Tennessee basketball star reveals his battle with testicular cancer

  • By Mike Griffith Scripps Howard News Service
  • Saturday, May 3, 2008 12:27am
  • SportsSports

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — University of Tennessee basketball star Chris Lofton didn’t want to make any excuses for his slump the first half of this past season.

But cancer isn’t an excuse — it’s a reason.

The senior All-American guard told the Knoxville News Sentinel on Thursday that he underwent four weeks of radiation treatment after being diagnosed with testicular cancer last March.

Tears came to his eyes when discussing his battle with cancer. Lofton said he has made a full recovery, but he acknowledged that last spring’s treatment affected his offseason training regimen. His statistics show it took him half the season to catch up.

“When I first heard that word, ‘cancer,’ I thought I was going to die,” said Lofton, whose cancer was detected through an NCAA-mandated random drug test following the Vols’ 121-86 victory over Long Beach State on March 16, 2007.

The results of the drug test were positive; UT officials were informed that if Lofton wasn’t using drugs, the positive result could be a sign of cancer.

More tests followed, and Lofton underwent surgery on March 28 to have the cancer removed. Four weeks of radiation treatment followed, from late April into May.

“The radiation treatment was the toughest part,” Lofton said. “I didn’t feel like doing anything, I felt tired.

“When I played in the Rocky Top League (in June), it was the first time I picked up a ball since our (NCAA Tournament) loss to Ohio State.”

Lofton put up 50 points in his first summer league game, but when he went to the Pan American Games tryouts later that month, his shots weren’t falling so easily.

“I just wasn’t myself,” said Lofton, the 2007 SEC player of the year who failed to make the team.

Lofton’s sluggishness carried over to the start of the season in November. He made just three of 15 shots in the UT’s first two games. Fans wondered aloud on talk-radio shows and Internet chat boards what had happened to Lofton.

Was it the Sports Illustrated cover jinx? Did he re-aggravate the ankle injury that sidelined him the season before? Or was Lofton reading too many of his preseason All-American press clippings?

UT basketball trainer Chad Newman bristled each time he heard the critics.

“These people that are questioning Chris are going to feel pretty stupid when they find out what’s wrong with him,” Newman said early in the season.

Newman’s comment prompted questions; coach Bruce Pearl, Newman and Lofton were all prodded for an explanation. No one was saying anything.

“We were sitting on pins and needles all season long, hoping it would not get out,” Pearl said. ‘I was asked about it all the time, and I tried to be as honest as I could without revealing everything.

Pearl said he respected Lofton all the more for his willingness to make his battle with cancer a private one.

“It says everything about Chris,” Pearl said. “Chris is not about making excuses, and he didn’t want his teammates to know and be worried about him.”

Lofton said he appreciated his school and the media respecting his privacy.

“I wanted to fight through it,” Lofton said. “There were times I wanted to say something, but I wanted my teammates to stay focused on the season.”

In the meantime, Lofton’s early-season on-court struggles continued. Lofton hit just 31.6 percent of his 3-point attempts through the first 16 games of the season before a Jan. 22 trip to Kentucky sparked his season.

The Vols lost to the Wildcats, 72-66, but Lofton started to win his psychological battle with cancer.

When the former Kentucky Mr. Basketball connected on half of his shots from the field and beyond the 3-point line against the Wildcats, it marked the first time he had done so in SEC play, and just the third time overall, all season.

Over the final 19 games of the regular season, starting with the Kentucky game, Lofton hit 64-of-129 attempts from beyond the 3-point arc, or 49.6 percent.

“I wanted to tell you earlier this season,” Lofton told the News Sentinel. “Remember when you told me to look at that video of me from a year before? I knew I wasn’t the same.

“I just felt like I couldn’t get my body to move like I wanted it to.”

Lofton said it was the longest season of his life.

“I’m just glad it’s over,” said Lofton. “I’m fine, feeling good, and ready to go.”

Lofton, at 6-1, is considered a borderline NBA pick. Scouts like his shooting ability — he’s the SEC’s all-time leading 3-point shooter and third in NCAA history — but many in the NBA believe his size and lack of athleticism work against him.

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