Heartbreak At “The Grove”

Heartbreak At “The Grove”

I traveled down to Mississippi with my good friend and media colleague, Lonny Demaree (right). The Ole Miss fan in between us gave us a personal tour of “The Grove.” The people tailgating were super friendly. Unfortunately, there were just way too many of them.

(OXFORD, Ms.) – When Kentucky first released its current 2022 football schedule, there was one road game I circled immediately. Ever since I started this media gig, a trip to Ole Miss remained at the top of my bucket list of SEC venues to visit. Not only had I never been to Oxford, but stories I heard of tailgating in The Grove were legendary in my mind.

Described frequently as the “Holy Grail of tailgating sites,” The Grove takes on a life of its own during Ole Miss football Saturdays. Geographically speaking, it’s located right in the center of a picturesque college campus and consists of stately oak, elm, and magnolia trees providing the perfect mixture of ambience and shade. What really distinguishes it from any other park-like setting, however, is the massive mix of partygoers and football fanatics reveling within its boundaries on gameday.

When I first walked through the maze of tents, TVs, and tailgaters three hours before kickoff, I was a bit taken aback. I immediately sensed that this place was out of control. Because in my mind, I somehow pictured ornate canopies in spacious meadows filled with aristocratic gentlemen and southern belles. Everyone’s dressed to the nines with unlimited access to their favorite food and drink (think Picnic with the Pops on steroids).

Instead, I was greeted by a virtual madhouse of sweaty football humanity. Frat boys, slick donors, soccer moms, average Joes, grandmas, former jocks, and current drunks all crammed shoulder to shoulder under an assortment of cover you might find in the various tent cities of worldwide refugee camps. It’s only 8:00 a.m., and the area is already so jam packed that there’s no room to walk, turn around, or breathe. Fifty feet into the morass, and I had seen enough.

Life in the press box at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium turned out to be just as unpleasant. With their heartbreaking 22 – 19 defeat at the hands of their Rebel hosts, the Wildcats once again snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

What was maddingly frustrating for the 12 – 15,000 Big Blue faithful who made the trip down South was that despite the inopportune red zone fumbles, the lack of protection by the O-line, and the kicking game meltdowns, Kentucky still had a chance to win the game at the end. Sure, Barion Brown’s 245 all-purpose yards, Chris Rodriguez’s return to action, and the defense making some critical stops are continued causes for future optimism. But make no mistake—this loss hurts. It hurts really bad.

Many say to rejoice and be glad because Kentucky had never been ranked this high (No. 7 in the nation) before. I say cry and lament because it’s an opportunity squandered as the Wildcats may never find themselves in this lofty position again.

But I’m here primarily to report on the tailgating, so immediately upon hearing the final horn, I hightail it back over to The Grove to meet a few of my friends who have traveled down from Kentucky. It’s a miracle I’m even able to hook up with them amidst the exuberant masses pouring forth from the stadium exits.

We finally settle into our pre-purchased spot at The Grove, our feet navigating the mound of dry dirt and dirty straw masquerading as the plush carpet of green grass I had previously imagined in my dreams. As reality hit, I realized there would be no chandeliers nor champagne, no caviar nor Cuban cigars. Maybe I was still sulking from the Ole Miss beatdown, but to be honest, The Grove was ridiculously overrated. The tailgating around the bucolic rolling hills surrounding Kroger Field—with plenty of room for cornhole and tossing footballs—was far better in my mind.

Then suddenly, I noticed a subtle change in my mood. As I chatted with my friends and they introduced me to their friends, I discovered that the thoughts of despair surrounding Kentucky’s loss magically dissipated. This was exactly what the doctor ordered. No longer was I lamenting “what could have been.” Now I was savoring the moment—good times with good people, good food, and good conversations. The final score no longer mattered. Enjoying the journey is what ultimately counts.

Here’s what I learned on my trip to Oxford. When experiencing The Grove, it’s not about the fancy tents, or the majestic oaks, or the renowned party atmosphere. It’s more about the company you keep. Seriously, you can have a fabulous time tailgating under an asphalt bridge. Just make sure it’s with people you like and care about.

