Maci, Maci, Maci!

Maci, Maci, Maci!

Kentucky’s 72-57 loss to NC State in the 2019 NCAA Tournament Round of 32 signaled the end of another hard-fought basketball campaign. It’s always sad to see the season end. It’s even sadder to see the conclusion of another great college basketball career. Maci Morris will go down in Kentucky Women’s Basketball history as one of the most popular players to ever wear the Blue and White. It was an honor and a privilege to cover her exploits on the court these past few years.

Back in 2017, I wrote my very first feature article for Nolan Group Media. I couldn’t have asked for a better subject. Thanks Maci, for helping me out. And thanks also, from a grateful Big Blue Nation, for all the wonderful memories. Can’t wait to share in all your future successes.

Maci, Maci, Maci! —By Dr. John Huang

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – Like a vigilant sentinel standing guard over the county line, the roadside highway sign off US 25E in Southeastern Kentucky proudly proclaims “Bell County, Home of Macy Morris, Miss KY Basketball 2015.” Although her name is misspelled, the sentiment remains unmistakable. As a key player for the University of Kentucky Wildcats Women’s Basketball team, the hometown hoops heroine from Pineville carries with her the hopes, the dreams, and the pride of her tight-knit mountain community.

I caught up with Maci shortly after Kentucky’s big road win at Auburn, where she knocked down some huge shots, scored a big game clinching basket, and tallied a career high 9 rebounds. Although we had never met formally, she was gracious enough to speak openly with me about a variety of extended topics. As you might expect, I didn’t encounter the iciness of a cold-blooded 3-point assassin, but rather was overwhelmed by the genuine warmth and affection of someone speaking so fondly from the heart about her family and friends back home.

“Shout outs to all my friends and family and supporters,” Maci said.  “I appreciate you guys more than you know and just thank you for always lifting me up and supporting me throughout my high school and college career. I love everybody back home. Everyone always treated me great.”

The 6’0 All-State guard from Bell County achieved her rise to stardom through both family genetics and a strong individual work ethic. Maci (who was named after UK great Kyle Macy and wears his uniform number 4) explained to me, “I was basically born into basketball. When I was born, my dad was coaching at Hazard, so I was always around the gym. My parents were both athletes. My dad played basketball and baseball and went to college for that. And my mom went to play college basketball as well.” Not only were both her parents star athletes, many other members of her extended family were also heavily into sports. “Both my uncles went to college for baseball and my Papaw and his brother went to college as well for baseball,” Maci added. “My dad’s sister, she went to college for basketball. So, it’s just like a real big athletic family. I have a lot of cousins who went to college for sports as well.”

With athletic ability running rampant in the family, Maci naturally gravitated to sports. As a little girl, she loved being a baseball pitcher. But boys usually played baseball while girls played softball and the thought of pitching underhanded just didn’t appeal to her. Although she ran a little bit of track in high school, everyone knew that basketball would eventually be her calling.

Maci’s high school career was chocked full of accomplishments and accolades. I know—I looked it up and she was great, averaging over 25 points and nearly 8 rebounds while leading her team to a 29-3 record her senior season. “I say all the time how I miss how fun high school ball was,” Maci reminisced. “My best friends were on my basketball team so getting to play with them all the time was great. My senior year was a blast because we went to State and that was the first time a team from Bell County had ever gone to State and won their region. I just really enjoyed it and tried to give it my all my senior year because I knew that coming to college, basketball was going to be a whole different story.”

The awards banquet for her Miss Kentucky Basketball honor provided for a few awkward moments when Coach Joe B. Hall kept referring to her as “Marci” during the presentation ceremonies. When I asked her why in the world she didn’t correct him, Maci gave the perfect answer. “Joe B. Hall is a legend,” she said. “So, I just let him keep going. Everybody thought it was so funny. I had a lot of friends who were there and to this day, they joke around with me and even now call me ‘Marci.’ We all get a big kick out of it.”

When it came time to choose a college, the decision came rather naturally. “When you’re born in Kentucky, you’re basically either a Kentucky or Louisville fan and I was brought up to be a Kentucky fan,” Maci proclaimed proudly. “Coach Mitchell was the main coach who recruited me, so I got to build a relationship with him. I always came up to games because I lived just two and a half hours from here.”

