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Hall of Fame coach makes a surprise visit

Sept. 22, 2009

The coach of the NCAA champion North Carolina men's basketball team Roy Williams warmly shook the hand of the shirtless, diminutive freshman who played in the open scrimmage Monday night with Menomonee Falls sophomore star J.P. Tokoto, and advised him to eat well, take his vitamins and lift weights.

It was one of a 100 such moments in the Falls High School gym that evening as the hype and excitement surrounding Tokoto grew to a legendary scale.

Already the storied subject of visits and offers from the likes of Bo Ryan of Wisconsin and Bill Self of Kansas (former Kansas All-American Danny Manning visited the night after Williams was there), Tokoto is a graceful 6-5 swingman with a trampoline's spring built into him and a killer instinct around the basket both offensively and defensively.

He's also just a kid who does not yet have a cell phone and who has to do his homework immediately after he gets back from school. He also hasn't really spoken about getting his driver's license yet (he just turned 16 last week) and he still has baby-sitting responsibilities for his three beautiful, active and much younger siblings (all of whom were happily cavorting around the Falls gym Monday night).

"I tell you, it was something of a surprise," Tokoto said after the open gym. "He came all the way up here just for a sophomore. Normally a school like that wouldn't be interested in someone like me . . . It's really just an honor to be considered."

Hoops phenom has busy summer

The visit from the Hall of Fame coach (per NCAA regulations neither Williams or his assistant could officially comment about or talk to Tokoto at the open gym) was a follow-up to a summer visit that Tokoto's family made to the fabled "Tobacco Road" area of North Carolina, where Carolina and archrival Duke sit but eight miles apart.

They made a visit to the Carolina campus and then Tokoto took part in a camp at Duke.

It was part of a very busy summer for Tokoto, including a high-level AAU tournament in Las Vegas, said his father, Trevor Trimble.

"I tell you, all of our eyes were as wide as saucers," Trimble said of the Carolina visit. "Here we were at two very historic schools with two great historic coaches (Mike Krzyzewski at Duke being the other) with this terrific opportunity to visit and see the campus. It was amazing. We all felt blessed."

In fact, Williams' competition was not asleep at the wheel in terms of follow-up either, as an assistant from Duke was down to talk to Indians coach Ben Siebert about two weeks ago.

"I tell you," Siebert said. "The open gyms normally run themselves (coaches can watch and observe at open gyms, but WIAA regulations prohibit them from actively running any events at them), but the way it's going, I'm going to have be at everyone of these from now on.

"And J.P. has really remained very down to earth through all of this. We're all just flattered to have this kind of attention for him and the program."

And Trimble said he and J.P.'s mother, Laurence, aim to keep the young star humble.

"We're trying to tell him that this is all a privilege, all an honor," he said. "We're not going to take anything for granted. We don't want him to get too big because when you become arrogant that's when it all starts going downhill."

One of the best in the nation

Tokoto is ranked fourth best high school sophomore by Rivals.com. Colleges that already have made offers to him include Duke, Iowa, Kansas, Marquette, Minnesota, Tennessee and Wisconsin.

He came into the gym a little later than the rest of the group Monday night (Williams arrived at about 6 p.m.). He smiled easily but was understandably nervous. He talked to Siebert for a moment and then exchanged a "soul" handshake with Williams. "All I can do is say, 'Hello' " said Williams.

Then Williams settled into a group of chairs set up at the south end of the Falls gym, where he observed Tokoto, a prodigy who has turned the Indians basketball world on its ear, leading them to the WIAA sectional finals last season and raising hopes for a veteran Falls squad to make a first-ever WIAA State Tournament berth this winter.

To Tokoto's credit, he did his best to act like it was a normal night, as he and teammate Adam Rubatt exchanged gentle ribs as they played on opposing sides. Like he did last winter, he dominated on the defensive end, changing shots and grabbing the majority of the rebounds.

He was a bit subdued offensively at first, apparently not wishing to appear the ball hog. But gradually he relaxed, putting down several emphatic dunks, including a couple off coast-to-coast drives.

A low-key atmosphere

Williams alternated between watching intently and swapping stories with Siebert, various Falls assistants and officials, and Tokoto's AAU coach Richie Davis. His laugh was easy as he told story after story and shook the hand of anyone who wanted him to, as long as it didn't take too much time away from his stated task.

People stood off respectfully on the side, giving Williams his space, but they still could not take their eyes off this ultra-high profile basketball coach, who was visiting this sleepy mid-sized Milwaukee suburb during a busy football season.

He later posed for pictures, signed an Indians team photo (destined to be framed and put in a prominent spot at the school) and thanked everyone in sight for the opportunity.

With NCAA Division I practice soon to start and the Tarheels everyone's target after their championship season, Williams has much work to do, so he and his assistant flew out later that night.

Tokoto was pumped after the event. He said he and his family are in no hurry to make a college decision just yet, but he's hoping to have it done by sometime during his junior year

And he's anxious for the first day of high school practice in November.

"I can't wait for winter," he said, clutching a ball tightly between his two strong hands.

Neither, it seems, can the rest of the Falls basketball world.

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