For that reason, I hereby anoint Kroger Field as “the mecca of tailgating sites.” I’ve been to the “holy grail.” Trust me, Kentucky Football tailgating is as good as it gets.

Dr. John Huang covers professional sports for Sports View America. He’s also a columnist for Nolan Group Media and serves as editor-in-chief of JustTheCats.com. Check out his latest Kentucky Basketball book, KENTUCKY PASSION, at https://www.amazon.com/Kentucky-Passion-Wildcat-Wisdom-Inspiration/dp/1684351669 . If you enjoy his coverage, you can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

I Still Can’t Stand America’s Team

<strong>I Still Can’t Stand America’s Team</strong>

(ARLINGTON, Tx.) – Old habits die hard.

During the Dallas Cowboys’ nationally televised opener in 1979, the lead CBS announcers introduced the ever-popular NFL franchise as “America’s Team.” I didn’t like the reference back then. Forty-plus years later, the moniker still resonates with me like a root canal gone bad.

I’ll confess, I’ve always rooted fervently against the Cowboys. I’m not really sure why. I just knew that in my mind, Coach Tom Landry was public enemy number one. Back then, there was a lot NOT to like about the Cowboys. While Bob Lilly and the “Doomsday Defense” stalked you like evil personified, Roger Staubach and Cliff Harris stayed busy eating your lunch.

Deep down inside, I suspected my outright disdain for the Cowboys was based on envy, jealousy, and discontent more than anything else. Dallas was good, and the teams I cheered for were not. Their fans were loud, supportive, and passionate. In return, Cowboys’ management spared no expense in treating everyone like kings. One marketing gimmick—the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders—became (and remains to this day) every schoolboy’s fantasy dream come true.

To add insult to injury, my best friend growing up was a die-hard Dallas fan. Week after week during football season, he’d subject me to endless taunts, tales, and torment about how great his team performed. Honestly, he got to me. I loathed those stupid lone star helmets so much that I became a Washington Redskins fan for life.

Despite my deep-seated issues with the green-eyed monster, I’ve always wanted to attend a Dallas Cowboys’ home football game. When the Cowboys popped up on the Bengals’ schedule this year, I knew I was destined for Jerry World.

AT&T Stadium sits like an other-worldly UFO rising majestically from the flatlands of northeast Texas. With its massive size, unique architecture, and oversized high-definition scoreboard, the entire structure screams “overcompensation.” Nevertheless, the Jerry Jones’ monstrosity remains one of the premiere showcase venues of the NFL. Built in 2009 at a cost of over a billion dollars, the one-hundred-thousand-seat arena still retains much of its initial luster and draw.

Hospitality wise, it’s by far the best stadium venue I’ve encountered in all my travels. The natives are friendly, and the media buffet is sublime. Prime rib, barbecue brisket, grilled asparagus, and the lobster mac and cheese are all tantalizingly laid out before you as the main event unfolds. Finish strong with the dessert bar, and a diabetic coma is sure to follow. Food in Texas never disappoints.

As I’m stuffing my face like an eating machine, the same couldn’t be said for the Bengals’ dismal performance out on the field. For the second straight week, an unproductive offense and an inconsistent O-line resulted in six Joe Burrow sacks on the way to another crushing, last-minute 20 – 17 defeat.

To make matters worse, the Cowboys entered the contest with a backup quarterback, just one starting NFL caliber receiver, and the entire left side of their O-line nursing injuries. Still, the Bengals couldn’t capitalize. The AFC champions thus start the season at a stunning 0 – 2 while embarrassing themselves at the hands of the team I despise most.

Together with Kentucky Basketball’s loss to UConn in the 2014 Final Four, my two trips to Jerry World have both been crash and burns. I keep telling myself, however, that it’s not the result but the journey that counts. The truth is that AT&T Stadium remains a sight to behold. Fill it with 94,944 crazy Cowboy fans waving white towels, and even I have to admit that it becomes something magical and surreal.