As expected, Maci contributed immediately to the Wildcats in her first college season.  As a freshman, she started all 33 games, averaged eight-and-a-half points per game, and was named to the SEC All-Freshman team. Although success appeared to come easily, there was a lot of hard work behind all the spot-up jumpers and three-point swishes. “I worked hard last year,” she pointed out to me. “My dad told me, ’this is going to be a whole different ballgame. You’re going to get out there and you’re going to have to work as hard as you can. You’ve got to be the hardest worker on the floor.’ I just tried to do that. One of my coaches from last year, he really helped out with that. He would talk to me and just push me to be my best every day.” That hard work paid off as Maci and her teammates experienced the thrill of home crowds as the Wildcats advanced through the Lexington Regional in post-season play.

The speed and pace of the college game is usually the biggest difference for players making the adjustment from high school, and things were no different that first year—even for a talented Miss Kentucky Basketball. “At first it was just like a big difference because I was just so weakly prepared to play on the defensive end” Maci admitted. “The coaches have done a terrific job preparing me and helping me build on my footwork and my speed. Also, our strength and conditioning coach worked with me and the team a lot this summer on our quickness. That’s helped me a lot and having a year underneath me gave me more confidence just being able to know what to expect.”

The diminutive sophomore, who her teammates playfully call “string bean,” also knows that she needs to get stronger. “I have to be more aggressive when I go down low because I’m not as strong as Evelyn (Akhator) and (Makayla) Epps so I have to be more physical and aggressive and play maybe a little bit dirtier,” she jokingly added.

Just like with other normal students, simple adjustments to everyday college life could easily become daunting endeavors for Maci. For student-athletes especially, these adjustments become even more magnified. Class schedules and practice demands frequently turn ordinary daily tasks into creative challenges. “A big thing for me when I was back home was that my mom or my dad always fixed food for me,” Maci expounded. “So here it’s a little different because I live in a dorm. We have a kitchen in our dorm but it’s hard to go out and buy food because of our schedule and to be able to store it in our room. We don’t have a large refrigerator. We just have a mini-fridge. And just eating habits were different and just being able to handle our own time (was difficult).”

Maci claims that becoming better organized is one of her immediate goals. With all her travel to away games, practice schedules, and tutoring sessions, she works hard to better manage her time. She playfully recounted the story of the time she walked all the way across campus to get in her car only to realize that she had forgotten the keys. “Yeah, my cousin came up and we were going to the football game and I have to park my car at like a side street where one of my friends live. So we had to walk all the way and I got over there, and I couldn’t find my keys and I was like ‘Oh my gosh.’ He had already forgotten his jacket, so we had to like go up to our room and like walk all the way back to the car. And once I forgot my keys, we had to walk all the way back to the dorm again, get the keys and get back to my car.”

The summer after her freshman year was fraught with potential turmoil as Maci witnessed half of her former teammates transfer to other schools for a variety of different reasons. Maci and her remaining teammates persevered, strengthening their resolve and commitment to each other in the process. As her sophomore season began, the team got off to an inconsistent start and struggled to develop the confidence and unit cohesion needed for success. After a heartbreaking loss to Arizona State in Rupp Arena, in which she scored a career-high 29 points, Maci appeared on the post-game interview podium with the biggest frowny face you could imagine. When I asked Maci why she was so inconsolable after such a great individual performance, she responded as the consummate team player she is. “I could care less about how much I score,” she said. “As long as my team wins, that’s really all that matters. People were bringing up that I had a great game, but it obviously wasn’t good enough because we lost. Like I said, I’d rather win than score.”

You can obviously tell that being a team player comes naturally to Maci. I’ve noticed how she always speaks so deferentially and respectfully to seniors Epps and Akhator. She and fellow sophomore guard Taylor Murray also have become great friends off the court. Those types of genuine player relationships can’t help but lead to improved team chemistry and future success.

Midway through the conference season, the team seems to have found its groove. When I asked Maci for her thoughts regarding the abrupt turnaround, she said, “I think our loss at Texas A&M just woke us up a little bit. We had to start having fun again. We kind of lost just enjoying the game. After the loss to Texas A&M, we had a talk before practice and we all got together and just told each other we had to play for each other. We have to go out there and give it everything we had and just have fun with it. So, in practice we just worked so hard and just went hard every rep and just put everything there out on the line and it carried over to the next game and then the next game after that, so it just really worked out for us.”

As our session wound down, I decided I’d broach a topic with Maci that other athletes don’t necessarily feel comfortable discussing. Not only was she comfortable discussing her faith, but she appeared more than willing to share her thoughts. “God just gives me this sense of peace,” she said pensively. “I’ve been working on my relationship with Him a lot—especially this year. My New Year’s resolution was to read my Bible every day and to spend time with Him. Already I can see a change within myself–how I treat others and how I look at my day with more positivity. Even when things aren’t going my way, I always look to Him. I trust in Him because I know he’s going to take care of it.” After a momentary pause, she added, “He just always gives me peace.”

