He Could Always Steal: Remembering Kenny Lofton's College Basketball Career

Republished from The Classical, which is currently in the midst of Kenny Lofton Week.

Over Thanksgiving weekend in 1987, the University of Arizona men's basketball team flew to Anchorage, Alaska for the 10th annual Great Alaska Shootout. Sophomore wing Harvey Mason Jr. learned two things about his Wildcats on that trip: They could beat any team in the country, and their backup point guard, Kenny Lofton, could chuck snowballs at ludicrous speeds.

While the program had made great strides in four seasons under head coach Lute Olson, qualifying for the Big Dance three straight years, Arizona emerged as a national power on their expedition to the Last Frontier. In Friday's quarterfinal, they posted an outlandish 133 points in a 55-point blowout of Duquesne, setting a tournament record for margin of victory that still stands. The next night, their matchup zone frustrated ninth-ranked Michigan, who shot just 43 percent from the floor in a 15-point upset. (Sarah Heath, a local sports anchor, allegedly consoled star forward Glen Rice later that evening.) In the final on Monday night—broadcast nationally on ESPN—the Wildcats upended third-ranked Syracuse, the defending national runner-up, 80-69. All-American forward Sean Elliott poured in 16 points and grabbed 11 rebounds to lead the way, but it was Lofton, the sixth man, who was responsible for the game's deciding run. Up just one with less than six minutes to play, the pesky junior knocked the ball loose from Orangemen center Rony Seikaly and raced the length of the court for a breakaway dunk. After another Arizona stop on the subsequent possession, Lofton buried a corner three to secure a six-point lead, one the Cats wouldn't relinquish.

"We didn't know how good we were, and we hadn't beaten a lot of powerhouses," Mason says now, almost 25 years to the day after the Shootout championship. "Winning that tournament was such a launch pad for our whole season."

The Wildcats celebrated their coming out party with a good old-fashioned snowball fight, and Lofton played a starring role in that battle, too. "Basically, it was Kenny versus the rest of us because he had such a ridiculous arm. He was throwing snowballs like 100 miles per hour, just knocking guys off their feet," Mason remembers. "Afterwards, we said to him, 'Man, you should play baseball.'" Eventually, Lofton would take the suggestion seriously. But the East Chicago, Ind. native had some work left to do on the hardwood before he'd trade in his sneakers for spikes.

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That Kenny Lofton didn't play baseball in college was a matter of economics, not preference. Raised in a small apartment by his blind grandmother, Rosie Person, a loving and determined woman whose sole source of income was Social Security, Lofton could only afford college on scholarship. And it was the white-haired Olson, not Arizona baseball coach Jerry Kindall, who offered the two-sport star from Washington High the chance to play collegiately.

"It was either going to be Purdue, Louisville, or Arizona," Lofton says. "I just wanted to have an opportunity to play basketball and go to school, and they had nice, warm weather, so I couldn't beat that."

Three decades later, the irony of Lofton's choice is self-evident: The future Indian enrolled at a university where baseball, not hoops, reigned. Kindall had won two College World Series championships, in 1976 and 1980, and had already coached future major leagues like Terry Francona, the 1980 Golden Spikes Award winner, and Craig Lefferts. The basketball program, on the other hand, had qualified for postseason play just six times in 78 years. In 1983, the season before Olson moved to the desert, the Wildcats finished a dismal 4-24, winning only one game in Pac-10 play and averaging crowds of just 5,500 at the McKale Center. (Elliott, a Tucson native, liked to tell reporters how as a teen he would buy nosebleed seats and then sneak into the lower bowl for a better view.) In a 1988 interview with The New York Times, Lofton admitted that he'd "found a place that sure wasn't known much for its basketball." "I'd tell people back home I play for Arizona," he added, "and everyone would say, 'Yeah, that's where there's plenty of sun, lots of old people, college kids lying out all over the place getting tanned, and … don't they have pretty good baseball out there, too?'"