I asked Dallas head coach Mike McCarthy in the postgame interview about all the hype and hoopla.

“You go out there pregame and see the white towels on the seats, it brings a smile to my face,” he explained “They’re on it. There’s nothing like these Cowboy fans. Just from the time you arrive, all the way through, what an incredible atmosphere today. What a competitive arena they create for us. The stadium was rocking today. They did a phenomenal job.”

When it comes to America’s Team, it really is all about the fans. McCarthy should know. He’s had the privilege of coaching both the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys—two organizations at the top of the NFL food chain when it comes to fan appeal.

McCarthy’s words made one thing crystal clear. Passion in sports is a two-way street. Fans care most about a team when they know that team cares for them. Love them or hate them, that’s certainly been the case in Dallas all these years.

Thank you, Jerry Jones, for the wonderful hospitality. I still can’t stand America’s team, but I sure as heck loved your barbecue brisket.

Dr. John Huang covers professional sports for Sports View America. He’s also a columnist for Nolan Group Media and serves as editor-in-chief of JustTheCats.com. Check out his latest Kentucky Basketball book, KENTUCKY PASSION, at https://www.amazon.com/Kentucky-Passion-Wildcat-Wisdom-Inspiration/dp/1684351669 . If you enjoy his coverage, you can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

Wasting Away in Cincinnati

Wasting Away in Cincinnati

Is watching Cincinnati take on Pittsburgh in an NFL/MLB doubleheader on consecutive days awesome…or weird?

(CINCINNATI, Oh.) – You might say I’m a glutton for punishment. After watching the AFC Champion Cincinnati Bengals stumble out of the gate against their hated divisional rivals from Pittsburgh, I decided to stick around the Queen City for another day and watch the lowly Reds take on the even lowlier divisional rival Pirates. You might call it the Cincinnati versus Pittsburgh doubleheader from Hell. It’s a one-two punch for the desperate sports fanatic with way too much time on their hands.

The contrast between an NFL opening day spectacle (where Cincinnati is coming off their magical Super Bowl LVI appearance) and a regular weeknight MLB clash (where the perennial bottom feeding Reds are squaring off against their fellow cellar dwelling Pirates) couldn’t be greater.

On the football side, you’ve got 65,000 or more fans jacked, packed, and stacked three hours prior to kickoff—tailgating in the most ridiculous manner possible. They’re hunkered underneath overpasses, spilling over into concrete parking garages, and scrunched creatively into all these urban nooks and crannies.

Navigating through the morass to the stadium gates was no small feat. Parking alone can set you back fifty bucks. Engaging with all the drunks, panhandlers, and obnoxious terrible towel-waving Steeler fans further robs you of your dignity.

Once inside the sanctity of the Paycor Stadium press box, however, the NFL experience was definitely first class. As always, the hospitality, food, and locker-room access easily rated five stars in my book.

Unfortunately, the Bengals didn’t uphold their end of the bargain on the field, squandering away several opportunities to win after turning the ball over five times, missing a chip shot field goal, and getting a potential game-winning extra point attempt blocked in the process.

You had to feel bad for Bengals fans. They came into the season with such high expectations (rightly so), only to be punched in the mouth right out of the gate. I’m not sure if it was the alcohol speaking or what, but I heard several threats uttered by disgruntled patrons exiting the stadium that probably needed to be reported to the FBI. There’s nothing like passion for your NFL team, or outrage when they crash and burn.

On the baseball side the next evening, the mood and circumstances couldn’t have been more different. Even with the never-ending construction along the I-75/I-71 corridors, getting downtown was a virtual snap. You could park right next door to the stadium for a mere $12 a pop. Is there tailgating in baseball? I didn’t notice any drunken revelry on my casual stroll in.

Looking around the field-level seats on a leisurely Monday evening, I spotted a lot of young families with children, numerous couples on dates, and the usual mix of baseball die-hards donning Joey Votto jerseys. Conspicuously missing was the boisterous group of Pirate fans usually seated along the third-base line. It seems that even Yinzers have their limits.

