John Tonje walks into the YMCA and laces up his shoes nice and tight. He’s got work to do. A lot of it.
He starts shooting, by himself. No trainer, no fancy cones, no folding chairs, no video tracking devices. He does his best to recreate the speed of the game and just shoots. Sometimes for three-plus hours, the Omaha Central senior will put up as many jump shoots and free throws as he can.
“It all started at the YMCA, so I still go there,” Tonje said. “Downtown, Maple, Butler or wherever I can find a gym. I go in there by myself and work.”
Tonje has a dream of playing Division I basketball. But that’s not the only thing that drives the soft-spoken, team-first Tonje, who eight games into his last year of high school ball is scoring baskets in every possible way. The points come in flurries of long 3-pointers, precise drives with some English off the glass and breakaway dunks after steals. Watch him play, and it’s apparent that Tonje is set on doing anything he can to keep the Eagles running with the state’s elite.
“I have a lot of people that are leaning on me and depending on me,” Tonje said after a practice the day before putting up 25 points in a 66-51 loss to Papillion-La Vista South — the Eagles’ second in row — last Friday. “My mom, my family, my friends, coaches and a lot of people that support me, including my teammates.”
Hence the hours in the gym, where at 6-foot-5 and 195 pounds, he’s developed ways to score when Central needs him the most.
But it hasn’t always been this way.
“He is one of the most improved guys I have been around,” Central coach Eric Behrens said. “I watched varsity games his 10th-grade year and he barely played. Last year was good, not great. He had a couple of big games but not consistently dominant.
“This year he has been fantastic. He’s physically just gotten bigger and increased his strength and athleticism. He is very quiet, humble and great to coach, but he also works very hard on his game.”
His mother is a driving force for Tonje, but not in the way some might think.
Sara Tonje is a Presbyterian pastor, not a helicopter parent. She makes it to as many of his high school games as she can, and she followed along via live streams, social media or texts when his AAU team was on the road last summer.
“He has wanted it so bad,” Sara said. “I watched him at a young age and said I don’t know if he actually has the skill for this.”
But she was always there for support, and her son slowly just kept getting better and better.
“She has been there from the start supporting me,” John said. “Anything I need, she is there for me. She is at every game she can be, and just her everyday support means everything to me.”
Tonje’s father, Jean “Bertin” Tonje, is a native of Cameroon and played soccer on an international level for his country. An auditor in Omaha, Bertin is proud of how far his son has come in basketball after pointing him toward soccer at an early age.
“I started off as a soccer player, but I found my way into basketball and I just love the game,” the younger Tonje said. “I’m prideful in that part of my heritage.”
In the summer of 2013, when John was heading into the seventh grade, Sara applied for a grant through the Eli Lilly Foundation that helps pastors take sabbaticals. The foundation helped the family take a trip to Cameroon.
“I thought it was important for my kids to see their grandparents for the first time,” Sara said.
Even in the soccer-crazed nation, John kept his mind on hoops, and Bertin arranged time at a college gym for John to practice basketball. Sara said he didn’t miss a day. He was there by himself — shooting.
But he had a long way to go. His freshman year at Omaha North, Tonje started on the freshman B team. His goal that season: Be a starter on the freshman A team.
That never happened. “He just persevered,” Sara said.
As a sophomore, he enrolled at Central in the midst of a growth spurt, and his skills started to kick in. He made varsity that season, averaging 1.6 points in 20 games.
His junior year, he was among the state leaders in 3-point percentage (46 percent), was the second leading scorer for the Eagles (13.6 per game) and was second in rebounding (4.2).
OK numbers, but nothing that would attract many college recruiters.
So Tonje continued to shoot. Alone. There were no photos of him on social media with proclamations of how hard he was working. No mix tapes. Just old-school gym work, putting the ball in the hoop.
“It was hard but was part of being a man,” Tonje said.
The Eagles, ranked seventh in the Top 10 and fifth in Class A, are 4-4 but Tonje has excelled. He is averaging 25.3 points, five rebounds, 1.8 steals and 1.1 blocks per game.
Ask him about the progress, and he will deflect any attention to his teammates and coaches.
“They (teammates) have given me a lot of confidence to go out there and play my game,” Tonje said. “(Coach Behrens) is now drawing up plays for me and getting me open looks and helping me overcome defenses that are now focused on me.”
Tonje holds Division II offers from Wayne State and Missouri Western. He’s hearing from Division I schools like UNO, Idaho State, Colorado State, North Dakota State and Fairfield.
He took an unofficial visit to UNO this summer. On the ride home from campus, his No. 1 fan became emotional.
“We were walking away from that visit at UNO, and I was in tears,” Sara said. “I told him, ‘You did this, you are going to do this.’”
From freshman B team to varsity to Division I attention. A lot can happen in four years.
You just have to keep taking your shots.
2018 NebHSRecruiting Top 50 Basketball Showcase testing results
The state's best boys basketball players came together for the NebHSRecruiting Top 50 showcase on Aug. 1. Here are the results from the testing portion of the camp, including height/weight, wingspan, standing reach, no-step vertical jump and handsize. All players are listed alphabetically by last name.