Serving Up Winners

Serving Up Winners

I once asked Larry Vaught, the esteemed and well-respected Kentucky sportswriter, why he didn’t write books for a living. After all, he’s supremely gifted, survived multiple media wars, and has enough golden stories stockpiled in his memory arsenal to fill Fort Knox.

“Too much work,” he replied dismissively. “I live a good life. Why ruin it?”

Larry was absolutely right. If you want to dive head first into a project that will eat up your valuable time, drive you batty in the process, and provide pennies on the dollar in royalty returns, then writing a book is right up your alley. In other words, DON’T DO IT…unless…

Unless you have a story to tell.

I’ve always loved tennis. I was quick on my feet and could endlessly run that baseline. What I lacked in true skill and athleticism, I more than made up with interest and enthusiasm. I was so dedicated to that fuzzy yellow ball that one summer I even received a free t-shirt as champion of the intermediate division of my Shillito Park recreation league. I was your proverbial student of the game and followed its stars with unbridled passion.

So, imagine my surprise when the great Coach Dennis Emery approached me to collaborate on his upcoming book project. Realizing that this was the great Dennis Emery—the winningest tennis coach in University of Kentucky history and one of the most decorated coaches in the collegiate game—I jumped at the chance.

Here was a Hall of Fame inductee with six hundred and fifty-five head coaching career wins, twenty-three NCAA tournament appearances, and three SEC championships teaching me intricacies about the game I loved and telling me stories about the greats I idolized.

Here was a legend who had coached thirty-nine All-Americans, three of whom advanced to the NCAA tournament singles final. Talk about living the dream. As John McEnroe once famously said, “You cannot be serious!”

What resulted is a book that both of us are extremely proud of. It’s first and foremost a labor of love. It’s a legacy book where Coach Emery wanted to share his tennis experience with other up-and-coming coaches looking to develop players and build their teams. As the youngest full-time head coach in the history of college tennis, he took a dormant program with no facilities and built it into a national juggernaut.

“Coach Emery transformed the University of Kentucky’s men’s tennis program into one that is a perennial power and competes at the highest level annually,” Kentucky head basketball coach John Calipari wrote in the book’s foreword. “And the greatest testament to him and what he built? It has sustained success even with him no longer at the helm.”

If you hadn’t noticed, Kentucky Tennis remains a highly ranked program and still competes regularly for conference and national titles. And yet, it consistently flies under the radar. Given its accomplishments on the court, it’s arguably the most under-appreciated athletic program on the Wildcat campus. Not surprisingly then, there is little recorded about the star players of the past and their epic achievements. Anyone looking into the program’s history will soon discover that there’s simply no place to dig.

“It dies with me,” Coach Emery sadly lamented when I shared that reality with him.

No it doesn’t, Coach. Let’s preserve it right here. Let’s share it with the rest of the world.


Click here to purchase your copy

Dr. John Huang is a retired orthodontist, military veteran, and award-winning author. He currently serves as a freelance reporter and sports columnist. He is the author/coauthor of three other books, CUT TO THE CHASE, KENTUCKY PASSION, and FROM THE RAFTERS OF RUPP. You can contact him at or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

One Last Chance

One Last Chance

Kentucky players walk off the Bridgestone Arena court after another demoralizing early exit in tournament play (Dr. Michael Huang Photo).

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – Talk about unpredictable. The Kentucky basketball team this year has been exactly that. Coach John Calipari’s squad began the preseason with a lofty No. 4 national ranking and visions of a ninth national title dancing in everyone’s heads. Seventeen weeks later on Selection Sunday, the Wildcats are still dancing—but just barely. They’re saddled with a middling 6th seed in the East (New York City) Regional of the upcoming NCAA Tournament, ready to embark on an improbable—but totally necessary—quest for redemption.

That’s not hyperbole either. Kentucky gets one last last chance to avoid disaster—the shameful extension of a four-year drought brought on by a worldwide pandemic and ignominiously crowned with a humiliating and inexplicable first-round tournament loss to Saint Peters last year. That on the heels of a historically worst ever 9 – 16 trainwreck of a season just one year prior. Combine all that with this current campaign of crushed hopes and shattered expectations, and you can see why the natives are uptight.

Uptight might just be the understatement of the year. Plenty of fans within Big Blue Nation are downright furious, some already brandishing pitchforks and torches. Others are even worse off—disgustingly apathetic after having already thrown in the towel. The remaining segment of die-hards are hanging by their fingernails with a residual smidgeon of ever-fading hope—fervently praying for a miraculous rebirth like they experienced in that magical run in 2014.

What can we expect? Your guess is as good as anyone’s. I do know that with this team, expect the unexpected. The Wildcats lost to lowly South Carolina at home, but beat a highly-ranked Tennessee team the very next game on the road. They blew out a dangerous Auburn team by thirty-two points, then lost to Vanderbilt on Senior Night in Rupp. The team rallied to beat the Hogs in Bud Walton Arena, then pulled the stinker in the SEC Tournament. You can’t blame anyone for being perpetually perplexed.   

Truth be told, Kentucky fans flooded into Nashville last week with high expectations of a return to normalcy. By that I mean routine championship runs with the Cats still playing on Sunday afternoon. The blue mist blew in with visions of three straight days of good food, good friends, and late nights on Broadway. It had been way too long since the good times rolled.

