For my sixth birthday, my parents gave me a new pair of tennis shoes. These were nothing like the latest Air Jordans you can buy online nowadays for over $300 a pop. But rather, these were your friendly K-Mart specials retailing for the fabulously low price of $4.95.
You see, Mama and Baba just weren’t much into frivolous gift-giving when it came to birthday presents for their children. Don’t get me wrong, they’d sacrifice the world to pay for practical things like our college educations or a down payment on our house. But if I asked for something like a fanciful trip to the beach, they’d probably just laugh in my face. I knew better than to even ask.
So, when my brother and his wife said they were taking their son, Gabriel, out to Disneyland in California to celebrate his sixth birthday, I couldn’t help but cringe. I asked Michael and Michelle if I could come along. I realized that I’d become more and more like my mom and dad—a royal Scrooge when it came to acknowledging milestones in life and significant rites of passage. That shackled me more than I cared to admit, and this trip with Gabriel was going to be my ticket to freedom.
For those who don’t know him, let me tell you a bit about my nephew. The kid’s predictably precocious and smart as a whip. He’s the sole male descendant on this side of our family tree. I was there when he was born and appropriately appointed him at the time as the “emissary of the Huang family jewels.”
I was part joking and part serious. Gabriel doesn’t quite grasp it yet, but our expectations for him are through the roof. As someone who’s getting ready to be put out to pasture, I’m already rolling all my unfulfilled hopes and discarded dreams into the opportunities still lying ahead of him. That’s a heavy burden for anybody to bear—and it’s certainly not fair to Gabriel. In his six short years on earth, he’s already brought our family enough smiles, hugs, and joy to last two or three lifetimes.
When you see the word “spoiled” in the dictionary, however, you’ll see Gabriel’s picture as part of the definition. His mom calls him “The Prince,” if that tells you anything. Whenever there’s a new toy that’s the latest and greatest craze, there’ll be two of them in Gabriel’s playroom by Tuesday. There were times that he had so many toy cars strewn across the family room floor that I was sure my ninety-year-old father would undoubtedly slip and fall to his death. Whether stuffed animals, air rifles, or model rockets to the moon, nothing was too expensive, too outlandish, or too good for The Prince.
Not even a Disneyland trip—a blow-out-the-budget foray that would have his grandparents rolling over in their graves. This journey of extravagance was my best chance of vicariously experiencing everything that I had missed out on in my youth of parental-denial. For once, I’d finally see how the other half lives—squandering my life savings with nary a thought for tomorrow.
As if Disney itself wasn’t enough, we’re scheduled for a Pre-Disney day at the neighboring Knott’s Berry Farm in Anaheim. Bubbling with anticipation, The Prince is up early with his royal entourage trailing in his wake—Mom and Dad, Uncle John, Cousin Katie, Aunt Mary and Uncle Robin—all ready to indulge and coddle.
Here’s my beef with Knotts Berry Farm. For a place that started out as a roadside berry stand, it has way too many thrill coasters for a six-year-old prodigy. Gabriel won’t ride many of them, and neither will I. The Prince pines instead for the rigged arcade games, and he predictably melts down when his daddy can’t bring home the hardware. Fifty bucks for park admission and the kid’s whining about missing out on a fifty-cent CLAW toy. Jesus, help us!
The next day, it’s more of the same at Disneyland—only it’s Gabriel’s daddy who’s doing most of the sulking. Missing out on the 7 a.m. virtual queue for the Rise of the Resistance ride sends Michael—a Star Wars fanatic—into the throws of depression. He walks around the park with an unrelenting frowny face as he misses out on the noontime virtual queue also. It seems our best laid plans have been unceremoniously hijacked.
The Prince, however, seems totally unfazed. He’s happy as a Jedi cruising Galaxy’s Edge. And why wouldn’t he be? His dad just dropped $150 watching him build a droid. He’s munching on $10 corn dogs and sporting a new $24 hat. An overpriced character meal with Goofy at the Disneyland Hotel is also lurking in the wings.
But you know what? As his late Grandpa would often say, “Gabriel is a good boy.” Despite the apparent over-indulgence, I find myself marveling at the kid, nonetheless. He waits patiently in interminable lines for rides, walks over ten miles crisscrossing the park without a single complaint, and keeps us all entertained with his never-ending commentary and wit. Most importantly, he makes everyone around him happy. And it is his birthday after all.
Even the Disney gods relent. Miraculously, we get a last-minute call-up for the Rise of the Resistance, and we hightail it over to board with our group. As I look over at Gabriel wondrously eyeing the Death Star, I can’t help but see my child-like self in him. Fifty years ago, I walked these exact same streets of Disney. I remember those magical moments with my family like they happened yesterday. I treasure those memories more than life itself. I’m hoping that Gabriel will treasure his time with me in the very same way.
His mom was right. There’s nothing too good for The Prince. I love you, Gabriel. May the force be with you.
Dr. John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Group Media and editor-in-chief of JustTheCats.com. His two newest books, KENTUCKY PASSION and FROM THE RAFTERS OF RUPP, are now available online and wherever fine books are sold. If you enjoy his writing, you can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.
Okay, now that I have your attention, let me just say that it’s not what you think. I’m not reallymarrying my cousin. Rather, I’m officiating my cousin’s wedding. You heard that right. I’ve been asked to join my dear cousin Linda with her fiancée, Chris, in wedded matrimony. That’s why I’m flying out to Camarillo, California (just north of Los Angeles), to do the holy deed.
You probably didn’t even know that regular Joes like me could perform marriage ceremonies. Well, I’m no average Joe. I’ve been officially ordained as a minister by the Universal Life Church. I filled out a quick application online, instantly received my certification email, and…woohoo…I’m ready to proclaim anybody husband and wife in the golden state of California. It almost sounds too good to be true. I hope it is true—for Linda and Chris’s sake.
All kidding aside, this is an incredibly sacred moment in the lives of two people who are important to me. I’m therefore approaching this holy union with all the reverence and veneration it richly deserves. I’ve been preparing like crazy for this day for the past few months, formulating my script, and thinking of how I can effectively honor Chris and Linda in front of all their loving family and friends…and before God.
I’m what you might call an uncompromising supporter of the institution of marriage. On a purely cultural level, I believe that marriage forms the basic building block of a civilized society. It fosters families, greatly enhances the well-being of children, and contributes to the “broader good” of community relationships as a whole.
The real significance of marriage, however, is found on a more ethereal plane. Because, for Christians like me, this hallowed bond of marriage signifies a covenantal union of male and female brought into a one-flesh relationship. It’s two distinct glories combining to make one glorious entity. It mimics and symbolizes the holy relationship between Christ (the cosmic bridegroom) and the church (his beloved bride).
For many folks, that’s all just a bunch of religious gobbledygook—spiritual dogma cleverly disguised as metaphor. That’s unfortunate, because nowadays, it seems that secular society views marriage as nothing more than a contractual arrangement born out of convenience. In my mind, nothing could be further from the truth.