Olson was hired to change that image. In nine years at Iowa, a school that had finished dead last in league play the year before he arrived, Olson's teams made five straight NCAA Tournament appearances, won the Big 10 title in 1979, and reached the Final Four in 1980. He worked hard, recruited kids who were team-oriented, and watched the wins pile up. "If you start with good people, they will find a way to be successful," he says. "If you start with bad people, they'll find a way to ruin your program."

The pitch Olson made to potential players was the same he made to prospective fans, many of whom turned out, curious, to public practices the team routinely held in high school gyms throughout Arizona: We rebuilt the Hawkeyes, and we can do the same in Tucson. The pieces fell into place quicker than anyone anticipated. Before his inaugural season started, Olson swiped up community college transfer "Easy" Eddie Smith and Steve Kerr, a heady point guard from the Pacific Palisades who most coaches assumed wasn't athletic enough to compete at the D1 level. (Gonzaga was the only other school that offered him a scholarship.) After an 11-win campaign in their first year on campus, the pair anchored a squad in 1984-1985 that won 21 games-the school's most in eight years-and qualified for the NCAA Tournament.

Olson's gravitas impressed Elliott, a lengthy combo forward who dreamed of bringing trophies back to his hometown; he signed with Arizona that spring, the best recruit the school had ever inked. The Cats added to its 1985-86 class Anthony Cook, a thin but bouncy big man from Los Angeles, and Lofton, a lightning quick guard Olson's old Midwestern contacts "thought was a real sleeper." Suddenly, the campus oozed with talent; despite losing Smith to graduation, the new crew won 23 games and the regular season Pac-10 title in 1986, their first season together. "Once we all got there, and once we started to play," Lofton says, "I think people saw that we had something special going on."

Had Kerr not ripped up his right knee playing for the United States at the 1986 World Championships, forcing him to redshirt in 1987, the Wildcats may well have ascended the college hoops pyramid even earlier than they did. (Without Kerr leading the offense, Arizona blew eight second-half leads and finished 18-12, dropping its opening round tourney game.) As it happened, Olson's youngsters—and Lofton in particular—gained valuable experience while Kerr was on the shelf. When he returned for the 1987-88 season, and the Wildcats added to its bench Mason, sharpshooter Jud Buechler, and rugged transfer center Tom Tolbert, Arizona boasted for the first time the depth needed to challenge the nation's best.

It helped that they genuinely loved playing with each other, camaraderie Olson helped instill by allowing his players to veto recruits of whom they didn't approve. "We used to recruit guys based on chemistry," says Mason. "We had a unique brotherhood that you don't often find on teams." The Wildcat bench was as invested in the team's success as stars like Elliott and Kerr. Nicknamed the Gumbies by graduate assistant Bruce Fraser,[1] they danced during big runs, whooping it up with fans at McKale, and patted asses during slumps. Students rocked Gumby t-shirts and printed Gumby banners. Giant inflatable Gumbies popped up in the stands at home games. "Watching them do their sideline fandangos," the Austin American Statesman wrote in 1988, "you never were sure if you were at a basketball game or a rap concert."

Lofton was the first Gumby off the bench and the team's id. Standing just 5'11", he displayed a natural aggressiveness that some of his laid back West Coast teammates lacked. (In an interview with the Washington Post's Michael Wilbon, Lofton said of his East Chicago neighborhood, "where I'm from, you get beat up or do the beating.") His athleticism and lateral quickness also fit the up-tempo system Olson employed. "In strength and agility drills," Fraser told author Steve Rivera, "he just killed us." If Lofton had a flaw, it was his tendency to play too fast, which sometimes led to unforced turnovers. But the traits that made him an exciting baseball player—his speed, leaping ability, intelligence, and competitive drive—are the same ones that made him a valuable hooper. "I felt I was one of the best defensive players out there," he says, "and I'd guard anybody they wanted me to guard."

