July 6, 2012

Tofi's living large

Kevin McCarthy

John Tofi may or may not be a candidate for the most interesting man in the world -- apparently such requires the likes of bowling overhand, Bigfoot stalking you for a photo and a personality so magnetic that carrying credit cards is verboten -- but he has certainly experienced cascading highs as well as soul churning depths in his still young life and has terrific stories to tell.

photo of John Tofi

Now a star hoops player in Belgium, how did a kid from rough-and-tough San Francisco achieve such status?

It was, as they say, a long and winding road.

Early on, Tofi was a menace on the gridiron and a force on the court.

"But I chose basketball and dropped football," he recalled. "In the ninth grade, I fell in love with basketball."

Seemingly that was that for the pigskin direction.

But later in his high school days, the college recruiters remembered.

"I had a lot of D-1 football offers," Tofi recalled, "but nobody would take me as a two-sport athlete."

So his focus became roundball.

"The summer heading into my junior year, I was playing with the Oakland Soldiers and realized I could be a mid-to-high D-I player."

Then after winning a state championship at Riordan in 2002 under Coach Rich Forslund and alongside teammate Marquise Kately, Tofi faced a difficult choice, one with numerous options but requiring a final decision of one.

He narrowed his college possibilities until it came down to California or the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP).

"It was a big decision," Tofi offered. "My friends Leon Powe, Ayinde Ubaka and Marquise Kately were headed to or at Cal and they were puzzled. They were asking me 'what are you waiting for?"

But it wasn't a no-brainer for Tofi.

Did he want to be a small fish in a big pond or a big fish in a small pond?

After much thought and debate, Tofi went with the latter.

"[USC Assistant Coach] Silvie Dominguez had been recruiting me since I was a sophomore, we had a good relationship and then he moved to UTEP," Tofi explained. "I was born and raised in San Francisco and El Paso was very different, a college town. My father said it was time for me to be accountable, to take care of myself and learn how to live on my own. When I visited El Paso, I had a good conversation with Don Haskins (the retired legendary coach who won a national championship in 1966 when UTEP was known as Texas Western). I also talked with Greg Foster and Antonio Davis who came from Oakland and played at UTEP."

So west Texas it was.

It was difficult at times. v

"I felt like giving up and going home at times. It was a tough adjustment with nobody there to cook for me."

But those feelings eventually waned and UTEP won two Western Athletic Conference (WAC) titles during Tofi's tenure (2004, 2005). In four seasons, he finished as the fifth all-time rebounder for the Miners with 774 as well as the 10th leading scorer at 1,247 points.

"In the WAC," Tofi remembered, "was some of the best competition I ever faced. There was [Nevada's] Nick Fazekas, Paul Millsap at Louisiana Tech with his non-stop motor and Antonio Meeking, who we called the Shaq of the WAC. He had great footwork and was light on his feet." Meeking was listed at a generous 6-foot-8 as well as a lowballing 245 pounds while at Louisiana Tech.

Not only was Tofi the first in his family to receive a D-1 scholarship, he also had the distinction of being the initial college graduate after earning a degree in business management and communications.

His father worked for American Airlines and, besides his flying to El Paso to catch some games, 20 family members were present at Tofi's graduation ceremony.

What's interesting is that there was a change in coaches midway through his UTEP tenure as Billy Gillispie moved on to head Kentucky but top Miner assistant Doc Sadler took over in El Paso.

"Both had the same style of coaching so the transition was easy," according to Tofi.

It was during his junior season when Tofi realized there were NBA scouts coming to catch his games.

Matters looked promising.

"But after my senior year, I tore my ACL," Tofi explained. This after averaging 13.9 points and 9.2 rebounds a game in his last college go-around in 2006.

"I rehabbed it for seven months or so and then messed my knee up again."

The double whammy hit him hard.

"I just stopped playing ball," he remembered. "I threw away the dream."

It became a three year departure.

During that time, Tofi earned a teaching credential, began teaching math and also worked as an assistant at Consumnes River College.

However, the basketball bug remained active in his system.

"I began playing in the San Francisco Pro-Am and my coach told me he knew Adam and Ben Pensack (Pensack Sports Management Group basketball player agents based in the Bay Area)."

"We talked and they told me they could help me get a job if I got into shape."

He did and so did they.

Tofi landed a spot playing in Belgium and he has been there ever since.

Here's Adam Pensack on Tofi's rise overseas: "John is doing extremely well in Belguim. He started out with a team called Pepinster at the lower end of the league. It took some time but he worked his way into shape and finished strongly that first year. He then moved to a team called Leuven more in the middle of the pack in Belgium. Now, for the coming season he has moved up yet again to a team called Aalst. John continues to work hard and continues to get better so he is moving up the ladder in Belgium. His new team plays in the local Belgian league and also plays in a good international competition called the EuroChallenge, a league in which John's team will play against top teams from countries throughout Europe. The exposure for John will be substantial and if he has the season we expect him to have he will take another big step up in his career next year. This is all a testament to John's commitment and work ethic because it isn't easy to accomplish what John is accomplishing on the court out there. Many players from the U.S. think they are going to go to Europe and just walk all over the competition but I can name you dozens of former major college superstars who weren't able to do what John is doing over there."

"I'm overseas 10 months of the year," Tofi said."My team provides a three bedroom house, a family sized vehicle and full health care coverage. It's like were European because my kids (ages five, four and two) are there the entire time. They go to school there."

What's most remarkable was an anecdote Tofi shared: "when we come back to visit here, the kids will start saying 'when are we going back home?'"

His journey has given him a philosophical take on basketball participation.

"Me playing in Belgium doesn't mean anything to some because it's the NBA or bust, be in the NBA or you didn't make anything out of it."

The folly of such sentiment is encapsulated in Tofi's take: "I was in the real world for a couple of years and I realized how hard it is to make a buck. I'm blessed to be paid for doing what I love."

Speaking of his time in El Paso and Belgium, he also offered, "I have no regrets. I followed my heart and have met a lot of new people and made some lifetime friends."