Lucas: Come Fly With Me

Lucas: Come Fly With Me

By Adam Lucas

If you came here looking for news or analysis on Carolina's 78-55 win over East Tennessee State on Saturday night, let me stop you right here. You can go read this. Or watch these highlights. But you will find none of that here.

Why? Well, because of quotes like this. This is Joel James talking about J.P. Tokoto:

"There was one day that he lined up five of us. It was Brice, Leslie, Reggie, Dexter and myself. He lined up the five of us, jumped cleanly over all of us and dunked it."

That's James's answer to the most impressive feat of athleticism he's seen from Tokoto since he met him this summer. This became relevant because Tokoto scored a career-high nine points against the Buccaneers, with six of the points coming on dunks. One of the jams was a fairly pedestrian--by his standards--two-hand stuff. One of them was on a lob off a pass from Dexter Strickland, when it looked for just a second like Strickland had thrown the ball behind the freshman, and then Tokoto simply reached back behind his head, snagged the pass, and powered it through with two hands.

The third--oh, the third--was a one-handed drive from the wing on a fast break that concluded with ETSU unwisely calling timeout, allowing the crowd of over 17,000 to watch the replay and marvel at how Tokoto jumped off two feet, pulled the ball back behind his head in one hand, then rammed it through with the worst of intentions over poor Lester Wilson, who had the misfortune of running by and sticking his arm out as if to block the shot. This particular defensive strategy ultimately had the same success as a leaf standing ground against a tornado. Only the NCAA's rules on amateurism mean that Wilson will not soon be found on a Fathead near you.

Not being quite as well-versed in the art of the dunk as the Tar Heel freshman, I asked Tokoto which of his dunk trio had the highest degree of difficulty.

"It's easier to catch a lob," he said. "That's all about timing and trust."

Then he explained the challenge of the one-hand drive. It was like listening to Yo-Yo Ma talk about the cello or Warren Buffett talk about the stock market. You got the distinct sense that it came much easier to the speaker than to his audience.

"(On that dunk) I hit and I had to switch it," Tokoto said, contorting his body to try to explain to the earthbound mortals what had happened.

"I couldn't keep going, because my body turned." Here he turned his body sideways, to show what happened.

"I had to finish like this." Now he mimed the finish to the play, in which he ended up with legs splayed, almost parallel to the baseline.

Keep in mind: all of that happened in the air.

"If that makes any sense," he added almost sheepishly.

Well, sure. These are J.P. Tokoto problems.

Watching Tokoto dunk, however, isn't the best measure of his incredible ability. The best indicator is that his teammates never get tired of talking about it--or watching it. These are people who see dunks in every practice of every day of every year. Dunks to me are like Mount Everest. Dunks to them are like oxygen.

And yet, they can't stop talking about Tokoto's dunks. When the hard work is finished at Tar Heel shootarounds on game days, there's usually a little time left for goofing around. It's become a quasi-regular feature of the shootaround that teammates make requests of Tokoto, like 12-year-old girls begging a radio station to play the latest Taylor Swift song.

Saturday, it came from Leslie McDonald: "OK, J.P., take it back to your shoe."

He meant for Tokoto to take the ball and--while in the air--bring it back behind him to his shoe, then slam it through the rim.

Tokoto did it. Of course.

Basketball is not as wondrous to the Tar Heels as it is to the rest of us because they see it all the time. They live it and breathe it. It's not that they're bored by it, but it definitely takes more to impress them. Tokoto amazes them. Ask any Tar Heel if he's seen any particular Tokoto slam.

"No, I didn't see that one," the response usually goes, "but I did see this one..." And then the speaker sets off on a description off a totally different, yet equally wondrous, play.

In a pickup game this summer, Tokoto got the ball on a similar fast break to what happened in Saturday's game. This was a game stocked with professionals, who routinely make the incredible look normal. You don't realize how good at basketball the pros are until you watch them casually drop in 15 of 20 three-pointers without really trying. These are pros. They don't do awe.

But Tokoto took off, and he went almost parallel to the floor. He brought the ball down in one hand, with his shoulder virtually even with the rim, and rocked the ball through the basket. The Smith Center full of Tar Heels and professional former Tar Heels gave him the ultimate compliment: it went dead silent.

The thing is, you'd never know Tokoto is a player who, in the words of Leslie McDonald, "is the best leaper I've ever played against or with." He seems normal, like a typical college freshman trying to figure out a way to earn more playing time, and then all of a sudden you're standing on the ground looking at the soles of his sneakers. He first dunked in seventh grade. He first dunked on a lob in the eighth grade, catching a pass off the backboard from some fellow eighth grader who has probably used this as his go-to story at every party he's attended since then ("So then I threw it off the backboard to J.P...").

He has only played in nine games, so we haven't even seen anywhere close to the full Tokoto arsenal. Asked what he currently considers too risky to try in a game, Tokoto says, "A 360, between the legs."

This required some clarification. Sorry, J.P. I need to know this for Nerf goal research purposes. Is that one dunk or two? You're talking about two separate dunks, right? A 360 dunk, and a between the legs dunk, right?

"No, on the same dunk," he says. "I've done it in a dunk contest."

He is talking about this like you or I talk about putting the cereal in the bowl in the morning. Sure, he was in a dunk contest, and yeah, he did a 360-between-the-legs dunk, and that was about it.

"I won the dunk contest," he adds.

You don't say.

Adam Lucas is the publisher of Tar Heel Monthly and the author or co-author of seven books on the Tar Heels.