Of course—surprise, surprise—the unexpected happened, and Vandy sent Kentucky fans packing on Friday night. For many, that was the proverbial last straw. FUHGEDDABOUDIT! Season over.

Or is it? Remember, the Big Dance means one last chance at One Shining Moment, and Coach Calipari has harped incessantly this year about his team playing only for March. Also remember that this Kentucky team performs exactly the opposite of how you think it will. That means you have to fill out Kentucky’s path in the bracket exactly the opposite of how you think they’ll fare.

There’s only one huge problem with that “reverse thinking” type strategy, and it has to do with Kentucky’s first-round opponent. Heading into the matchup with No. 11 seed Providence (21 – 11) on Friday in Greensboro—given what happened last year and now with UK transfer Bryce Hopkins waiting in the wings—the pressure to win will be immense. The Cats will need to shake those opening game jitters (or more accurately, Calipari needs to keep everyone’s head from exploding) in order to move on to the round of 32. Many cynics are already picking Kentucky to lose—which means they’ll win.

From then on, you wouldn’t expect Kentucky to advance any further—which with this team means subsequent victories over No. 3 seed Kansas State (23 – 9), No. 2 seed Marquette, and No. 1 seed Purdue if the seeds hold up. If there’s one thing we’ve learned this year, it’s that the Wildcats always play their best as underdogs, with their backs against the wall.

That would mean a trip to the Final Four in Houston. Don’t laugh. It’s exactly what’s needed for the aforementioned redemption and exactly where fans were thinking this team was headed at the beginning of the year. We shouldn’t lower the bar just because the team wobbled during the regular season. Kentucky fans should never settle for mediocrity. Droughts like this are not par for the course for the program with the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball.

When measured against the gold standard, the last four years have been totally unacceptable. Here’s one last chance to make things right.

See you in Greensboro.

This blog posting was originally submitted as a UK Basketball Column for Nolan Group Media publications.

Doctor Cal

Doctor Cal

He may not be Sigmund Freud, but Coach John Calipari sure knows how to push the right psychological buttons (Dr. Michael Huang Photo).

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – John Calipari has played the role of psychologist more than basketball coach this year. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. A hall of fame coach has to be many things to many people—especially his players. Mentor, father figure, disciplinarian, cheerleader, or counselor—a caring, players-first coach by necessity wears many hats.

Dealing successfully with inflated egos and entitled mindsets is an art that Coach Cal has mastered over his forty-plus years in the business. This particular season, however, his skillful navigation through a minefield of mental distress deserves a shiny gold star. Truth be told, this Wildcat team may be one of the most emotionally fragile teams in UK history.

Personality plays a huge role in that aforementioned fragility. Players this year seem quite a bit more hypersensitive to fan criticism than usual. Although Calipari has warned them to stay off of social media, they’re only human and are naturally curious about what people say about them.

Additionally, injuries have drastically altered playing times and rotations, confidence has wildly wavered, and no one has really stepped up to be the bona fide team leader. Uncertainty about future NBA riches also drew angst on a team with multiple borderline prospects. No doubt about it, play for pay messes with your mind.

Along the same lines, who knows how NIL issues have affected team chemistry. Throw in the tragic death of a player’s father just before the season began and the brouhaha early on associated with the proper utilization of your returning point guard, and you can see why the team was heading off an emotional cliff.

But fear not! Coach Cal—or should we say Doctor Cal—to the rescue. Throughout the roller coaster of a season, the wise and seasoned 64-year-old Calipari has maintained just the right amount of both compassion and assertiveness to keep his team from letting go of the rope.

“You know, there’s two things when you’re coaching,” Doctor Cal reminded the media after Kentucky’s impressive 86 – 54 blowout win over Auburn on Saturday. “One, you’ve got to hold them accountable. But you’re juggling balls because you also got to build them up.”

Anyone paying attention to Calipari press conferences has rolled their eyes at his incessant attempts to build players up during the times they were struggling. Listening to Calipari, you’d think every one of his star pupils was having a breakout season. No matter how many times he threw the ball away, Sahvir Wheeler could do no wrong. Jacob Toppin was always poppin’—even though early on he couldn’t throw it in the ocean, and Oscar Tshiebwe was always “getting better”—despite opponents destroying him time and time again on the pick and roll. And of course, there was always the endearing “How ‘bout Lance” comment every time Lance Ware simply made a court appearance.

I’ve learned over the years that everyone—no matter their status and achievements in life—needs encouragement when they’re down. A pat on the back can do wonders for a wounded psyche. For some players, it’s just what the doctor ordered.

“Yeah, of course,” answered Antonio Reeves when asked whether he appreciated and needed all the balloons and sunshine. “From the team and [from the coach]. We all need to be connected to one another and tell each other if we’re not playing well. ‘Just keep your head up’ or ‘keep playing your game’ basically.”

On the other hand, players like Cason Wallace would rather Calipari just stifle the effusive fake praise once and for all.

“That’s just how I am,” said the freshman point guard after breaking out of his extended shooting slump. “I don’t need the congratulations and the ‘good job, Cason.’ Just tell me what I need to get better at. We know it’s from a good place. If [Coach Cal’s] getting on us, he wants what’s best for us and the team. You just got to take it with a grain of salt.”

Individual players respond differently to various motivational approaches, and it seems to me like Coach Cal is indeed pushing all the right buttons. But it doesn’t really count what I think—or what you think, for that matter. How he’s perceived by the players is what’s ultimately important.

