Tennessee's Lofton quietly faced and beat cancer
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Chris Lofton has beaten the odds his entire life.
One of the most prolific 3-point shooters in college basketball history, Lofton can still recite all of the things he supposedly wouldn't or couldn't do when he came out of Maysville, Ky., four years ago.
"Too short. Too slow. Not quick enough. Couldn't dribble well enough. Couldn't play defense," Lofton rolls off with his easy smile.
When it came time to pick a college, despite earning the prestigious Mr. Basketball honor in the state of Kentucky, Lofton was spurned by the two basketball powerhouses in that state -- Kentucky and Louisville.
Undaunted, Lofton headed south and carved out a record-setting career at Tennessee -- one that helped put the Vols back on the basketball map. The 6-foot-2 guard, who looks about as unassuming on the court as the team equipment manager until you see him shoot the ball, was in many ways the face of the Vols' renaissance in men's hoops. They won a school-record 31 games this past season, vaulted to No. 1 in the polls for the first time in school history and made their second straight Sweet 16 appearance.
It was truly a memorable career, one that Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl guarantees will someday lead to the retiring of Lofton's No. 5 jersey.
But Lofton's greatest conquest came off the court.
He beat cancer.
The three-time All-American, in an exclusive interview with ESPN.com, revealed for the first time publicly that he played his senior season at Tennessee after undergoing surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from one of his testicles in March 2007.
I cried more this past year than I have my whole life combined. I cried a river this past year.
What nobody knew at the time, at least for certain, was that what actually showed up on that test was a tumor marker.
It's a test that might have saved Lofton's life.
"I think it probably was a miracle because we don't do any test here [at Tennessee] that would ever check that," said Chad Newman, Tennessee's head basketball trainer.
After blood work and then an ultrasound the next Monday, four days after the Ohio State game, revealed that Lofton indeed had cancer, secretive surgery was scheduled two days later on March 28 at UT Medical Center. The surgery was done early that morning, and Lofton's name never appeared on the board at the hospital. His parents were discreetly taken into the hospital, and Pearl even came in semi-disguise.
Lofton, who had ended so many other teams' dreams with one of his patented step-back 3-pointers, was about to embark on the fight of his life.
"I'm not a guy who cries a whole lot around people," said Lofton, who's now cancer-free and as determined as ever to pursue a professional basketball career. "But I cried more this past year than I have my whole life combined."I cried a river this past year."
Amazingly, Lofton went through the entire ordeal -- the surgery, radiation treatments, recovery and excruciating emotional distress -- with very few people knowing.
It's the way he wanted it. An intensely private person, he internalized everything and was hell-bent on nobody being able to make excuses for him.
"That's just the way he is: a no-excuses kind of fella," said Lofton's father, Franklin. "The worst part for us was not being down there with him and everything he was going through, but that's the way Chris wanted it. He knew if we were down there in Knoxville all the time, people would be asking questions."
It was a very tight circle of people who knew. That circle included Lofton's parents, the Tennessee coaches and medical staff and a handful of others.
The only teammate Lofton told was fellow senior guard Jordan Howell, and that was late in the season. Lofton and Howell roomed together on the road.
Even Lofton's other family members -- aunts, uncles and cousins -- didn't know.
"It's the hardest thing I've ever had to go through, but I know now there's nothing out there I can't overcome," Lofton said. "I wanted to deal with it on my terms because I didn't want it being a distraction for our team. I knew if it came out, everything would change. I didn't want it that way."
It was still hard for Lofton, a man of few words, to come forward after the season. But he knew there was a good chance his story might help others.
"I think God wanted people to hear my story. I think that's what it was," Lofton said. "At first, I wanted to keep it to myself. I didn't want to tell anybody, but then I realized that people need to know, maybe to help them or maybe to help somebody else."
The 'miracle' diagnosis
Even now, Lofton finds himself wondering what would have happened had he not been selected for the NCAA's random drug test following the win over Long Beach State. The year before, he'd also been selected following one of the Vols' NCAA tournament games, but nothing showed up on that drug screening.
"Somebody was looking out for him," said Lofton's mother, Kathleen. "Never has anybody been so blessed to be picked for a drug test."
When Tennessee officials learned of Lofton's positive drug test the day of the Ohio State game, they were in utter shock. They decided not to tell Lofton or Pearl. At that point, they were trying to discern whether Lofton might have unknowingly consumed something in a protein shake or other supplement that would have contained a banned substance on the NCAA's list.
What was found on the test were high levels of beta hCG, which is found in women during pregnancy. It can signify steroid use, and it is also a marker for cancer.
