How Kenny Lofton, among the great center fielders of his era, landed in Arizona basketball’s ring of honor


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Sean Elliott was a star at Arizona, a two-time consensus All-American who went on to play 12 years in the NBA.

He’s never seen anyone quite like Kenny Lofton.

“He is the fastest player — easily — that I’ve ever played with, and I’ve played with some guys who can get up and down the court,” Elliott said.

This is a theme among Lofton’s former college teammates.

“He was 5-10, doing two-handed reverse dunks,” former Arizona forward Tom Tolbert said. “It was like, ‘My goodness gracious.’”

In the 1988 Final Four in Kansas City, Lofton arguably made Arizona’s most impressive play, even though the Wildcats lost to Oklahoma, ending a storybook 35-win season. With 14 minutes left in the second half, Oklahoma swung the ball to the left wing. Guard Ricky Grace, guarded by Lofton, tossed an entry post pass to Stacey King.

Only it never got there. Lofton timed the pass perfectly, leaping straight up to snag the ball like a cat, a jaw-dropping display of timing and athletic ability.

“He didn’t deflect it,” former Arizona guard Matt Muehlebach said. “He just grabbed it and brought it down. I’ll never forget that play.”

Lofton on Saturday gets inducted into the Arizona basketball ring of honor, a reminder that one of baseball’s great center fielders, a six-time Major League All-Star, spent the bulk of his college years in basketball high-tops.

On the court, Lofton wasn’t a scorer like Elliott or a shooter like teammate Steve Kerr. But during a defining stretch under coach Lute Olson he made an impact as a pass-first, defensive-minded guard.

From 1985 to 1989, “K-Dog,” as teammates called him, played in 128 games, averaging 5.5 points, 4.1 assists and 2.0 steals as a senior. His playmaking and defense contributed to three Pac-10 regular-season titles and the program’s first Final Four.

“Back then, Lute didn’t let the guards do what they wanted to do like they did when (Damon) Stoudamire and Miles Simon and those guys came in,” said Lofton, referring to two Arizona backcourt standouts of the 1990s. “Your job was to get it to everyone else.”

Lofton, however, understood his reality. With so much Arizona star power, he knew his NBA chances were not great. He also missed baseball. Growing up in East Chicago, Ind., Lofton had played baseball, hitting .414 as a high school senior, earning the attention of big-league scouts. The sport had since been in the back of his mind.

His junior year, Lofton decided it was time to give it a second chance. The next 12 months, as he transitioned from basketball to baseball, is among the more unique chapters in Arizona athletics.

“I just wanted to go out there and see if I still had it,” Lofton said.

Before he was a six-time MLB All-Star center fielder, Kenny Lofton was a key piece of the Arizona basketball team alongside Steve Kerr and Sean Elliott. (Courtesy of Arizona Athletics)

In 1988, the Arizona baseball team was well aware of Lofton. Back then, most teams were housed in McKale Center, the basketball facility, so players from different sports got to know each other.

“Our locker room, we kind of shared it with the men’s swimming team,” said Trevor Hoffman, the former Arizona shortstop who became a Hall of Fame relief pitcher. “Hoop, obviously, was a bigger deal and we had a chance to kind of walk by their locker room on the way to the weight room. You’d cross paths with them sometimes.”

J.T. Snow, an Arizona product who played 16 major-league seasons, was at Frank Sancet Stadium for Lofton’s first workout. His recollection reflects both Lofton’s rawness and potential.

Arizona assistant coach Jerry Stitt took Lofton to the batting cage. He placed some balls on a tee — and Lofton swung and missed.

“Like, whiffed them,” Snow said of Lofton’s first couple attempts.

Lofton settled down. After soft toss and live batting practice, he ran to center field. Stitt and Snow set up near the pitcher’s mound. Stitt then hit Lofton fly balls. First right at him. Then to Lofton’s left and right. Lofton caught each ball easily.

“OK,” Stitt said, according to Snow. “Let’s see what he’s got.”

Sancet Stadium was big — about 405 feet in the gaps and 400 feet to straight-away center. Stitt told Lofton to come in 10 steps. Then he hit a shot over Lofton’s head. Lofton turned and tracked the baseball like a wide receiver chased a deep pass, making a nifty over-the-shoulder catch.

That’s all Stitt needed to see.

“I would try to hit ’em into the corners and onto the warning track and it didn’t matter,” Stitt said. “Kenny would run them down and most of the time make it look easy. Sometimes if I didn’t get enough loft on it, it’d be kind of a line drive and he’d run it down going full speed. … That’s why I knew in my heart he’d be a great center fielder — if he ever gave baseball a try.”

