UNC's J.P. Tokoto Soaring to New Heights with Strong Family Values and Support

Rollin Yeatts@@TSBRollinFeatured ColumnistMarch 3, 2014

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For athletes as naturally blessed as the North Carolina Tar Heels' small forward, J.P. Tokoto, the game comes easily. But being gifted only gets one so far in life and on the hardwood—especially playing for a legendary program like UNC.

That's something his loving parents, Trevor and Laurence Trimble, have always understood. It's a message they continually deliver to their son to this day, making sure he stays grounded as a player, teammate and human being.

Tokoto is in his sophomore season at North Carolina, and has been an integral part of the Tar Heels' magical turnaround from a bottom-of-the-barrel, 1-4 ACC team, to a true force in the conference. The Tar Heels have won 11 straight games since that disappointing start to conference play—the longest winning streak by a UNC squad since 2008-09.

But as magnificent as he is on the court, Tokoto's first love wasn't basketball.

J.P. was named after his grandfather, Jean-Pierre Tokoto, who played professional soccer overseas and in the states. J.P. followed in the footsteps of his grandfather, a heavy influence in his life, by playing soccer through the seventh grade.

His mother, Laurence, would travel from Wisconsin to drop him off at his grandparents' house in Chicago where he would play for the soccer team his grandfather coached over the weekends.

“He has a good feel for the court in basketball,” Laurence said, comparing his gifts on the court to those on the soccer field, playing for his grandfather. “He was the same way on the soccer field. He could see the whole field. He was pretty awesome.”

But midfield duties were never set in stone for young Tokoto.

“It just depended on where Dad needed him,” Laurence continued. “He even had J.P. playing goalie because nobody could score on him, he was so long.”

But after a while, the mileage exhausted Laurence. Fortunately for her, J.P was already courting a new love.

Wisconsin, after all, is more of a basketball state, which influenced Tokoto. After playing both sports in seventh grade, he decided to move on from soccer and get serious with basketball. And while it was disappointing for Jean-Pierre to learn his grandson had chosen another path, he wanted what was best for Tokoto.

Photo Courtesy of Laurence Trimble

“My dad had been expecting it because J.P. was so much longer than other kids his age,” Laurence explained. “My dad knew it was coming. He was disappointed, but at the same time he was happy because he knew that's what J.P. wanted.”

So Tokoto tested the waters in the AAU circuit. It wasn't long before college coaches took notice of his natural talent on the hardwood. Before he even played a single high school game, Wisconsin had already offered him a scholarship.

In the summer between his freshman and sophomore year, Tokoto attended a Kansas camp, where head coach Bill Self would later tell Trevor and Laurence he wanted to offer their son a scholarship as well. 

As parents, you always want to do what makes your child happy. That doesn't necessarily mean it's the best thing for them. You hope to see a sign—a message—that you are doing what's right for your child.

Tokoto was great at soccer, and he passed that up for something else.

While the message Trevor and Laurence received with the scholarship offers from Wisconsin and Kansas were certainly encouraging, it soon became clear to both of them that Tokoto's decision to play basketball was the right one.

That same summer, during AAU, they met two of the most legendary coaches in the game today—and both were interested in Tokoto.

Trevor didn't know that.

“We ran into Coach Krzyzewski at the hotel we were staying at,” Trevor recalled. “I stopped Coach K and I told him about J.P. It really kind of caught him off-guard because I literally just stopped the man and started telling him about J.P.”

Trevor and Laurence both chuckled.

Trevor didn't care. He was there for his son. It was no time to be shy.

As it turned out, Coach K was running USA basketball at the time, but associate head coach Steve Wojokowski was there to watch Tokoto play.

You could hear the excitement in Trevor's voice as he recalled the events of that day.

“I run onto the court while J.P. was warming up to tell him, 'Man, Duke is here to see you.' I run to the bathroom and I come out, and looking at the board is Coach Williams.”

It was a true “wow” moment for a proud father. But Trevor didn't have time to be star struck. He had to make a sale—or, so he thought.

“So I went up to Coach Williams and introduced myself,” Trevor continued. “He said, 'Well, what's your boy's name?' I told him and he had his name written down. He said, 'That's who I'm here to see.'”


“That was definitely a humbling time,” Trevor reminisced. “When you have three historic programs in one summer, all taking the time to acknowledge your child and give kudos to him...”

“It's amazing,” Laurence jumped in, before Trevor could even finish his thought. “Two of the greatest coaches ever. Wow! Coach Williams is here to watch my kid play in a gym. Coach K is here to watch my kid play in a gym. It hit me really hard at that point.”

Legendary coaches, Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski
Legendary coaches, Roy Williams and Mike KrzyzewskiStreeter Lecka/Getty Images

Like Trevor, Tokoto didn't have time for awe. He had to make his pitch to two of the finest programs in the country. He did just that, according to his excited mother.

“He did great that game,” Laurence remembered. You could almost hear the smile on her face as she spoke on the phone. “He just blew us out of the water with that performance. He handled the pressure just fine. He was actually pretty excited. You could see it on the court.”

And it paid off.

