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VOL. 8 | NO. 26 | Saturday, June 20, 2015

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Dave Link

Lofton Faces Yet Another Basketball Career Crossroad

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Chris Lofton is on the comeback trail again. The former Tennessee All-American guard is on the mend from a turf-toe injury that ended his 2014-15 season with Besiktas in Istanbul, the top level of Turkish pro basketball.

Lofton, who finished his UT career in 2007-08, spends time during the offseason in Knoxville and Lexington, Ky., near his hometown of Maysville.

Lofton was a star from the beginning for the Vols under Buzz Peterson, then continued with the arrival of Bruce Pearl. His stats dropped as a senior while he quietly dealt with testicular cancer.

(Tennessee Athletics/UTSports.com)

While his Besiktas team is in the playoffs, Lofton is wearing a walking boot and weighing his options as a free agent, unsure of his next destination.

“I really wouldn’t mind playing anywhere,” Lofton says. “If it’s a good situation, a great city, it doesn’t matter to me.”

Lofton has dealt with adversity before, none more challenging than what he faced while playing for Tennessee.

After his junior season in 2006-07, Lofton was diagnosed with testicular cancer and underwent surgery and radiation treatments.

Only a select few knew of Lofton’s cancer or treatments when shooting slumps mired his senior season, and questions swirled as to what was wrong with his game.

After averaging 20.8 points and shooting 41.9 percent from 3-point range as a junior, Lofton’s scoring average dropped (15.5) along with his 3-point percentage (38.4) during his senior season.

Former UT coach Bruce Pearl was aware of Lofton’s illness, but none of the other Vols knew except for Jordan Howell, who was told by Lofton, his roommate, midway through the 2007-08 season.

“I didn’t want to be a distraction to the team,” Lofton explains. “I didn’t want to make myself bigger than the team. I just wanted to play basketball with my friends and not be a distraction.”

UT fans won’t remember Lofton for his missed shots in his last year.

Instead, they revel in Lofton’s remarkable 3-pointers that helped lift the Vols to new heights in college basketball during the early years of the Pearl era.

Lofton was somewhat of an overlooked recruit after earning Kentucky’s 2005 Mr. Basketball award as a senior at Mason County High School in Maysville.

Former UT coach Buzz Peterson signed Lofton, who quickly established himself as a rising star by averaging 13.2 points and earning third-team All-American honors as a freshman. His 46.5-shooting percentage (93-of-200) from 3-point range that year ranks second all-time at UT behind Jon Higgins’ 48.6 percent (53-of-109) in 2000-01.

The Vols, however, went 14-17 during Lofton’s freshman season, and Peterson was fired in March of 2005.

Pearl was hired from Wisconsin-Milwaukee to replace Peterson and, like Lofton, was a smash hit not long after arriving in Knoxville.

As the Vols went to a full-court, high-pressure system under Pearl, Lofton dazzled fans and overwhelmed opponents with his long-range shooting. His 17.2 points per game led the Vols in scoring in 2005-06 (point guard C.J. Watson averaged 15.3 and post player Major Wingate 10.6) while shooting 43.7 percent from 3-point range.

Also that season, Lofton broke Allan Houston’s school record of eight 3-pointers in a game by going 9-of-12 against Georgia on Feb. 11, 2006. His 114 3-pointers in 2005-06 was a single-season school record, which he broke during his junior season by hitting 118.

Lofton still holds the top four spots for UT’s single-season 3-pointers per game mark (3.80 as a sophomore to 3.00 as a freshman). He’s tied for fifth in career 3-pointers (431) in NCAA basketball history.

“It was a great experience for me being here (at UT),” Lofton said. “Being a Vol was a great experience. I’m just glad I got to be a part of it, and very thankful for it.”

Lofton’s big shots are of UT lore, like his 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat Winthrop in the 2006 NCAA tournament and his 3-pointer over Kevin Durant that helped beat Texas the next year.

First-year UT coach Rick Barnes was coaching Texas at the time, and certainly recalls that shot.

Lofton has talked with Barnes a couple of times recently and likes the new coach, who replaced the fired Donnie Tyndall.

“I think it’s a great hire,” Lofton says. “He’s a true winner. He won big at Texas. I think it’s huge that we got him here.”

After his UT career, Lofton played in Spain for two years, the NBA’s D-League for a year, Spain again, and Turkey for the last two years. Along the way, Lofton bounced back from a back injury that required surgery and a sore knee that ended another season.

Lofton was his team’s leading scorer this season before the injury. He missed the early stages of the season, found out he had turf toe in December, and tried to play through it.

“I went to the foot doctor, and he told me I shouldn’t be playing,” Lofton says. “I shut it down in February.”

Don’t look for Lofton to be shut down for long. He’d like to play overseas for a couple more years, and this isn’t the first time he’s made a comeback.

“I’m doing better,” he adds. “Right now, I’m just waiting to see what happens.”

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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