“I give him a lot of credit,” Oscar said when asked how much of the recent turnaround is due specifically to his coach’s psychobabble. “He works so hard. He just comes in everyday thinking, ‘What can I do to make these kids ready to go? What can I do to make sure these kids are happy?’”

“I know people have been hard on him,” the returning Player of the Year continued empathetically. “No matter what we are going through, he’s just going to come in with the motivation [and] positive words. He sends us messages every single day about positive stuff. ‘Stay positive!’”

That’s certainly good advice during times of trial and tribulation, so let’s give credit where credit is due. John Calipari has successfully steered his team through the mental abyss. Not only has Coach Cal done a good job on the basketball court drawing up Xs and Os this year, but Doctor Cal has done a masterful job manipulating everybody’s mind.

As the madness of March approaches and the pucker factor rises, the mental game becomes more important than ever. Let’s all hope that psychological wizardry continues to reap dividends in the postseason win column.

Dr. John Huang is a retired orthodontist, military veteran, and award-winning author. This blog posting was originally submitted as a UK Basketball Column for Nolan Group Media publications. If you enjoy his Kentucky Basketball stories, be sure to check out his latest book at

Can We Really Trust the Process?

Can We Really Trust the Process?

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – “The waiting is the hardest part”Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Kentucky fans are notoriously impatient. They don’t like waiting for anything. Not in long lines at the supermarket, in bad traffic on the highways, or for national titles on the basketball court. In their quest for championship trophies, the citizens of Big Blue Nation get especially antsy when their heralded five-star recruits don’t make the anticipated impacts required for projected deep runs in the NCAA tournament.

And yet, you can’t really blame fans for their impatience. After all, the Wildcats have been waiting for what seems like an eternity for that much-awaited deep run. Over a decade for that national championship, a seven-year-drought since their last Final Four, and over 1,400 days and counting since they last won a postseason tournament game. That’s certainly not acceptable for the program claiming to have the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball. It’s definitely not in line with the self-professed John Calipari “gold standard.”

Kentucky’s Hall of Fame head basketball coach has been stressing patience since the beginning of time. We’ve all heard his cautionary tales of how his one-and-done players aren’t necessarily one-and-done but rather on their own individual timeframes and pathways to success. For most of his troops, success means NBA glory and riches. For them to get there, Calipari stresses the need to “trust the process.”

Freshman Chris Livingston seems to have fully bought into the process. In Kentucky’s 66 – 54 upset win over Tennessee on Saturday, the 6-foot-6 forward from Akron, Ohio, scored 12 points and pulled down a season-high 10 rebounds—his first career double-double.

That timely showing by Livingston followed another beast-mode performance in the team’s prior 71 – 68 road victory over Mississippi State. Two breakout appearances in a row from the McDonald’s All-American—who earlier in the season struggled to simply dribble and drive—provided just the necessary salve for a Wildcat season teetering on the brink.

Within two games, the Wildcats went from outside the NCAA tournament bubble to squarely in the hunt for one of the top seeds in the SEC tournament. During that time, they’ve stacked up three more quadrant one wins with an excellent chance of accruing two or three more before the regular season comes to a close. All because of the process.

“I was just waiting my turn,” Livingston emphasized, when asked about the reason for the dramatic change in his game. “I just stayed with the process and trusted the process and look where we are now…I’m really cool with the journey I’ve been on and the journey I’ve been a part of under the coaching, under this team.”

What exactly is the process?

If it’s the pathway of someone like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who went from a four-star high school recruit to a first-round NBA draft choice within a matter of months, then bottle up that secret sauce and make a fortune spreading that recipe around.

If the process involves taking an extra year—like it did with P.J. Washington or Immanuel Quickley—than so be it. Players and fans alike should willingly take those situations as massive win-wins for everybody involved.

Even a three-year college player like Nick Richards eventually thanked the process for helping him achieve his life-long dream of playing in the Big Boy League.

As for five-star recruits like Kahlil Whitney who left the program after only half a season, or Skal Labissiere—who never got untracked from day one—or players like Quade Green, Charles Matthews, or Sacha Killeya-Jones who transferred out and are now saddled with the rigors of the NBA G League…well, I guess they didn’t quite trust the process.

Or maybe they weren’t patient enough. Alex Poythress certainly was. He trusted the process, tore his knee up, and bummed around the fringes of the NBA before winding up playing overseas. That’s not a horrible career, mind you. It’s just not what he envisioned when he inked with the Wildcats.

Let’s be honest. Everybody signing on with Kentucky is used to being coddled in some form or fashion. They listen to their friends, their family, and whoever else serves as their handlers who think they’re not getting enough court time or aren’t being utilized as their talents warrant. They all feel like they’re somehow too vital or special to wait for the process to take hold.

The reality, however, is that there’s a maturational element associated with the process that you simply can’t rush. It involves leveraging the system—the coaching, the training facilities, and the huge platform and support services of the University of Kentucky basketball machine—to your personal advantage. It involves developing your game through day-to-day practices with other elite talent while learning valuable interpersonal and communication skills along the way. Having top-level national media exposure at your every beck and call obviously doesn’t hurt the process either.

Most importantly, trusting the process involves trusting John Calipari. He’s the coach. He determines the practice drills, the playing time, and the various schemes he wants to run. The players’ individual success depends totally on them buying into the process—HIS process.