To see a true model of Christian marriage, you have to look at it experientially. Take my parents. They’re both no longer living, but their fifty-seven years of matrimony seemed exactly like what God had intended marriage to be. They were inseparable—establishing their careers, raising their family, living out productive lives, and enjoying their golden years with a unity of mind, body, and spirit—joined together as one flesh.
All of you know couples like that—where self-sacrifice, mutual respect, and unconditional love seem to pour out like living water. I can’t think of a more powerful testimony to the love of Christ and the goodness of our Creator than the blessings of loving marriages like that.
And that’s the message I want to convey to Chris and Linda as I lead them through their vows. Beginning today, they’re entering into a holy covenant. Over the course of their sacred union, they’ll experience unbridled joy and overwhelming bliss. But along the way, there will also be significant challenges to face and seemingly insurmountable hurdles to clear. Knowing their union is God-ordained—that it’s blessed with the Father’s immeasurable love and grace—will empower them with the necessary steadfast spirit to survive, sustain, and thrive.
Under beautiful clear skies and eighty-degree temperatures, the ceremony goes off without a hitch at the lush Las Posas Country Club in Ventura County. Everyone agreed that the bride looked radiant and the groom devastatingly dapper. At 3:52 p.m. PST, before fifty beaming witnesses, I proudly announce the declaration that makes everything official.
“By the power vested in me by the state of California—and under the eyes of God—I now pronounce you husband and wife.”
Thank you, Chris and Linda, for letting me check this experience off my bucket list. I’m hoping it was as edifying for you as it was for me. To anyone that was wondering, I can now confirm that marrying your cousin is as good as it gets.
Getting married soon? Looking for an officiant? I’M NOW AVAILABLE!
Writing books is somewhat akin to winning national championships. After tasting it once, you develop an insatiable craving to do it all over again. The second time around gives you even more joy. As a bona fide author, people no longer regard you as a flash in the pan.
With the release of my newest book, Kentucky Passion, I’ve not only joined the multiple book club, but I think I’ve created something exceptionally special. Kentucky Passion isn’t just your ordinary run-of-the-mill compilation of game scores and player quotes chronicling the program over the years. Rather, it’s a labor of love to all my fellow UK fans; a book for the fans written by a fan—a true-blue, dyed-in-the-wool, card-carrying member of BBN for the past fifty years.
I know that basketball books are a dime a dozen. Here are three specific reasons why I think this one stands out.
It’s a Kentucky Basketball book
The program with the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball is chocked full of memorable moments. The Mardi Gras Miracle, the night the Goose was golden, the Laettner shot, Rick Pitino bolting for Boston, Tayshaun Prince and his five three-pointers—those are all iconic events indelibly etched in the minds of every Kentucky fan. Whether you were there or not when they happened, over the years they’ve all become important milestones marking Kentucky Basketball lore. I was lucky enough to have lived through all of them. My goal is to now take you courtside with me to experience the monumental joys (and occasional heartbreaks) all over again. You won’t just read about them—you’ll live them.
It’s not just a Kentucky Basketball book
John Calipari tells us all the time that Wildcat fans are crazy. I prefer the word passionate. My coauthor, Del Duduit, and I wanted to channel that passion into something that all the Kentucky faithful could use in their everyday lives. Del is a renowned Christian writer, famous for his sports devotional books, who has interviewed famous athletes from all around the world about their spiritual beliefs and faith journeys. In Kentucky Passion, Del takes my basketball narratives and transforms them into practical guides for negotiating the everyday challenges of life. What life lessons can we learn from the University of Jodie Meeks, or the Dream Game turned nightmare, or the Rise of the Jorts? I guarantee you won’t find wisdom like this outside the book of Proverbs.
The book has pictures…and a foreword by the most popular UK player ever
Most of you know my brother, Dr. Michael Huang, the photographer for Kentucky Sports Radio. What you may not know is that he’s just as big a Kentucky Basketball fan as I am. We’ve always wanted to do a joint project on the Cats. A picture is worth a thousand words. Kentucky Passion contains two full-color sections spotlighting fifty of Michael’s notable prints. That alone is worth the price of admission.
Kyle Macy is arguably the most popular player to have ever worn the Kentucky uniform. Back during the days of the ’78 championship, I worshipped the ground he walked on. If you told me then—that forty years later—he’d be penning the foreword for my book, I’d have told you that you were certifiably nuts. I guess that’s the kind of turn of events that dreams are made of. I’m living that dream with Kentucky Passion—and I’d be honored to have you be a part of it.
Here’s the link to get your copy.
Here’s a bonus reason—probably the best reason—to purchase this book.Kentucky Passion was published by—of all people—Red Lightning Books, a subsidiary of Indiana University Press. If those hoops-crazy Hoosiers would bend over backwards to publish and publicize something about their hated border rival, you know the book must be pretty Pulitzer worthy. They released their own book spotlighting IU earlier this year. C’mon BBN—let’s show ‘em who’s king.
Thanks again for being so passionate…and being an integral part of Kentucky Passion.
Many parents dread the day when their children fly the coop. Often, it’s a totally different experience with girls as opposed to boys. For those of us “blessed” with daughters, the challenge can seem especially daunting. And if you only have one daughter, letting your little girl venture out into the world on her own is—to say the least—anxiety producing.
Such was the case when our “little” Katie left home back in 2010 for college in California. Neither her mom nor I handled the departure very well. Kanisa went nuts (literally), while I warded off the pangs of loneliness and depression by straightening teeth, cutting grass, and smoking weed (well—two out of the three).
Seriously, though, ever since Katie was born, I’ve prayed protective prayers over her. I wanted some assurance that my little girl would always be in good hands—and that one day, God would bring the perfect soulmate into her life, and they’d live happily ever after. Over the past few years, I started having doubts about whether that was ever going to happen.
With Katie, boyfriend relationships have always been complicated. In the past, she actively sought out guys who had an edge to them—artists, musicians, entrepreneurs, and Hollywood types connected to the film and fashion industry. They were all decent dudes at heart, but every guy she dated seemed to be passively rebelling against all the important things her stodgy old dad stood for: a steady paycheck, paid vacation time, and a 401k deferral plan.
Just when all seamed hopeless, however, in steps CJ. Katie and CJ met doing volunteer work at a local LA Farmer’s Market. After the first few dates, we all knew there was something special between them. A good Catholic boy, CJ currently works in the world of private equity, and he values many of the same traits that I deem vital for a spouse: loyalty, dependability, foresight, patience, adaptability, respect, and kindness.
But still, even if CJ were the second coming of Pope Francis, there would still be questions in my mind of whether he was good enough for “Daddy’s little girl.” Sometimes you just have to go with your gut. So, back in June of this year, I went ahead and gave my blessing to CJ to ask for Katie’s hand in marriage. Katie has told me on many occasions that she doesn’t really care for an extravagant wedding ceremony (whew!), but the proposal part in advance better be DARN GOOD!
Hey CJ…the pressure is on. I’m watching you closely.
