The Very First Time

The Very First Time

Everyone remembers the first time you tried something, right? The first time you drove a car … the first time you fell in love … the first time you bit into a cheeseburger. How about the first time you wrote a book?

I’ve always loved to write. My dream was to write books for a living. In my previous life as an orthodontist, I never had the time. Plus, even if I did, no one wants to read about teeth.

Now in retirement, I have all the free time in the world to write about anything I want. And for my very first book project, I found the perfect subject to ensnare.

Every Kentucky Wildcat fan knows Alan Cutler. The guy was a staple over the central Kentucky sports airwaves for over four decades. During that time, as the flamboyant reporter and sports anchor of LEX18, Alan covered three UK NCAA national championships in basketball and a lot of really bad UK Football teams. Through it all, he’s still best known for chasing UK Basketball coach Billy Gillispie down the hallway on the day he was fired.

Of course, in CUT TO THE CHASE! (that title alone should win us a Pulitzer—thank you Judy Cutler), we talk all about “the chase,” but there’s A LOT more to the story than just the chase. In fact, there’s A LOT more to the entire book. Whether you’re a die-hard sports junkie, a casual UK fan, or just a citizen of the Commonwealth looking for a fantastically entertaining read, we promise you’ll enjoy this labor of love.

Enough of the preliminaries. Lets Cut To The Chase! Here are the top ten reasons to buy the book.

10. Find out what really happened on the Billy Gillispie chase. You’ll be dumbfounded when you discover the story behind the story. You gotta be kidding me.

9. Kentucky head basketball coach John Calipari wrote the foreword for the book. Did you know he and Cutler first met when Calipari was an assistant coach and Cutler was working the Pittsburgh beat? Yep, there’s an interesting history between them, and Coach Cal delivers a knockout punch right out of the gate.

8. You can’t fake experience with a book like this. Alan served over three decades on the UK beat. Nearly everyone I talked to described him as “honest and tough—but fair.” Tell me what other UK sportscaster you would rather hear from. Go ahead … I’m waiting.

7. At an introductory promotional price of $19.99 ($9.99 on Kindle), it’s the bargain of the year. This isn’t some fly-by-night tabloid feature thrown together over the course of a couple of days. No—this was a passionate project from the heart, painstakingly crafted over two-and-a-half years of agonizing soul searching and research. It’s 480 glorious pages and 129 chapters (yes, you heard that right) of blood, sweat, and tears. During times of a Covid shutdown, you couldn’t ask for better in-home entertainment.

6. Facts are NOT optional. In fact, Alan drove me nuts with his incessant attention to detail. His investigative reporter work ethic made sure we fact checked every single minute detail about people, places, and conversations that occurred decades ago. For those wanting a trip down memory lane, the names, dates, times, scores, and statistics we’ve included will definitely bring the stories to life. Alan was right—the devil was in the details.

5. Alan is a great storyteller. You can’t get this type of narrative anywhere else. The guy’s loud, opinionated, arrogant, bold, and controversial—definitely NOT boring. In chapter after chapter, Alan takes you behind the scenes and leads you by hand through some of his favorite personal encounters. He gives you his take on everything from UK Football’s state of the union, to race relations, to his candid thoughts about Rick Pitino. I had no idea about the extent of their love-hate relationship. Alan’s recounting of his “fight” with Pitino outside of Memorial Coliseum is worth the price of admission. As crazy as every one of his stories appears to be, Alan claims that every single word in them is true.

4. The book sounds like Alan. Hall of Fame sportswriter Dick “Hoops” Weiss told both Alan and me that the one sure way for this book to fail was if it didn’t reflect Alan’s voice. After all, no one wants to listen to me. In order to ensure that we stayed true to everything that made Cutler so popular, we worked extra hard to make sure we captured all his mannerisms, cadences, and favorite phrases. Before even typing a word, I spent hours and hours sitting with Alan at his breakfast table just listening to him talk. The result? I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how his speaking style and dominant personality jumps off the written page.

3. The book is about more than just sports. It drills down deep into the personalities behind the athletes. You’ll still get all the often-repeated, on-the-field memories found in other UK sports books, but Alan takes you to a whole different level. King Rex crying, Sam Bowie shooting air balls, why Bill Curry flopped, Dick Enberg’s socks—every single chapter packed full of emotion, humor, and never-before-told tales from Alan’s personal perspective. 

2. Did I mention the book is about more than just sports? It’s about life—and how a self-proclaimed, big-mouth, hot shot New Yorker came to love his Old Kentucky Home. Spoiler alert: There’s even a personal love story hidden in there somewhere if you can believe it.

AND THE NUMBER ONE REASON TO BUY THE BOOK…

1. It’s my first book.

Check it out at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08GTJ2DSC

If you really do enjoy the book, please take the time also to write a kind review and share it with your friends. Thanks so much. It means a lot to both Alan and me.

Press Box Humor is No Joking Matter

Press Box Humor is No Joking Matter

It’s kind of scary when you think about it. In this ever-colliding world of social media and political correctness, we’re all just one mis-uttered word away from crashing and burning. Just ask Thom Brennaman.

By now, everyone has heard the replay of the Cincinnati Reds broadcaster using a homophobic slur during his call of the Reds versus Kansas City Royals game last week. The fact that Brennaman didn’t know the mic was hot doesn’t really matter. Nor does the fact that he issued an apology shortly thereafter. The damage was done. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. As far as his career with the Reds is concerned, most people I’ve talked to think he’s toast.