When the game finally started, there were the obligatory loud cheers when Aristides Aquino blasted a two-run homer in the bottom of the fourth inning, but other than when the Reds closed out an inning, you could easily have mistaken the crowd noise for a casual summer night watching the fireflies on your back porch. The Bark in the Park promotion only added to the backyard-like ambience, especially when the number of furry four-legged friends easily outnumbered the hairy two-legged variety.

For the record, Cincinnati (56 – 83) lost to the Pirates 6 – 3, but the reality is that none of the 12,083 in attendance at Great American Ballpark really cared who won or lost. The Reds were mathematically eliminated from the National League Central race on Saturday. With their loss this evening, their elimination number for a wild-card spot is rapidly dwindling as well.

Remember, the Reds must win seven of their remaining 23 games to avoid the dreaded 100-loss season. After their disastrous franchise-worst 3 – 22 start, it’s miraculous they’re even poised to make that final run. It’s also ironic that despite the fact the team stinks to high heaven, there are still more fans in the stands by far than you’ll see at church on Sundays.

I guess the overarching lesson for me these past two days is that sports—for many—remains a welcome distraction. It doesn’t matter whether your team’s in the hunt or just playing out the string, it’s the experience of following them faithfully that counts. Unless your livelihood is based solely on winning or losing, consider it a blessing to be able to just regularly sit back, to cheer on the victories, and to lament the defeats. All the better if you can spend time doing it together with friends and loved ones.

In the end, there’s nothing at all wrong with passion for sports, as long as it’s not misdirected toward others or taken to extremes. In fact, passion for sports is totally awesome. I’m convinced it’s good for your psyche. It’s certainly not wasting your life away—even if you’ve spent that entire life as a loyal Cincinnati sports fan.

Dr. John Huang covers professional sports for Sports View America. He’s also a columnist for Nolan Group Media and serves as editor-in-chief of JustTheCats.com. Check out his latest Kentucky Basketball book, KENTUCKY PASSION, at https://www.amazon.com/Kentucky-Passion-Wildcat-Wisdom-Inspiration/dp/1684351669 . If you enjoy his coverage, you can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

Brother, Colleague, Patriot, and Friend

<strong>Brother, Colleague, Patriot, and Friend</strong>

Here’s the last photo Dr. Durbin and I took together.

It’s been a tough week.

Today I attended the funeral of Dr. Douglas Durbin. Doug was my former business partner. We successfully practiced orthodontics together in the central Kentucky area for over twenty years.

Back in 1995, when I completed my orthodontic residency at the University of Kentucky, Doug already had an established practice here in town. My dream was always to practice in Lexington, but the opportunities for new graduates at that time were slim to none. Upon the recommendation of a mutual friend and colleague, Doug took me in without batting an eye and gave me that chance of a lifetime. For that I’m eternally grateful.

You don’t spend twenty years working intimately with someone and not get to know them. After all, business partnerships are like marriages. With all due respect to his beloved bride Gina, Doug really had two wives during our two decades together. Trust me, I knew Doug well. He had a big, compassionate heart.

Personality-wise, Doug and I were polar opposites. He was bold, brash, and confident. I was quiet, unassuming, and self-conscious. Somehow, we made it all work. That’s not to say I didn’t want to wring his neck at times (and I’m sure he wanted to do the same to me). But at the end of the day, I knew he was always acting on what he thought would best benefit our patients, staff, and practice.

I still can’t believe he’s gone.

Whenever a well-known person suddenly passes, it’s always a shock to my system. John Lennon, Princess Di, and Kobe Bryant come to mind. You always picture those icons as living forever. I thought the same about Doug. He’d be the one writing about me—not the other way around. For anybody that knew him, the guy was larger than life, like a real-life Captain America always swooping in to save the day. It’ll take a while for his death to sink in.