That’s exactly why I’m flying across the country in the middle of Covid to take part in this surprise proposal extravaganza. Katie’s girlfriends have lured her away for what she thinks is a nice relaxing weekend getaway to San Diego. Meanwhile, CJ has arranged for a hot air balloon ride to whisk the two lovebirds away into the Friday night sunset. Somewhere up close to the heavens and power lines, he’ll pop the question, and I’ll assume Katie will say “yes” and melt in his arms.
Sadly, the only thing that melted away was CJ’s perfectly choreographed plans. People tell me it never rains in San Diego this time of the year. Well, people are wrong. Not only did it rain on Friday, but thunderstorms and lightning moved into the area and washed away the hot air balloon excursion. Give CJ credit, though, he didn’t freak. With some impressive last-minute bobbing and weaving, Katie still wound up at the end of the romantic kerfuffle with a rock on her finger.
Now it’s Saturday, and the surprise fest continues as many of Katie’s and CJ’s closest friends are sneaking into town to celebrate with the newly engaged couple. This is where I step in; dear old Dad secretly flying all the way in from Lexington to share in the intimate moment. As everyone gathers expectantly at her friend’s parents’ home, I’m waiting anxiously, hiding in a back bedroom. I’m wound tighter than a violin string as I prepare to spring into action for the grand reveal.
This is a bittersweet moment for father and daughter. You see, Katie and I have grown so close in these past few years. We’ve had to lean heavily on each other as Kanisa battled her demons. Honestly, I don’t think I could have survived without my daughter at my side. Now I feel selfish having to share her with anybody else. The thought makes me feel guilty and unbearably sad.
Just as waves of melancholy begin to pour over me, I’m reminded about God’s plan for love and marriage. In the Lord’s eyes, marriage should be honored by all. For just as Christ, the bridegroom, loved his bride—the church—so should a husband love his wife unconditionally. Scripture describes it this way: “For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.”
One flesh—the perfect union—joined forever in mind, body, and spirit. How beautiful is that? Isn’t that what I’ve been praying for all along? CJ’s mom, Marita, tells me she’s been praying for the same thing. Immediately, comforting thoughts and feelings of gratitude flood into my mind and heart. It turns out that instead of losing my little girl, we’re all being blessed by another immeasurable gift from God.
Welcome to the family, CJ Faulwell. Take good care of Katie. I’ll be watching you. Now that the secret’s out, you know the rest of the world will be watching you too.
The guy lived a heck of a life and passed peacefully at home at the ripe old age of 93—so shed no tears, please. But even though I couldn’t have scripted a more appropriate departure for the pearly gates, there’s still an overwhelming sense of sorrow and grief surrounding his immediate absence. It’s impossible to pay homage amid the emptiness when the wounds are so fresh—but I’ll give it the old college try.
Back in 2006, as Bah-Bah was clinging to life support after undergoing brain surgery for a subdural hematoma, I wrote the following eulogy in preparation for his passing. After a miraculous recovery, I read to him what I had written. He listened stoically, inscrutable as ever, brushing it off as if somehow knowing that there was more to his story.
(Remember that the following was written nearly 15 years earlier. Please excuse the over dramatic narratives, false assumptions, and run-on sentences. As they say in the stock market, past performance is not indicative of future outcomes.)
When I was in the third grade at Picadome Elementary, our social studies class sponsored a school-wide assembly on ancient Chinese civilizations. My teacher asked if anyone in the class knew any real live Chinese people who could come and talk about their native culture and customs. I quickly volunteered my father, who after meticulous thought and preparation, pulled off a presentation worthy of the most prestigious Academy Award-winning performance. He not only kept hundreds of hyperactive elementary school kids enthralled with his pictures of ancient pagodas and his Chinese calligraphy skills, but he also dazzled everyone with his yo-yo talents and shuttlecock kicking acrobatics. Imagine the immense pride etched on the face of an insecure eight-year-old boy as 4th, 5th, and even 6th graders came up to me on the ensuing days and told me how “cool” my dad was.
OF COURSE I ALREADY KNEW I HAD A GREAT DAD. That was evident the minute he decided to leave his native homeland, traveling a world away in pursuit of the American dream of creating a better life for his family. In 1961, while entrusting my mom, my older sister Mary, and myself to the care of relatives back in Taiwan, my father left for the United States, alone with only a small, packed suitcase and a handful of change. Today, as I gaze at my daughter Katie basking in the luxuries of American teenage life—as I stand here with my brother the compassionate physician, my sister the distinguished professor of pharmacy, and my loving and supportive wife Kanisa—I can only imagine the courage it took to make that momentous decision which would impact our family for generations to come. Visions of my father tug delicately at my heartstrings—all alone in a strange land, yearning longingly for his family back home, working diligently on his studies, while subsisting on his daily ration of tuna fish sandwiches and Ramen noodles.
I ALREADY KNEW I HAD A GREAT DAD. My Dad was smart. There wasn’t a mathematical problem that ever stumped him. Whether it was solving polynomial equations, analyzing modulus of elasticity, or calculating the area under a curve, my dad always had the correct answer. I think he secretly looked forward to helping me every day with my homework, and I now treasure every single second we spent together during those personal sessions. I remember frequently showing up in class the next day taking all the credit for solving the impossible problems no one else (including the teacher) could explain.
I ALREADY KNEW I HAD A GREAT DAD. My dad never complained. Like the apostle Paul, he was always content, regardless of circumstances. The day-to-day stresses of raising a family in a strange country, language barriers, cultural prejudices, graduate and doctoral studies, occupational advancement, and health and financial challenges just never seemed to bother him outwardly. He had a peace about him, an omnipresent positive outlook, a type of concealed joy derived only from the belief that he was living a life of righteousness and virtue.
I ALREADY KNEW I HAD A GREAT DAD. My dad was such a hard worker, making the most of every opportunity afforded him to teach and study. He valued education and exhibited such a passion for his profession, working long hours into the night to tweak a lesson plan or to develop a new formula. Even his retirement years were filled with doing what he loved—authoring a leading engineering textbook that is currently used by universities worldwide. Throughout it all, he never boasted, never bragged, maintaining that same, simple humble servant spirit he exhibited while filling drink cups at Wednesday night church dinners.
I ALREADY KNEW I HAD A GREAT DAD. The greatest gift he gave us kids was loving our mother so deeply. They were inseparable for fifty-one plus years. Whether they were going for walks, serving dinner, vacationing, or watching television, wherever you saw Pete, you also saw Jane. My dad frequently conveyed the need for me to “love my wife unconditionally”. He walked his talk, and the most difficult aspect of his passing will be the painful empty void left in my mom’s own heart.