If you check out her Twitter page @Maci4Mo, you’ll find Philippians 4:13 as part of the heading. “I can do all things through Christ, who gives me strength.” It’s amazing how someone so young and gifted in her craft could already have developed such a surprisingly mature and joyful spiritual attitude.

As she departed for her tutoring session, I gave Maci a chance to show off another one of her many off the court talents. During a previous post-game interview session, Maci had jokingly hinted to reporters that she was one of the better singers on the team. When I gave her a chance today to demonstrate her vocal prowess, she politely declined. “I’m good,” she said. And that was the end of that.

Instead, she did throw me a final bone by revealing something Big Blue Nation has been dying to know. What goes into the game time decision regarding her hair? How does she determine when to stick with the head band or when to break out those stylish braids? Well it turns out that just like in many other areas of her life, she’s wisely just following her mom’s sage advice. “My mom actually got on to me and that’s why I wore the braids the other day in our last game because she was like ‘you keep fooling with your hair. You need to braid it, so you quit fooling with it in the games. You don’t realize it but that’s all you do is play with your hair.’ So I said ‘OK, I’ll braid it.’”

As I walked back to my car with keys in hand, I realized that there’s not much about Maci Morris for anyone to dislike. She’s a small-town Kentucky athlete pursuing her love of sport at the state university. She’s surrounded by a gaggle of loyal friends and unconditionally supported by her loving family. She’s an exemplary teammate on a team made up of exemplary teammates. Her faith is an example and inspiration to many. She has a fun sense of humor, (a purported) nice singing voice, and great hair. She’s also pretty darn good at basketball. And most importantly, she has nice teeth and a beautiful smile. It doesn’t get much sweeter than that.

Dr. John Huang is a retired orthodontist who covers UK sports for Nolan Group Media. He can be reached at www.huangswhinings.com. Follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

 

 

 

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Final Four or Bust

Final Four or Bust

(JACKSONVILLE, Fl.) – Kentucky’s gilded path to the promised land of Minneapolis got noticeably more difficult this past weekend. After a 79-44 blowout over overmatched Abilene Christian and a 62-56 nail-biter over Wofford in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, the Wildcats now find themselves headed towards Kansas City on a final dash to paydirt.

No one said it would be easy. Besides the usual Calipari to Mars coaching rumors that surface this time of the year, Kentucky fans also had to deal with the unsettling news of PJ Washington’s mysterious foot injury. From walking boot, to hard cast, to scooter assistance, rumors swirled unabated as an anxious fan base awaited final word on their All-American’s playing status. No PJ? No problem—at least in Jacksonville this past weekend. Nothing against Abilene Christian or Wofford, but from here on in, winning without PJ would be nothing short of a pipedream.

For all of BBN, National Championship Number Nine is the ultimate coveted prize. But after all the near misses over the past several seasons, reaching—at the very least—another Final Four will be a critical cog to John Calipari’s coaching legacy. Truth be told, the fan base is getting antsy. Ten straight years of one and done talent with only one title to his name just won’t cut the mustard with the blue-blooded diehards.

Standing in the way this year are Houston and either North Carolina or Auburn—all formidable opponents. None of them will be easy victories, especially if PJ remains sidelined. Granted, Phi Slama Jama, Michael Jordan, and Charles Barkley aren’t walking through that door, but the Cougars (33-3), the Tar Heels (29-6), and the Tigers (28-9) still yield plenty of firepower. Plus, the Wildcats (29-6) have chinks (no pun intended) of their own in their Big Blue armor. The offense still becomes inexplicably stagnant for long stretches at a time. The lack of willing passers this late in the season remains disturbing, to say the least.

Coach Cal has talked all season about the players conquering themselves. “Before you can conquer someone else, you’ve got to conquer yourself,” he reminded the media this weekend. “It means conditioning, a lot of it means pushing through comfort. A lot of it means don’t drink that poison when you’re flattered.”

Reid Travis added to the conquering yourself narrative with an explanation worthy of a Ph.D. dissertation. “Just understanding that it’s that little thing inside of you that’s telling you to stop, that you can’t do it, that you’re not good enough,” said the scholarly Stanford grad transfer. “If you can conquer that, then you can conquer fans…a bad play here, a bad play there…that’s the biggest thing I think (Coach Cal’s) preached all year to our team. It’s not about any other team and what they’re doing. It’s about us playing good basketball. We’ll be just fine. It’s the same thing on the individual level. If you’re confident in yourself and you’re preaching good thoughts to yourself, then things will work themselves out. It starts in the tournament.”