In that regard, you can’t fault the process at all. The litany of Calipari players in the NBA speaks for itself.

Unfortunately for Kentucky fans, that impressive achievement hasn’t resulted in a smidgeon of program satisfaction on the basketball court as of late. In fact, it’s worked itself in the opposite direction. The Wildcat faithful have become alarmingly disgruntled over the on-court foibles of these past few seasons as the list of Wildcats in the NBA continues to grow. By all accounts, it’s fair to say they’ve displayed patience by the boatload.

I’m happy for Chris Livingston’s breakout success this year. I’m looking forward to similar trajectories for the players from the five-star recruiting bonanza coming in 2023 – 24.

But I’m also deathly tired of waiting for that elusive championship number nine. There are two more weeks left in this regular season, three more weeks until Selection Sunday, and six more weeks until Final Four weekend in Houston. I’m convinced that Calipari’s process speaks absolute truth for the players-first coach he claims to be. I just hope and pray the process finally results in some upcoming postseason wins.

Lord knows, we’ve waited long enough.

This blog posting was originally submitted as a UK Basketball Column for Nolan Group Media publications.

Ranking the Road Venues

Ranking the Road Venues

The trip to Ole Miss was a bit disappointing, but it did finally complete my entire circuit of SEC Road Venues.

(Oxford, Ms.) – As a die-hard Kentucky Basketball fan, there’s not a better feeling in all the world than heading into the heart of enemy territory and snatching out a hard-earned victory. After all, when the Wildcats are on the road, it’s everybody’s Super Bowl—and there’s nothing more euphoric than spoiling an opponent’s weekend celebration.

When I started this media gig, one of my goals was to visit all the opposing SEC venues in both football and basketball. I’m still missing two football stadiums, but I’m happy to report that after my recent trip to Oxford, Mississippi, I have now officially completed the entire basketball circuit.

To celebrate, I thought I’d rank each of these venues according to the atmosphere around and within the arena on gameday. Now, this is my experience only. Yours may vastly differ. But it’s also important to note that I visited each of these places when Kentucky came to town, so you can bet your bottom dollar that the arenas were at their very loudest and rowdiest.

Coincidentally, it didn’t matter whether the Wildcats were nationally ranked or not, there always seemed to be a white-out, stripe-out, t-shirt giveaway, celebrity sighting, jersey retirement, or mascot rappelling out of the rafters adding to the chaos and frenzy of the afternoon or evening.

Let’s dive in, then, in reverse order—from least to most intimidating.


One of the most familiar trips for Cat fans to make is the quick jaunt to Nashville. The road to Music City now also ranks as the least intimidating. Don’t get me wrong, historic Memorial Gymnasium (capacity 14,316) can still get loud, but the magic of yesteryear is greatly overrated. The place is dated and worn, and the weird seating configuration—where the best seats (and the benches) are in the endzone—makes you feel like you’re watching an opera rather than a basketball game. Students still filed in early loaded for bear, but by the time the contest tipped off, half the seats were filled with blue. You’ll often hear more “Go Big Blue” chants in Nashville than you would in Rupp Arena.


Other than the “M-I-Z—Z-O-U” chants, nothing really stands out about Mizzou Arena (15,061). It’s surprisingly spacious, but the layout looks and feels like you’re playing in a converted airplane hangar. Everything screams “lukewarm” in the “Show-Me” state, including the fans. Trust me, there’s not much going on outside the stadium in the town of Columbia, either—making my sojourn here a likely one-and-done.

Ole Miss

Okay, it’s not really fair basing your ranking on a visit during an ice storm. Unfortunately, that’s what happened to me. The Pavilion at Ole Miss seats 9,500, but on my cold and frigid visit, it was only about a quarter full. The sleek, modern, state-or-the-art facility was still loud, however, so you’ll have to use your imagination on how crazy it might be on a normal Saturday night. Keep in mind that the town of Oxford is a gem of a place to visit. If Kentucky stinks it up, there’s still plenty of charm to make you smile.

Mississippi State

Reports of Starkville, Mississippi, being totally isolated and boring are greatly exaggerated. In my humble opinion, StarkVegas is only partially isolated and boring. That makes a game at Humphrey Coliseum (10,575) a fairly significant night on the town. Accordingly, the “Hump” can get pretty raucous, and victories against the Bulldogs are hard to come by if you fall behind early. I happened to visit during the Covid year, so I’m basing this ranking partially on what I’ve previously gleaned on television over the years.


Stegeman Coliseum (10,523) could be formidable when Georgia was competitive. The problem for Bulldog fans is that their basketball team seldom was. It’s a football school, and the enthusiasm for basketball dies down as soon as the home team goes down double digits—which happened quickly and frequently during the Tom Crean era. Do yourself a favor and spend your time at the bars and restaurants around campus instead. As bad as their basketball is, Athens, Georgia, might just be the best college town in America.


If you love Cajun food, then a trip to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has to be on your bucket list. Go during Mardi Gras, and you’ll certainly get more than your money’s worth. Show up at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center (13,215) for a game versus the Tigers, however, and you’ll most likely be disappointed. It’s fairly easy to steal a victory here as most fans in attendance are too drunk to care. They’re mostly still thinking about past pigskin parties. Walk a few feet next door to Tiger Stadium and see where the real sport is played.

