UK Men's Basketball

UK basketball player profile: Thanks to twin sister, Alex Poythress finally figured it out

Alex Poythress, center, and Nerlens Noel entertained Big Blue Madness campers on a student court near Memorial Coliseum on Sept. 20. Poythress outlined his plan for success at Kentucky: "Work hard, play hard, and everything else will take care of itself."
Alex Poythress, center, and Nerlens Noel entertained Big Blue Madness campers on a student court near Memorial Coliseum on Sept. 20. Poythress outlined his plan for success at Kentucky: "Work hard, play hard, and everything else will take care of itself." Lexington Herald-Leader

Sister had beaten brother so often that mother shuddered when she heard someone encourage the siblings to race.

"Alex, don't do it," Regina Poythress thought to herself. "Don't do it."

Perhaps Regina recalled how other kids teased Alex when he'd lose to Alexis in one-on-one basketball games. Or perhaps mother remembered how two years earlier her twins tried out for the boys' and girls' sixth-grade teams. Alexis made it.

"Alex got cut," Regina said before the retelling caused her to blurt, "Oh my gosh."

When the twins played on the same church league team, Alexis was the "go-to" player. Alex? "When he bounced the ball, it'd go off his foot," Regina said.

Despite that history and his mother's secret dread, Alex raced his sister. Surprise . . . he won. This marked a turning point for the boy who had tried again and again to master his oversized body.

"Alex was real skinny and awkward," Alexis said of beating her brother in one-on-one basketball games. "Just big hands and big feet."

Alex Poythress was not an overnight success. As a high school freshman, he mostly sat the bench. "Just taking it all in," he said. "Trying to figure out how to play."

He figured it out. Poythress goes into the 2012-13 season as one of the latest group of highly regarded freshmen being counted upon to lead Kentucky's basketball team.

If someone had told him, say, six years ago that he'd be considered a star in the making as a freshman for Kentucky?

"It would have been crazy," he said.

Al Cooper, who coached Alex for Northeast High School in Clarksville, Tenn., and Alexis on a summer team, credits the women in Poythress' life for the rags-to-riches story.

Of Alexis, he said, "A lot of her work ethic rubbed off on Alex."

Alexis spoke of her athletic superiority as motivation for Alex.

"He was tired of people making fun of him," she said. "If we'd go play around the neighborhood, he wouldn't be picked."

When asked why her brother didn't get picked for the pickup games, Alexis said Alex went through "an awkward stage for a long time. It was kind of like, 'You're too big not to play basketball.'"

Cooper and Alexis recalled how Alex's mother kept him well supplied with encouragement. "His mother did a great job raising him" and instilling a work ethic, the coach said.

By the time Alex was a ninth-grader, Cooper saw something in the big kid who seldom played. The coach recalled riding to an away game with Alex. The rest of the team rode separately. This time alone together gave the coach a chance to gauge the player's ambition.

"How hard do you want to take this basketball thing?" Cooper recalled asking Alex. "He said he wanted to go to college for free. He just wanted to play college ball."

Cooper laid out a plan for Alex to follow. The usual drill and weight-lifting ensued. Two years later, the ugly duckling was becoming a swan.

"You could see he was getting ready to be a man," Cooper said. "He just exploded."

It helped that Alex grew "two or three inches" between the eighth and ninth grade. Thereafter, he added an inch or so each school year.

"I really don't know where it comes from," Alex said of his height. "Probably because I eat chicken all the time."

Vanderbilt coaches saw something in Alex not longer after Cooper. The Commodores offered a scholarship during a Christmas tournament in Alex's sophomore season. Or as Cooper put it, when Alex was "still growing and gangly and skinny."

Vandy coaches impressed Regina. "They were wonderful," she said.

Soon such programs as Georgia, Tennessee and Connecticut expressed interest. Kentucky first showed interest in the summer before Alex's senior year.

Alex brings more than athletic promise to UK. He had a 3.9 grade-point average in high school. At this early stage, he's considering accounting or marketing as a field of study. "I'm good at math," he said. Regina noted how he's helped younger sister Alyssa, an eighth-grader, with her algebra this fall.

As for the basketball season, Alex only spoke of staying on the same path that brought him from second string behind Alexis to presumably a solid contributor for UK.

"Work hard, play hard," he said, "and everything else will take care of itself."

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