Freshman guard Tyler Herro was a little less revealing. When asked his thoughts on what Coach Cal meant by conquering yourself, he replied hesitantly, “I don’t know.”

And such is the life of a college basketball coach such as John Calipari. Much of what you preach to players often falls on deaf ears. After all, they’re not machines or robots or computers or whatever. No matter how much you show and tell, they’re just a bunch of 18 and 19-year-olds with video games to play and big dreams to fulfill. When it comes right down to it, making it to Minneapolis is a bit of a crapshoot. A bad bounce here, a sprained foot there, a blown call or two and you’ll quickly be watching Alaska shows on cable TV.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t have high expectations every year—especially if you’re the head coach of greatest tradition in the history of college basketball. Settling for mediocrity is a sure path to failure. Eight out of ten Sweet Sixteens, you say? I say not good enough! Final Fours are what matter and four straight years without one is a travesty in the eyes of many. Sure, we’ve been spoiled, but that’s what makes BBN unique. It’s how we roll.

So, for the Wildcats to be successful this weekend in Kansas City, they’ll have to conquer themselves. The opponent is immaterial. It doesn’t matter whether PJ plays or not. Forget about the crowd, or the refs, or the bright lights of the TV cameras. Put thoughts of your future NBA riches on hold for just a second and bask in your one shining moment on the biggest stage of your college basketball careers. Just focus on falling back on your skills, talent, and training—what you’ve worked for your entire life. Listen to your coach.

“He’s a wise man,” Reid reminded me.

Yes he is. For this particular championship run, John Calipari wants and needs it as much as anybody. He needs to conquer himself. Kansas City here we come. It’s Final Four or bust!

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

Bracketology Bias

Bracketology Bias

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) — Immediately after Kentucky’s disappointing 82-78 loss to Tennessee in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament, sophomore forward PJ Washington reassured all of BBN that he saw no reason to worry. “We play next weekend, so we’re fine,” he said confidently. “We knew it was a hard-fought game (against Tennessee). Both teams fought really well. Down the stretch we made some mistakes. They capitalized on us. We play next weekend, we’re going to get it right.”

I’m not sure the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee ever gets it right. After all, when dealing with bracketology, it’s obvious we’re not talking about real science. Sure, there’s the NET, the team value index, the adjusted winning percentage, the SOS, the BPI, all the quadrant breakdowns, the KenPom and the Sagarin rankings. But in the end, it’s all just hocus-pocus—a feeble attempt to infuse objectivity into a process fraught with individual bias. Images of secret handshakes by cigar-chomping administrators in a smoky, dimly lit room still abound in the inquiring minds of basketball fans everywhere. How else could you possibly explain three ACC teams and Gonzaga ending up as the #1 seeds?

Virginia and Gonzaga both lose in their tournaments and it has no effect on seeding. North Carolina loses and the Tar Heels actually move up. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Meanwhile, losses by Kentucky and Tennessee in the SEC Tournament drop both to a #2 seed. Riddle me this: Why is it that when SEC teams beat up on each other, they get penalized for their losses? When ACC teams lose to each other, it’s like a rising tide lifting all boats. I’m telling you, it’s selection member bias. It’s a skewed perception of how good a team is based on your own preferences and experiences. It’s a highly subjective eye-test viewed—in this case of ACC favoritism—through the distorted prism of East Coast elitism.

The committee tells us that Duke’s mediocrity during Zion Williamson’s injury didn’t count against them, yet North Carolina got credit for beating Duke twice during that same time period that Zion was missing in action. You can’t have it both ways. The Tar Heels—who Kentucky beat in head to head competition—end up with a #1 seed. I guess it doesn’t really matter in the long run since the committee threw Kentucky into the same region as Carolina’s number two.

The folly of the seeding process is further exposed in the geographical jockeying of teams within regions. Kentucky Coach John Calipari had it right when he said, “Just do the S-curve, it’s easy.” Having the top #1 seed play the worst #2 seed and so on down the line not only makes a lot of sense, but takes the prejudice, partiality, and partisanship directly out of the challenges of placing teams within their natural regions. Slotting teams in regions close to home is inherently unfair anyway. Why does Kansas always get to play in Kansas City? I agree with Coach Cal. Just put everyone on the S-curve and let the chips fall where they may. “Everybody charters,” Calipari reminded everyone. “Doesn’t matter where you’re playing.”