Texas A&M

It’s a haul to get from Lexington to College Station, so your trip to Texas A&M’s Reed Arena (12,989) better include some tourist sites along the way. The George H.W. Bush Presidential Library is right on campus and is well worth a visit. As far as the game environment is concerned, it’s predictably rowdy—especially with those Aggie Yell Leaders leading the charge. They’re a bit too weird for my liking, but they’ll boost the crowd to a fever pitch in no time at all.


Tuscaloosa is another venue where football rules the roost. But Coleman Coliseum (14,474) always seems stoked when the Wildcats come to town. It’s partially the size and the layout that makes it challenging to win. But Alabama always has the athletes to run with Kentucky. Their style of play gets the crowd into the game early. Fall behind here, and the mob mentality rules. Blowouts are as common as barbecue brisket and “Roll Tide” cheers.


The Exactech Arena at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center (10,500) underwent a renovation back in 2016, so it’s not quite as harrowing as it was before. The Rowdy Reptiles are still there cheering their team on in force, but they’re no longer spilling out on to the court as before. The place is also open enough for the noise levels to dissipate. As Florida’s competitiveness has ratcheted down recently, so has the O’dome reputation for carnage.

South Carolina

Of all the visiting venues, this one was the darkest. And I don’t mean the lighting. Colonial Life Arena (18,000) reeked of evil the minute I stepped inside. Fans were loud, proud, and downright MEAN. Throw in Sandstorm and a heavy dose of Gamecock Jesus, and you’re in need of an exorcism when all is said and done. If Calipari’s getting ejected, you know it’s happening right here in Columbia. Be sure to take a shower before you leave town.


Thompson-Boling Arena (21,678) is certainly big enough. In fact, the only reason it seats what it does is because they wanted it to be bigger than Rupp Arena. Unfortunately, the only time the Vols can consistently fill it up is when the Women’s basketball team plays here…and, of course, when Kentucky comes to town. I’ll admit, when the Wildcats come a calling, it can easily turn into a madhouse. Some blue always manages to get in, but that Rocky Top orange will dominate more times than not. Escape with a win, and you’ve earned your checkerboard.


A visit to Bud Walton Arena (19,368) is certainly a bucket list item. When the Wildcats are in town, it’s predictably loud, boisterous, and intimidating. Moreover, Arkansas fans have the championship pedigree to hang with Kentucky. They also boast of the best cheer in the SEC. “Calling the Hogs” always brings me goosebumps. And for that reason alone, Fayetteville, Arkansas, becomes a very difficult place to win.


Cozy and compact, Neville Arena (9,121) is as intimidating as it gets for Kentucky fans courageous enough to make the trip. It’s almost as if the place was built for one purpose only—for Auburn to beat the Wildcats. Charles Barkley cried when Kentucky beat him in the 1984 SEC tournament, and his statue out front screams “overcompensation.” The acoustics are A+ here, the decibel levels somehow ratcheted up to insane, ear-splitting levels. With Bruce Pearl sweating on the sidelines and the student body ringing the floor, the Loveliest Village on the Plains is the smallest—but also the toughest—place in the conference to get that road “W.”

But maybe not for long. Conference expansion is fast approaching. I wonder where Austin, Texas, and Norman, Oklahoma, will rank when they enter the conference? I can’t wait to make the trip and find out.

Dr. John Huang is a retired orthodontist, military veteran, and award-winning author. This blog posting was originally submitted as a UK Basketball Column for Nolan Group Media publications. If you enjoy his writing, you can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

Oh, So Close!

Oh, So Close!

My trip to the AFC Championship game at Burrowhead Stadium didn’t end like I anticipated.

(KANSAS CITY, Mo) – Super Bowl appearances are elusive but not impossible. Like a blind squirrel finding that elusive hidden nut, anybody can get lucky and stumble upon one of them. It’s when you bag two that you know you’ve really made it big.

Cincinnati fell just short of making it to two Super Bowls in a row, falling to Kansas City 23 – 20 in a tense AFC championship contest played out before a packed house at Arrowhead Stadium.

“It aches, trust me,” head coach Zac Taylor said when asked about the loss. “To be this close. Our goal is to win the Super Bowl. To be seconds away from getting back there, and watching [the Chiefs] celebrate, it’s horrible. This team has invested so much in each other to get to this point.”

Ten wins in a row to finish out the year, three straight wins over the Chiefs, and that beatdown last week against the Buffalo Bills had everybody in the Queen City dreaming of an upcoming trip to the Arizona desert. Unfortunately, when expectations rise as such, it hurts that much more when you ultimately fall short.

Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow felt the pain immediately afterwards.

“Tough loss,” said Joey Franchise in a packed visitors media room the size of a broom closet. “We didn’t make the plays we needed to win this game. And they did down the stretch. That’s what it came down to.”

With the score tied at 20 and 2:30 left on the clock, Cincinnati forced a Kansas City punt and had the ball on their own six-yard line. These are the situations that Super Bowl dreams are made of. Surely Burrow would drive the Bengals down the field for the game-winning score—just as the clock runs out, right?

Wrong! After moving his team out to their own 35-yard line, Burrow was sacked, and the Bengals had to punt with thirty seconds remaining.