But should society be so quick to judge? What about forgiveness? In my new gig working with people in the broadcasting profession, I’ve learned that everyone brandishing that microphone is nowadays acutely aware of slipping up and saying something stupid, vulgar, or offensive—spewing out an on-air comment so galling that it costs them their career.

I’m not here to defend Thom, but there is a culture among media people that’s similar to a locker room. I’ve felt it personally in the press box. Everyone, including myself, wants to belong—to be accepted as one of the boys. As you know, for an announcing team to “click,” there has to be a natural camaraderie between the participants in the broadcast booth. It’s why we all tune in to Tom Leach and Jeff Piecoro calling the Kentucky games. They’ve developed that in-studio comfort level that Dick Gabriel of Big Blue Insider explained to me the other night on his show. It’s the same comfort level banter between Michael Bennett and Shannon the Dude that makes our Just the Cats hour so entertaining.

“What comes on in broadcast booths during commercial breaks is at times like a locker room,” confirmed Alan Cutler, my soon-to-be published co-author, and the former long-time host of the Cincinnati Bengals Radio Network. “Sometimes it’s very funny. And sometimes there are things said that shouldn’t be said. I’ve never heard anything like what Thom said, but I’ve heard plenty of things that NEVER could be broadcast.”

Regardless, Thom should have known better. His actions were wrong and what he said was not funny and deeply offensive. He probably got a bit too comfortable in his exalted status as Reds radio kingpin and thought he was above the law. He suddenly forgot that it’s now 2020 and not 1984. Times have changed, and multiple segments of American society remain ready to pounce at the slightest provocation. As Governor Andy has scolded us all ad nauseum during the pandemic, “You cant’ be doing that.”

So what do we make of all of this? Thom says that he’s a man of faith. So am I, and so are many of you who are reading this. Should we forgive him? The Bible tells us “forgive, and you will be forgiven.” But more importantly, it also challenges us to do better. “Let us not love with words or speech but with action and in truth,” said the Apostle John. Action and truth is the only way we can bring proper healing to this divisive mess of a country we’re in.

In his on-air apology, Thom claims that’s not who he is. Well, then show us—not with mere empty spoken words, but with sincere heartfelt action. Because we don’t really know what’s in his heart, Thom needs to do something radically productive to make a difference. He can apologize all he wants to his bosses and his fans, but he has to first reach out and embrace the LGBTQ community in some unprecedented way. He has to act in a manner which earns their forgiveness and demonstrates his repentance before a righteous God. After all, if you don’t show love to others, then you’re not a true Christ follower.

Thom has a ton of equity in the professional bank. He’s worked as a successful broadcaster for Fox Sports for nearly two decades. He has a strong family pedigree and a personal reputation to match. If he can now just humble himself to act in a fashion that earns him kudos directly from the community he has disparaged, it’ll be a heck of a lot easier for everyone else watching on the sidelines to forgive him also. If sincere, it’ll also go a long way toward personal redemption and restoring his professional life.

It’s his move. I’m hopeful he can do it. We should all be cheering him on.

Thanks to Pastor Randy Maynard for always keeping me accountable walking my talk, and for reminding me constantly of the powerful reach of a sports related platform. If you enjoy my writing, you can read more at JustTheCats.com, NolanGroupMedia.com, or follow me on Twitter @KYHuangs.

Returning to Holy Ground

Returning to Holy Ground

This morning, I attended in-person services at church for the first time since the beginning of the Covid-19 shutdown back in March. I’ll confess, it’s not the longest time I’ve been away. There have been many consecutive Sunday mornings in the past where I just decided to sleep in. There have also been times during UK Basketball season where I’ve disappeared for a few months at a time. And oh yeah, there was that decade and a half in my 20s and 30s where I didn’t go at all. But by and large—at least for the past quarter of a century—going to church on Sundays and visiting with my Centenary church family has been a pretty big deal.

So, I was excited when Centenary announced their plans to restart their on-site Sunday services on Father’s Day. In fact, I was so pumped for the re-opening that I wanted to be first in line. Here’s what it was like returning to Holy Ground.

Okay, I’d be lying (and it’s never a good idea to lie, especially while in church) if I said I wasn’t at least a little bit hesitant about coming back so quickly. As much as I hate to admit it—morbidity wise—I’m approaching that vulnerable age group deemed by the CDC to be the most susceptible to the virus.

But I figured there’ll never be a safer time to return than right now. Strict sanitation standards will surely be implemented, social distancing requirements will be rigorously enforced, and everybody present will be on high alert against coughing, sneezing, or touching their face (or anybody else’s face for that matter). Everybody has their guard up. No one wants to be the church that screws it up for everyone else.

The single church service begins at 10:30, and we’ve been told to arrive about 30 minutes early. There’s minimal traffic this morning, so I pull into the noticeably-less-than-full parking lot at just after 10. Immediately, I sense that something’s just a bit off kilter—it’s eerily quiet and a bit awkward as we all march up towards the single front entrance. After such a long absence away, we’re not quite sure how to greet each other—especially behind the veil of our protective masks.

It’s a bit surreal (I promise I won’t use that word again) walking into the building. I grab a dollop of hand sanitizer, receive my pre-packaged communion elements, and resist the temptation to violate everyone’s 6-ft bubble by shaking hands and dispensing hugs as I usually would.