As we grieve, here’s what I want everyone to know about Doug. He did everything with gusto. He treated every single task—however menial—as if it were the most important duty on earth. Sometimes that attention to detail and persistent over analysis drove me nuts. Yes, he was often arrogant, pompous, overbearing, and bombastic in arguing his points. But I seldom felt uncomfortable because I knew exactly where he stood. I admire people with passion and conviction, and Doug was certainly passionate in what he believed.

As you might expect, a person such as that is also extremely competitive. Doug always wanted to be number one. I often wondered how we could coexist as equal partners within the same dental practice. Wouldn’t he always be looking to build himself up in front of our patients and staff at my expense? During one of our long discussions at the end of a grueling work week, I asked him about just that. His answer surprised me.

“There’s no competition between us,” he said. “I consider you totally a part of me.”

I didn’t necessarily understand it at the time, but looking back in hindsight, I can see where Doug always had my back. It really was like a marriage to him—united together in one flesh. Brotherhood, solidarity, and esprit de corps. Loyalty meant everything to him. What more could you ask from a colleague or friend?

At the end of his life, Doug had his priorities in order. He loved the Lord, he loved his family, he loved practicing orthodontics, and he loved his country. You might say he went out in a blaze of glory, completely at peace while surrounded by loved ones with all his priorities totally intact (although he’d never admit to the United States being “intact” with Democrats still in office). He was extremely proud of his military service.

Last but not least, Doug would have wanted everyone to know that he was an Eagle Scout. He once told me he valued his scout badges more than his orthodontic degree. It’s not surprising then that one of his favorite Scripture verses comes from the book of Isaiah.

“But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”  –Isaiah 40:31

Douglas Drymon Durbin—my Christian brother, orthodontic colleague, fellow patriot, and friend—a superhero of sorts to all who depended on him.

May you—Captain America—forever rest in peace.

Much ado about nothing

<strong>Much ado about nothing</strong>

If a basketball team preparing for a run at a ninth national title and a football team aiming for an SEC divisional championship weren’t enough, John Calipari and Mark Stoops decided to spice things up a bit this afternoon for all their passionate and rabid fans.

As you know, Calipari has been spearheading a campaign to build a new basketball practice facility for his program. Throughout the summer, the high-profile Hall of Fame coach has frequently hinted at all the money recently earmarked and spent on the numerous other programs on campus. With basketball being the flagship UK sport, he felt it was high time for his program to reap once again some of the spoils.

While basking in the comfort and opulence of his resort hotel suite in the Bahamas, Calipari went on the offensive again. In arguing his point, he took what many consider to be a shot at Kentucky’s up and rising football program.

“The reason is, this is a basketball school,” Calipari told reporters. “It’s always been that. Alabama is a football school. So is Georgia. I mean, they are. No disrespect to our football team. I hope they win ten games and go to bowls. At the end of the day, that makes my job easier, and it makes the job of all of us easier. But this is a basketball school. And so, we need to keep moving in that direction and keep doing what we’re doing.”

A few minutes after Kyle Tucker of The Athletic tweeted out Calipari’s quote, Mark Stoops responded with some biting sarcasm of his own.

“Basketball school? I thought we competed in the SEC?” Stoops said on Twitter. Stoops followed up his tweet with the hashtag “4straightpostseasonwins.”

As expected, social media immediately blew up. Kentucky football diehards, armed with pitchforks and torches, immediately went on the offensive, claiming Calipari was wrong to disparage the football team in such a dismissive manner.

You know what? They’re not wrong. But neither is Calipari, nor Stoops, nor anybody else with an opinion on this sticky topic.

When all is said and done, Kentucky IS A BASKETBALL SCHOOL. A rising tide floats all boats and over the years, the Kentucky Basketball Program has been an endless source of joy, pride, and financial riches for our beloved commonwealth. Mention University of Kentucky sports to anyone outside of the state and nobody thinks football, or baseball, or volleyball, or rifle, or tennis, or any other sport for that matter.