With an Alaskan trophy already in their possession, Lofton and his teammates continued to rack up victories in those winter months. On December 13, they traveled to Iowa City and held Iowa-who boasted star guard B.J. Armstrong-scoreless for the opening six minutes en route to a 14-point win. At the Fiesta Bowl Classic, a holiday tournament they hosted, the Wildcats pasted Michigan State by double-digits, causing several crucial turnovers in the second half, and knocked off ninth-ranked Duke in a 91-85 thriller. Through the first 12 wins, they played efficiently, shooting a healthy 52 percent from the three-point line as a team. (Kerr, the ringleader, made 31 of 48, and turned the ball over just 11 times.)

They also played with a chip on their shoulder; no team west of the Mississippi had been considered a legitimate title contender since UCLA's 1980 squad, and few expected the upstart Wildcats to survive their challenging early schedule. "People were looking at us to get beat," Elliott told John Feinstein of the Washington Post, "and prove that beating Michigan and Syracuse was just a fluke." But those games weren't. And by Christmas, the "Unknown No. 1 Team" (as The New York Times dubbed them) had climbed to the top spot in the Associated Press college basketball poll for the first time in school history. "When you play with guys long enough, you start to feel them out, their strengths and weaknesses," says Lofton. "Once we understood one another, we just rolled with that."

Tucson fell in love with Olson's team, transforming the once-empty McKale Center into an arena opposing teams legitimately feared. "People have forgotten that it's Christmas and they're just talking basketball," a local soft drink bottler told The New York Times. "In our town, it's the only thing." The players were hounded for autographs constantly. At one point early in the season, local pop radio deejay Mike Elliot approached Mason, whose father was a prominent jazz drummer, about writing a Super Bowl Shuffle-inspired rap song he could play for fans on his morning show. In between practices, the sophomore guard combined some funny lyrics with a simple bass line and invited his teammates into a studio to record. "Wild About The Cats," gloriously preserved on Youtube, blew up.

He Could Always Steal: Remembering Kenny Lofton's College Basketball CareerS

"People were requesting it and it was played that whole entire year," says Mason, who would go on to win six Grammys as a pop songwriter and record producer. "We would perform it live at banquets. It was just crazy."

Arizona wouldn't stay undefeated, dropping a two-point loss in New Mexico's notoriously noisy home gym and another at Pac-10 rival Stanford. But they took home their conference title outright, beating opponents by an average of 24 points in league play, and won more regular season games (31) than any Pac-10 team had ever won. On the year, Elliott averaged 19 points, over five rebounds, and almost four assists per contest. Cook chipped in 14 points and seven rebounds, Tolbert 14 and six, and Kerr 13 and four dimes (while notching a .782 true shooting percentage, which would have lead the NCAA last season by a full eight percentage points). Lofton registered a team-high 59 steals. As a one-seed in the NCAA tournament, they steamrolled through the first four rounds, dismantling Cornell, Seton Hall, Iowa (again), and mighty North Carolina by 107 combined points. "We're not interested in playing close games," Elliott coldly told the Orange County Register following the Sweet 16. Olson, five years after taking over the moribund program, had made good on his Final Four promise.

In the national semifinal, Arizona squared off against Oklahoma, an athletic team that averaged 104 points a game and started future NBA mainstays Mookie Blaylock, Stacey King and Harvey Grant. The Sooners pressed the Wildcats relentlessly and challenged every open shot in the half-court. Elliott played exceptionally well, but it was Kerr—the fifth-year senior and team's heart-who uncharacteristically struggled in the spotlight, shooting 2 for 13 from the field. Afterwards, Lofton told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that "shots we have made before just weren't falling for us tonight." The Cats lost 86-78, finishing the memorable season, one folks in southern Arizona still talk about like it happened yesterday, with 35 wins and three defeats.