Next weekend—Thursday and Saturday to be exact—the #2-seeded Wildcats will be playing in Jacksonville, Florida, taking on 15th-seeded Abilene Christian in the first round of the Midwest Regional bracket. Win that one and the winner of 7th-seeded Wofford versus 10th-seeded Seton Hall awaits in the round of 32. Should Kentucky survive and advance, the NCAA selection committee has once again done them no favors. A ticket to Kansas City for a potential matchup against #3-seeded Houston in the Sweet Sixteen before a much-anticipated Elite Eight rematch versus the top-seeded Tar Heels promises to be no walk in the park. Jacksonville and Kansas City? What happened to Columbus and Louisville? So much for geographical preference.

“There was a chance I thought we would play in Louisville,” said Coach Cal immediately after the brackets were released. “It wasn’t slim…but it was nil. Not happening. But that’s fine.”

Instead, Tennessee gets the #2 seed in the South Region with a chance to play in Louisville. In essence, they stole Kentucky’s dream slot. Up by eight with less than three minutes to play, the Wildcats let a golden opportunity slip agonizingly away. You can’t blame the selection committee for that one.

For this Kentucky team, the road to recovery begins this Thursday. As PJ Washington said—it’s time to make things right. See you in Jacksonville.

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

 

I Pledge Allegiance

I Pledge Allegiance

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.” As an elementary school kid growing up in America in the 1960s, I recited those words a million times. Every morning, like clockwork—right after the opening bell and right before roll call—our entire classroom would stand at attention, facing the flag with hands over hearts, and solemnly affirm our fealty to the Stars and Stripes.

I guess I’m a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to the American flag and National Anthem. Call me idealistic, but I always thought they universally stood for such revered values as patriotism, loyalty, and freedom. They were symbols to be honored and respected—an homage to the democratic liberties inherent as a citizen living in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Recent events, however, have taught me that not all Americans feel that way about the flag. The visible strife began in 2016, when quarterback Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers began kneeling in protest during the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner. Over the next couple of years, his protest gained momentum as other NFL players joined him in solidarity. As recently as last week, the movement spread to a segment of the Ole Miss basketball team as they kneeled during the playing of the National Anthem prior to the tipoff of their game against Georgia.

So, what exactly were these players protesting? In Kaepernick’s case, it was allegedly a demonstration against racial injustice, social oppression, and police brutality, specifically towards people of color. The Ole Miss players were speaking out directly in opposition of a pro-Confederate rally being held simultaneously on campus as their game was being played. Surprisingly to me, all those kneeling apparently viewed the flag and anthem as representative of a country that allows such abominations to continue unabated. In their eyes, they felt obligated to speak out directly against an oppressive regime. Not only did they feel that protesting during the anthem was the right thing to do, they also knew it would draw unmatched visibility and attention to their plight.

Social injustice and oppression are extremely noble causes for which to protest. Inequality based on skin color and unmitigated hate need to be systematically wiped off the face of the earth. With that being said, I’m still not quite sure I understand why protesters continually choose to express their outrage against the backdrop of the American flag.

Regardless of what they feel the flag and anthem represents to themselves, surely they realize what it represents to the rest of America. When protesting a righteous cause, why go out of your way to tick off those who still believe in duty, honor, and country? Why alienate those who still regard the flag and anthem as symbols for which to fight and die for? I know the protesters have claimed that their actions are not meant in any way to be disrespectful to the military. Still, I know many are offended and will be needlessly distracted from the issue at hand.

As a United States Armed Forces Veteran, I was recently asked if I felt like those kneeling during the Anthem were “slapping me in the face.” No, I’m not offended, but just continually puzzled by their actions due to the reasons stated above.

To me, the United States of America has always symbolized two things: land of opportunity and freedom of expression. Regarding the former, I’ve been fortuitously blessed. As first-generation Chinese immigrants, our family moved to the States in 1963 with little attached to our name. Through a relentless pursuit of education and an unwavering work ethic, we fulfilled the proverbial American dream and became productive citizens of this great country.

Regarding the latter—freedom of expression—it’s a beautiful thing that Americans take too often for granted. The kneeling protesters are free to do as they please. I certainly don’t agree with the manner in which they’re promoting their message, but I’ll agree to defend with my life their right to choose. As a matter of fact, I already did when I pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.