"Knowing Chris, we knew it had to be some sort of abnormality," said Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton, who was the first to receive the grim news in San Antonio.
Tennessee officials decided to tell Lofton and his parents about the positive drug test in the wee hours of March 23, only a few hours after the Vols lost a 17-point halftime lead in a heartbreaking 85-84 loss to Ohio State.
You're going to get knocked down. It's whether you stay down or whether you get back up and fight that counts.
"Right then and there, it was like it was the end of the world for me," said Lofton, his eyes moistening. "I didn't know how to react, didn't know how to respond. It was like it wasn't even me they were talking about. I couldn't believe it. I mean, really, it was like the end of the world.
"You didn't know about your basketball career, didn't know if you were even going to be around to have a basketball career. You hear cancer, and "
After flying back to Knoxville and doing additional tests, everybody's worst fear was confirmed.
Lofton had testicular cancer.
The good news, though, was the form he had was a seminoma, which, according to the National Cancer Institute, doesn't grow and spread as rapidly as nonseminomas. Seminomas are also more sensitive to radiation, which was the course of action doctors decided on following Lofton's surgery.
In vintage Lofton fashion, he wanted to get the surgery over with as soon as possible so that he could resume working out. He was naturally scared, but he was equally defiant.
Cancer wasn't going to beat him.
"I just remembered my mom and dad telling me, 'It's all going to be OK. Just pray about it and keep your faith,'" Lofton recalled. "You're going to go through tough times. We all are. It's how you respond to them that counts. It's how you get back up.
"You're going to get knocked down. It's whether you stay down or whether you get back up and fight that counts."
And make no mistake. Lofton had one hell of a fight on his hands.
The slow, painful recovery
It took Lofton about 10 days to feel good enough to be up and walking around after the March 28 surgery. He couldn't do anything as far as conditioning or working out for nearly a month.
"It was some of the worst pain I've ever gone through. All I could do was lie in the bed and watch movies," Lofton said.
His radiation treatments began on April 25 and continued through May 21. It was a daily ritual for Lofton and Newman. They met Monday through Friday and went to the hospital together for his 4:30 p.m. treatment. Lofton chose the afternoon treatment so that he might be able to do some basketball-related work in the morning.
Remember, you're talking about a guy who shoots for an hour by himself after everybody else is long gone from practice. He's also been known to do a second weight-lifting workout later at night after doing the one with the team earlier in the day.
The gym and weight room are his cathedral.
But even Lofton was no match for the radiation treatments and their nauseating side effects. The treatments included Lofton's entire midsection because doctors wanted to make sure the cancer didn't spread into the lymph nodes.
"The first couple times, I was like, 'This is nothing. I can do this easy,'" Lofton remembered.
A week later, he was curled up in bed with a trash can by his side, all the while wondering what he'd done to deserve this.
"I'm lying in bed, couldn't move and puking everywhere," Lofton said. "I'd call Chad and tell him, 'I'm hurting. I can't do this.' Chad was always there for me. He just kept telling me that I was going to make it. I don't know what I would have done without him."
While Newman was Lofton's lifeline in Knoxville, his parents were his rock via phone. They talked every night, his mom and dad passing the phone back and forth and wiping away tears as fast as they could.
"I cried myself to sleep a lot of times talking to them on the phone," Lofton said. "You're by yourself and there's really nothing anybody can do. You just have to deal with it. My mom and dad kept me strong. They gave me passages out of the Bible to read to help keep me strong. We all leaned on our faith."
Lofton's radiation treatments were the most heartbreaking time for his mother, who was 235 miles away and knowing her only child was suffering.
"It's the most difficult thing I've ever had to face," said Kathleen Lofton, who still gets choked up talking about it. "Anybody who has children knows, and when there's really nothing you can do it's the worst feeling you can have.
"If I could have taken the cancer myself, I would have."
Lofton still remembers his last treatment like it was yesterday.
"It was the best day of my life," he beamed. "I just thanked God for everything. He let me play basketball this year, and that is my life. It's all I ever wanted to do."
Back on the court
Pearl discussed the possibility of redshirting Lofton, who considered it. Ultimately, the senior-to-be simply couldn't see himself missing out on his final season when the Vols were being picked by everybody to be a national contender.
"I had to be there for them," he said. "They would have been there for me."
Still, Lofton admittedly was a long way from being where he was when his junior season ended, one in which he led the SEC in scoring at 20.8 points per game and earned SEC Player of the Year honors.
He lost nearly 15 pounds and weighed less than 190 pounds for the first time since he was in high school. More important, he'd lost all of his strength.
