The conversation will probably take place 6 or 7 minutes into tonight’s University of Idaho-Pacific Big West tournament men’s basketball game at the Lawlor Events Center.
The official will see 6-foot-6, 270-pound junior Mao Tosi leaning on Pacific’s tall-and-lean Michael Olowokandi and warn, “Stop pushing.”
At the next break, the chiseled Vandal may drape a sequoia-sized arm around the official, grin mischievously and politely plead his case.
“They’re always telling me to stop pushing because I’m always pushing,” Tosi chuckles. “I always kid around with them, ‘I’m not fouling. I have to play, too.’ I just let them know I’m a nice guy.”
When push comes to shove, Tosi steps back. To thump on an opponent would mean a technical foul and a likely ejection. That’s counterproductive.
Tosi’s style is unique in this era of dunkin’ and 3-point bombin’. Defensive highlights don’t often make ESPN clips. Tosi plays basketball without having to hold the basketball or shoot it every 10 seconds.
He impacts games by bumping big men in the paint until they’re no longer in the lane, or by hauling down king-sized rebounds.
“He’s the best player I’ve ever played with,” gushes senior guard Kris Baumann, adding that Tosi would be his first selection if he was starting a team.
Tosi might need some assistance, though, since Olowokandi, the Big West player of the year, scored 31 points when UI declined to double-team the 7-footer in Pacific’s win in late January.
Not that Tosi needs much help standing up for himself. He can’t remember the last time someone messed with him. Other than his older brothers, that is.
Tosi is the youngest of the five and possibly the runt. Huh?
“Three aren’t as tall, but they’re wide. One’s much bigger,” Tosi says. “When we get together, we go to the courts. My family is athletic and likes to come out and play. They beat up on me.”
Born Falemao Tosi in American Samoa, he soon moved with his family to San Diego. Then the Tosis relocated to Anchorage, where Mao took up basketball and football.
After his parents returned to San Diego, Tosi remained in Anchorage with an older brother.
“I knew if I went back to San Diego, I’d probably drop out and not make it. That was just the area and the people I hung out with,” Tosi says. “It was my choice to stay because I knew it would be better for me.”
It was better, but it took time. When Tosi started shining in sports, it dawned on him that college could be an option. Unfortunately, he had goofed off as a freshman and sophomore, putting him behind in the classroom.
Tosi hiked his grade-point average into the mid 2.0s his junior and senior years at East Anchorage High, but that wasn’t enough to undo the damage of the previous two years.
In football, he was a 250-pound defensive lineman and a blocking fullback - a serious nightmare for opposing linebackers. In basketball, Tosi teamed with Trajan Langdon, now among the country’s Top 10 stars at Duke, but Langdon didn’t do all the scoring.
Tosi proudly recalls averaging 20 points per game and being an all-state selection. These days, he can go a month without scoring 20 points, but it doesn’t bother him.
Tosi hit consecutive jump shots earlier this season, which brought immediate chiding from Baumann.
“He gets on me during the game, ‘Let’s get the ball to Mao, he’s on fire,”’ Tosi recalls.
Perhaps because his frame had been molded with barely any weight lifting, Tosi drew football interest from Notre Dame and Colorado. But both schools backed off upon seeing Tosi’s report cards.
He chose to play basketball at Butler Community College in Kansas. Despite being slowed by stress fractures in both feet, he refined his bump-and-grind defense.
He’s perfected that role at Idaho.
“The nicest thing about him is his ego is so unlike today’s stereotypical player,” Vandals coach Dave Farrar says. “He gets as much pride out of rebounding as others get out of scoring.”
Tosi’s best physical attribute is balance, Farrar points out. “He always stays within himself; he’s never off balance.”
Tosi hopes to juggle basketball and football the remainder of his UI career. He will turn out for spring football and probably will play on the defensive line.
“Coach (Tormey) was asking me if I was going to play, if I was really serious about it,” Tosi says. “Now he knows I am.”
Tonight, Tosi will face a serious challenge trying to nudge Olowokandi out of his comfort zone.
“He’s going to get some help, but it’s like I told the kids, Pacific’s seen everything there is to see on help defense,” Farrar says.
“I just know I have to go out and try to beat him up,” Tosi says. “He doesn’t like the physical play, but he doesn’t mind it either. I’ve always known what I do best. I can’t score for nothing. I’m better at being physical.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: COMING UP Today: Pacific vs. Idaho, 6 p.m.
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