Dr. John Huang is a retired orthodontist. He currently works as sports columnist for Nolan Media Group and Sports View America. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

Kentucky “Palatial” Park

Kentucky “Palatial” Park

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) — Move over Rupp Arena and Kroger Field, there’s a new University of Kentucky sports venue in town, and it’s playing second fiddle to no one. On Tuesday, UK Baseball officially christened their brand-new home—Kentucky Proud Park—before 4,074 wide-eyed, Big Blue patrons looking to make history on an unseasonably mild and sunny February afternoon.

For the record, Kentucky (4-3) defeated Eastern Kentucky 7-3 behind the debut start of Grant Macciocchi. The junior right-hander from West Chester Township, Ohio pitched 5.2 masterful innings, giving up one run, three hits, walking one, and striking out six. Junior designated hitter T.J. Collett’s two-run home run over the left-centerfield fence broke open the game in the fifth inning, as the Wildcats marched into the history books with their signature first homefield win.

But the real star of the show was the ballpark itself, adorned with enough opulent amenities to make Disneyland blush. If the goal of building this $49 million palace was to keep up with the Joneses, then Mitch Barnhart and company have certainly hit a homerun.

Nestled on a hilltop along Alumni Drive, the ballpark screams elegance from the get go—its sleek and contemporary design like a sports-themed UFO preparing for liftoff. Unlike its predecessor, The Cliff, the grounds around the new stadium are easily accessible. Parking is ample and convenient, and tailgating is highly encouraged. Throw in a shuttle or two running to and from the front gates, general admission tickets at three dollars a pop, and some well-designed promotional giveaways—and you’ve got all the ingredients necessary for a bona fide, fan-friendly jamboree.

Once inside the stadium grounds, the first thing that strikes you is how spacious the ballpark appears. It’s vast…it’s open…it’s sprawling—like the Grand Canyon opening into a baseball field of dreams. This state-of-the-art facility has permanent seating for 2500 with enough auxiliary space to easily double its capacity. Visually appealing, geometric stone terraces—reminiscent of the Incan ruins on Machu Picchu—cascade vertically from both the left and right field lines. Rent a chair, splash on some sunscreen, and spend the next three hours soaking up vitamin D away from the worries of the real world. Grass berms sloped at an ergonomic thirty-five-degree angle line the outfield corners, providing the perfect blanketed respite for game viewing under puffy white clouds.

The 360-degree concourse, as the name implies, allows fans to view the action from every conceivable angle. Do yourself a favor and take a quick stroll around the circumference. There’s a ton of green space off the left field line and behind the massive electronic scoreboard in center—perfect for either a catered tailgate tent or for the kiddies to run wild. Be sure to tarry awhile at The Hook, the right field bullpen area, dedicated to the loving memory of former UK player Jonathan Hooker. Anyone with a trace of humanity will shed a tear or two reading the plaque commemorating the life of the athlete taken away from us far too early in the crash of Comair Flight 5191.

Getting hungry yet? Concessions at the ballpark won’t disappoint. Even before walking past the box office gates, I smelled the intoxicating aromas of the grilled meats wafting from the ovens of the Athenian Grill. If a lamb gyro doesn’t float your boat, you can also opt for a plate of loaded barbeque nachos from the House-of- ‘CUE. A traditional hot dog will set you back three dollars, a souvenir soda will cost you five. If you’re still hungry for souvenirs, pick up some t-shirts at the mobile kiosk. Or spend your remaining spare change on a green screen generated family photo.

If you’re like “Money” Michael Bennett, take the stairs or the elevator up to the second story terrace level. There you’ll find the luxury boxes complete with all the expected high donor amenities. Relax with a beverage of your choice on the outdoor patio, watching the sun set over the rolling green hills of your Old Kentucky Home, to the peaceful strains of a Jimmy Buffett ballad.

The adjoining press box area was contemporary and modern, but a bit more cramped than I expected. The view was fantastic though—a perfectly designed baseball diamond set against the backdrop of the now sprawling labyrinth of the UK athletic complex. Flashing my media credential, I was hoping for a food voucher—but all I got was a welcoming smile and an overflow seat in the media workroom.

Back downstairs, the behind the scenes player areas are rumored to be some of the best in the business, with spaciously designed locker rooms, lounges, and training areas comparable to luxuries at the Taj Mahal. Evidently no expense was spared in this arms race to entice recruits.

Keith Madison, the iconic coach of the Wildcats from 1979 to 2003 summed it up best after throwing out one of the ceremonial first pitches earlier in the afternoon. “We were talking about how sometimes it’s better to wait and get it right,” he said. “And, boy, they got it right with this ballpark. It’s really nice.”

