24 Hours

I’ve been focusing more recently on the practice of “mindfulness”—not as some far eastern, new age religious practice, but more as a practical method of savoring all of life’s moments as they occur in the precious present. Coincidentally, many of you have been asking me what it’s like to cover the Wildcats on the road. I thought I’d try to answer that question by combining it with my newfound mindfulness discipline through a blow by blow account of my recent trip down to Athens, Georgia. Just remember as you’re reading this that one man’s “mindfulness” account may be another man’s “boring” blog post. You be the judge.

One of the most challenging aspects of media coverage of multiple sports is coordinating all the different schedules. Kentucky was playing Georgia in Athens on Saturday evening. Knowing that I wanted to cover the UK Women vs Florida in Lexington the very next day, there was really only one option—make the 7-hour drive down to Georgia to cover the men, and then drive back immediately after the game to make it in time for the women’s tip.

The day begins with a 5:30 am wake up, followed by a brisk 45-minute run with my trusty pooch, Bingo. Since this will be a jam-packed day trip, Bingo’s sitting this one out. Don’t worry though, in his place I’m riding down with the renowned, award-winning sports columnist, Keith Taylor. Keith not only happens to be a gifted journalist, but he’s also one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. He befriended me early on, showing me the ropes amidst the potential swimming sharks and exploding minefields of media coverage.

I leave Lexington shortly after 7, pick Keith up in Richmond and we’re on our way. You get to know a lot about someone while spending twelve or more hours alone with them in a car. Immediately, I realize Keith is susceptible to road rage as he gets flipped off by a passing motorist. My mindfulness training tells him to “let it go,” but he remains upset and keeps harping something about chasing down the “bird man” and his finger.

By 9 am, after the obligatory Mickey D’s breakfast stop, we’re cruising past the familiar sights of Jellico Mountain and subsequently head on past Knoxville. Just last week, Bingo and I had made this same trip to cover the UK Women against UGA. At that time, I made the mistake of taking the less traveled route directly through the mountains. Unbeknownst to me, there was no phone/GPS service along part of that route and I ended up getting lost and Bingo ended up getting car sick. Wisely today, we decided to head east toward Asheville instead, taking the Lake Junaluska I-40 exit before stopping in Waynesville, NC for lunch shortly after noon.

I’m not sure whether it was the scenic beauty of the Smokies or being in good company or simply my mindfulness training, but our lunch at the Church Street Depot was exquisite. The blended burger of beef and brisket served on a freshly baked bun with fries and an orange Nehi was one of the best meals I’ve had in a while. The succulent beef juices oozing past my parotid glands as my molars gently caressed the luscious texture of the gluten rich bread dough was enough to send me into a state of mindful bliss. I glanced over at Keith and the look on his face told me that it was as good for him as it was for me.

As we exited the restaurant, we were met by the owner who we discovered pretty much owned all the establishments on that street. She graciously offered us a tour of her Wine Seller—a quaint and cozy wine bar decorated in the style of a 1920’s speakeasy, and stocked with an assortment of vintage wines that would make even the most snobbish sommelier cringe with envy. I couldn’t help but be a little self-conscious through the whole experience, especially with me being the only non-Caucasian in sight. Perhaps I was making history as the first Asian with a ponytail to set foot in this little hamlet tucked away in the Carolina mountains.

Shortly after 3, we’re 15 minutes outside of Athens and we decide to stop at a convenience store and change into our working game attire. As I’m standing in the parking lot outside the car putting on my coat and tie (yes, I’m overdressed as usual), a middle aged African-American woman pulls up with the cutest little girl beside her and politely asks me, “Do you speak English?” After I assure her that I do, she goes into a sob story about needing gas money to take her little baby to the hospital for a liver transplant. Knowing better, I peel off a fiver and send her on her way to buy more cigarettes or lottery tickets.

Meanwhile, Keith spends the next ten minutes locked in the convenience store bathroom transforming himself. After he walks out, he claims he shaved and changed clothes but honestly, I can’t tell any difference. I jokingly say something to that effect, but he doesn’t smile or laugh. Immediately I feel kind of bad and wished I’d kept my mouth shut.

The game experience is awesome. We park in the garage right next to Stegeman Coliseum. It’s free of charge and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about media, it’s that we like “free.” The media buffet is also “free” and today’s menu includes pork loin, glazed carrots, (overly) seasoned rice, and a salad. The dessert bar with an assortment of scrumptious brownies sends my blood sugar spiking. While dining, I also see an assortment of familiar faces—the usual and customary pool of reporters following the beloved Wildcats like a gaggle of lost geese.

