Something to Smile About

(Chang Mai, Thailand) – I fought the cold and the cold won. After weeks of battling sub-freezing temperatures, weather advisories, and storm warnings back in my old Kentucky home, I stepped off Korean Air Flight 7917 at Bangkok International Airport and immediately surrendered myself to the sultry sunshine and tropical humidity bathing my pasty winter skin. I’m jet-lagged beyond comprehension by my 32-hour flight from Hell, but still manage an ear-to-ear grin thinking about the sand, sun, and surf that surely awaits me in this exotic Thai kingdom.

If Thailand is the “Land of Smiles,” then Shai Gilgeous-Alexander should feel right at home here. “That kid smiles,” said Coach John Calipari when asked about his freshman point guard earlier this season. “I don’t know if it’s a Canadian thing. I don’t know what it is. But every Canadian that I’ve coached has fun and smiles and doesn’t feel the weight of the world on them.”

Calipari has reason himself to smile after Kentucky’s hard-fought 74-67 victory over the Vanderbilt Commodores. The aforementioned smiling Gilgeous-Alexander led the Wildcats with 22 points and six assists in 39 minutes of intense action, the third time in the last six games he’s scored 20 or more points. Kentucky shot 53.5% from the field while holding Vandy to 38.2% for the afternoon. With the win, the Cats improve to 14-3 overall and 4-1 in conference play.

Forgive me if my coverage of this game appears somewhat untimely and a bit mechanical. There’s a twelve hour time difference between Memorial Gymnasium in Nashville and the city of Chang Mai in the northern part of Thailand where I’m currently visiting. So, I was up early on what was a Sunday morning searching for a Starbucks with enough bandwidth to watch the game on my computer tablet. You’ve probably already guessed that college basketball isn’t a top priority of viewers in Southeast Asia and not coincidentally, this effort to watch my Wildcats was met with limited success. In fact, I may be the only component of the Big Blue mist trying to penetrate into this remote outpost at the foothills of the Himalaya mountain range.

Since arriving four days earlier, I’ve donned my UK gear hoping to draw out other displaced Wildcat fans in this country of Buddhist temples, floating markets, and pad thai noodles. So far, I’m not doing very well–batting zero if truth be told. Rather than being viewed as a respected ambassador of the Big Blue Nation, I’m sneered at as if I’m the village idiot—a simpleton clothed entirely in Blue with a fried chicken franchise stitched across my chest. To the untrained Western eye, I may look slightly Thai, but the minute I open my mouth, there’s no doubt in the native’s minds that I’m not from their neck of the woods. Nevertheless, I’m on a mission to make converts out of the ignorant masses, with “Calipari” soon to be a well-known and awe-inspiring household moniker.

Next up for the Wildcats is another tough road encounter against the South Carolina Gamecocks, followed by the colossal ESPN Gameday tilt at Rupp against the Florida Gators. I’m not sure where I’ll be then or whether I’ll procure any video access. But I want this to be clear to everyone back home–whether I’m watching Muay Thai Boxing in Bangkok, or drinking mai tais on a secluded beach—I’ll be tuned in somehow. Perhaps it’ll just be me alone on another early Sunday morning, 9000 miles from Lexington, with the familiar banter of Tom Leach and Mike Pratt on iheart radio playing soothingly in the background.

I’ll leave you with this for now. My 26-year old daughter Katie flew over from Los Angeles to meet us here on this grand adventure. As we were stalled in traffic watching the ever-present tuk-tuks weaving in and around us, she asked me, “Dad, can you take me on one of those?” For a brief second, my mind flashed back 15 years, longingly lamenting how all that precious time had fleetingly flown by. It dawned on me that just like basketball, travel’s not solely about wins and losses. It’s not about the number of destinations reached, or peaks climbed, or refrigerator magnets accumulated. But rather it’s about the experiences gathered and emotions garnered with strangers and loved ones along the way. “It’s a process,” as Coach Cal has been apt to say when referencing this particular Kentucky team. On this particular personal journey of ours, I couldn’t agree more. Stay tuned.

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

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