A couple of years earlier, my sister relayed to me stories of my grandmother—a deeply devout Christian woman who took it upon herself to pray daily for the presence of the Holy Spirit in her life. I frequently picture her in my mind, a feeble, stooped, well-weathered matriarch out in the bucolic countryside of a fog-shrouded Chinese river valley, surrendering herself in prayer every morning so that the salvation of her family and future generations would be secured. Today, in this bittersweet moment—a time of mourning and celebration—standing amongst a priesthood of believers, I take great comfort in knowing that my grandmother’s prayers were answered—that although we will miss my father dearly on this earth, that one day we will all experience the inexpressible and glorious joy of being reunited as a family. I ALREADY KNEW I HAD A GREAT DAD. The angels are rejoicing! May the gates of heaven be graced with your presence! I love you Baba.
Of course, my dad didn’t die in 2006. In fact, he survived another decade and a half, teaching me more lessons about unconditional love that would resoundingly resonate within my own personal life and marriage. Despite everything I had written in my dad’s premature eulogy—up to that point—I hadn’t really seen anything yet!
Because almost immediately after my dad recovered, my mom started showing signs of dementia. https://huangswhinings.com/2016/04/26/mah-mah/ For those not familiar with the devastation of Alzheimer’s, let’s just say that it sucks. Watching the matriarch of our family—someone so vibrant in her youth—slowly and agonizingly lose her memory, her mind, her bodily functions, and eventually her life is beyond gut-wrenching. My heart still aches just thinking about it. For you see, up until that time, my mom handled everything in our household—from the daily chores, to the grocery shopping, to the social calendar, to paying the bills, to organizing our lives. My dad, on the other hand, would have been hard pressed to balance a checkbook or set the thermostat.
And yet, when the tables were turned, my dad rose to the occasion. He was there at my mom’s side every step of the way—from the early days of trying to keep her mind active by memorizing Scripture together, to later on by driving her to appointments and cooking her meals, to near the end where he had to spoon feed her and change her diaper. All the while, he maintained that same positive contentment that I so much admired. In caring for my ailing mom, he taught me the greatest lesson of my life. He became the inspiration for me as I struggled in dealing with my wife’s ongoing depression and mental illness. As well-meaning friends encouraged me to consider abandoning ship, there was Baba—a rock of stability in the shitstorm of life.
In the years since my mom’s death, my dad has also taught me much about two traits which I sorely lack—compassion and generosity. As I was sorting through his mail a while back, I often wondered why he received so much junk mail. It turned out that all those free gifts were due to the multitude of random checks he had given to all the various charities over the years. His philanthropy was punctuated recently by the donation of his life savings to the university and church he so dearly loved.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t bristle a bit at having my inheritance given away. But those dollars pale in comparison to the values he taught me in his life here on earth—a life lived with industriousness, integrity, fidelity, humility, and love. Yep, there’s that word “love” again. My dad loved life, he loved his work, he loved people, he loved his family, he loved his community, he loved his church, and he loved the Lord.
I picture my dad in heaven now, finally reunited with my mom—holding hands, going for walks, and pouring drinks at that great Wednesday Night church dinner in the sky. Well done, Baba. Well done! It’s not a bad way at all to spend eternity, eh?
May your legacy here on earth live on through all those you have so graciously touched.
Me, Bah-Bah, and granddaughter number two (Katie) in our last photo together
I’m all ears at a round table discussion with Naomi Osaka at the 2019 Western and Southern Open(Photo Credit W&S Open)
(LEXINGTON, Ky.) — There’s an illness lurking among us that’s just as debilitating and deadly as the Coronavirus. Unlike Covid-19 and all its variants, however, this ailment has been around since the dawn of time. Unfortunately, we’ve been hesitant to even acknowledge that it exists. We’ve buried it, blocked it out, and barricaded it behind closed doors in hopes that it’ll just go away.
Until now, that is.
With Simone Biles exiting the team competition in the Tokyo Olympics in order to “protect her mind,” perhaps the importance of mental health awareness will finally get the attention it rightly deserves. After all, if one of the greatest Olympic athletes of all time—on arguably the biggest stage in sports—admits to needing some emotional help, then maybe the rest of the world will finally start listening.
Biles isn’t alone. Earlier this year, four-time tennis Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French Open over a standoff about her refusal to speak with media during press conferences. The Japanese American tennis icon admitted that she suffered from long bouts of depression and tried to explain how she was struggling in coping with all the stresses of stardom.
Even before Biles and Osaka, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps talked openly about his battles with anxiety and depression. After retiring from active competition, the most decorated athlete in the history of the Summer Games—winner of twenty-eight medals across five Olympics—has since become a huge mental health advocate. And yet, despite the tireless efforts of his foundation to trumpet the cause, nobody seems to have truly gotten his message either.
“We’re human beings,” Phelps poignantly stated the other night when asked about the circumstances surrounding Biles. “Nobody is perfect. It’s okay not to be okay. It’s okay to go through ups and downs and emotional rollercoasters.”
A little closer to home, Kentucky basketball head coach John Calipari also addressed the fragile emotional state of his team earlier this summer. The pandemic, together with the unspeakably tragic deaths of not one but two of their teammates, had Coach Cal on heightened alert regarding his players’ mental health.
“I’m not an expert on why it would be rising,” Calipari answered, when asked about the skyrocketing incidence of depression and anxiety among young people. “This pandemic rocked everybody…We had players last year meeting with some psychologists. We did…It’s overwhelming…We just went through Ben [Jordan] passing away, and then Terrence [Clarke]. You throw that onto the plate of these kids. And that’s why I was doing as many individuals [workout sessions] as I could do. At the end of the day, I’m not a—quote—professional. Sometimes that needs to be involved in this.”
Hang on. Before you say this issue is only about spoiled athletes going soft, you better think again. Depression, anxiety, and mental health disorders are ubiquitous—whether we’re famous celebrities or just “ordinary Joes” trying to do the best we can. It doesn’t matter whether we’re at the top of our game or struggling to make ends meet. These conditions are insidious, they’re pervasive, always prowling around looking to devour you when you least expect it.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), about 16.2 million people in the United States will have at least one major depressive episode in a given year. That translates to a lifetime prevalence of major depressive disorders of 16.9 percent among adults. That’s more than one in six of us. Not only that, but the biggest cause of disability in the worldwide workforce also happens to be depression related. We’re not talking about calling in sick due to a bad back, the flu, or the far-reaching effects of hypertension or diabetes. Nope—we’re talking mental health issues, period.
“The biggest thing is, we all need to ask for help when we go through those [difficult] times,” Phelps emphasized. “It was hard for me to ask for help.”
And therein lies the danger from all of these mood disorders. It’s hard to ask for help. Because of that reluctance to reach out, those afflicted are often at high risk of suicide. Tragically, fifteen percent of those individuals living with recurrent depressive disorder will subsequently die by suicide. That’s way too many. In fact, it’s heartbreakingly unacceptable. Why the heck are people so reluctant to seek help when needed?
One word, pure and simple: STIGMA! Unlike other common physical illnesses—such as high blood pressure or diabetes—mental health disorders are buried in bias. They aren’t your typical “casserole illnesses.” In other words, when you’re recovering from a broken leg, or an emergency appendectomy, or even cancer chemotherapy, friends, neighbors, and coworkers are quick to stop by with a casserole to comfort you.