"You've got to remember that I missed a whole month or more of basketball. I couldn't do anything, run, shoot, work out, anything," Lofton said. "I didn't really start working out until June."
It was in my head a lot, and maybe that affected me. I just know I couldn't move the way I wanted to. It was like my body wouldn't let me.
Sure enough, he was just a glimmer of the player who lit up the SEC as a junior, and was cut.
"I should have never gone to the Pan Am trials. I knew what was going to happen," Lofton said. "I was so weak. That was really a downer."
The Vols went on their European tour in August, and Lofton was still working his way back into shape. And even when the regular season began in November, he could tell something was missing.
"I was coming off my best season," said Lofton, the SEC's all-time leader with 431 3-pointers and third all-time on the NCAA's list. "But I just couldn't play to that level again. I had some good moments, but I didn't play as well as I expected, to my standards anyway, or as well as my team needed me to."
In particular, he noticed himself getting winded at points in the game he never used to in the past. He also didn't have that same explosiveness to the basket. That was the part of his game that he took to the next level as a junior.
The mental part, though, was the most difficult roadblock.
"It was in my head a lot, and maybe that affected me," Lofton said. "I just know I couldn't move the way I wanted to. It was like my body wouldn't let me."
Leaving his mark
Lofton's numbers went down -- his scoring average and shooting percentages. Part of that was Tennessee's having more balance on offense, but he also started the season by going 6-of-28 from the field in his first three games.
Heading into SEC play on Jan. 9, he was shooting just 34.3 percent from the field. Yet, when the Vols needed him most during the stretch run to their first outright SEC championship since 1967, Lofton was there to save them on multiple occasions.
"For a time, I was asked about Chris Lofton pretty much every day," Pearl said, "and while knowing the underlying reasons of what was going on, I had to respect his wishes and his privacy. To answer that question now, with everything out, no, Chris wasn't quite the same. I don't think there's any question that the cancer, the treatment, the loss in strength all of those definitely were a factor.
"But what I also can tell you is this: That jersey, No. 5, is going to be hanging in the rafters in Thompson-Boling Arena, joining Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King and Dale Ellis or Allan Houston to follow. No. 5 is going to be there. Chris Lofton leaves his mark in such a way as a Volunteer to have overcome this, to have not hidden and to have not allowed it to beat him."
And through it all, the few people who knew what Lofton was going through never heard him make the first excuse.
"I've watched people battle through different things at different levels, but this touched me as much as anything," Newman said. "For a kid so genuinely good to get this, I just couldn't believe it. That's what made it so hard, because I simply couldn't be a guy that was down. I had to be positive for Chris.
"I was mentally and physically exhausted, and I can't imagine what it was like for Chris."
Lofton has been in for regular checkups, and the cancer has not spread. He is now cancer-free, Newman said, but he'll have to continue to be monitored for the rest of his life.
Pearl has talked to several NBA executives he trusts, and they've assured him that Lofton's cancer won't be a factor as far as his being drafted or making a team. In fact, Denver Nuggets forward Nene went through a similar ordeal this past season and, after missing 2½ months, was back with the team on a limited basis.
"I have unbelievable respect for the guy," said Newman, who went with Lofton to all but one of his treatments. "I was just amazed at how he could come through this and be so private about it. What makes it even more amazing is that he continued to play at a high level in such a stressful situation, and even though it was subpar for him for a while, he took it in stride and kept going."
Lofton admits that he did his best not to listen when anybody in the media, or even fans, were discussing his shooting slump early in the season or talking about his not being the same player.
"I just told myself that no matter what happens, I'm going to leave it all out on the floor," he said. "I didn't care what people said about me or wrote about me."
He just recently told some of his closest friends in Maysville about his cancer and jokes that their reaction was predictable.
"They were like, 'Man, I could tell something was wrong with you,'" Lofton said.
After attending Tennessee's team banquet on Friday night, Lofton plans to spend some quiet time with his parents the next few weeks back home. He's waiting on an invite to the NBA's pre-draft camp in Orlando.
He said much of his resolve this past year came from his parents. His dad works at a power plant and his mother is a middle school teacher.
They attended most of Lofton's games this past season, home and away, and would typically drive all night afterward to get back home and be at work the next morning.
"That's how I was raised," Lofton said. "You show up for work every day no matter what."
Lofton's father was reminded recently of what he told former Tennessee coach Buzz Peterson during an in-home visit when the Vols were recruiting Lofton.
They were out in the Loftons' front yard when Franklin Lofton looked at Peterson and said very matter of factly, "You won't get one just like my son. He's special."
We all know now just how special.
Chris Low is a college football and basketball writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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