Entering the front doors, I notice the narthex has been completely transformed. Gone is the comfortable seating, the free coffee, and the lively conversational cliques we’re so used to seeing on Sunday mornings. There’s no handshaking, no backslapping, no bragging about the golf game or the recent trip to Alaska. The message has been received LOUD and CLEAR: Come, worship, leave—DO NOT CONGREGATE!

It’s even more sterile within the sanctuary. The abundance of plexiglass and the roped off pews gives off a definite public vibe—as if I’m waiting in line at the post office to mail a package. The hundred-plus worshippers this morning are seated every third pew, three to a pew, with much more than the required distance of separation in between them.

The choir is noticeably absent, as are the usual number of kids and youth milling about. In fact, I’m a bit surprised at the disproportionate number of older folks like me who are filling the pews. Don’t they realize their life is in danger? I take a moment to chit chat with some familiar faces, exchange pleasantries and wave to those making eye contact, and remain poised for the sermon ahead.

The sermon by Pastor James is a good one. He talks about how God’s plans for our life are often different from our own life plans. God has a road map lined out for you, but it’s often not placed directly in front of your face. Our continued obedience and faith in God will eventually draw us close enough to view the map clearly. In the meantime, stand firm and keep trusting.

After Communion in the pews and a poignant benediction, we’re punctually dismissed. Like good soldiers committed to following Governor Andy’s rules, we file directly out of the church, into our cars, and back to our pets waiting expectantly for us at home.

Reading this narrative, you might guess I was disappointed by my lack of a familiar church experience. I mean if you have to wear face coverings, can’t hug anybody, have to sit by yourself, can’t attend Sunday school classes, and are discouraged from congregating, drinking coffee, and socializing with friends—then why come at all? Sure, the sermon was fantastic, but I could have watched it online—naked and unmasked—from the comfort of my bed.

And yet, there was something ethereal about the entire experience. It wasn’t just the taking of Communion either. Honestly, there really is a heavenly power at work when like-minded believers gather together in worship.

In the second chapter of the Book of Acts, the Apostle Paul wrote, “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.”

Paul was talking about the entrance of the Holy Spirit into the lives and bodies of the early Christians. For us present-day believers, as the world around us seems to be crumbling, it’s easy to forget the power that already resides within us—that same power that raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms. For me, being back together in worship this morning under one roof was a much-needed reminder of the sovereignty and dominion of God.

The good Lord designed us for relationships—affinity for Him, and connection with each other. Throughout my Christian walk, I’ve prayed until I’m blue in the face, I’ve memorized Scripture ad nauseum, I’ve listened to sermons galore. And yet, the greatest inspiration for my faith journey to date has always been the presence of other like-minded pilgrims on the same path as me. I know there’s more to genuine relationships than face-to-face interactions, but in our temporary world of quarantine and self-isolation, that presence together this morning rekindled a flickering flame.

It’s hard for me to describe the power of Christian community. There’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. Even as I try to explain it to you, it’s a heck of a lot better if you experience it for yourself.

To God be the glory!

See you next Sunday!

Damn You, Coronavirus!

Damn You, Coronavirus!

(photo credit Bluegrass Sports Nation)

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) — Other than World War III, this current global pandemic has to be the most significant challenge we’ll face in our lifetimes. Nothing can rival the isolation, the destruction, and the fear generated by an invisible pathogen that has killed our economy, our loved ones, and our sense of security all in one fell swoop.  

Many have said that the sporting world is a microcosm of society. If that’s true, then rest assured that us die-hard sports fans are suffering through the exact same voids of discouragement and despair as the rest of the planet. COVID-19 has entered our lives like a thief in the night and robbed us of everything that we hold dear. March Madness, The Masters, and Keeneland—all gone in the blink of an eye.

As bad as it for those of us watching from the peanut gallery, imagine the anxiety of those actually in the arena. I’m not talking about the megastars of major sports like the NBA or MLB. Those guys won’t miss a beat. I’m talking about those in the trenches—the grinders who have busted tail to get where they are, only to see their hopes and dreams curtailed by an unseen enemy.

I’m talking about somebody like Chip McDaniel. The former University of Kentucky golfer was embarking on a young professional career that was headed into the stratosphere. The 24-year-old hometown hero from Manchester had turned pro in 2018, immediately made the cut in his first professional tournament at the Barbasol Championships, and then quickly followed that up with his first pro tournament win at the Governor’s Open.

If that weren’t impressive enough, McDaniel went on to finish 1st in sectional qualifying for the 2019 US Open, made the cut at Pebble Beach, and ended up finishing 78th amongst the best golfers in the world. Surviving the rigors of Q-School finals in December, McDaniel had just finished up the first six tournaments on the Korn Ferry Tour when his golfing world imploded.

“It just came to a stop,” Chip told me on a phone interview the other day. “I went from hardly being home to being home basically 24/7—which was nice for two weeks. And then it kind of set in that it wasn’t just a short break. It was definitely an adjustment for most golfers I would say.”

An adjustment is a definite understatement. Were I in Chip’s shoes, I’d be going ballistic—throwing thunderbolts of anger and loathing at the golfing gods who brought this on. To have worked so hard to get to where I’ve gotten in life, only to see everything potentially vaporized by a bat out of China would send me into bouts of depression and self-pity. Damn you, Coronavirus would be my mantra of the day.