Not so with mood disorders. There’s a stigma attached—some sort of guilt, embarrassment, or shame—as if you’re walking around with a big scarlet letter painted on your forehead. No one knows what to say or do about it. No one wants to admit that they’re suffering from it. All they know is that others who haven’t experienced it are understandably clueless. It’s not a condition that you can just easily “snap out of.”
So, what can we do to help? The most important thing we can do is to STOP THE STIGMA! Mood disorders such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, borderline personality disorder, and all the various other co-occurring mental health conditions are not radically different than normal physical ailments of the body such as hypertension or diabetes. The only major distinction is that these disorders affect the person’s brain rather than their pancreas.
The sad reality is that many of our friends and loved ones suffer needlessly (and often silently) from these relentless brain diseases. During those instances, compassion and empathy are key. It’s up to us to first acknowledge their illness and then encourage them—as Coach Cal said—to seek professional help as needed.
For many, recovery may signal a long and arduous road ahead. All too often, however, people never even begin the journey. Counseling and therapy are excellent starting points. Medications—although not foolproof—can frequently work wonders. Later on, through continued public advocacy through organizations like NAMI, we can hopefully move towards getting everybody the proper help that they so desperately need.
For now, do your part to stop the stigma. Let’s all become mental health advocates. Show compassion. Be empathetic. Make a difference. Help a friend. Save a life.
Dr. John Huang is a retired orthodontist, military veteran, author, and editor-in-chief of www.JustTheCats.com. He currently teaches the NAMI Family-to-Family course to family members with a loved one suffering from mental illness. If you enjoy his writing, you can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.
(NICHOLASVILLE, Ky.) – Scott Smith walks triumphantly off the 18th green of The Champions course at Keene Trace Golf Club in Nicholasville, Kentucky. His smile says it all. The affable 64-year-old dentist from Pikeville, and a big UK sports fan, has just fulfilled a once-in-a-lifetime dream by playing in his first professional golf tournament.
Although the pro-am portion of the 2021 Barbasol Championships isn’t technically part of the official Thursday through Sunday rounds, Scott realizes this will be as close as he ever gets to experiencing PGA glory firsthand. He and his playing partner, Gary Brown—a Paintsville dentist—have just spent the last six hours in paradise, crushing towering drives, sinking crucial putts, and hobnobbing and trading strokes and jokes with comedian Scott Henry and tour professionals Joseph Bramlett and Greg Chalmers.
For a man whose passion for golf can’t be overstated, this ethereal experience is as close to heaven on earth as Scott can imagine. His wife, Jenny, jokingly told me that Scott’s long-term goal was simply to retire with just enough money so that he could play golf the rest of his life. For George Scott Smith and other serious golf junkies, that’s the best and only reason for growing your 401K.
If you think, however, that is just another ordinary run-of-the-mill, feel-good golf story, then think again. Because life is fragile for all of us, especially right now for Scott and Jenny. Just a week before this past Christmas, the couple received the medical diagnosis that nobody wants to hear. A CT scan had revealed a tumor on Scott’s pancreas that subsequently metastasized to his liver. The prognosis for stage 4 pancreatic cancer is understandably dire. Without treatment, the experts tell Scott that he has six months to a year and a half to live. Even with appropriate chemotherapy, the average life expectancy only stretches out to about three years.
Sadly, those of us who have been around for a while are all too familiar with stories of family members and friends unfairly stricken down in their prime. In those moments, life can feel overwhelming—like an inopportune slice, or more appropriately, like one big shank. If we’re honest, we’ve all given thought to how we ourselves might react when confronted with our own mortality. Would we cower in fear, fall apart, and shake our fist at God and cry out, “Why me?”
“The emotions are incredible,” Scott recalled, when explaining how he felt when the doctor delivered the news. “The first thing you think of is your children and your wife—how they are going to be and how you’re going to leave them. You also think about what you’re going to be going through and how this can be possible. I was a healthy individual who did basically everything. I snow skied, I played racquetball, and I played golf, so how can I be sick? That’s almost incomprehensible.”
Scott, a father of two grown boys, was born in Pikeville to a homemaker mom and a dad who owned a Chevron gas station. He pumped gas at the station beginning when he was twelve and quickly realized he didn’t want to do that for the next fifty years. While most of his teenage friends at the time had unrealistic dreams of playing Major League Baseball, Scott knew exactly where his career was headed.
“I went to the dentist when I was in the 8th grade,” Scott explained. “I said, ‘This is great. I love this. I think this would be something I’d be interested in doing.’ And believe it or not, I ended up doing it. How many people in the 8th grade think they know what they want to do and end up actually doing it? That’s pretty unusual.”
Here’s what else was unusual. Scott was an exceptional athlete in high school. He played in four different sports—basketball, football, track, and baseball—which all sent teams to the state tournament. When it came time to pick a college, he was accepted into West Point but turned down the prestigious military academy because he knew he wanted to go to dental school. Four years as an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky followed by an additional four years at the University of Kentucky College of Dentistry (Class of ’84), and those prescient, 8th-grader plans for a career in dentistry suddenly materialized into reality.
Returning to his Pikeville roots, Scott started his hometown dental practice from scratch. Thirty-six years later, he was still practicing full time—up until the fateful cancer diagnosis—providing much-needed dental care for the good citizens of Pike County in eastern Kentucky. During many of those three decades, Scott worked tirelessly in his office from Monday morning until Thursday at noon. Then it was off to the local links for the rest of the extended weekend to focus on his ultimate passion—playing golf.
That passion started early on. Scott remembers asking for a set of clubs for Christmas when he was about twelve years old.
“Neither of my parents knew much about golf,” he said. “They got me a five iron. That was it. They bought me a single club.”
The Smith family didn’t belong to the highfalutin country club when Scott was growing up either. They had to drive thirty miles to Jenny Wiley State Park in order to play. Scott piddled around with his clubs in high school but didn’t really play seriously until he got to UK, where he finally had access to several quality golf courses.
When asked what about the game got him so hooked, the overachiever in Scott became readily apparent.
“It’s so competitive, and yet you can play by yourself,” he admitted. “You’re always trying to beat par. It’s something that you can never achieve perfection with. There is no such thing. That just enthralled me. There is no finish line.”
The worrisome symptoms began last summer with occasional bouts of constipation and diarrhea. Hoping it was all just diet related, Scott put off seeing a doctor thinking the discomfort would eventually pass. When the home remedies didn’t work and the digestive problems started escalating, Jenny finally convinced him to seek medical advice.
“Two days after I had my scan done, my family physician called me,” Scott recounted. “He said, ‘I need to see you in the office first thing on Monday morning.’”
Scott and Jenny knew the news would not be good. Two weeks later, just a few days after Christmas, they were in Baltimore seeing a specialist at Johns Hopkins Medical. With five additional malignant spots on his liver, Scott’s condition was deemed inoperable, and he was sent back to Lexington for a clinical trial at UK’s Markey Cancer Center.
