Lofaro slid a roster in front of the young man and, feigning curiosity, asked him if he had any idea who the best player on the team would be. The young man pointed to one of the names: Lester Hudson.
"Oh, really?" Lofaro asked. "What makes him so good?"
"This guy can do it all," the young man said. "He can shoot. He can dribble. He can play defense. Just you watch."
What the young man neglected to mention, but Lofaro already knew, was that he was this mysterious Lester Hudson, a player who began the season as one of the more anonymous figures in all of college basketball. Even Lofaro -- the one person on campus whose job was to promote him -- had barely heard of him.
Six months, 847 points, 124 3-pointers and one quadruple-double later, Hudson has emerged as the most intriguing story in the run-up to the NBA Draft. Four years ago, he was a 19-year-old high school senior who had played one year of organized basketball during this, the AAU age; he was a playground prodigy from South Memphis who seemed in danger of disappearing into the concrete corners of Glenview. Today, he daydreams about hearing his name called at Madison Square Garden on June 26.
"Whenever I get too excited," he said, "I think back to everything I've been through."
During his lone season at UT-Martin, Hudson averaged 25.7 points on 46.4-percent shooting, 7.8 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2.8 steals. He wrapped up his final exams last Friday, then traveled to Bradenton, Fla., where he plans to spend the next month at IMG Academy preparing for pre-draft workouts. In draft-speak, Hudson is "testing the waters." He has not hired an agent, which means he has the option of returning to school for his senior season. But he feels confident about his prospects.
"I think I'll be a pro next season," said Hudson, a 6-3 guard who ranked fifth in the country in scoring.
Officials from the Houston Rockets visited with UT-Martin coach Bret Campbell on Tuesday, and the Portland Trail Blazers called Wednesday. Most NBA personnel want information about Hudson's background, a common part of the vetting process. Many have called just to request his middle name for their files. (He doesn't have one.)
That stuff like this is happening at all strikes some as bizarre, borderline impossible. The draft belongs to established elites such as Derrick Rose, who made his ESPN debut while he was still in high school. Not to once-wayward, 23-year-old souls such as Hudson, who, technically speaking, didn't graduate from high school.
"He's a survivor," UT-Martin assistant coach Jason James said. "No doubt about that. Not the best life, but he's a survivor. And there's something to be said for that."
The big picture
He surfaced on Nov. 6 at FedExForum, where he made his college debut, a 35-point, 10-rebound performance against the University of Memphis. That UT-Martin lost by 31 points was irrelevant. If Hudson was once regarded as little more than a streetball virtuoso, then that game legitimized him, even mainstreamed him.
"It's not like they ran stuff, and he got shots off," Memphis coach John Calipari said. "He can get his own shot ... and that's a big, big value in the NBA."
One week later, Hudson recorded the first quadruple-double in Division 1 history, finishing with 25 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists and 10 steals against Central Baptist College, a Division 2 program that headed home to Conway, Ark., as a footnote in the record books. And over at the UT-Martin sports information office, Lofaro's phone began to ring. The Washington Post called. And ESPN.com. And USA Today. And a handful of other publications that were new to him.
"You ever heard of Dime Magazine?" Lofaro asked.
The attention felt foreign to Lofaro. Donald Chapman, a UT-Martin tailback who rushed for 5,017 yards during his career, generated his share of publicity, but that was nothing compared with the Hudson hype-fest. Even Hudson, as confident as he appeared on the court, was sometimes overwhelmed. When Hudson met with a reporter from Sports Illustrated at a hotel in Birmingham during the season, Lofaro observed that he started to sweat -- profusely.
"He told me, 'I just get real nervous,'" Lofaro recalled. "He was wringing wet by the time we got out of there."
His story was captivating. Without delving too deeply into specifics, Hudson spoke about growing up in the projects, about bouncing between the homes of various family members, about being surrounded by drugs and shootings and gangs, about feeling fortunate that he avoided falling victim to his hardscrabble environment.
"He had reasons to give up," said Andre Applewhite, his coach at Central High, "but he never did. And that's what I'm most proud of. It's a story that needs to be told, because maybe it can inspire someone else to hang in there and do the right things."
How dire was his situation? As a freshman at Central, Hudson showed up for school on occasion, wandering in and out of classrooms, reserving any semblance of focus for the basketball court. He would devastate members of the varsity at open gyms, and word reached Applewhite: Coach, you need to see this kid.