Coach Williams made it clear to J.P.'s parents at that time he doesn't offer kids until their junior year, but would be “strongly recruiting J.P.”

“He said he would max out his visits every year,” Laurence said. “He did just that. It was impressive.”

Coach K also gained enough interest where Trevor would no longer have to hunt him down in the halls of hotels. That same, busy summer, Tokoto attended a camp Krzyzewski ran at Duke.

Tokoto, his parents, aunt and cousin were all on the way to meeting Coach K in his office when he suddenly realized something wasn't right.

T.J., his cousin, was wearing a UNC t-shirt. On the Duke campus. On the way to meeting Coach K.

“Oh my God, T.J.,” Tokoto exclaimed. “You can't wear that going into Coach K's office!”

Laurence struggled to fight off laughter as she told the story, picturing the ridiculous scene. “T.J. ended up having to take off his t-shirt and went into Coach K's office with us, wearing [an undershirt].”

Laurence and Trevor spoke highly of Coach Krzyzewski when recalling the recruiting period. But when it came time to sit down and make a decision, Coach Williams and the program he was running at North Carolina stood out from the crowd.

The 2012 class of Tar Heels with Coach Williams.
The 2012 class of Tar Heels with Coach Williams.Gerry Broome/Associated Press

“He made it feel like family,” Laurence said of Williams. “I felt like I was sending my child to my extended family.”

“We're firm believers that you should steer your child into situations that you think would fit them and fit their needs and personality,” Trevor said, describing the process of choosing a school. “It was definitely a family decision. But all three of us were in unison on the decision.”

All the visits Coach Williams made over the years made a huge impact on their perception of the Hall of Fame coach. But sometimes it's the little things that stand out.

“I made a big batch of cookies for a gymnasium full of coaches,” Laurence recalled. “Coach Williams was the first one to come dig at my cookies, and I, as a mom, found that very endearing. That's just the type of person Coach Williams is.”

Once again, it soon became clear the family made the right decision. Williams has not disappointed Tokoto's parents to this day.

Roy Williams on the bench with his grandson.
Roy Williams on the bench with his grandson.Grant Halverson/Getty Images

“Coach has continued to do things that are exceptional,” praised Trevor. “He's phenomenal. He's not a prima donna. We can pick up the phone and call him at home right now. That does mean a lot. You hear so many stories of once they 'get your child' they're no longer reachable.”

Not Roy Williams. He fit right into the family-first atmosphere of Tokoto's household. That household lives on a steady diet of the two “H's": humility and hunger. In that aspect, Tokoto has yet to disappoint his parents on the court or at home, despite his elite status as a member of the Tar Heels.

“It's great to see that your child doesn't lose focus on how to treat humans just because he plays basketball for a major university,” Trevor stated.

Photo Courtesy of Laurence Trimble

“We have a court in our backyard. It was, I don't know, maybe two summers ago on a cloudy, rainy day. I look outside and they're running a full court. It's J.P. with his, at the time, seven-year-old brother and they're running five-on-five. J.P.'s the oldest, but nobody else is older than eight. It's times like that where you think, as the oldest child, he gets it.”

Tokoto is the oldest of four children. He has two sisters—10 and six years old—and the brother, who is now nine.

Tokoto doesn't limit hoop time with his brother to those neighborhood pickup games in the back yard. He actually takes over for his father, coaching his little brother's AAU team when he is home during the summer. This past summer, he had teammate Joel James and his best friend and UConn Husky, Phil Nolan, help out with the Wisconsin Shooters.

J.P. Tokoto making a simple coin toss fun for the kids.
J.P. Tokoto making a simple coin toss fun for the kids.Photo Courtesy of Laurence Trimble

“When J.P.'s home,” Laurence continued glowingly, “he's not one of those college students that comes home and and then spends his time out partying with his friends. When J.P. comes home, he's literally home. He takes his brother and sisters out and spends so much time with them. His friends come to the house and visit him...he's just a family guy.”

Photo Courtesy of Laurence Trimble

“And that's what you're seeing with the team. They're a family. He refers to his teammates as his brothers.”

That's evident with the way the team is playing together on the court. But it had to battle through some trying times to reach the point they're at now.

For Tokoto, one of the lowest points of the season was during UNC's loss to Belmont, when he went 4-of-16 from the free-throw line in a one-point loss. Many factors went into that loss, but knowing a couple free throws could have turned the game around, was particularly tough on Tokoto.

He didn't have to, but he shouldered the blame. Fortunately, at least one half of Tokoto's support system was there to pull him through it. The other half, his mother, watched helplessly from their home in Wisconsin.

“That game,” Laurence described, “as a mom, was the most painful thing to watch because I wasn't able to get out there and give him a hug and get him refocused. Seeing his face...he looked depleted to me in that game.”

“I was debating about even going,” Trevor said. “I was thinking, 'Oh, it's Belmont. It's not a big game.'”

But that game, and the moment they shared afterward, was bigger than either of them could have anticipated.

“It was a great moment I got to share with J.P.,” Trevor continued. “After that game, we went out to eat like we always do. While we were eating, I told him, 'You know what we're getting ready to do next.' He said 'What?' I said, 'We're going to go back to the Dean Dome.'”

