sports (2006-09)

The Davis/Lofton connection

Degrees of Separation

by Tony Basilio

When you watch Chris Lofton light up opponents into mid-March and beyond, just say AW. No, I’m not misspelling AWE, although that would be appropriate as well. I mean AW, as in former Vol hoops great AW Davis. This piece, however, is not about my recognizing a standout player whose 1,800-plus career points helped launch the highly successful Ray Mears era in Tennessee hoops. It’s about AW’s ability to recognize a standout player without whom the Bruce Pearl era would not be enjoying its magical beginning. Bottom line: No AW Davis then no AWE from Chris Lofton.

A few years after his playing career concluded, Davis served as the JV coach at UT under Mears. Mears has told me in the past that he loved Davis’s loyalty to him in that AW, a heralded player from Rutledge, was one of the greats that Mears built his program around. Davis and other Mears devotees have to feel revived by the resurgence of Tennessee basketball under a man eerily similar to the one they played their hearts out for 40 years ago.

Back to the Lofton story: In 1971 Rodney Woods was Lofton cool before Chris was even conceived. Hailing from Lone Jack High School in Fourmile, Ky., Woods was a speedy point guard who was a terrific high school prospect, dreaming of someday playing for the Big Blue. In the days of “The Baron” Adolph Rupp, UK basketball was the alpha and omega in all four corners of the bluegrass state. There was one problem with Woods’ prospects at Kentucky—Rupp wasn’t interested in him. “He didn’t think I was good enough to play there,” Woods says. “It really hurt me at the time. I was after all, a native of Kentucky and loved the Big Blue.”

Enter UT. More to the point, enter AW Davis. He recounts the story this way: “Coach Mears gave me the assignment of going to someplace in what seemed like the middle of nowhere to see this kid who was pretty impressive. I left that game thinking I can’t believe Kentucky doesn’t like him. I came back and told Coach Mears, ‘We have to get this guy.’”

Get this guy they did, and Woods became a fixture at point guard, starting all three years for Tennessee from ’73-’76. Get it? Woods was as unwanted by his home state school as today’s Kentucky castoff, Chris Lofton. Both guys were told they were too slow, and thus not quite up to snuff to wear the Big Blue. Instead of ending, the similarities only begin there: Both guys also rained all over the ’Cats during their second year starting for UT. Lofton had a gigantic 30-point night a couple weeks back in Rupp that left Tubby with some ‘splainin’ to do. Woods went to Lexington in the winter of ’75 and scored the Vols’ final six points to lead Tennessee to a thrilling 90-88 upset of the ’Cats in the old Memorial Coliseum. Woods rehashed the win recently while on my radio show: “I was really fired up after that game. I said some things I shouldn’t have to the press following the game. It was not exactly a great show of maturity. I was young and emotional. That’s why I was really proud of the classy way that Chris handled himself after the Kentucky game this year.” Here’s where the Woods, Lofton and thus Davis connection gets interesting.

When Woods’ playing career ended, he headed back to the Bluegrass armed with signature wins over the ’Cats, a teaching degree, and a desire to coach basketball. “I love what I do. I also love being around great kids like Chris Lofton. Whether I’m coaching with or against kids like him is very rewarding,” Woods explains.

As a rising junior, Lofton lit up Wayne County High School for 45 points in a state tourney game in the spring of ’03. The coach trying to slow Lofton was none other than Woods. “We had several guys in his face, contesting shots, and couldn’t even slow him down. He was unbelievable. I later learned that UK wasn’t recruiting him so I called Buzz (Peterson) and told him about Chris. I have to give Buzz a lot of credit because they stood by the kid and recruited him hard until he finally signed with Tennessee in the spring of his senior year.”

When reminded of the irony of Woods, who was discovered by Tennessee, being the guy who discovered Lofton three decades later, Woods just shrugs. “You know, there are a lot of Kentucky basketball fans in these parts. But you can bet a great deal of them were cheering for Tennessee because that’s the type of kid Chris Lofton is.”

For his part, Davis says of Lofton, “We’ve had some great shooters here at UT through the years, but this guy just has something extra. He’s hit so many huge shots. And his stroke is beautiful. I think he’s the best pressure and pure shooter wearing Orange that I can remember.” The next time Chris Lofton does something breathtaking, remember, you can’t spell AWE without AW! Unless you’re in Kentucky and you’re trying to spell AW shucks. m

Listen up! Tune in and talk sports with Tony Basilio weekdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on ESPN Radio WVLZ 1180 AM. Visit www.tonybasilio.com for more information.