It didn’t take long for Clark Crist to hear about Lofton. A scout for the Houston Astros, Crist was a former Arizona shortstop who helped the Wildcats win the 1980 national championship. In his late 20s, he arrived on a Saturday morning to watch Lofton.

Crist was an Arizona basketball fan, so he was familiar with Lofton. He knew that if the Arizona guard got a steal, no one was catching him. Automatic layup. Crist soon realized he had no idea.

At first, two things stood out. One, Lofton was left-handed, which was good. Young players usually have an easier time learning to hit from the left side. Second, Lofton’s hand-eye coordination was outstanding. He had an awkward swing, but he made contact.

With Lofton in the batter’s box, Crist prepared to time the outfielder on his run to first. Lofton laced a pitch up the middle and took off, running through the first-base bag. From the stands, Crist looked at his stopwatch. It showed a time in the 3.5-second range. The scout was incredulous.

Did I get this right? Did I click too quick?”

Lofton had not taken a full swing, running out of the box like he had dropped a drag bunt, but still. This was fast.

Lofton ran again and posted a similar time. He reminded Crist of Mickey Rivers, the former New York Yankees’ center fielder and leadoff hitter.

“My whole thing when I started scouting was I wanted pure athletes,” Crist said. “The Montreal Expos were that way. My God, they signed athletes and then just worked with them. I loved that idea. And Houston was kind of in that same mode.”

Lofton stayed with the baseball team for the rest of the season but seldom played. (He logged just one official at-bat.) Instead, Lofton played with the program’s junior varsity. For Arizona’s younger players, coach Jerry Kindall lined up games against junior colleges.

Although Lofton was rusty, he improved quickly. Snow remembers him beating out two-hoppers to the shortstop. Once, Lofton hit a ball to the gap that the center fielder cut off before it reached the wall. Lofton turned it into a standup triple.

“A bunch of us went out to support him,” said Jud Buechler, Lofton’s basketball teammate. “We were all just blown away. He was in the outfield, and any ball that was hit anywhere out there, he ran it down. It was like the easiest thing ever. We were just like, ‘Oh, my gosh. Look at K-Dog go.’”

At Crist’s urging, the Houston Astros selected Lofton in the 17th round of the 1988 MLB Draft. Lofton spent the summer in the Class A New York-Pennsylvania League, playing 48 games, striking out in nearly 25 percent of his plate appearances. When time allowed, he went to a nearby gym and worked on basketball.

In August, Lofton returned to Tucson to finish his basketball career. He started 33 games his senior season. The Wildcats finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in the AP poll, but lost to UNLV in the West Regional semifinals. Lofton finished as Arizona’s career leader in steals. Not much later, he reported to the Asheville (N.C.) Tourists of the South Atlantic League.

He was in the big leagues for good three years later.

“I learned something, and I hope the people around me learned it, too,” Crist said. “When you have a phenomenal athlete like that, they learn at a fast rate. They pick up on things really quickly. And that’s exactly what Kenny did.”

In his first full MLB season, Lofton was a starter with Cleveland, finishing second for American League Rookie of the Year. In his second year, he won the first of four Gold Glove awards. In 1996, Lofton stepped into the batter’s box at the All-Star Game in Philadelphia. Broadcaster Bob Costas informed viewers of Lofton’s basketball background, telling them the outfielder had once played in the Final Four before trying baseball.

“I think he made the wise choice,” analyst Joe Morgan said.

Kenny Lofton

Kenny Lofton played 17 major-league seasons for 11 different teams, including the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2006. (Jed Jacobsohn / Getty Images)

In 2002, Lofton, then with the Chicago White Sox, was traded mid-season to San Francisco. While there, he helped the Giants win the National League pennant. He also caught up with Snow, then in his sixth season with the Giants.

“I played a long time in the big leagues, and the two fastest guys I ever saw were Deion Sanders and Ichiro,” Snow said. “Kenny was right up there with them.”

During the pennant stretch, Lofton and Snow reminisced about their college days and trash-talked Barry Bonds, who attended rival Arizona State.

“Kenny and I would team up against Barry,” Snow said.

“Two against one,” Lofton said. “He couldn’t do anything.”

Lofton, now 56, spent 17 seasons in the majors, but when he thinks about the University of Arizona, it’s basketball that pops to mind. Along with Elliott, Kerr and others, he played a role in elevating the program. Lofton remembers Olson as a father figure and teacher, someone who spent games with his back turned to the court, reminding those on the bench what needed to be done. He considers his ring of honor induction a special moment simply because of the path he traveled to get there.

It was unique.

“There’s a reason for everything,” Lofton said. “God has a blessing for all of us. And for that to happen the way it happened, that’s the way it was supposed to be.”

(Top photo of Kenny Lofton during his days as a University of Arizona basketball player: Courtesy of Arizona Athletics)

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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