From the Hardwood to the Diamond

Behind every triumph and heartbreak in the NCAA tournament, there’s a story. The Players’ Tribune presents Tales of Madness, a series of first-person accounts from iconic basketball players recalling their most memorable tournament experiences. In this installment, baseball player Kenny Lofton remembers being a part of Arizona’s first-ever Final Four.

Growing up in East Chicago, Indiana, I was immersed in basketball.

I played baseball as well, but I was in the Hoosier state, so the hardwood often took precedence in terms of glory, accolades and hype. Beyond that, I knew that the only way I was going to have the opportunity to go to college was if I earned a full scholarship, and that was something that basketball afforded me while baseball — which offers mostly partial scholarships — did not. So when I was offered the opportunity to attend the University of Arizona on a basketball scholarship, I jumped at it.

I credit some of my development as a baseball player to my exposure to basketball. In particular, it was the discipline required to play the point guard position that really translated well between sports. In both baseball and basketball, you’ve got to be patient and let the play develop, and you need to be able to identify what’s going to happen before it occurs.

I always knew how to run and jump, but I needed to develop control of those skills. Basketball made me a better baseball player and vice versa. Completing an alley-oop isn’t entirely different from jumping a the fence to rob a home run.

Playing point guard at a high level helped me develop a sixth sense for the way people rotate and move. If a guy isn’t open, there’s a good chance if you wait and anticipate their movement, he’ll be open a few seconds later. Similarly, I used to bunt a lot as a baseball player, and my success doing so was often dependent upon judging where the infielders where before the pitch and where they’d probably move to after it was thrown.

In 1988, I was a backup point guard on the University of Arizona’s first-ever Final Four team. Our success really began and ended with head coach Lute Olson, who would develop a game plan that the whole team would buy into.

But as it turns out, he wasn’t the only great coach on the roster. Steve Kerr was our starting point guard, and even in his youth, he was a very smart and sophisticated basketball player. It really felt like we had a coach on the sidelines and a coach on the court during games.

Tom Tolbert was our best post-up guy, and we called him “The Black Hole” because once the ball got down to him in the trenches, it never came out. There was also Anthony Cook at the four, who used his seven-foot wingspan to swat everything. And of course, we also had Sean Elliott, who was labeled a mini Magic Johnson in college because of his ability to shoot and dribble from the small forward position.

I wasn’t a great shooter, but Sean Elliot and Steve Kerr more than made up for that shortcoming. I took a lot of pride in the way I played defense, which, like playing center field, is a skill very reliant on instincts and anticipation. Steve had a firm grip on the starting point guard job, so my role on the team was to bring energy off the bench.

We were a close-knit bunch of guys off the court, and that really transferred over to how we performed during games. We were always hanging out together, grabbing dinner and generally just enjoying the experience. It was a special team.

We had a very dominant regular season. We only lost a couple of games, and I remember the first one was against New Mexico in The Pit. That place was no joke — none of us could even think, much less communicate, because it was so loud. We lost on a last-second shot. It was brutal.

But by the time the tournament came around, we were a fine-tuned machine.

We won every game in our region by at least 18 points on our way to Arizona’s first-ever Final Four. When that happened, the excitement surrounding the team spread beyond just the campus to the entire state. I’ve been fortunate in my life to participate in a number of sporting events in several places, but that opportunity to play in the Final Four — the pressure and anticipation of it all — was unlike anything else I’ve experienced.

For a kid from Indiana, there isn’t a much bigger stage.

We were slated to play Oklahoma, and we felt really good about our chances. OU was reliant on full-court pressure and the fast break, so Coach Olson had us focused on just that: beating the press and stoping the break. We came into the game prepared, and they didn’t show us anything we weren’t expecting.

We were down by 12 points at halftime, and in the second half we started to make our comeback. My most memorable moment happened with about 15 minutes left in the game and us trailing by six points. I managed to snatch an entry pass out of the air in a play that Brent Musburger described as “like catching a flies with your hands.”

We had the momentum at that point, but on that day, our shots just wouldn’t fall, and it was a hell of a time to be missing open shots. Oklahoma would eventually win by eight points.

I still think we were the better team, but again, when you don’t make your shots, it doesn’t matter if you’re the better team or not. This isn’t a best-of-seven affair like the World Series. This is the Final Four. If you have just one bad game, you’re left with “What if?”

Many probably won’t remember me for my exploits on the hardwood, but in every timely steal, meticulously placed bunt and athletic catch, there was at least a small glimpse of my basketball-playing past.

For more Tales of Madness, visit our Tales of Madness page.