If you know Chip, however—or the entire McDaniel clan for that matter—you know that would never be the case with him. In fact, dejection and despondency about his career was the farthest thing from his mind.

“What’s been the hardest part for me is being at home and not being able to see the people that I normally don’t get to see because I’m traveling all the time,” Chip explained. “Now it’s like I’m stuck at home, but I still can’t see them because my parents are a little paranoid that I’ll be a carrier and give it to my grandparents.”

So, what has he been doing with all this extra social distancing time? Thankfully, many of the golf courses are still open, and Chip is able to get out of his house consistently to improve his game. He’s been working diligently to get his body in better shape, to sharpen his faith, and to keep a positive attitude.

“It’s pretty crazy,” Chip explained. “I feel that this is almost so crazy that the whole country—the whole world—is on pause basically. From a career standpoint, it’s probably a better situation for me than with an injury. I think once everything goes back to normal, it’ll almost be like a restart button. I feel like that’s the only way I can think about it and just try to prepare myself for that moment that it does start to go back to normal.”

And therein lies one of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard from anyone on how we should be dealing with this unwelcome interruption in our lives. Whether uber-talented professional golfer or below-average fledgling sportswriter, Chip McDaniel and I have a common Coronavirus goal. We’re both striving to emerge from this pandemic better than when we went in.

“Continue to stick to yourself,” Chip reminded me. “And try to focus on something to make yourself better when you go out. That way you distract yourself from what’s going on. And then when it’s over and everything is back to normal, you’ll be a little bit better than when it started.”

Wise words, indeed. If everyone heeds that sage advice, then we really have nothing to fear. Because if we’re all just a tiny bit better than we were before, then the world will undoubtedly be a more joyful place for everyone.

Dr. John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Group Media. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at Nolangroupmedia.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs. 

And a Little Child Shall Lead Them

And a Little Child Shall Lead Them

Kentucky’s Immanuel Quickley just did something that has never been done. The Wildcats’ sophomore guard just won his second straight SEC Player of the Week award. Immanuel’s numbers on the court this season have been supremely impressive. But it’s his faith-based leadership among his teammates that will have far more eternal significance. Here’s a sneak preview of my upcoming column appearing in the Nolan Media Group newspapers later this week.

 

Immanuel Quickley prepares faith-driven Wildcat team for postseason success

By Dr. John Huang

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – When asked what he likes about this year’s team, Coach John Calipari was quick to point out his talented backcourt trio. “I like that we’re playing three point guards,” said Kentucky’s hall of fame coach.

Although Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley, and Tyrese Maxey may eventually lead Calipari’s team to another coveted national championship, there’s another trio of Wildcats who will ultimately guide them into the sacred Promised Land.

When it comes to spirituality on Kentucky Wildcat basketball teams, I don’t recall a more outwardly vocal trinity than Immanuel Quickley, Nate Sestina, and Keion Brooks. The three are part of eight scholarship players this year who are rapidly capturing the hearts of BBN.

We’re all familiar with Quickley’s story. The sophomore guard from Havre De Grace, Maryland has stated on numerous occasions how important his faith has been to him. A devout upbringing, an active church life, and studying God’s Word have been the hallmarks of his early life of piety.

“I started putting God first,” Immanuel—which means ‘God with us’—told us at a recent media session.

That means getting up early and starting off each day with a daily devotional. Having glided through the Psalms, the Gospel of Luke, and now on to the Book of Isaiah, the Wildcats’ most consistent player appears poised to finish out this season with some pretty God-sized biblical accomplishments.

“Honestly, I know why I read the Bible,” he explained. “I think just starting from the beginning and trying to read it to the end like it’s a regular book—it gives me something to look forward to. Instead of just reading random stuff, I keep building and having something to go back to.”

Immanuel’s dedication to God’s Word has not been lost on Nate Sestina, his traveling roommate on road trips. The two have developed a special bond, occasionally even delving into some deep spiritual discussions. Taking after Immanuel’s lead, the graduate transfer from Bucknell has faithfully relied on Scripture in his attempt to bolster confidence in himself.

“I follow this Bible verse very closely,” Nate shared with me after a recent practice session. “It’s Proverbs 16:3—’Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and he shall establish your plans.’ I’ve actually talked to Immanuel about it. So, he likes it a lot too. But, just believing that whatever I do, that God’s got me.”

Keion Brooks is another Wildcat who’s not afraid to talk openly about his Christian faith.

“It’s extremely important to me,” the 6’7 freshman from Ft. Wayne, Indiana has admitted on several occasions. “It’s a big part of who I am.”

Brooks, when speaking to reporters, often appears reticent and shy. But he was bold and confident when talking about the gratitude and contentment stemming directly from his biblical beliefs.

“God has blessed me with being able to be here to wake up every day,” he said with an unmistakable look of serenity. “Being able to be a part of this great program. Being able to meet so many great people throughout this world. Just blessing me with the talent to play basketball. Basketball has taken me all over the place, all over the country. I just want to pay my dues back to Him because He’s just put me in a great place with a great family and support system to do some phenomenal things. So I just got to make sure I do my part to play hard and continue to believe in Him.”

