., J.P." after the signing was over, holding up Carolina blue Tar Heel cardboard signs that Leffel had handed out earlier.

All that just added to what was a very positive atmosphere, Leffel said.

"There are so just so many good things going on with these kids," he said.

Which Tokoto acknowledged in closing remarks.

"… I wouldn't be here without you guys," he said. "Coaches, family, teammates and friends. The student section, too, which is the best in the state. I've always been taught to be grateful for what I have and to be sure to give back whenever I can. It's a great thing."

And then there was just one small thing left to tend to, a question to Tokoto from Falls Athletic Director Dave Petroff. It was a query that was both prescient and hilarious in the same moment.

"Will you forget my name when I call asking for tickets?" Petroff said.

Just shows, the circus is still in town for another year.

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