All Chris Lofton wanted to do was put Maysville back on the map.
The Mason County town seated on the banks of the Ohio River had a rich basketball tradition but only one championship to show for all its efforts. Maysville won one Sweet Sixteen title in 17 trips in the first 85 years of the KHSAA-sponsored competition. The school merged with Mason County High School in 1991.
Mason County, which opened in 1960 after the consolidation of May’s Lick, Minerva and Orangeburg, made its 15th overall trip to the state tournament last season. Lofton led the Royals to three straight trips from 2002 to 2004; the second ended in the program’s first state championship and a night the then-17-year-old kid still relishes as a 30-year-old man.
“It was fun times man, fun times,” Lofton told the Herald-Leader in a phone interview last week. “I’ve played basketball for a long time, and that night’s still the best moment to this day for me.”
The Royals reached the finals again in 2004 but had a 17-game win streak snapped by Warren Central, only the second Kentucky team to beat them all season. A month later Lofton was named Mr. Basketball, the first winner to hail from the 10th Region, but failed to earn scholarship offers from either the University of Kentucky or the University of Louisville. He chose to attend Tennessee over Cincinnati, the only two major programs to extend offers.
As Ballard’s Allan Houston did about 15 years before, Lofton went from a high school hero in Kentucky to a scoring machine for the Volunteers. He finished as Tennessee’s fourth-leading scorer and to this day remains the Southeastern Conference’s career leader with 431 three-point field goals. Lofton took Associated Press SEC Player of the Year honors in 2007 and helped Tennessee to its first ever No. 1 AP ranking in 2008, hallmarks of a career that’s quietly fading into the background.
“They don’t know me, they just hear stuff,” Lofton said of kids like those who attend his annual summer camps in Knoxville and Maysville.
He added with a chuckle: “I’m getting old. I got some gray hairs coming in.”
‘Pretty darn comfortable’
Ballard Coach Chris Renner’s first season leading the Bruins ended with a championship in 1999. In 2003 his second Sweet Sixteen trip started with wins over Shelby Valley and Rose Hill Christian (led by O.J. Mayo) before a Saturday morning victory over Henry Clay, setting up a finals bout with Mason County (which earlier had defeated Hopkinsville) later that night.
Renner’s game plan was straightforward.
“I remember specifically, we told ’em, ‘We want him to drive the first couple of times and when he does, we want him to be on the ground,’” Renner told the Herald-Leader. “I said, ‘Don’t hurt him,’ but we wanted him to know that he wasn’t gonna be able to get the shot off and if he came in the lane there was gonna be contact.’”
After Sherman Gulley put the Bruins up 2-0 with the game just 16 seconds old, Lofton drove into the lane uncontested for a layup. A minute and 24 seconds later he did it again.
“We didn’t want him to get into a rhythm and once he was able to do that, boy, our guys were out of sorts and I was probably yelling at ’em,” Renner said. “ ... The number one detail we felt we had to do as coaches was to make the game more difficult for him. We didn’t do that. History shows that he was able to get pretty darn comfortable in that game.”
It was fun times man, fun times. I’ve played basketball for a long time, and that night’s still the best moment to this day for me.
Chris Lofton, on winning the state title in 2003
Lofton made his first five shots, following up his layups with three consecutive three-pointers. He ended the night 9-for-12 from beyond the arc — tying the record for most threes in a Sweet Sixteen game — and 39 points, the fifth highest output by any individual in the tournament’s history.
Renner called it one of the best performances a player has ever had against one of his teams and, because of the stakes, thought it might have been the biggest. Just as valuable, though, were Lofton’s teammates, he said; six of the seven other players who attempted shots that night shot 50 percent or better from the floor for the Royals, who finished 55.8 percent as a team (60.9 percent from long range).
In part because neutral observers are seldom going to side with a Louisville squad, Mason County had a decided home-court advantage. Of the 18,957 people in attendance, “probably three quarters” were cheering for the Royals, Renner said.