I agree, Coach. All that’s missing is my food voucher.

Dr. John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Media Group and Sports View America. If you enjoy his writing, be sure to follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

 

Sixty Something

John Calipari had a very good week. Not only is his Kentucky team knocking on the door for a #1 NCAA Tournament seed, but the highly venerated coach of the Wildcats also celebrated a rather momentous personal milestone. Yes, Coach Cal turned sixty today, entering a decade of life known more for vacations rather than victories, retirement rather than recruiting, and time-off rather than time-outs. Whereas many of his contemporaries have already succumbed to the rigors of the cutthroat profession, Coach Cal soldiers on, unfazed by the youthful glut of up-and-comers looking to put him out to pasture.

Kentucky’s recent victories over Vanderbilt and Florida gave Calipari—the current dean of the SEC coaches—bragging rights over Bryce Drew and Mike White, two youthful prodigies who only recently joined the coaching fraternity. When asked whether he enjoyed being the old guy teaching these young whippersnappers a thing or two, Coach Cal feigned umbrage and indignation. “I’m allowed to say that (that I’m old), not you,” he joked. “We’ve got terrific coaches in this league. Guys are really committed to their teams and to the game…Mike (White) is a good coach. Bryce (Drew) is a good coach.”

Including White and Drew, eleven out of the fourteen current coaches in the league are younger than Calipari. Will Wade of LSU (age 36) is the youngest, followed by White (age 41), Drew (age 44), Cuonzo Martin of Missouri (age 47), Tom Crean of Georgia (age 52), Frank Martin of South Carolina (age 52), Avery Johnson of Alabama (age 53), Billy Kennedy of Texas A&M (age 55), Bruce Pearl of Auburn (age 58), Kermit Davis of Mississippi (age 59), and Mike Anderson of Arkansas (age 59).

That leaves only Ben Howland of Mississippi State (age 61) and Rick Barnes of Tennessee (age 64) as SEC coaches older than Calipari.

Does age matter in the coaching profession? After all, age-wise, John Calipari is technically old enough to be a grandfather to any of his current players. I don’t care how much you know about basketball or how physically fit you are at sixty, how in the world can baby boomers as Calipari possibly relate to his current Generation Z all-stars? I’m speaking from experience. It’s literally impossible for an old man like me to be properly dialed into the world of video games, shoe fashion, and hip-hop music. Calipari still loves listening to “Soul Sister” for God’s sake. The guy wears corduroy shorts and watches TV shows about Alaska.

“Cal, he’s a cool guy,” said freshman forward EJ Montgomery when I asked him how he relates to his coach off the court. “He tells jokes and he’s always hip to the new stuff. Just a good guy.” When pressed on how an old guy like Coach Cal could even be hip to the new stuff, EJ gave a very diplomatic answer. “Probably learns from Brad (Calipari),” he said with a chuckle.

Apparently, age in the coaching profession is only a number. And the only number that really matters is your record on the court. Just look at Mike Krzyzewski of Duke—still kicking butt at age 71, believe it or not. Jim Boeheim of Syracuse is a year older and currently clocks in as the oldest active coach in Division I at 72 years of age. Roy Williams of North Carolina is 67. Leonard Hamilton of Florida State is 69.

“If they (your players) know you care about them and they know you make it about them, I don’t think age matters,” Calipari told me later. “If you’re into your own numbers, wins and everything is about the program, the program, the program and it isn’t about them and they know it, it doesn’t matter; you’re not going to connect with those kids or their families. Hopefully these kids feel that we’re about them. This is about their success collectively and individually. We try not to leave anybody behind. We’re coaching every kid like they’re a starter.”

Those are poignant words. In addition to being a nice recruiting pitch, I actually think Coach Cal believes what he’s preaching. He relishes his role as teacher, father figure, coach, and mentor to his players. He takes pride in ending generational poverty for their families. He lives for NBA draft night when millionaires are made and lives are changed. I applaud him for that with every fiber of my being.

But that doesn’t mean he’s right. The program does matter. By focusing solely on his “players first” philosophy, he’s delivering a subtle slap in the face to the “average joe” fan who’s ever lived and died with Wildcat fortunes. Kentucky is a poor state. Its residents don’t have a whole lot to be proud of. Having the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball is a source of immense joy and a unifying force throughout all the far reaches of the Commonwealth.