I’m sitting at a meal table with the distinguished audiologist/photographer Victoria Graff, the heralded writer Fletcher Page of the Courier Journal, the celebrated Cats’ Pause columnist Alex Forkner, and the eminent reporter and great hair model of SEC Country Kyle Tucker. It’s informal times like this that I not only learn the most about UK media coverage but that I also enjoy the most about my current gig. We’re joined by a former administrator in the UGA program who regales us with Tubby Smith nice guy stories. Breathe in, breathe out—it doesn’t get any better than this.

You can read about the game itself in my official media column at

http://www.themanchesterenterprise.com/kentucky-basketball-its-a-doggone-win/.

Sitting on media row, I’ve got Nick Roush of KSR and Forkner of the Cats’ Pause on my right, Ron Hamblin and Ricky Blair of Bluegrass Sports Nation on my left. We marvel at the number of Kentucky fans that invariably invade each and every road venue as the chorus of “Go Big Blue” reverberates throughout the arena. During the game, we send tweets to each other, like school girls trying to outdo one another with the next best quote or clever rebuke. Through it all, long time Herald Leader columnist and UK Basketball beat writer Jerry Tipton remains steadfast. Say what you may, Jerry appears to me to be a true professional, one of the hardest working writers around, always arriving early and staying late to meet the never-ending demands of his deadline-driven profession.

With the UK victory in hand, we head down to the media room for the compulsory post-game press conference with coaches and players, where we scramble like cockroaches to evoke the latest and greatest quotes in preparation for our stories and write-ups. It looks like an abbreviated version tonight as the team is whisked through the formalities and out to the waiting buses within an hour of the final horn. I catch a few parting snippets from De’Aaron Fox as I’m mesmerized by his new stylish man bun, or whatever that is.

Hamblin and Blair are headed to Atlanta and graciously extend an offer for us to tag along. Without asking them what their intentions are, I politely and wisely decline. Perhaps that’ll be an entertaining blog post for another time and place, but we’ve got places to go and people to see. As we walk back to the car, Keith hands out business cards to anyone who will take them. He’s like a celebrity working the crowd, giving me an important lesson in the basics of grass roots marketing.

It’s 9:15 pm as we head out of Athens. I’ve got the driving honors as Keith works feverishly on posting his game column. I dial up Matt Jones on iheart radio and settle in for the grueling midnight drive home from Georgia. With Keith typing frantically in the passenger seat, I suddenly notice the dreaded blue lights of the law flashing behind me. I glance down at the speedometer and thankfully see that I’m “only” doing 75. Nevertheless, I pull over and the Georgia State Trooper informs me that I’m doing 78 mph in a 65-mph zone. I want to say, “Come on officer, you’ve got to be kidding me. I’m not even doing 80. Don’t you have real criminals to pursue? Is this some sort of racial profiling (see above reference to Asian with ponytail)?”

Instead, mindfulness training kicks in and I politely tell him we were covering the UK/UGA game and are headed back home to Kentucky. He takes my license and Keith’s registration and we spend an interminable amount of time sitting like convicted felons exposed naked in front of other snickering passing motorists. After 10 minutes go by, I begin to wonder what’s going on. I look over at Keith still furiously pounding away at his keyboard and wonder if Mr. Police Officer has stumbled upon Keith’s hidden serial killer background. After all, what do I really know about Keith Taylor?

After what seems like 30-minutes, Mr. Police Officer returns and apologizes for the delay, tells me to slow it down, and sends us on our way. What? Just like that? Woohoo! Better than winning the lottery! Needless to say, I’m wired and jacked the rest of the way, but adhere unwaveringly to the posted speed limits. The miles go by quickly as Keith and I debate the major social issues of the day, solve all the world’s problems, and listen intently to Coach Cal spread the manure during his most recent podcasts.  At around 4:00 am, after a 64-ounce caffeinated beverage and a bag of M&M’s, I’m still going strong as I drop Keith off and head back to Lexington. Shortly thereafter, right around 5:00, I walk in my kitchen just in time to take Bingo for another morning run. It’s been a heck of a 24 hours! Hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.

John Huang is a retired orthodontist turned wannabe sports journalist. He can be reached at www.huangswhinings.com and on twitter @KYHuangs.

Keith Taylor is a Columnist/Senior Sports Writer at KYForward. Please check out his work at www.kyforward.com. You can also reach him at Keith.Taylor@kyforward.com.

Richard and Kay Miller are the proud proprietors of Church Street Depot and the Wine Seller in Waynesville, NC. Please check out their fine establishments at www.ChurchStreetDepot.com and www.classicwineseller.com.

 

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