When John Calipari tells us over and over that these are good kids, it’s not just coach speak. From what I’ve gleaned, this year’s crew consists of a bunch of really GREAT kids—kids that know their roles, kids that are fully aware of their exalted status as Kentucky Basketball players, and kids who will hopefully bring the Wildcats another national championship.

As Immanuel Quickley is learning in the eleventh chapter of Isaiah, “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; And a little child shall lead them.”

I’m not sure whether God is necessarily a University of Kentucky Basketball fan or not. But it sure can’t hurt that Immanuel Quickley–whose Twitter handle just happens to be @IQ_GodSon–obviously has his priorities in the right place. Whether on the basketball court or in the arena of eternal life, you can be certain that @IQ_GodSon is getting everyone ready for the day of reckoning.

I’m ready. Are you?

Dr. John Huang is a regular columnist for Nolan Group Media. If you enjoy his writing, you can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs

 

The Most Beloved Coach in America

The Most Beloved Coach in America

Just mention the name Joe B. Hall, and everybody in Big Blue Nation goes gaga. After all, we’re talking about the basketball coach who followed in the footsteps of the legendary Adolph Rupp by leading Kentucky to their 5th National Championship in 1978. This is the same guy who won 297 games in his thirteen years at the Wildcat helm, and after retirement, became arguably the greatest ambassador for the program with the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball.

So imagine how excited I was to be able to read Coach Joe B. Hall’s brand-new book, “Coach Hall: My Life On and Off the Court.” Joe B. claims it’s not a basketball book, but I’ll have to disagree. Because to those of us who love UK sports, anything associated with our cherished Coach Hall is ultimately related to basketball.

Don’t anybody worry. I’m not going to spoil it for you. But here’s my take for those who want to know if the book is really any good.

Oh, it’s good all right—much better than I thought it would be. Granted, the suspense lags a bit as Joe shares stories about his youth, but it really ratchets up when basketball enters the picture. As Adolph Rupp steps on to the stage, the narrative suddenly goes ballistic.

I won’t say that Joe throws Coach Rupp under the bus. No—far from it. He maintains the same level of respect and deference for his mentor that we’ve always known him to have. But make no mistake about it, Joe goes out of his way to set the record straight on how Coach Rupp did everything in his power to avoid losing his job—including sabotaging Joe’s desire to follow in his footsteps. In Joe’s own low-key approach, he pokes fun at Coach Rupp in ways that made me laugh out loud. I thought I was fairly knowledgeable on what went on behind the scenes—but what Joe ultimately reveals will make you do several double takes.

The book’s an easy read. I finished it in one sitting in just a couple of hours, so don’t expect a whole lot of deep character development. In fact, most of the star players get just a quick mention, and there are only a few chapters devoted to some of the more memorable games. Not surprisingly, Bobby Knight comes across as the jerk that he is. And bring out the Kleenexes for his farewell to Katharine.

Overall, Marianne Walker does an excellent job of making the book readable, entertaining, and most importantly—an accurate portrayal of arguably the most beloved coach in the history of UK Basketball. If I had one major criticism, it’s that the book needed to be longer. It glossed over issues I thought needed closure. From that perspective, it didn’t do justice to the legacy Joe deserves.

Joe B’s popularity has skyrocketed since he stepped down as head coach after the 1984-85 season. Those of you familiar with the program back in the 80s surely remember when this grandfatherly figure from Cynthiana wasn’t loved by everyone. Believe it or not, a lot people wanted him fired.

Since confession is good for the soul, permit me to clear my conscience. I was one of those people who wanted Joe ousted after Kentucky lost to Middle Tennessee State University in the first round of the Mideast Regional of the 1982 NCAA Tournament. Are you kidding me? How can a team with all-stars such as Dirk Minniefield, Jim Master, Charles Hurt, Derrick Hord, Melvin Turpin, and Dicky Beal lose to an opponent with the likes of Ed “Pancakes” Perry and Lucious “Buck” Hailey?

“Joe can’t coach his way out of a wet paper bag,” I remembered saying to my dental school classmates. “Joe must go,” we all chanted. “Hall must fall,” the people screamed.

All these memories came flooding back to me a couple of months ago when I was invited, by Kentucky sports guru Oscar Combs, to former UK player Larry Stamper’s 70th birthday celebration. Of course, Coach Hall was also invited. The legend himself made the trip all the way from Louisville, and fortuitously (for me), ended up sitting immediately to my left.

Here was someone who was larger than life, who I had literally worshipped back in ’78 when the Cats won that first title of my lifetime. (Never mind, just five years later, I wanted him tarred and feathered—but that’s neither here nor there.) The point being now—nearly four decades later—I’m literally breaking bread with the basketball icon of my youth. You talk about living a dream!

We talked about that ’82 team…and when the moment was right, I admitted to him that I wanted him fired after the loss.

“So did a lot of other people,” Joe answered with a wry smile. “Welcome to the club.”

I think that’s exactly why Coach Joe B. Hall is the most beloved coach in America. Despite his exalted status, the guy remains forever approachable. If you ever saw him shopping in Sam’s Club, you felt like you could go up to him and talk hoops anytime. Don’t get me wrong—Coach Hall was serious about his coaching responsibilities, but he never took himself too seriously. As such, he never really got the credit that he deserved.

