I just saw a video in celebration of Alex Poythress, some of it including action from his high school days. It's no wonder Kentucky was so astonishingly high on this young athlete.
Why didn't he become that player at Kentucky? Some of it was physical, aches and injuries we all knew about and probably some we didn't.
Some of it was circumstantial. His freshman team wasn't very good, and then he was subsumed into an avalanche of players that were better than good. That team his sophomore season – Julius Randle, James Young and the Harrisons – had its fits and starts before it took off, but it's easy to forget the extraordinary amount of individual talent there. Not sure why Poythress didn't have a better season.
Early on, Calipari decided the team needed the strength of a strong pivot man like Willie Cauley-Stein alongside Randle, the baby bull. And maybe Young looked like the better 3 than Poythress because he seemed to have the same skills but was a better shooter. (He didn't have the same skills, especially on defense, certainly on the boards, and his shooting became increasingly disappointing, but that's rear-view mirror stuff.)
Poythress' junior season brought even more phenomenal talent to Kentucky and, by now, he seemed more than willing to play a subordinate role. Probably his greatest legacy of this greatest team came from his absence: Kentucky fans are convinced that Alex would have been able to clamp down Wisconsin's Sam Dekker and prevent the meltdown we all remember way too well.
By this year, he seemed uncertain and hesitant, definitely inconsistent, last year's knee injury seemingly in his head. Which brings me to what I think has become the great imponderable about Alex Poythress, the thing none of us really knows or understands: his head.
He never seemed comfortable grabbing that center stage, calling for the ball, imposing his will, making his fierce presence known. Did he even enjoy playing basketball? He certainly never seemed to enjoy the interview process, the reflections on his performances, the explanations and excuses for wins and losses. Any self-congratulating he did after a resounding dunk seemed forced.
Did he respond to John Calipari's style, the ranting and raving? There have been many times this season, watching him return to the bench in foul trouble, when his facial expression suggested to me: Shut the hell up, coach, I've heard it all, I don't want to hear it again. I'm almost out of here. The end's in sight.
It's pure speculation. I have no idea. I'm sure, when it's all over, he and Calipari will say all the right things. It all may not have turned out exactly the way both of them saw it four years ago, maybe Cal's not comfortable with guys who come back, maybe he feels he's failed them, maybe he feels they've failed him. Maybe he recruits with the idea that his roster will mostly turn over, that every team will be fueled by and driven by freshmen.
Maybe, when it came down to it, Poythress just wouldn't chew nails. Not the type, not his personality, and maybe Cal doesn't understand that. Or maybe we don't.
Clearly, this year's teammates love him. His teammates for the last three seasons have loved him. How could you not? Through it all, talk about the pure dignity of the man!
And maybe here's the thing that should be Alex Poythress' legacy, a truly honorable legacy of what's remaining of the concept of the "student-athlete": Academic All-American; SEC Academic Honor Roll every year; three-time Arthur Ashe Jr. Sports Scholar; earned his degree in three years; working on his Masters, with a 4.0 his first semester.
We mostly smirk at the mention of "the student-athlete," especially when it's coming out of the mouths of college coaches who couldn't care less, who work at schools that manipulate athletes' grades and have their tests artificially taken to preserve their eligibility. And for what? So a kid can take up space on campus, playing basketball for five or six months, and then vanish as soon as the season is over, long before the semester ends.
We know it happens and we turn our heads because we all love the college game so much. (We pretend to console ourselves when one of them says he'll come back to school and get his degree – and some do!) But Alex Poythress made the most of it, the old-fashion way. Maybe he hung around for four years out of circumstance.
Or maybe it all meant something to him – the classroom experience, the campus experience, the team experience, the education, the degrees, a career, his life after basketball.
I think, as we honor Alex Poythress this weekend, this is the kid we really need to be honoring. Him and others like him.
(And yes, he would have shut down Sam Dekker, and UK would have gone 40-0, a national championship, and that would have been a treasured memory for the school and the fans. But for Poythress, his four years at Kentucky were about more than that.)