For the spouse and other loved ones, the cancer treatment experience can be surreal. Actually it’s more like a living hell—often more so for the spouse than for the one who is actually ill. Listening to Jenny describe the agonizing six weeks of the pulverizing nature of the clinical trial is guaranteed to bring tears to even the most calloused eye. Seeing your loved one—once so vibrant, active, and full of life—endure brutal cycles of unending malaise, nausea and vomiting, brain fog, and radical weight loss zaps you to the core of your very own existence. Your mind can go to some pretty dark places during those times.
However, just when things appeared hopeless, there came a small ray of sunshine. Out of the blue, Scott received an unexpected surprise.
Augusta Here We Come!
It’s often deemed the toughest ticket in sports. People wanting to witness the beauty and pageantry of Augusta National often wait decades before getting a fleeting chance to buy those golden tickets. Miraculously, Scott was there to witness The Masters with his own eyes in April of this year. How, you ask?
“Some buddies from my college Sigma Chi fraternity all got together and did that for me,” Scott answered. “They got me the entry tickets. They even provided a house for my family. I got to take both of my boys. I got to go with Jenny. One day I got to go with Jenny’s son, Evan. It was unreal. That is something I would never do for myself. It’s something I dreamed of but would never pull the trigger on myself.”
For Scott, watching the best players in the world play up close and personal was a fascinating experience. With Covid protocols still in place, attendance was limited, so the lucky patrons on the golf course could literally rub elbows with all the players. Television coverage also doesn’t do the course justice—especially the dramatic elevation changes. Because it’s so hilly, Scott had no choice but to ride around in a scooter (a motorized wheelchair) in his weakened state.
A memorable moment occurred when Scott and a fellow scooter rider struck up a conversation. The other man was missing both his feet. After sharing their stories, Scott discovers the man had his feet amputated because of diabetes.
“He told me he liked Chips Ahoy cookies more than his feet,” Scott said. “We then joked about racing around the course in our carts.”
The man happened to be the father of Bryson DeChambeau—the winner of the 2020 US Open. How cool was that?
Jenny describes the entire Masters experience differently. Scott felt sick most of the time. For Jenny, it was hauntingly bittersweet: an opportunity of a lifetime tempered by the specter of a sick spouse, a ticking time clock, and a terminal illness. We get it. How could anyone fully appreciate the azaleas in bloom, Amen Corner, and the iconic pimiento cheese sandwiches at a time like this?
Another Bucket List Opportunity
After six weeks of the merciless clinical trial, a new CT scan indicated a 30-percent shrinkage of the pancreatic tumor. Unfortunately, additional lesions had metastasized to the liver, so Scott was kicked out of the experimental group.
He’s now back on a standard chemotherapeutic regimen for pancreatic cancer. He’s completed three rounds so far and is scheduled for three more rounds every other Tuesday. Then they’ll do another CT scan to determine how effective the treatment has been.
Luckily, this pro-am Wednesday fell squarely between chemo treatments, and Scott was feeling fairly spry. He’s put on some much-needed weight and doesn’t feel tired all the time like he did at Augusta. Never one to seek the spotlight, he was worried about how this feature story would unfold. But how he ended up here at the Barbasol is the one tale he eagerly wanted to tell.
“The guys at my golf club back home all got together and pitched in and knew that this would be a bucket list thing for me to participate in something like this,” Scott explained. “And literally they all got in and chipped in and paid for my entry fee.”
The guys he’s talking about belong to the Green Meadow Country Club in Pikeville. And although the $7500 pairing fee is significant, it’s not just the monetary amount that makes Scott so appreciative. It’s the act of friendship that speaks volumes to him. Gary Brown, his former dental school classmate and playing partner today, had called the guys at the country club to set the wheels in motion.
“When they first told me I would be playing in the Barbasol, I thought for sure they were pulling a joke on me,” Scott reluctantly admitted. “Then when I found out that it was true, I just was overwhelmed. The thought of friendship that deep is pretty amazing. It’s something that I would never do for myself. For me to do this on my own, I would feel like it’s very selfish and ridiculous. But for something they would do for me, it just blows me away. Absolutely makes me weak.”
Faith to the Rescue
What struck me most when speaking with Scott Smith was just how calm he’s been during this whole ordeal. There’s a peaceful countenance about him that’s hard for many to understand. It truly is a peace that surpasses all understanding. After all, who can grasp why tragedies like this happen to such good people? I asked Scott to explain it to me.
“I’m in a real good place in my mind as far as that goes,” he readily conceded. “Faith is huge and very important to me. I know that things happen for a reason and we’re all here for a certain amount of time. I feel really good about whatever’s coming. Truthfully, I’m okay with it.”
Not only is he okay with it, but Scott—who calls Southland Christian his church home—has never questioned these timeless spiritual mysteries. He’s never been one to wallow in self-pity or direct his anger towards his heavenly creator.
“Oddly enough not yet,” he pushed back. “Hopefully, that won’t happen. I haven’t been through the ‘why me’ and ‘this isn’t fair.’ I haven’t gone through those emotions. Maybe I will. I honestly don’t know why I’m in this situation. Just the cards you’re dealt. Everybody is on a different playing field. I remember telling Jenny years ago that I wanted to enjoy life and experience different things and different places with her. I said, ‘You never know when you might get hit by a bus.’ This may be my bus. So now we’re trying to do as many things as we can and experience as much as possible while we can.”
The Barbasol Pro-Am certainly qualifies as one of those special experiences Scott talks about. One of the most exciting rounds of his life gets off to a bit of shaky start, but Scott soon finds his groove. A tricky five-foot putt for a birdie on eleven, an artistic chip out of the sand to within three feet of the cup on twelve, and Scott quickly settles into his element. It’s readily apparent to all that he’s played this game before.
Scott’s biggest fan is his lovely wife, Jenny. She walks the entire 18 holes—a six-and-a-half-hour marathon round under the blazing afternoon sun—silently screaming for her husband’s ball to find every fairway, to gently plop on every green, and to get in every hole. She knows how much this day means to Scott.
The two met on a blind date, and about a year-and-a-half later they were married. It’s been wedded bliss for the couple for the past ten years—until the bus arrived.
It’s been a helluva bus ride for Jenny this past year also. She lost her mom, had another dear friend die unexpectedly, watched another family member battle colon cancer…and now this. I look at her radiant smile, and I wonder how she does it. I need to know. I ask her about it point blank.
“I often sense God’s presence, and sometimes I really think he speaks to me,” she answered unhesitantly. “He said, ‘I chose you to be with Scott, during this time of his life.’”
Devout faith, divine guidance, unconditional love…we should all be so lucky.
He’s exhausted but exhilarated. Who wouldn’t be after playing with a couple of tour professionals, of having your name announced on the first tee, and of seeing the skyboxes surrounding the greens and cameras everywhere?
I asked Scott what stood out to him the most.