As the successor to Coach Rupp, Joe B. Hall was “the keeper of the flame.” He knew the importance Kentucky Basketball played in the lives of the people of the Commonwealth, and he guarded that knowledge with every ounce of his being. He knew how vital it was to keep not only the winning tradition, but the passion alive.

During his coaching tenure, Joe B. took a boatload of All-American primadonnas and not only made them winners on the basketball court but also instilled in them the discipline necessary to be productive young men. In other words, Coach Hall—through the players he coached—reflected (and continues to reflect) the glory that is Kentucky Basketball back to the rest of world. He made us all proud to be citizens of BBN.

As the party celebration wound down, I relished my time in the presence of Wildcat royalty. I sat enthralled—between bites of Larry Stamper’s delectable homemade banana pudding— listening to Larry and fellow teammate Jim Andrews reminisce about their playing days. I learned that Kevin Grevey and Jimmy Dan Conner were two of the messiest teammates around. I also learned about a harrowing plane ride down to Louisiana and the subsequent reason why Larry had a clunker of game against LSU.

All the while, Joe B. listened patiently, sat serenely, and just smiled—like a proud father watching over his precocious kids, basking in his own memories as the patriarch of the greatest blue-blooded family in the history of the game.

Godspeed Joe! Thank you so much for being exactly who you are. Here’s another big hug on behalf of a loving and grateful Big Blue Nation.

 

Welcoming Billy Gillispie

Welcoming Billy Gillispie

The other night, my friend and colleague, Keith Taylor, and I were talking about Bobby Knight. The guy goes by “Bob” now, but those of us old enough to remember the volatile chair-throwing, Joe B. Hall-back-of-the-head-slapping, Neil-Reed-choking, Puerto-Rico-policeman punching, IU-student-shaming, former Hoosier Basketball head coach, will always think of him as “Bobby.”

Indiana University, after a long and bitter estrangement, welcomed Knight back to Assembly Hall last week after giving him the pink slip nearly twenty years earlier. After a highly exalted thirty-year coaching career and guiding the red menace to three NCAA titles, it seemed to me like the proper thing to do. Forgive and forget, kiss and make up, and let bygones be bygones. Life is way too short to hold on to such vindictive grudges.

Keith then went on to write about Kentucky following Indiana’s lead and honoring its own bevy of former coaches. If the Hoosiers were willing to bury the hatchet and reconcile with Knight, then surely the Wildcats could do the same with Eddie Sutton, Rick Pitino, and Tubby Smith.

I second Keith’s motion. In fact, I’ll go a step further. In addition to Sutton, Pitino, and Smith, let’s also honor Billy Gillispie while we’re at it. After all, he’s still a very real part of our Wildcat history and tradition—part of the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball. And history—whether good or bad—should be remembered, right?

Come to think of it, let’s honor them all. Line everybody who’s ever coached at Kentucky up at midcourt on a special “celebration of former coaches” night, and let’s shower them all with the recognition they deserve.

Granted, having Adolph Rupp back would be a bit awkward since he’s dead (as are the previous fifteen UK coaches who went before him). But it’s obvious the Baron of the Bluegrass is still quite revered among loyal Kentucky fans. Over forty years later, the arena the Wildcats play in still bears his name. It’s got a bank attached to it now, but I think the man who won 876 games and four NCAA Championships wouldn’t feel the least bit slighted. As tight as he was with his money, he probably would have embraced it—BY GAWD!

Nothing brings more joy to my soul than the sight of Joe B. Hall cheering on the Cats from his trademark seat a couple of rows off the floor at Rupp Arena (at Central Bank Center). At 91 years of age now, it’s getting harder and harder for him to make the trip in. Being the man who follows a legend is the most difficult job in sports. Joe B. did that with grace and class. Getting a well-deserved thunderous ovation when he’s introduced—for perhaps one of the final times—is something fans should readily savor.

Tubby Smith had a nice ten-year run in Lexington. Winning 263 games, one national title, and being inducted into the UK Athletic Hall of Fame is nothing to scoff at. Although he played Saul a little too much, and Tubby himself got a tad lazy on the recruiting trail in his later years, it’s still easy for fans to welcome him back with open arms, warm hugs, and blue kisses.

Here’s where it starts getting a little difficult.

Eddie Sutton once said he would crawl all the way to Lexington to take the Kentucky job. Four short years later, he was leaving town in disgrace with 88 wins and a scandalous program trailing in his wake. That mysterious Emory Freight package remains a mystery to this day. It was said back then that Kentuckians liked their hair and bourbon the same way—straight. Sutton had too little of the former and too much of the latter. He was a brilliant coach with an all-too-common flaw. It’s time for BBN to give him a mulligan and show him some love before it’s too late.

Talk about fatal flaws, how about Rick Pitino? He’s built his legacy on lies, sex, and strippers in the dorm rooms. But look at it this way—the guy did bring Kentucky Basketball back from the dead. In eight years as head coach, he got Kentucky 219 wins and another national title—two if you count the one Tubby won with his players. Unfortunately, he jilted BBN—first for the glory and riches of the NBA, and then again for the unforgivable slap-in-the-face gig with little brother down the road. It’s hard to forgive Benedict Arnold, but you can’t help but feel a bit sorry for his recent embarrassing fall from grace. What he did for Kentucky, however, deserves our genuine gratitude. I’m betting Kentucky fans will cheer rather than jeer when his name is finally called.