On their ensuing possession, with just 17 seconds left, the Chiefs Patrick Mahomes ran out of bounds after a five yard gain. Bengals defensive lineman Joseph Ossai clearly hit Mahomes late, resulting in a 15-yard penalty putting the ball on the Bengals 27-yard line. That set up Harrison Butker’s 45-yard game-winning field goal try. The ball cleared the uprights, and suddenly Cincinnati’s Super Bowl dreams abruptly ended on the confetti-laced turf of Burrowhead Stadium.

“It didn’t come down to that,” said Taylor, regarding Ossai’s penalty and it’s effect on the game’s outcome. “There’s a lot of other plays that we just missed out on.”

Yes, it’s true. Missing out on back-to-back Super Bowl appearances really does hurt. Here, however, is the irony in that statement. During this entire magical two-year run, no one really thought the Bengals were any good. Everyone regarded last year’s Super Bowl appearance as a lucky outlier. The talking media heads said that Zac Taylor was a flash in the pan who got lucky when his team got hot at the end of last year. When Cincinnati started out 0 – 2 to begin this season, the skeptics were quick to say, “I told you so.”

Then the offensive line began to gel, the defense started playing lights out, and Joe Burrow became the meteoric rising star that no one dared to bet against. The Bengals became damn good in the process. Everyone—me included—picked them to go all the way. I even purchased airline tickets (refundable ones, thankfully) to Phoenix.

Were our expectations realistic? I’m still not sure. Past history is difficult to shake. It’s hard trading three decades of playoff futility for a couple of magical seasons of success.

Perhaps Zac Taylor said it best when asked about the future of the franchise.

“It’s a special organization,” said the man steering the ship. “It’s special people leading it, [it’s a] special group of coaches, [and a] special group of players. We love representing our city and our fan base. It’s just time to get back to work.”

Those are certainly nice words. But in life and in football, actions speak louder than words. I watched Zac Taylor in the locker room afterwards greeting, consoling, congratulating, hugging, and shaking the hand of every one of his players.

The guy has shown he can coach ‘em up on the field. He’s also shown that he’s got a lot of character and class. That’s a great combination moving forward.

See you next year. WhoDey!

This blog posting was originally submitted as a Cincinnati Bengals Column for Sports View America publications.

Rockin’ Like Old Times

Rockin’ Like Old Times

BBN tried their best to will the Wildcats to victory (Dr. Michael Huang Photo).

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – My dear Rupp Arena. Oh, how I’ve missed you.

It was just like old times on Saturday night as the two winningest programs in college basketball battled for supremacy in front of a packed house in downtown Lexington.

For the record, No. 9-ranked Kansas (17 – 4) defeated Kentucky (14 – 7) by a score of 77 – 68, ending the Wildcats’ four-game win streak and sending the 20,418 rabid and raucous fans home in funk.

“Unbelievable crowd,” said Coach John Calipari immediately afterwards. “Unbelievable. [The] students were there, and you want to reward them as a coach and as a team. You want to do that. But we never stopped playing. We fought the whole time, and we got a lot of games left. This is a marathon. We’ve got games and we’ve just got to keep getting better.”

You couldn’t blame the crowd for this one. They came ready to rumble, arriving early, and maintaining a full-throated roar for most of the tense forty-minute contest.

Every once in a while, Rupp Arena takes on a life of its own and simply wills the home team to victory. Think back to Kentucky’s upset win over #2-ranked LSU in 1981. Or the Unforgettables over Shaq in 1990. Or even John Wall’s first-game heroics in that comeback victory over Miami (OH) in 2009. Unfortunately, the outcome was disappointing in this one. But one thing remained certain:  It was LOUD in the building again!

The eRUPPtion Zone was LOUD tonight.But these are college-age students on a Saturday night. They’re overflowing with energy, testosterone, and alcohol. You expect them to be loud.

But the fans in the upper level were LOUD also.That’s not that surprising, either. These have always been the folks who come early and stay late. For the first time in forever, endzone sections 240 and 241 were packed to the rafters.

Even my media colleagues in the press box were LOUD! Okay, you can’t outwardly cheer, but I heard plenty of “oohs, aahs, and holy sh*ts” after Jacob Toppin threw down that running, two-handed slam.

What was really pleasantly surprising to me, however, were the blue-haired big donors sitting down low screaming their guts out. Forget about the walkers, canes, and hearing aids for now—this big blue geriatric set came loaded for bear. Don’t get me wrong, I like old people (I am one). UK also needs rich people. But in order for Rupp to keep rocking like it did, these old, rich geezers must shell out and show up every single game.

I know that’s asking a lot. It’s not their fault they’ve been fed a bland diet of no-name directional schools for the first two full months of the season. In fact, it’s downright criminal that we all had to wait until the end of January to experience Rupp Arena as it was meant to be.

But be forewarned—the remaining portion of the home schedule has some big-time opponents that should generate the same type of rabid atmosphere as when the Jayhawks came to town. I’m talking Florida, Arkansas, Tennessee, Auburn, and Vanderbilt—all five remaining home games that Kentucky now needs desperately to win. It’s up to the Rupp Arena faithful to see them through.

“I just want to say ‘thank you’ to all our fans,” said Oscar Tshiebwe, who led the team with 18 points and 9 rebounds. “Today was a tough one. It was a big boy fight. We just came in, and we were fighting. They came out from losing three games in a row, and just came in to win this game. For us too, we were fighting. But it was a tough one for us. So, I just want to say ‘thank you’ to our friends, and we’re going to keep fighting.”