Coach Cal knows that, and yet he still feels the need to constantly prioritize the NBA draft over another national title. He knows the two are not mutually exclusive. Great players make for championships. However, he needs to tone down his NBA rhetoric, at least publicly. Basketball isn’t always about the money—legacy should count for something also. Winning Championship Number Nine will do more for the collective mindset of the citizens of this state than a bevy of first-round picks on draft night. The Program matters! Once Coach Cal acknowledges that, the floodgates of BBN will fully open—releasing a torrent of unity, power, and spirit from the soul of everyone who has ever cheered on the Blue and White.

Happy Birthday, Coach!

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

Check out his most recent UK Sports coverage at http://www.themanchesterenterprise.com/category/uk-live-breathe-blue/

They Mad!

Nowadays, there’s a whole lot of anger out and about in the world of sports. Just look around. It seems like everybody is mad at somebody over something or other. I’m sure New Orleans Saints fans are mad, still smarting from that horrifically bad non-call that cost them a trip to the Super Bowl. Bill Belichick looks mad, despite the fact he just won another Super Bowl. Everybody, including Dick Vitale, is mad at the refs and the delays caused by instant replay. Yep, he’s mad. Well, I’m mad at Dickie V for loving so much on Duke. Anyway, you get my point—there’s ire, there’s fury, there’s moral outrage everywhere you turn.

Fortunately for Kentucky, PJ Washington got mad and his teammates responded with a come-from-behind 65-54 road victory over the Florida Gators. Despite the win, Kentucky fans—known for their undying love and passion for their Basketball Wildcats—will forever be mad at the national media over the lack of respect afforded their hardwood heroes. Their team wins big and nobody seems to notice. It’s a conspiracy! Why does everyone outside of BBN hate the Cats, you ask? Let me count the ways.

  1. This first one’s obvious—they hate us because they ain’t us. Eight national championships, 17 Final Fours, the all-time NCAA wins leader, and the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball are magnets for opponent enmity and venom. There’s nothing like a dose of Big Blue envy to stoke the fires of jealousy among the have-nots. “The history,” explained Seth Greenberg of ESPN’s GameDay crew. “You’ve got five different coaches with national championships here. It’s about the program. It’s the people’s program…We go all over the country. We never see anything like this. And that’s what makes Kentucky, Kentucky. Just the genuine passion and ownership people have in the program. You lose a game and everyone’s on suicide watch.”
  2. They hate us because of John Calipari. As much as he’s done for the players in his program and the communities he’s served, ignorant outsiders still view Kentucky’s Coach Cal as the Antichrist—a convicted cheater ruining the game’s purity through his exploitation of the one and done system. It doesn’t matter how many basketballs he autographs, how many hospitals he visits, or how many telethons he sponsors, negative perceptions about him simply will not die. “No one hates us,” Calipari quipped after the Florida win. “People do hate us? Do they hate me? They don’t hate me, do they? Why would they hate me? What have I done?”
  3. They hate us because we’re BBN. We’re everywhere—on social media, traveling to road venues like a swarm of blue locusts, and defending our program like an ambulance chasing attorney. It’s not like we’re intentionally haughty, or conceited, or wanting to get in your face. It’s just that we’re protective of our team and don’t want them talked about in a disparaging manner. You spout fake news about our program and we’re going to make you pay. “I just look at it as they’re all people whose opinions don’t matter really,” said freshman guard Tyler Herro when asked about the haters. “They’re just people who don’t like me or us for no reason really. I feel like a lot of people didn’t like Grayson Allen. They don’t like good white players. That’s how it is.”

Now that the Cats are on a roll, winners of eight straight and finally moving up in the polls, the torch and pitchfork crowd will undoubtedly show up in force—and THEY’LL BE MAD! Mad because Kentucky came and ruined their Super Bowl celebrations. Mad because swaggy Cal has his team primed for another scorched-earth march to Minneapolis. Mad because Kentucky is relevant again in the hunt for title number nine. Mad because Tyler Herro is white. Mad because Reid Travis is smart. Mad because Ashton Hagans stole their souls.

Why does everyone hate Kentucky? Freshman point guard Immanuel Quickley summed it up best. “Actually, I still don’t really know how much people hate us,” he said innocently. “I thought people loved us. But I guess people do hate us too. It comes with it. Good and bad. Any team you go out and play, you want to beat. But I guess especially Kentucky, with the rep that we have, everybody wants to come out and beat us. Just have to be ready to play every game.”

Hey BBN, forget about the haters. Let’s just get ready to play every game…and to win it all. Then we’ll see how really mad everyone else gets. #UnitedWeStand!

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

Check out his most recent UK Sports coverage at http://www.themanchesterenterprise.com/category/uk-live-breathe-blue/