That brings us to Billy Gillispie. In only two short years, Billy Clyde took Kentucky from the penthouse to the outhouse. Embarrassing home losses to Gardner Webb and VMI notwithstanding, it was his inability to handle the day-to-day rigors of running the Roman Empire that eventually got him fired. He won 40 games in his abbreviated tenure, but the awkward interviews, player abuse allegations, and rumors of hot tub escapades just couldn’t be ignored.

As bizarre as all that sounds, you can’t pin all the blame on Billy. Without the proper training and support, he was put in a position where he was bound to fail. Since he left Kentucky, the poor guy has also struggled mightily with the bottle and battled some very serious health complications as well. A bad hire from the get-go, we owe Gillispie at least a tiny dose of sympathy if not a generous serving of compassion.

Despite the fact that Gillispie sued UK for $6 million in an attempt to recoup his lost salary, I say it’s time to turn the other cheek. In fact, someone far greater than me once said, “If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.”

The University of Kentucky is the winningest college basketball program of all time. All of the aforementioned coaches have contributed to that win total. Like them or not, they’re all part of the grand legacy that is Kentucky Basketball. As loyal fans of the program, it’s time for all of us to take the high road, hand over our checkerboard coats, and welcome every one of those coaches back into our good graces.

If Indiana can welcome back Bobby Knight, Kentucky should go the extra mile and welcome back Billy Gillispie.

The Goat and the Lamb

The Goat and the Lamb

The 2019 Belk Bowl just might end up being one of my all-time favorite UK Football experiences. In order to preserve those exciting memories, I’m posting the column I wrote immediately afterwards. Storybook endings always have heroes. Here are two of my favorites.

Belk Bowl Bliss! – By Dr. John Huang

Lynn Bowden, Kash Daniel, lead Kentucky to symbolic Belk Bowl victory

(Charlotte, Nc.) – Kentucky’s 37-30 victory over Virginia Tech was a heck of a drama-producing bowl game. Anyone tuning in witnessed the stuff legends are made of.

THE GOAT, THE DRIVE—whatever else you want to call it—Lynn Bowden, Jr. deserves all the accolades. He’s the GOAT (the greatest of all time). Put him immediately on the Mt. Rushmore of Wildcat Football glory. Kentucky’s all-purpose quarterback-by-default this season did what legends do. He came, he fought, and he conquered the 2019 Belk Bowl.

Bowden’s crowning achievement was punctuated by another out-of-this-world stat line: 34 carries for 233 yards and 2 touchdowns on the ground; an additional 6 of 12 passes for 73 yards through the air. And yes…there was that final game-winning 13-yard toss to Josh Ali with only 15 ticks left on the clock.

You really couldn’t write a better storybook ending. With his team trailing 30-24 and 8:25 left in the game, Bowden leads his team down the field on an epic 18-play, 85-yard, 8 minute and 10 second drive that will surely go down as one of the greatest in UK Football lore. As the precious few seconds ticked away—and as everyone and their brother was thinking he would run—Bowden surprised everyone with his perfect touch pass towards the back of the end zone.

“Y’all said I couldn’t throw,” said the Belk Bowl MVP, chiding the media afterwards.

Although the game kicked off at noon on New Year’s Eve, the fireworks had started way before that. First there was the dust-up at the Charlotte Motor Speedway between Bowden and several Hokie players. That led to the pregame scuffle where Bowden admittedly threw a punch that was caught on camera.

“It’s a lot of emotion,” Bowden confessed. “I could have hurt my team and not been out there tonight with them, so I just apologized to my program, my teammates. We respect Virginia Tech. And if I could go back, I wouldn’t do it. But it’s in the past. You know, champion.”

Champion indeed. With the victory, Kentucky (8-5) ends the year on a four-game winning streak for the first time since 1977. The Wildcats win at least eight games in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2006-07. They also earn a bowl victory in back-to-back seasons for the first time since the team won three straight from 2006-08.

If Lynn Bowden is the GOAT, then surely Kash Daniel must be the LAMB. I’m not sure I’ve seen any other UK player sacrifice personal glory for the good of the team than the Paintsville native did this past year. For whatever reasons, Kash went from highly exalted team leader to sacrificial afterthought just when Bowden’s star began its rise. It was perplexing when fans suddenly started calling him out for his supposed deficiencies on the field. “He shouldn’t be playing ahead of so and so,” the people cried out. “He’s nothing but a glorified hype man,” they mocked.

If confession is good for the soul, then Kash should be a beacon of virtue. The senior linebacker seemed to be especially critical of himself as he reflected on the end of his UK career.

“I never claimed myself to be a good player—a great player,” he admitted. “I never talked about myself when I’ve done anything good. I’ve always been critical of myself and how I can always get better. I’ve never been that athletic. I’m probably one of the least athletic dudes on this defense. I’m not that fast. Trust me, I get it. People tell me that all the time. I get it.”

Fittingly, Daniel led the defensive effort against Virginia Tech with eight tackles—proving once again that some things are more important than outright athleticism. Of course, winning teams need superstar talents like Lynn Bowden. But they also need selfless teammates like Kash Daniel.

“I want Kentucky fans just to know that I gave everything I had,” Daniel said. But if all I’m remembered as is a media clown and a hype guy, then I think I’ve failed. I just hope people think of me as a hard-working player who always gave everything he had. Played hurt, played sick, played everything.”