“J.P. shot 100 shots that night and went 84-for-100 from the free-throw line. And he did that with me yelling, clapping, stomping, and standing right in front of him, trying to crack jokes.”

“After we did that, we both thought, 'Man, this was so great.' What made me so proud is he did something about it that night. And he did it with a great attitude. He wasn't moping. We knew he would go back into practice the next day feeling like, 'I did something about it.'”

“I always tell J.P., 'To be different, you have to have a different story to tell.' That night at the Dean Dome was a different story to tell.”

It has been a different story for Tokoto, to say the least.

Tokoto waits at the scorers' table as a freshman Tar Heel.
Tokoto waits at the scorers' table as a freshman Tar Heel.Ed Zurga/Getty Images

He wasn't even expecting to start this season. He spent a lot of time with assistant coach Hubert Davis during the summer to work on his shot.

“You could just see it in him that he wanted to be on that court,” Laurence remembers. “He wanted the minutes. He wanted to do the work to get there. It was nice to see that change.”

He knew he'd receive more playing time as a sophomore, but he never anticipated that starting would come with such a hefty price tag.

Nov 17, 2013; Chapel Hill, NC, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels guard Leslie McDonald (2) and guard P.J. Hairston (15) sit on the sideline during the second half of their loss to the Belmont Bruins at Dean E. Smith Student Activities Center. Belmont won 83-8
Liz Condo-USA TODAY Sports

“When that time came,” Laurence said of her son earning the starting nod, “unfortunately, it was at the expense of another player that was a good friend of J.P.'s—a buddy of his.”

P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald were sidelined due to investigations by the NCAA on possible improper benefits.

“But we knew he'd take on that role,” Laurence continued. “We knew he wouldn't have a problem with that. We knew he'd work as hard as he could, not only to do great for his team, but to honor those teammates they lost.”

Nine games into the season, McDonald was finally deemed eligible again. Hairston wasn't as fortunate. After months of investigation, the University chose not to apply for his reinstatement.

Laurence could see how it affected everyone on the team—not just her son.

“They all felt that as a whole. They lost a brother. They lost a teammate. They were deflated.”

The team struggled in the following game against Davidson, just barely escaping with an overtime victory. The Tar Heels would finish out the nonconference schedule with two more wins, but they'd lose four of their first five ACC games.

Having to fill Hairston's shoes has been no easy task for Tokoto. He's taken a lot of heat from fans over the course of the year, but remembers everything his parents taught him over the years. He knows you have to stay dedicated and fight through adversity to be someone special.

And if he doesn't he just might receive an unexpected, and not-so-pleasant visit from his parents.

“If we see J.P. is lacking effort, I don't need a fan to get me pumped up,” Trevor said, with a firm voice. “I'm on the phone. We'll do a pop-up visit.”

“We tell J.P., 'We expect you to be respectful to your teammates. We expect you to honor and respect your whole coaching staff and take everything they're trying to share with you and embrace it and live it and breathe it. And if we get an inkling that you're not doing that, J.P., we will come to North Carolina and it wont be pretty.'”

In Trevor's mind, no matter how gratifying it is to see his son start for the Tar Heels, he knows the journey is far from over.

“Seeing J.P. in the starting role,” he said, “number one, it makes you feel proud. The legacy of the program, the people that came before him. Just to be a part of that, it's an unbelievable feeling. It never gets old for me to watch the board as they're introducing the starting lineup, when they say his name and they say our town. The two of those things together...it gives me chills.”

Jan 29, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels forward J.P. Tokoto (13) steals the ball from Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets guard/forward Jason Morris (14) in the first half at Hank McCamish Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sport
Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

“I'm so humbled by it. It inspires me as a father to keep encouraging him to seize the opportunity, continue to never take it for granted and continue to prepare like there's no tomorrow. When those boys say 'I am a Tar Heel,' it means something. That name is recognized throughout the world. To be a starter on that, it means something.”

Basketball is much more to Trevor and Laurence than just a game their son plays. It's an opportunity for growth. A chance to teach their son a lesson that will stick with him for the rest of his life. And maybe, if he continues to push himself and gives it everything he has, bigger things could be waiting around the next corner.

In one final statement before closing out the interview, Trevor managed to put it all in perspective.

“Everyone can name people who went to North Carolina to play men's basketball. But there are more people we can't name than we can name who played basketball at North Carolina. So our statement to J.P. is: 'You better decide which group you're going to be in. Either you're going to be in the group where people are going to remember you, like Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, Phil Ford and Vince Carter. You may make that group, or you may make the list where you may have to remind somebody that you went to UNC and played men's basketball.”

“Decide which group you want to be in,” Laurence interjected.

“Decide it and live it and prepare for it,” Trevor finished.

Humble. Hungry. J.P. Tokoto's family mantra.

J.P. Tokoto with his entire family over Christmas.
J.P. Tokoto with his entire family over Christmas.Photo Courtesy of Laurence Trimble

Thank you to Trevor and Laurence Trimble for giving up so much of your time for this interview. You left me humbled and hungry, too.


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