“That’s just how it is,” Renner said. “All of a sudden they’re able to feed off of the home crowd in the biggest stage. ... I don’t know if we were ever really in that game from the first two minutes.”
For Renner, Lofton’s control of his emotions was as impressive as any jump shot he took or drive he made to the bucket.
“He had such a cool presence about himself and I don’t remember him getting real emotional,” he said. “He had high character. You could just see that as a player in how he carried himself on the court and with his teammates and with the ebb and flow of a ballgame. I think that’s a credit to obviously his coaching staff and his family and his upbringing.
You had not only the talent and the skill that he had, but the mental and emotional approach he had to the game. I think that’s what made him probably a special player in Kentucky basketball history.
Chris Renner, Ballard coach
“So you had not only the talent and the skill that he had, but the mental and emotional approach he had to the game. I think that’s what made him probably a special player in Kentucky basketball history.”
In the quarterfinals of the 2004 tournament, Lofton hit a three-pointer off a designed inbound play with three seconds left to force the first of three overtimes against Trinity. The Royals prevailed, 66-59, in one of the longest games in event history.
The play call? “Portland.”
“He’d (Chris) take it out of bounds and then the whole time I’m thinking, ‘If he takes it out of bounds he’s not gonna be able to get it back and you’re gonna look like the biggest idiot to ever coach basketball,’” said Kelly Wells, who coached Lofton at Mason County and is now the head coach at the University of Pikeville. “But we stuck with what he had done all season. He threw it in and was able to get it back and rose up above a double-team and hit a three to send it to overtime.
“I still remember that to this day and I’m sure Coach (Mike) Szabo at Trinity still kicks himself for not fouling or doing whatever.”
Lofton was 1-for-8 from beyond the arc before hitting that three, and finished 2-for-10, a career-worst in Rupp Arena. In 2008, KHSAA Commissioner Julian Tackett told the Herald-Leader of that shot:
“On a day when things weren’t going his way, he still did what you expect the great ones to do. He found a way.”
‘History mattered to Chris’
No two men had better seats to the Chris Lofton show than Wells and Bruce Pearl, who coached him at Tennessee.
Wells, who taught business classes at Mason County, remembers Lofton as a jokester who got along with everyone in the building. He and other coaches would give him a hard time about not taking over games.
“We’d kid him all the time and tell him he was softer than butter,” Wells said. “He would take it with ease. ... he related to every single kid from the most popular to the least popular, from the academic teachers to the athletic coaches. He bridged that gap that most people could never enter into.”
Lofton’s mom was an English teacher, ensuring that he was a student above all else. “My parents didn’t mess around with education so I knew that was always first,” he said.
Constant media attention — just before social media platforms began their ascent — never fazed Lofton on the court or in the classroom. Wells thinks his good-natured, genuine persona boosted coverage as much as his play.
“As you go through it, you’re so encompassed by every detail that you don’t really recognize all the things that are being put out there and certainly all the interviews and all that,” Wells said. “ ... think his personality was so contagious that people wanted to see good things for him, even competitors.”
He was proud of who he was and where he was from and what he represented, and he understood that ... a high school state championship stands the test of time.
Bruce Pearl, Lofton’s coach at Tennessee
Despite the buzz, UK never extended an offer. Wells admires Tubby Smith and defended the former UK coach, whom many criticized in the moment for letting Lofton get out of the commonwealth.
“He’s not the only guy,” Wells said. “We can list a whole army of people who didn’t believe in Chris and his abilities all the way through. ... There were a lot of people who didn’t come to the table.”
Lofton was recruited to Tennessee by Buzz Peterson, who was fired after the Vols went 14-17 his freshman season. He told the Herald-Leader that he considered transferring after that year; Kentucky, Louisville and Cincinnati all having conveyed interest.
Pearl recalled his first day at Tennessee, where he inherited a talented young group that may have had some discipline problems up to that point, he said.
“Totally and completely, uncharacteristically, Chris was late for a class or study table or something my first day,” Pearl said. “He was never late to anything, but he was late for something my first day along with about four or five of his teammates that were late every day. ...