Nope, you can’t blame Rupp Arena for this one.

Blame Kansas forward Jalen Wilson (22 points, 8 rebounds), instead. The guy’s good. NBA good. Every time Kansas needed a bucket, the guy delivered.

Or maybe blame Kentucky’s inability to defend the pick and roll. How many times did Kansas get uncontested dunks at the basket? I counted at least four. The Wildcats’ perimeter defense also gave up three soul-crushing three-pointers down the stretch, effectively ending the game.

Or perhaps blame Kentucky’s inability to crash the offensive boards. It was downright puzzling how the nation’s best offensive rebounding team didn’t get a single offensive rebound in the first half and ended the night with zero second-chance points.

Or blame Coach Cal for not playing the so-called “Basketball Benny” lineup the entire first half. And yet, the combination of Oscar, Toppin, CJ Fredrick, Antonio Reeves, and Cason Wallace were on the floor—and effective—for the majority of the second.

In other words, there was plenty of blame to go around. Just don’t blame the fans. Rupp was rocking—just like it used to be. Just like it needs to be. Just the way it always should be from here on in.

This blog posting was originally submitted as a UK Basketball Column for Nolan Group Media publications.

Shake, Rattle, and Die

Shake, Rattle, and Die

It was bound to happen.

My first earthquake experience in southern California occurred yesterday in the wee morning hours. Two o’clock in the morning to be exact, as I was snuggly tucked in my own comfortable bed, dreaming peacefully of warm sunshine, palm trees, and languid sunset strolls on the sand.

As many of you know, I’ve spent a lot of time on those Santa Monica beaches these past two years. Odds were growing that The Big One would eventually hit during one of my periodic visits. I fully understood the risks, but I still always dreaded the exact moment when nature would finally snuff me out.

Fortunately for me, this wasn’t The Big One. In fact, this one barely rated a mention on the LA morning news. The rattling only registered 4.2 on the Richter scale with a couple of milder aftershocks thrown in for good measure. The epicenter, however, was disturbingly close to my location—just a scant 16 kilometers south of Malibu Beach.

As close as it was to my neighborhood, there were fortunately no injuries with this quake, no reports of significant damage, no breakout fires, and no resulting tsunami warnings.

For comparison sake, the 1994 Northridge Earthquake registered a magnitude of 6.7, killed 72 people and caused more than $20 billion in damage. If that weren’t scary enough, the strongest quake ever recorded in California history occurred on January 9, 1857, around Fort Tejon, just north of Los Angeles. That one measured 7.9 on the Richter scale and ruptured about 225 miles of real estate along the infamous San Andreas Fault.

Still, my own “minor” earthquake experience left me a bit skittish and unsettled. We’re all familiar with being jolted out of a sound slumber in the middle of the night. You know the feeling. It’s pitch black. You’re disoriented, and your brain refuses to function properly—as if stuck in limbo between the primal stages of semi consciousness and partial cognizance.

Initially, I had absolutely no idea what was going on. To be honest, I thought my dog, Bingo, was running zoomies underneath my bedframe. When it dawned on me that Bingo was still thousands of miles back in Kentucky, that was when I knew something bad was up.

By now, I’m finally thinking “EARTHQUAKE”! My initial reaction was to get out of bed and run outside. You see, I’m on the bottom floor of a five-story condo. The last thing I wanted was to be pancaked by the floors above and buried in the ensuing rubble. I’d gladly take my chances with flying debris and burning gas lines as I made my heroic escape.

(By the way, I’ve since learned that the experts strongly advise against making these types of instinctive moves. You’re much more likely to be killed or severely injured by a dislodged potted plant or errant wine bottle to the head. It’s best to stay put, to take cover under sturdy furniture, and find creative ways to protect your vital organs.)

Before I could scramble toward my front door exit, however, the shaking suddenly dissipated. Twenty seconds later, it was all quiet on the western front. My adrenaline was still pumping, though. Try as I might, there would be no sleep for me the rest of the night. I had somehow cheated death and felt obligated to tell all about how I miraculously escaped the clutches of the Grim Reaper.

Okay, I’ll admit I’m embellishing a bit. I never thought I would actually croak, nor did anybody I talked to the next morning. In fact, most of the patrons at the morning Farmer’s Market weren’t fazed in the least by the overnight rumblings. They’d gotten used to these occasional disruptions of their rhythmic lifestyles. They’d all become fatalistic, foreboding, and furtive in how they lived their lives.

I’m hoping I don’t ever become like them. As I’ve gotten a bit older, I find myself thinking a lot more about death. Not in a morbid way, mind you. But rather in the context of savoring life’s blessings. I’m telling you, life is short. Every part of it is worth savoring in some manner or other.

The reality is that we can’t cheat death. We’re all eventually going to die from something. Either cancer or a bad heart is going to get us. Or perhaps we’ll meet a grisly demise in an auto accident, airplane crash, or a steamy crime of passion. Maybe an earthquake or some sort of natural disaster will eventually spell our doom.

The truth is, we don’t know how we’ll eventually go, so you better live it up while you can. There’s nothing like a near-death experience—perceived or real—to help us appreciate our blessed and charmed lives here on earth. Regardless of circumstances, I want to encourage each and every one of you to savor the moment, to smell the flowers, and to cherish the moments together with friends and family.