“My great appreciation goes out to my Green Meadow Country Club pals who made everything possible with their generosity,” he said. “[Also] sharing the experience with my wife. Having my two boys, Max and Hunter, surprise me by being there. They saw me facing the final hole. My tee shot over the lake, crossed safely, even landing on the green. I knew God was looking over me. I felt blessed to have such a great experience. Thank you, Lord!”
There are a lot of parallels between golf and life. The more time you have, the better you get at both. For most people, it takes patience, resolve, and a heavy dose of wisdom to navigate both courses successfully. Occasionally for people like Scott, the two worlds intersect to provide valuable life lessons for finishing strong.
“The golf course has always been an outlet of peace and a place for me to go to forget about things,” Scott clarified. “You learn to concentrate on just your golf game and the next shot. I won’t know what my next shot will be until the next CT scan comes out. But that’s the way I look at it. That’ll be my next shot. It’ll let us know what road we’re headed down, what fairway we’re in, or if we hit the green or not, or if we’re in the sand trap.”
Scott holds it together until the end of our visit when the talk circles back to his mortality and his time left on earth. He wants to say something to the people he’ll leave behind. His thoughts appear to scramble as he struggles to find the right words.
“Take care of Jenny,” he finally blurts out, his eyes overflowing with tears. “She’s been incredible. To take care of her. That would be the thing that I would hope the most for. She’s taken care of me. And I knew she could, and I knew she would. But to see her doing what she’s doing—it’s pretty amazing.”
If God hands out mulligans in life, I’ll ask for one right here. Prayers up! Stop the bus. It’s time for the next big shot.
Dr. John Huang is a retired orthodontist and military veteran. He covers University of Kentucky and professional sports for Nolan Group Media, Sports View America, and JustTheCats.com. His book “Cut To The Chase” is now available on amazon. His newest release, “Kentucky Passion—Wildcat Wisdom and Inspiration,” is scheduled for October (IU Press).
Don’t get me started on this topic. I’m likely to say something I’ll later regret. But for the time being, as far as name, image, and likeness (NIL) is concerned, I’M AGAINST IT!
Now I’m not against individuals making money. After all, this is America. If you’re cunning enough and motivated enough and talented enough, you can make all the money you want.
I’m also not against college athletes having a little extra change in their pockets. They certainly deserve it for all the blood, sweat, and tears they put in the gym perfecting their craft. I just don’t want some pie-in-the sky statute regarding fairness and equity ruining the college game we’ve all grown to love. Football Saturdays and March Madness weekends are part of my sports DNA. Please, don’t do anything to screw it up.
Before you accuse me of being a self-centered loser, here’s a little background information for those of you who aren’t quite sure where I’m coming from.
What is NIL?
The NCAA recently enacted legislation allowing student-athletes in college to benefit and profit off of their names, images, and likenesses. It was a reluctant move by the much-maligned governing organization which—for the past few decades—has profited heavily from the cash cow directly generated by those who they allegedly claim to serve.
Over the years, the NCAA (and the conferences and schools it presides over) has raked in millions and millions of dollars in gate receipts and television revenue while the athletes themselves aren’t allowed to participate in any of the free-for-all money grab going on around them. Supposedly, these football and basketball prodigies hammer away as indentured servants. They allegedly don’t have extra money to eat at McDonalds, to go on dates, or even to do their laundry (cue in violin music, please). All the while, the overlording rule-makers stare greedily at their own bank accounts bulging at the seams.
So why did the NCAA finally reverse course and cave?
Public pressure for one. When individual states (including Kentucky) started enacting legislation giving student-athletes free rein to cash in on autograph signings, appearances on Cameo, and t-shirts and sponsorships bearing their faces, the Big Bad NCAA and its president—Mark “Darth” Emmert—was forced into action.
Why Everybody Loves NIL
Everyone (but me) seems to be applauding and cheering on this new legislation. Coaches like Mark Stoops and John Calipari have both put on happy public faces. They really don’t have any choice but to clap loudly, or else they’ll come off looking like jerks. Think about it. If you’re making millions coaching these young men, you have to feel obligated to give them a little extra piece of the pie—or you really are a jerk.
Media people all seem to love the decision too. They see themselves as the ones anointed to proclaim good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the captives, and the release from darkness for the prisoners. They’re all celebrating (at least outwardly) the clarion call of all these previously oppressed athletes rising up on a level playing field and sticking it to “The Man.”
Of course the athletes themselves are ecstatic. “It’s long overdue,” they cry. “Here we come. Better put a few more Big Macs on the grill.”
Why I Don’t Like NIL
Here’s the way I look at it. The NCAA set up and organized the platform for all the players to compete. They put in the effort, took the initial risk, financed the infrastructure, made all the network deals, and promoted the heck out of their product over all these years. Why shouldn’t they continue to reap the fruits of their labor? If athletes can get a better deal somewhere else, then just go outside the system and do it. No one’s stopping you.
NIL Cheapens the Value of a Scholarship
If you’re telling me that a free-ride lifetime athletic scholarship isn’t an overly fair tradeoff for playing the game you love, then you’re devaluing the worth of a college degree. My parents, frugal as they were, advised me to spend money freely on two things: my home and my education. I’m proud to say that my UK degree remains to this day my most valuable asset.
I also just spent a small fortune putting my daughter through a private out-of-state university. If the University of Southern California had offered to pay for all her tuition, books, room and board, private tutoring, first class travel, deluxe hotel accommodations, and state-of-the-art medical care for her entire four-year stay, I would have gladly kissed the feet of Tommy Trojan (and retired earlier).
Current UK athletes should value their education in the exact same vein. The University of Kentucky, with its rabid Big Blue Nation, has already increased the value of their individual names, images, and likenesses—several fold—just by inviting them into the successful UK corporate brand. They’ve just been given the best education money can buy—without having to plunk down a single penny.
NIL Invites Too Many Outside Influences
And yet, even with this glorious free ride, everyone demands that these student-athletes share in the pot. As I said earlier, that’s fine with me—just not at the expense of choking the golden goose that has fueled our appetite for amateur sports as we know it. Unscrupulous agents descending on campus, rival deals between teammates dismantling team chemistry, and member institutions losing significant portions of their revenue stream to boosters paying the athletes directly could all potentially upset the apple cart.
And this doesn’t even include what could happen in the media world. Imagine a scenario where the best player appearances, the best player interviews, the best of anything media related always goes exclusively to the highest bidder. If you’re an outlet with cash to burn, then you’ll control the flow of information. That type of police state can’t be good for the game (unless you’re JMI Sports—UK’s current multi-media partner). And that certainly doesn’t bode well for all the other legitimate and hard-working journalists scrambling for their livelihoods to report news and maintain accountability.
To me, all these risks simply aren’t worth it for what amounts to the nickel and dime benefits that NIL legislation targets. Many ivory tower purists will argue that it should come down to what’s best for the student-athlete. Here’s where it gets hairy because what appears good on the surface is what could ultimately cause the entire system to crash and burn.
