As I sat in my seat in Rupp Arena dumbfounded and awestruck at what I had just witnessed, I turned to my friend and told him that was the best single performance I have ever seen in my life. Never in my many years of following high school and college basketball had I ever witnessed a player so thoroughly dominate his opponent. But that night in March of '03, Chris Lofton single-handedly beat an excellent Ballard team for the Sweet 16 Championship. Mason County had a new hero.
Lofton was indescribable. His numbers: 11 of 17 from the field, 9 of 12 three-pointers ( tying Richie Farmer's record for threes in a State Tournament game ), for 39 points. He made making a three-pointer with a defender in his grille look effortless. It didn't matter where on the court he was; the wing, corner, or the top of the key. His defenders were sympahtetic figures that night, for at their expense Lofton had redefined the term "pure-shooter". After the game Ballard coach Chris Renner had this to say about Lofton:
I respectfully disagree Coach Renner, food poisoning was the only thing that could have stopped Chris Lofton that night.
I again today sit in my chair awestruck and dumbfounded by Chris Lofton. With the news yesterday that Lofton was diagnosed and successfully treated for testicular cancer in April and May of last year, I am left to only shake my head in disbelief. It's not just the fact that the young man endured surgery and radiation treatments, it's the fact that he kept the news away from his teammates, fans, and extended family. Keeping this secret was of the utmost importance to Lofton, not for selfish reasons, but because he was considering his teams well-being. Lofton said this about his decision to suffer through the treatment and emotional devastation by himself:
He didn't want to be a distraction to his team so he agonized alone, comforted by only his incredible parents who he talked to nightly on the telephone. In a world where athletes promote themselves at every opportunity, Lofton's selfless act is to be admired and respected. The character one must possess to display concern for the team over ones own well-being is steely and rooted in ones spirit. And Lofton's spirit is a rare one indeed.
Lofton said this about handling the burden alone in Knoxville:
Even when considering options for treatment Lofton was thinking about his team, and returning to the court. He wanted the surgery to remove the cancerous tumor performed as soon as possible so he could recommence working out. When deciding what time in the day to have his radiation treatments, which went on for nearly a month, Lofton chose an afternoon time so he could take part in basketball activities in the mornings.
Lofton's desire and drive to succeed are overwhelmingly obvious in his decisions. Getting back on the court quickly not only recalled a sense of normalcy in his life, but it also gave him a goal, something to shoot for ( pun intended ) amidst all the mental chaos he was experiencing. But what is even more admirable is the discipline he exhibited. It's one thing to say one is going to focus on the future when confronted with this type of gut-wrenching news, but it is another thing entirely to successfully execute the "game-plan".
Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl and Lofton discussed the possibility of him red-shirting his senior year. Considering the extreme damage done to the body by radiation treatments, Lofton being ready for the '07-'08 season seemed highly unlikely, but Lofton wanted nothing to do with red-shirting:
Lofton indeed struggled early in the season. His usual opponent-deflating threes were not dropping, and his dribble-drive, which had been so affective the previous year, was non-existent. Questions were asked about his game, or lack thereof, but Pearl and Lofton continued to keep the secret. I can't imagine how they must have felt.
But in true Lofton fashion his perseverance won out in the end. By the end of the year Lofton had made nearly 40% of his three-point-shots, which by anyones standard is excellent. He did what shooters do, and that is to continue to shoot. The kid that was labeled "too short", "not quick enough", and averse to defense, capped his record-setting career in grand fashion; he is the SEC record-holder for most three-pointers in a career with 431, he was also designated an All-America performer for the third year in a row. There are no awards in college basketball for "Best Performance While Under Extreme Duress", but if there were Chris Lofton would be firmly grasping the trophy on banquet night.
The trifecta of Lofton's perseverance, selflessness, and desire is what will enable this young man to successfully navigate life, regardless if he never touches a basketball again. His basketball ability doesn't even begin to tell the story of Chris Lofton. He's more than jump shots and back-taps, he's an achiever. He will do what achievers do, and that is accomplish whatever their goals are. It takes a special person of single-minded resolve and purpose to overcome and flourish despite life-threatening setbacks, especially when flying solo. But that's exactly what Lofton did. After living through what must have seemed like a nightmare, Lofton is ready for anything.
Lofton doesn't need basketball, but basketball sure needs him.