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Posted: Wednesday May 28, 2008 11:55PM; Updated: Thursday May 29, 2008 12:40PM
Luke Winn Luke Winn >
INSIDE COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Chris Lofton's secret (cont.)

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The Pan-Am trials were the first -- but far from the last -- place where writers and analysts would ask, What Happened To Chris Lofton? He didn't start the regular season well, either, hitting only 11 of his first 35 long-distance attempts. He failed to break the 20-point barrier until the Vols' seventh game, against North Carolina A&T. Three days before that, on Nov. 24, I went to Newark, N.J., to see Texas blow out Tennessee by 19 points. Lofton finished that game with 18, but never really asserted himself until garbage time, and looked like an inferior player to the 'Horns' much less-heralded two-guard, A.J. Abrams. Again, I wondered where Lofton's mojo had gone. Little did I know.

The shooting troubles kept haunting him into December and January and February, and the "What's wrong" questions kept coming, making it increasingly difficult to keep the secret suppressed. "I would get frustrated," Lofton said of the media's inquiries, "but I didn't feel like it was the right time to talk about it." The Vols were still winning -- they were leading the SEC, and in the top 10 of the polls -- and he didn't want to become a distraction.

The next time I saw Lofton play in person, it was Jan. 17, against Vanderbilt, and this time he only scored 11 points, but Tennessee won handily, 80-60. I wrote about how the team dynamic had changed, with players such as Tyler and JaJuan Smith stepping up into seemingly bigger roles than Lofton, but that the fans were still praying that Lofton would return to form. The lead paragraph read: When Chris Lofton releases a three-pointer in Thompson-Boling Arena of late, the tension in the crowd is palpable: 20,799 fans, simultaneously holding their breath, desperately wanting to explode with emotion. "They are willing every one of his shots to go in," says Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl. But willpower alone cannot overcome the worst of slumps, and Lofton is mired in a hellacious one.

Later in that evening's news conference, Pearl responded to a question -- not mine, but one whose reply I admit being interested in -- about Lofton's marksmanship by saying, "He's tired of answering questions about why he's not [shooting well], OK? So let's put those aside. Asked and answered, asked and answered."

Pearl was just playing the role of defender. He, along with Lofton and his parents, and Lofton's roommate Jordan Howell, were the only ones who knew the real answer. The rest of us didn't understand. How could we have? Lofton was too nice to ever lash out; I remember him lurking on the periphery of that news conference, already wearing his backpack, perhaps in hopes that he could slip out, question-free. When he was interviewed by a few reporters, he just spoke about how many weapons the Vols now had, and how even if he wasn't shooting well, they had become harder to guard. How hard must it have been to restrain himself from blurting out the real answer, distractions be damned?

Lofton's college career would conclude in the Sweet 16 against Louisville, a game in which he scored 15 points but hit just 2-of-11 threes in a 79-60 blowout. There was no storybook ending to his senior year, just a early exit from the NCAAs. Although Lofton broke the SEC's all-time three-point record during the regular season, he didn't repeat as the conference's player of the year, wasn't named to any All-America teams, and wasn't a finalist for any major awards. He went out quietly, and much later, on his terms, he lifted the shroud on his battle with cancer. The outpouring of support from Tennessee fans amazed him. "A lot of people told me I was an inspiration to cancer survivors," Lofton said. "They couldn't believe I played through it."

This spring, he's trying to play his way back into the Chris Lofton of old and land an NBA roster spot, as improbable as that outcome may seem. Lofton said he's amenable to playing in Europe if things don't pan out; he just wants to find a way to make a living playing basketball.

I still wonder, though, if that couldn't happen in the NBA. I watched the first round of predraft camp games on TV Wednesday, and saw players such as Ellington struggle mightily to knock down pro-length three-pointers. It's a skill valuable enough to keep a player like Wesley, who was a 6-foot tall gunner out of Baylor in 1992, in the league for a more than a decade. Lofton had that range as a junior. Who's to say he couldn't find it again? Who's to say he's not capable of rediscovering it in time for individual workouts, and becoming a surprise second-rounder? All those who wondered what was wrong are pulling for him now, hoping that being written off is the next thing that Chris Lofton overcomes.

 
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