A 20-mile drive south on the 405 freeway gets you from Los Alamitos to UC Irvine, but Ali Ton needed to travel halfway around the world to cover that distance.
The associate head coach of the men’s basketball team, Ton first staked his claim in Orange County as a league MVP point guard for Los Alamitos High School in the mid-1990s. Now he’s helping transform the Anteaters, which head into the 2012-13 season this month with their best prospects in nearly a decade.
Ton joined head coach Russell Turner’s staff in 2010 and has earned a reputation as intense and detailed-oriented. And in Turner’s drive to lead the Anteaters to their first NCAA tournament bid, Ton plays a key role in international recruiting efforts.
Finding talented student-athletes abroad has proven to be a successful strategy for “mid-major” college basketball programs. Gonzaga University, for example, continues to compete with the traditional hoop powerhouses by tapping into the fertile European youth basketball pipeline. To get to the top of the Big West Conference, Turner wants to do the same, and he sees Ton as a difference maker.
“Ali has a set of connections and a network that are hard to replicate,”Turner says. “He’s part of the European scene, and he’s building a strong foundation to bring some talented student-athletes to UCI.”
Ton’s European recruiting acumen comes as no surprise. In his native Turkey, the Ton name resonates in basketball circles. His father, Necmi Ton, coached professionally in Turkey, where passionate fans support one of the top leagues in Europe. Ali himself played four pro seasons with teams in Istanbul, including one year with Galatasaray, among the largest athletic clubs in the world.
Ton came to the U.S. at age 15 to live with his uncle’s family in Rossmoor and find an opportunity to play the game he loved against the best competition.
“I grew up with basketball,” he says. “My style of play fit well with the way they play the game in the U.S. I came here for the American dream — to be a high school, college and NBA star.”
After establishing himself as one of Southern California’s top high school point guards, Ton had a productive run at Davidson College in North Carolina, where he set the school’s assist record while leading the Wildcats to the NCAA tournament. He graduated in 1999 with a bachelor’s degree in political science.
After finishing his professional career in Turkey, he returned to the U.S. to begin coaching, landing assistant positions at Davidson, Western Carolina University, SUNY Binghamton University and Radford University. He even served on the coaching staff of the Turkish national team that competed in the 2005 under-20 European championship.
When Turner was hired as UCI’s head coach in 2010, he remembered a feisty point guard at Davidson years earlier, when Turner was an assistant at Wake Forest University.
“There was a natural connection with Ali,” Turner says. “His local ties were a huge bonus, and we wanted to make international recruiting more of a focal point. It was a perfect fit.”
And coming to UCI interested Ton. He had met his wife, Elizabeth, in high school, and with an infant daughter, Leyla, being close to family had its appeal. The two are expecting their second child in December.
As Turner continues to rebuild the program, Ton diligently plants Anteater roots in European soil. He has recruited fellow Turk Ege Mala, a 6-foot-7-inch redshirt freshman forward, and promises that more foreign student-athletes will follow Mala to Irvine.
“We’ve been building a good network in Europe, and you’ll see it pan out in the coming years,” Ton says.
Even before it does, UCI men’s basketball will put onto the court one of its most exciting teams in a decade, led by senior forward/guard Michael Wilder, who was selected for the preseason media All-Big West team.
The Anteaters won their first game, against Nevada, 78-64, and dropped their second in overtime to UCLA, 80-79. Their ambitious preconference schedule continues this week at the Progressive Legends Classic tournament in Huntsville, Texas, followed by games against Pepperdine, UNLV, LSU and Southern California.
“We have a deep, athletic squad,” Ton says. “Our style of play, energy and attitude will make it a worthwhile experience for our fans. We’re looking forward to having a packed gym for all our home games and sharing our victories with the Anteater community.”