“I made ’em get up my second day on the job at some ungodly hour and we ran until one of ’em puked in a bucket. And Chris told me after that he called his family back that morning and said, ‘I’m staying.’”
Pearl, who was made a Kentucky Colonel in 2006, called Lofton one of the hardest workers he’s ever coached. He was able to visit Maysville frequently, in part due to the Vols’ pursuit of another budding star, Darius Miller, and recognized why Lofton had so much respect for his hometown.
State title games Chris Lofton played in for Mason County:
2003: Mason Co. 86, Ballard 65
2004: Warren Central 66, Mason Co. 56
He was not surprised to hear that Lofton called his SEC Player of the Year award his greatest individual accomplishment as a basketball player.
“He was proud of who he was and where he was from and what he represented,” Pearl said, “and he understood that an award like that stands the test of time, that a high school state championship stands the test of time. ...
“When he was at Tennessee, we were as good as anybody. And that will never, ever change. He made history, and history mattered to Chris.”
In that sense, Lofton not only put Maysville on the map, but Knoxville too.
“I always try to leave my mark on something.,” Lofton said. “ ... I wanted to prove people wrong, I wanted to leave the Tennessee basketball program better than I found it, and I worked every day to try and do that.”
When the Herald-Leader spoke with Lofton last week, he was waiting for a call that “could come any day” to take him back overseas, where he’s played for multiple professional teams since graduating from UT. He signed with a Turkish pro club at the start of 2017 but remained home in Maysville to help take care of an ill relative.
Once his playing days are through, Lofton could see himself continuing to train youth. He doesn’t know if he wants to coach, but basketball will definitely be part of his career, he said.
There’s at least one guy willing to put Lofton in an assistant’s chair if he’s ever up for it. Wells would love the opportunity if it ever presents itself, calling Lofton an ideal role model both in terms of character and ability.
“I was the fortunate one in the whole train ride ’cause I got to witness it all the time,” Wells said. “I witnessed it at practice, I got to witness it in big games, but I also got to witness his greatness in games where we should have won. ...
“I try not to undervalue the little things that he did because we all know the great big things he did. I think just the person he is and his core values are things that most kids don’t even think about, and it’s hard to find that. We’ve had some come close, I’m sure, and I don’t wanna undervalue any of my former guys, but he’s a one of a kind.”
Most points in a Kentucky state championship game
51 — Richie Farmer, Clay Co. vs. Ballard, 1988
44 — Ron King, Central vs. Ohio Co., 1969
43 — Jeff Lamp, Ballard vs. Valley, 1977
41 — Cliff Hagan, Owensboro vs. Lafayette, 1949
39 — Chris Lofton, Mason Co. vs. Ballard, 2003
36 — J.R. VanHoose, Paintsville vs. Scott Co., 1998
34 — Rick Jones, Scott Co. vs. Paintsville, 1998
33 — Jerry Dunn, Glasgow vs. Seneca, 1968
32 — Robert Brooks, Madison vs. Male, 1970
32 — Johnny Cox, Hazard vs. Adair Co., 1955
ABOUT THIS SERIES
Kentucky will celebrate the 100th year of the boys’ state high school basketball tournament when the Sweet Sixteen plays out in Rupp Arena from March 15-19. The Herald-Leader is getting the party started a little earlier.
Today’s column by Mark Story on the Clay County-Ballard rivalry of the 1980s and Josh Moore’s feature on Mason County’s Chris Lofton are the sixth and seventh articles in a series we’re publishing in the newspaper and on Kentucky.com over the course of the 2016-17 high school basketball season. Visit Kentucky.com to read previous installments of the Sweetest Century series.
Our coverage examines the significance of the tournament to our state’s history, revisits memorable games, champions and moments and looks at where the event goes from here. We’re exploring the joy, the heartbreak and the social impact of the event and recalling the teams and players every Kentuckian should know about.
We hope you are enjoying it.