After dropping a bombshell, Lofton looks to prove he can still play
It's a peculiar thought that an entire season could pass while its best story -- the real explanation for why Chris Lofton was not playing like Chris Lofton -- remained a secret.
It took time for 2007-08 to unveil itself on the floor, as the season's best shot didn't come until the final seconds of regulation in the final game of the NCAA tournament. There was no consensus, before Kansas cut down the nets, as to who the nation's best team was. And the player-of-the-year debate between North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough and Kansas State's Michael Beasley raged on until the awards were announced.
It took all the way until May, though, for Lofton to reveal his secret: That he had soldiered on through his senior year at Tennessee after clandestinely beating testicular cancer in the offseason. Nearly all of his teammates, even, had been in the dark about the illness.
Lofton went public with his story in way befitting of his understated personality. It was no made-for-TV affair; rather, it appeared on ESPN.com before spreading out over the newspapers and wires at a time when college basketball had retreated off the national radar. Had the world known about Lofton's cancer from the beginning -- soon after signs of the illness showed up in a 2007 NCAA tournament drug test -- he would have been the subject of endless, soft-light halftime features, and the focal point of every Vols broadcast.
That was the last thing he wanted, so he waited until his eligibility was up in Knoxville, then dropped the news, which was the most unexpected of answers for why he began '07-08 as a preseason All-America, then averaged 5.3 fewer points (15.5) and shot eight percentage points lower from the field (39.9) than he did as a junior, looking like a shell of himself in the process. Then he faded off to Phoenix, to begin preparations for an uncertain future in professional basketball.
What, now, will become of Chris Lofton, cold-blooded marksman turned fallen star turned cancer survivor? I thought of him again this week when the 65-man roster for the NBA's predraft camp was announced, and his name was not on it. Once regarded as a sure-fire draft pick -- DraftExpress had pegged him as the next David Wesley, hardly an All-Star label, but one that foretold of a decent NBA career -- Lofton fell off the board due to his struggles as a senior. He made the all-tournament team at the Portsmouth Invitational in April, but failed to impress enough NBA scouts there to earn a spot in this week's event at Walt Disney World.
While once-lesser shooting guards such as Oregon's Bryce Taylor, North Carolina's Wayne Ellington and Dayton's Brian Roberts were invited to Orlando, Lofton went home to Maysville, Ky., for Memorial Day weekend, and then began a new stage of training at the Kentucky Basketball Academy in Lexington on Tuesday. I talked to him by phone after his first day of workouts there, and he sounded upbeat. "I feel so much better right now than I did during the season," Lofton said. "I took about two and a half weeks off after it was all over, rested my body, and I'm finally back to 100 percent in training now. I really feel good."
What we saw last season, we belatedly know, was not the real Lofton, the one who dropped 34 points on Memphis and 35 on Texas as a junior, the one who you wouldn't hesitate to give the ball in crunch time, even to fire a contested, low-percentage three. Now he must convince NBA teams of that in individual workouts next month, and hope that they'll accept his senior-year numbers as a medical anomaly rather than assess them at face value.
It's difficult not to feel pangs of guilt, as a media member, reflecting on moments from Lofton's senior season that I would have interpreted differently, had I known better. I was in the gym on the first day of the U.S. Pan American Games team trials in Haverford, Pa., where Lofton was one of 30 players on a star-studded tryout roster. A few media members I was sitting with began projecting the team's eventual starting lineup; mine didn't turn out too well, because I put the Lofton I thought would be there -- the one who had earned a spot on the Wooden Award's watch list -- at first-string shooting guard.
Lofton didn't even make the team for its trip to Brazil. He didn't make many threes, didn't drive the ball, didn't show much composure. Along with everyone else in the gym, I missed the warning signs -- that he had lost a significant amount of muscle from chemotherapy, that he was extremely fatigued -- and just wrote it off to him being rusty in the offseason. We talked for a few minutes about Tyler Smith's favorable eligibility ruling, and while Lofton seemed disappointed with his play, he was still, as always, unfailingly polite. Only this time he was keeping a major setback hidden from the world. In retrospect, it was shocking that he showed up for the camp at all.
"Those tryouts were so hard for me; it was the first time I had even picked up a ball in a while, and a lot was on my mind," Lofton said on Tuesday. "It was wearing on me physically and mentally."