Kenny Lofton's remarkable baseball career started in earnest just days after the basketball team returned from Kansas City. "After the Final Four," he says, "I was missing baseball a little bit." The itch developed the summer before, when his teammates staged a series of coaches-versus-player softball games. Lofton patrolled center field, insisting that his right and left fielders play shallow because he could cover the outfield turf from foul pole to foul pole. "He caught pretty much every ball and he was throwing coaches out at third and home plate," Mason says. "This guy was so serious."

Back on campus, Lofton approached Coach Kindall about working out with the team. (Olson, whose office was down the hall from Kindall, lobbied on Kenny's behalf.) Because the season was four months old, Kindall couldn't guarantee Lofton any playing time, but he agreed to let the point guard throw on some stirrups and see what he could do. After Lofton's first Saturday workout, Olson tracked Kindall down in the athletic department. The initial report from the skipper? He can't hit a curveball. "But if he gets it on the ground," Olson remembers saying, "you can't throw him out, either."

That spring, Lofton played in five games, mostly as a pinch-runner, and logged one at-bat. It was his pure speed, however, that caught the eye of Clark Crist, a member of Arizona's 1980 College World Series team and a scout for the Astros. He convinced his bosses to take a chance on the unproven outfielder in the 17th round of the amateur draft. A mere two months after suiting up in Kemper Arena, Lofton assumed a spot in center field for the Auburn (N.Y.) Astros of the New York-Penn League. Playing 48 games next to left fielder Luis Gonzalez, Lofton had as many strikeouts (51) as total bases, but swiped 26 bags in 30 attempts, which was enough to convince management he deserved an invite back the following summer. "Crist told me you can teach someone the fundamentals of the game," Lofton says, "but you can't teach raw talent and speed."

Astros management wanted Lofton to report immediately to the Florida Instructional League, but he had some business to take care of back in Tucson before he put a glove on full-time. Most importantly, Lofton fulfilled a promise he made to his grandmother to earn his degree in radio and television studies. He also started his senior year for the basketball team, which returned Elliott and Cook while bringing in Sean Rooks, a mammoth and highly touted post player from San Bernardino County in California. With Lofton wreaking havoc in the backcourt, the Wildcat defense produced 259 steals and held opponents to 43 percent shooting. Olson's group won 27 games, including a 102-64 demolition of UCLA, the worst Bruins loss in school history, and earned another top seed at the NCAA Tournament. The road to the Final Four, however, was blocked by Jerry Tarkanian and UNLV. With four seconds to play in their back-and-forth Sweet 16 contest, Lofton was knocked to the floor trying to guard freshman Anderson Hunt, who calmly nailed an open three-pointer to give the Running Rebels a 68-67 victory. The defeat clearly burns Lofton up to this day. "When I lost I got very upset," he says. "You just have to live with it, pretty much."

Still, helping establish Arizona as one of the country's premiere college basketball programs a quarter-century ago is an experience Lofton—one of just two people[2] ever to appear in a Final Four and the World Series—wouldn't trade for anything.

"Playing in the Pac-10 and the Final Four," he says, "gave me an opportunity to understand the [competitiveness it takes to perform at a high level." The guys keep in touch as best they can, given their busy schedules; Mason and Lofton talk several times per week, for example, and Kerr and Buechler's daughters both play on the same volleyball team. Lofton still hoops, too, though only recreationally.

"I'm a baseball player now," he says. "With the Hall of Fame stuff coming up, I need to focus on what I did in the game that's going to help that process." If Olson had a vote, he'd elect his old Gumby without thinking twice. "It'd be hard to be prouder of a kid," he says, "than I was of Kenny."

Illustration by Patrick Truby

[1] Bench players, like the green cartoon character, are stiff when they check into the ballgame.
[2] The other, Tim Stoddard, was also a graduate of East Chicago's Washington High School.

Adam Doster is a freelance writer who tweets here and blogs about history, culture, and sports here. He lives in Chicago.

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