The GOAT has delivered, the LAMB has given his all, and KENTUCKY is Belk Bowl Champion.

Dr. John Huang is a regular columnist for Nolan Group Media. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

 

Racism Revisited

Racism Revisited

A couple of recent events got me thinking about the sensitive issue of race.

The first occurred on Christmas Day when I watched “Reggie Warford: Fight of His Life.” Although the inspirational documentary zeroed in on Reggie’s current life-threatening health issues, much of the story chronicled his early battles with racism. As the first African American basketball player to graduate from the University of Kentucky in 1976, Reggie endured the many slings and arrows as “the loneliest athlete in America.”

The second event occurred just a couple of days ago with the passing of Houston Hogg. Hogg, who played football at the University of Kentucky from 1967-70, together with his African American teammates, broke the Southeastern Conference color barrier—thus paving the way for thousands of other athletes to follow.

Both Reggie and Houston were pioneers of integration, forever changing the landscape of sports in America. Because UK Basketball and Football have been such a big part of my life, I’m indebtedly grateful for their courage and sacrifice in making UK Athletics what it is today. I can’t imagine what it was like for either Reggie or Houston as they navigated through the prejudices and turmoil of the 60s and 70s. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I never really knew their stories or felt their pain.

There aren’t many issues in the world more divisive than ones involving race. It’s always been that way—at least in my lifetime. Growing up in the sixties, the battles over civil rights, school segregation, and affirmative action dominated the news headlines. In the nineties, the OJ Simpson saga had the entire nation polarized, as well as mesmerized. Even today, the specter of black versus white lies deceptively camouflaged, springing to life disguised as arguments involving police brutality and the appropriateness of kneeling during the national anthem.

In my personal experience, there are two segments of American society where outright racism lies comparatively dormant—the military and sports. Having served in the armed forces, I’ve seen people of every color work cohesively to support the mission at hand. In my role as a sportswriter, I’ve also seen the undeniable bond between teammates, regardless of their race or ethnicity.

But even in those realms, one would be extremely naïve to believe that prejudice is totally non-existent. The reality is that racism remains everywhere, often rearing its ugly head when you least expect it, forcing you to repeatedly re-examine the undeniable truth in our own Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.”

Within our own beloved Big Blue Nation, Kentucky Basketball fans pride themselves on being one big unified family. Yet one of the most divisive issues among the rabid fan base is still whether Adolph Rupp was a racist. The Baron of the Bluegrass, the man in the brown suit, the winningest coach of the program with the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball still gets eviscerated every time the race question gets brought up.

Why didn’t he recruit African American players—especially those in-state athletes so close to home? Why didn’t he cultivate a relationship with Dunbar High School’s late great African American coach S.T. Roach? What about Rupp’s allegedly overt racist halftime rant as recounted by Frank DeFord of Sports Illustrated?

For the many that have written about and pointed an accusatory finger at Coach Rupp, just as many have come to his defense. There’s a vocal majority—including many of his former players—who swear the stories implying bigotry and prejudice were either distorted or taken completely out of context. Ardent Wildcat fans cringe at the very thought of always being portrayed as the villain in the notebook of revisionist history.

Understandably, the truth remains clouded. Adolph Rupp was a product of those turbulent times. Stereotypes, societal prejudices, and even the law of the land screamed “inequality.” People spoke, thought, and reasoned differently than they do today. How else can you explain “separate but equal”, the use of blackface, and smart and experienced broadcasters such as Howard Cosell making egregious racial on-air slurs? That doesn’t necessarily absolve people of blame, but it does give you a reason for understanding why they acted as they did.

At the risk of contracting foot-in-mouth disease, I’ll readily admit I have no earthly idea what it’s like to be African American—just like most of you have no idea what it’s like to be Asian. I can tell you several instances in my life where I faced outright derision and discrimination. There were also numerous times well-meaning acquaintances made what they thought were innocent or funny quips regarding my heritage that I deemed insensitive and hurtful. My point being that we just don’t know what it’s like until we’ve walked a mile in someone else’s shoes.

I’d like to think that I don’t harbor any prejudices toward anyone. The reality, however, is that we all are influenced by the stereotypes of the era in which we grew up, lived, and breathed. How you thought, spoke, and acted in the 60s, 70s, or 80s was different than how you live, speak, and act today. What’s really important is what’s in your heart.

Muhammad Ali once said, “A man who views the world at fifty the same as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life.”

Was Adolph Rupp a racist? I think the more appropriate question is “would Adolph Rupp be a racist in today’s day and age?”

I’d like to think not, but no one knows for sure what was in the Baron’s heart. What we do know is that racism and discrimination, in any way, shape, or form, is WRONG—and runs counter to the biblical truths instilled in us by our Creator.

If you’ve ever harbored feelings of superiority or arrogance because of the color of your own skin, there’s only one solution for you. SIMPLY BE BETTER! Go out of your way to view the world from the other person’s perspective. Be forever thankful for the sacrifices made by people like Reggie Warford and Houston Hogg who blazed those perilous trails.

Most importantly, examine your own heart. Extend grace to someone who has wronged you. Deliver mercy to those who have suffered.

And finally, if needed, ask God for forgiveness…and while you’re at it, please say a prayer for Reggie, Houston, and all their families.

If you enjoy my writing, please drop me a note at KYHuangs@aol.com, or follow me on Twitter @KYHuangs.