By Joe Cox
It was an uncontested fast break for any easy basket. But when he planted his left leg to push off, Alex Poythress’s life changed forever. Torn ACL. Season over. Career reasonably questioned. It is with a heavy heart that I say the unpopular words that I’m about to type.
This is why they go pro. I know. You don’t like “one and done.” You wish kids were in the game for four years. You want students, not apprentice NBA players. You miss getting to know the players, understanding their skill set so well that you feel like they are family members. You miss what college basketball used to be, and you mourn what it has become.
But this is why they go pro. It is not as if Alex Poythress is the first guy to meet this result. Go back a year and a half to February 12, 2013. Change the above scenario to defense, the setting from the Craft Center to Florida’s O’Connell Center, and the name to Nerlens Noel… and you’ve got the same situation. Nerlens went from possible No. 1 NBA pick to No. 5 (a fortunately minor drop that others might not be so lucky as to replicate). He missed an entire season and is still somewhat coddled by the horrible 76ers team.
Or think back to October 28, 2014. Julius Randle did leave UK. He went 7th in the 2014 NBA Draft. He might have managed a better spot with more seasoning — maybe a couple of picks higher, or maybe not. But in his first NBA game, Randle broke his right leg and ended his first NBA season after 14 minutes of playing time and two points. I heard the talk that Randle wasn’t REALLY ready for the NBA. But thank God his broken leg occurred on an NBA court, meaning his financial future was already secure, regardless of his recovery.
Alex Poythress’s injury is the third UK-related career threatening injury in less than two years. Basketball players are not machines. They are young men in prime physical condition, facing a sport in which they can become incredibly wealthy, but only for a very short span of time. One study indicates that the average NBA career is 4.8 years. The average NBA player earns nearly $25 million. The average non-NBA basketball player scrapes by as long as his skills allow.
Of the many things that John Calipari has changed in the culture at UK, one of my favorites is his real concern for his players as human beings. Coming on the heels of a coach who routinely forced players to play through injuries and humiliated better than he taught, this is refreshing. Because while UK is the Commonwealth’s team, it is made up of a group of young men, often from less than promising backgrounds, who are investing not only the old college try, but their career goals in pursuit of a team game. If they play hard for us, we owe it to them to support them.
And that support means that every spring, when another group of young men decide to become millionaires instead of students, we should thank them. We should wish them well, encourage them to come back and progress toward degrees, and root as hard for their dreams to come true as professionals as we did when they were Wildcats.
College isn’t a diploma station. It’s a place for us to become what we will be as men and women. These young men are doing that in an uncertain environment as best they know how. So please respect their path. It’s different than mine or most of yours. But understand why they go.
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I had hoped to post a column wrapping up football after UK’s 44-40 loss to Louisville, which was suitably heartbreaking for a UK team that was so close to being a bowl squad. I was foolishly waiting for Neal Brown’s replacement as offensive coordinator. There has been some moaning and groaning from those close to the program that losing Brown will be a great loss. I’m not quite so sold. This Kentucky offense was so completely devoid of any identity that nobody really had any idea what to expect on a given day. I’m hopeful that the new hire will be somebody with a commitment to a consistent offensive philosophy. Lincoln Riley of East Carolina has seemed to be a likely choice, but the longer the hire drags out, the more that secret candidates will be suspected.
Joe Cox is contributing editor for Kysportsstyle360.com. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County, and has written three books involving UK sports -- 100 Things Wildcats Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die, Fightin’ Words: Kentucky vs. Louisville (both with Ryan Clark), and Voice of the Wildcats: Claude Sullivan and the Rise of Modern Sportscasting (with Alan Sullivan). Joe is an attorney and lives in Logan County with his wife and children. You can reach him at email@example.com.