"He was good," Applewhite said, "but I'm not going to say he came in as a potential NBA player. I never expected anything like all this."
After setting some rules -- Hudson had to commit to his schoolwork before he could play for the team -- Applewhite watched him excel as a junior, his only season of high school basketball. Because he had repeated a grade, Hudson was ineligible as a senior. He sometimes looked lost without basketball. Some mornings, Hudson recalled, Applewhite would patrol South Memphis, searching for him at playgrounds and parks and bus stops, then chauffeur him back to school.
"There were so many times when he contemplated quitting," Applewhite said. "He'd get down on himself. I talked to him, told him to keep his eyes on the big picture."
He landed at Southwest Tennessee Community College, where he earned his GED and played for two seasons before falling short of the core requirements to secure eligibility at the Division 1 level. Most programs remained unaware of him. The rest backed off, knowing he would need to sit out a season. Only UT-Martin showed interest.
Making his name
James, the UT-Martin assistant, had known about him for five years, and Hudson arrived as a high-reward risk: Could he survive another year without basketball -- in an isolated outpost such as Martin, no less? Throughout the 2006-07 season, Hudson studied and stewed. He also matured.
"My coaching staff helped me get through it, my family and friends back home," he said. "I just worked out hard and imagined what it would be like to be on the floor again. Because they were losing and I was mad. I felt like I was letting my team down."
Forecast to finish in the Ohio Valley Conference basement before the start of last season, UT-Martin wound up fourth in the 11-team league. Hudson was named OVC Player of the Year, scoring at least 30 points on 11 occasions.
"He's a combo guard who can create his shot and get his own shot whenever he wants," said Jonathan Givony, president of DraftExpress.com. "He's an incredible shooter, and he's got these long arms and big hands, which is part of the reason why he's such a good rebounder."
Though statistics can sometimes be inflated by inferior competition, Givony said Hudson does not fall into that category. Sure, he put up monster numbers in the OVC, but he also produced against top-notch opponents, including Memphis. He had 27 points and 11 rebounds at Mississippi State, 26 points and 11 rebounds at UNLV. He also nearly led his team to an upset over Vanderbilt by posting 36 points, nine rebounds and six assists.
With much left to be determined, DraftExpress.com has Hudson going to the Golden State Warriors in the second round with the 44th overall pick. Hudson would like to slip into the first round, where contracts are guaranteed. To that end, he did some online research last month and contacted David Thorpe, executive director of the Pro Training Center at IMG Academy. Each spring, Thorpe oversees an intensive camp for as many as eight prospects.
"He wanted to know if I'd be willing to train him for the draft," he said. "I honestly didn't know whether we had room. But we did some research, and I really enjoyed reading about him. We thought we could help him a great deal. ... And he's been everything and more compared with what we expected."
Thorpe said Hudson has immense physical gifts (6-9 wingspan) and an innate feel for the game, a unique combination. But Thorpe wants Hudson to tighten up his ballhandling (3.8 turnovers per game represented the only smudge on his stat line last season), refine his follow-through (he shot 38.8 percent from 3-point range) and even slim down some of the bulk from his muscle-thick torso (he looks like a safety).
Then there is his unique backstory, which has become one of his best selling points. The idea that Hudson not only survived dire circumstances but thrived is appealing to NBA types, Givony said. He also appears to have surrounded himself with the right people -- his college coaches; Ruben Webber, a childhood friend; and Edward Bronston, a Memphis-based attorney who has helped him negotiate the labyrinthine pre-draft process. Bronston said he has been struck by the Hudson-Webber partnership.
"There's a quiet brilliance between two guys who have never been through this before," said Bronston, a licensed NFL agent who emphasized that he does not represent Hudson. "There have been a steady line of agents calling me, trying to get at them. But they haven't taken so much as a meal, a flight, nothing. And to me, I'm impressed by that because I've seen people be changed by a lot less."
Scouts are high on Hudson, Givony said, but NBA executives are reluctant to expend a pick based solely on their advice. They need to see Hudson for themselves. So in that respect, he remains a relative unknown in the pre-draft mix. With Webber's assistance, Hudson has scheduled nine workouts with NBA teams over a 12-day period in early June. Hudson said he also has been mulling whether to participate the Orlando Pre-Draft Camp, which starts May 27.
"Everyone's curious," James said. "There are a lot of people who still want to see what he's all about."