Don’t put off to tomorrow what you can do today. Go ahead—travel the world if you’re so inclined. Order the lobster. Dance like no one cares (which—by the way—they don’t).

Live with no regrets. After all, you never know when THE BIG ONE might hit.

Dr. John Huang is a retired orthodontist, military veteran, and award-winning author. He currently serves as a freelance sports journalist covering the Kentucky Wildcats and Cincinnati Bengals. You can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

Don’t let Kentucky Basketball Steal your Joy

Don’t let Kentucky Basketball Steal your Joy

“When times are good, be happy: but when times are bad, consider this: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, no one can discover anything about their future.”—King Solomon. (Dr. Michael Huang Photo)

My love affair with Kentucky Basketball began when our family moved to Lexington in the late 1960s. I was only eight years old at the time but was immediately smitten by Adolph Rupp and his four national championships. Every kid growing up in Lexington at the time wanted to be Dan Issel, and I was certainly no different.

For the next fifty years, Kentucky Basketball remained at the top of my priority list. If the Cats were playing, I was tuned in. Even while stationed overseas, I somehow managed to catch Cawood Ledford and his legendary broadcasts on the Armed Forces Radio Network. My oh my, how I looked forward to those biweekly issues of The Cats’ Pause delivered directly (albeit two weeks later) to my front door.

Like many of you, I discovered that my daily mood swings were tied in to how the Wildcats were doing. Tough losses (Dream game to Louisville, Middle Tennessee State, Georgetown, Laettner, Wisconsin) drove me to the depths of despair. But when Kentucky won big (1978, 1996, 1998, 2012), all was right with my soul.

Two years ago, the program with the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball slogged through their worst season ever with a 9 – 16 record. They followed that up last year with their worst loss in program history to Saint Peter’s in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Suddenly, a once proud fan base used to national championships and Final Fours found themselves without a tournament victory in nearly four years. That’s unfathomable.

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, however, the freefall into obscurity continued this year.  In case you hadn’t heard, Kentucky lost at Alabama by 26 points this past Saturday. Then just last night, South Carolina—a 19.5-point underdog and one of the worst teams in the SEC—upset the Wildcats in Rupp Arena.

Take a quick peek on social media, and you can see the fans are past restless. They’ve got their pitchforks and torches out. Coach John Calipari appears clueless, and there’s no place for him to hide. Players calling out other players, rumors of locker room dissension, fans holding critical signs in Rupp or shouting at Calipari in his postgame radio show—it’s all falling apart right before our eyes.

In other words, it’s ugly. It’s like the Titanic, and fans are jumping ship left and right.

I think that’s what hurts most of all. Talk to anyone over thirty-five, and they’ll tell you Kentucky Basketball just isn’t what it once was. The passion is missing. Kentucky fans used to be invested in their team and the program. There was a deep pleasure and satisfaction derived from having your identity tied in with what you knew was the greatest program on the face of the earth. Sadly, that ownership, kinship, and brotherhood seems to have flown the coop.

Let’s be honest. Kentucky is a small state. Other than bourbon, horses, and fried chicken, there’s not a whole lot about the Bluegrass State that citizens of the commonwealth can brag about. For many, life is a grind. The one thing we do know, however, is that we are good at basketball.

When Kentucky Basketball is relevant and competing for championships, life’s hardships just don’t seem to hurt quite as much anymore. Regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or political viewpoints, Kentucky fans have that common bond—an inherent passion to somehow will their team to victory and to let the rest of the basketball world know how much they care.

That bond is slipping away, and that makes me unbearably sad.

So, what do I do now as my beloved Wildcats seem poised on the brink of a massive meltdown? Do I stay perpetually pissed off? Pop another Xanax? Follow another team? Tune out all together?

HELL NO! If the Titanic’s going down, I’ve decided I’m going to be one of the last ones off. Regardless of blowouts, blunders, or boycotts, I’ll stay tuned in—silently cheering from my seat in the peanut gallery on press row. Kentucky Basketball has brought me boatloads of precious memories over the years. It’s taken me on so many fabulous road trips. I’ve gotten to meet wonderful Wildcat fans from all over the world.  I’M NOT LETTING THE CURRENT STATE OF KENTUCKY BASKETBALL STEAL MY JOY—and neither should you!

Look, Kentucky fans are knowledgeable, dedicated, and loyal to a fault—or at least they used to be. Say anything remotely negative about the team—and be prepared to face the wrath of an angry BBN. Remember when disaster hit the program in the Billy Gillispie years? Kentucky fans were hurt and embarrassed. But they somehow circled the wagons, went into protective mode, and came back more passionate than ever.

This program isn’t about John Calipari. It’s far bigger than any one coach or player. When you cut to the core, it’s really more about us—the intensity and passion of die-hard fans willing to follow their team through thick and thin. The Big Blue Nation is what makes Kentucky Basketball so special. Lose the fans, and you’re left with nothing.

I doubt if King Soloman was a Kentucky fan, but I’m told he was a pretty smart guy. You’d be wise to heed his advice during this firestorm of a season. Despite the impending train wreck and dumpster fire, Kentucky fans need to stand firm. Don’t worry, be happy, and just stay passionate while watching or attending the games. The reward comes as part of the journey. You never know what changes the future will bring.

This blog posting was originally submitted as a UK Basketball Column for Nolan Group Media publications.