The Ultimate Demise
I never played college sports, but I do listen to people who did. The other night, while I was waiting to go on as a guest on Dick Gabriel’s Big Blue Insider radio show, I heard some insightful comments from the guest who was on ahead of me. Former UK linebacker Kash Daniel, who could have personally benefitted immensely if NIL had been enacted during his playing days, had these extremely perceptive thoughts.
“Scheduling is one of the biggest challenges these programs are going to face,” Kash said. “Playing college athletics at the Division I level, no matter what sport it is, is a full-time job—plus going to school. When you’re not in class or with tutors or anything that requires your academic attention, you’re in practice, you’re in treatment, you’re in extra study hall, you’re watching extra film. You’re literally doing everything you can to be the best player you can be…I don’t really know how you could do [NIL activities] during the season.”
“It really just comes down to the administrators, the head coaches, the team captains to say, ‘Hey, this is great. We get to make a little extra coin off our name now. But remember why we’re here. Remember that we still play for the University of Kentucky, we still play for Coach Stoops, and we still play for one another.’”
College coaches, like Calipari and Stoops, have always harped endlessly about player distractions—friends and family whispering in your ear, girlfriend problems, impending career choices, and mental health challenges all vying for those precious 24 hours in your day. NIL could easily become the TOP distraction. Remember, these ARE student-athletes. Their focus needs to be in the classroom and on the court—not on making money, analyzing contracts, and paying taxes. They don’t need the stress of another full-time job. They should enjoy their college experience—perhaps the best four years of their life—without having to compete with fellow teammates for a table at the next car dealership giveaway.
The truth is that NIL will not be a good thing for the majority of student-athletes. It’s an additional headache that will simply not be worth it.
It certainly won’t be worth it if it messes up my Football Saturdays, my College World Series, or my NCAA tournament. Everyone agrees that there are already plenty of outside influences affecting the purity of the college game. Welcome now to the Wild Wild West. NIL could be like that thief in the night, signaling for all of us the beginning of the end.
Granted, for those very few uber-talented student-athletes who are graced with wise outside counsel, these next few months could provide for a significant personal financial windfall. More power to them.
My prayer is that for the rest of us mortals in the sporting world, NIL proves eventually to be much ado about nothing.
The President’s Lounge area at the newly renovated Rupp Arena at Central Bank Center. Here’s where UK President Eli Capilouto will be hosting all the deep-pocketed donors and bigwigs prior to tipoff.
It’s about time.
In their effort to keep up with the Joneses, the powers that be in charge of the Central Bank Center expansion have finally put their money where their mouth is. A $241 million construction upgrade—which began in the Summer of 2018—is well underway and is targeted for completion in Spring of 2022.
They tell us that when finished, the newly-refurbished convention center will house over 200,000 square feet of exhibition, ballroom, and meeting space (nearly a 40 – 50% increase from before).
As far as our beloved basketball home is concerned, we’ve already seen the brand spanking new chairbacks added to the upper levels of Rupp Arena as part of the radical redesign. What they’ve yet to reveal to the public eye, however, are the state-of-the-art luxury lounges, the expanded concourses, and the environmentally friendly and energy-efficient features of an iconic (but dated) building looking to blast off into the 21st century stratosphere.
I got a chance to take a sneak peek behind the scenes today to see what all the fuss is about. Sure, I was impressed by all the planned highfalutin amenities, but I’ve got some mixed feelings about all the changes about to be unveiled.
You see, I’m a bit of a traditionalist at heart. I remember Rupp Arena back when it first opened in 1976. I recall Rick Robey hitting the first basket while Adolph Rupp looked on from his mid-court recliner. Through the years, my mind goes back to all the many memorable games and championship runs. Minniefield to Bowie’s halfcourt alley-oop dunk; Tayshaun and those five three-pointers versus North Carolina; John Wall in his debut against Miami (OH). I don’t want any of those memories to fade.
A part of me wants to remember Rupp Arena just as it was: Big Bertha, rafter banners, regular fans packed in like sardines in the upper decks—in their seats an hour before tipoff just soaking in the rarified atmosphere. I want to remember record-setting crowds of 24,000+—not the reduced-capacity 18,000 or so that now pass through the turnstiles.
Will the newly updated Rupp Arena at Central Bank Center conjure up the same type of sweet memories? I’ll let you be the judge. Here are my top-5 significant changes I see coming into play.
1. If you’ve got deep pockets, your pre-game experience will be out of this world. Imagine being invited to the President’s reception. You’re rubbing elbows with the bigwigs, choking down shrimp cocktails, and helping yourself to endless shots of Pappy Van Winkle. As you make your way into your seats in time for tipoff, you’re so tipsy that you don’t care who the Cats are playing. I made sure I walked around every square foot of these opulent luxury lounges. Unless I win the lottery, it’s probably the last time I’ll set foot in one of these VIP havens.
2. The outside of Rupp Arena will no longer be the brown corrugated box we’ve all come to know and hate. Instead, they’re replacing it with a modern, sleek veneer like something out of the Jetsons. The triangular-shaped glass projection design above the entrance to the grand lobby promises to be the most dominant architectural structure anywhere in Kentucky. At least that’s what Bill Owen, Lexington Center President and CEO, tells us. If you’ve driven past High Street any time recently, you know the entire construction area still looks like a war zone. I guess I’ll believe it when I finally see it with my own eyes.
3. If you’re hosting an event and want to further entertain and impress, there’ll be multiple options to choose from within the center. Picture this: having your reception on an elevated outdoor concourse overlooking the garden grounds of the Mary Todd Lincoln home. It’s happening (and I thought my back deck was looking nice). This’ll be something out of a fairytale, so make sure to book your plans early.
4. You want concerts? You got them, beginning with Eric Church on September 17 of this year. I learned today that many top musical acts (i.e. Bon Jovi) wouldn’t play Rupp previously simply because of the upper-level bleacher seating arrangements. As I mentioned earlier, that’s no longer a factor. Also, now with the numerous additional loading docks and the two giant drive-in doors, concert efficiency has improved a thousand percent. Even a Taylor Swift over-the-top production—with its multiple mobile dressing rooms and semi-trailers loaded with Taylor Swift type stuff—will now be able to maneuver seamlessly throughout the streamlined convention center grounds.
5. So what about the “average Joe” fan just wanting to take in a UK basketball game? If you haven’t made it into Rupp the last couple of years, you probably won’t recognize what you’re seeing. There’s a new video scoreboard, a circular ribbon board, and of course the new chairback seats up above. The arena is still as spacious and as symmetrical as ever, but it’s got a completely different feel than the Rupp of the past. The upgraded culinary facilities are certainly top notch, but I’m not sure if that will ever trickle down to any of the game-day concessions. I hope so because Rupp Arena still has some of the worst concession food of any of the college sports venues I’ve visited.
There you have it. You’re up to date now. Better convention hospitality, better concerts, better food (maybe), and better basketball (hopefully). It’s the new Rupp Arena at Lexington Center. I can’t wait to see the final product. Get your wallets out, folks. Whether you like it or not, you’ll be footing the rest of the bill.