It’s always been basketball, and Calipari—as the leader of the program—is simply doing whatever he needs to be doing to make sure the program remains “the program with the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball.” You can’t fault a guy speaking with such passion and conviction.

And it’s not like Calipari’s ignored his gridiron compatriots or any of his other cohorts in the athletic department over his 14-year tenure either. He came in and set the bar high. He’s always been cooperative in recruiting and public relations. As a result, all the other athletic departments have benefitted tremendously on the coattails of Calipari’s self-professed (but immensely accurate) “Kentucky Effect.”

But neither is Stoops wrong either. Kentucky fans want and expect their head football coach to vigorously defend his turf. Over his 10-year tenure, Stoops has changed that turf from one of “laughingstock” to one of “laughing all the way to the bank.” He’s rightly upset to hear Calipari’s comments as his coaching staff continues to fight the other traditional football schools for the top recruits.

Did you really think, however, that either Calipari or Stoops would just simply bend over and kowtow to each other’s demands? They’re both simply doing what they’ve been paid to do—fight for their respective programs to make them the very best they can be.

Unfortunately, unless another Joe Craft-type benefactor comes down the pike, there won’t be enough money in the pot to fund everyone’s wishes. But it’ll be UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart weighing in on those important decisions. It won’t be you or me.

So, everybody chill. Don’t fret. Most importantly, don’t divide the fan base during this glorious time of gleeful anticipation. I guarantee you cooler heads will prevail. Calipari will laugh off his comments. He and Stoops will then find a way to walk back their little brouhaha, kiss and make up, and stroll hand in hand toward another run at championship glory.   

How a Super Dog Saved my Life

How a Super Dog Saved my Life

R-E-L-A-X. Take a deep breath. My beloved Boston Terrier isn’t dead just yet.

I’ve seen a lot of people writing on social media recently about the loss of their dogs. Their words and pictures are always poignant and soul stirring. But because their furry four-legged friends were already six feet under, the posts were also hauntingly sad. It got me to thinking—just like with our human loved ones, shouldn’t we be paying homage to our beloved pets while they’re still fully alive and kicking?

Ten years ago, I would have scrolled right past all those emotional social media musings without a second thought. You see, back then I wasn’t just indifferent to dogs, but I’d just as soon kick ‘em in the head. I was bitten by a dog as a kid, so I was naturally kind of scared of them. Plus, dogs were a genuine nuisance in my mind. They barked, they needed to be fed and groomed, they chewed on shoes and furniture, and they stank. I still remember going over to a friend’s house after school, and it always smelled like…wet dog.

Man, how times have changed. I’ve since learned that having a dog alters your entire perspective on life. Nowadays, I read every single one of those pet-centered tributes with moistened eyes and a sorrowful heart. Believe me, it took me half a century, but I finally fully get it now. They’re called “man’s best friend” for a reason, and I want to tell the world about my best friend, Bingo, while he’s still around to enjoy the accolades.

Bingo’s nine now. That’s the same age as me in dog years. We’re both slowing down, and I’m not sure how much more precious time we have left together. However long that time is, I’m planning on savoring it to the max. After all we’ve been through, I simply can’t imagine life without him.

The truth is, Bingo saved my life. No, he didn’t drag me out of a burning house ala Lassie or Rin Tin Tin. But my little Boston Terrier came along—a godsend from heaven—at just the time I needed him the most. As my wife was battling her demons, I got Bingo as an act of desperation—a last-ditch effort to ease the burden for Kanisa during her journey of spiraling depression.

Unfortunately, the ploy didn’t work. Man plans, God laughs. Kanisa ended up paying Bingo absolutely no heed. I was the one left filling his water bowl and scooping his poop.

During the first two years of his life, I was still working full time, so Bingo remained cooped up in his pen for ten to twelve hours at a time. I did my best to keep him active, but there’s only so much you can do when you’re always slumped over the dental chair. My heart literally aches when I think of those dark nights of the soul when that poor little puppy just laid around in solitude.

Saturdays and Sundays did, however, provide a temporary refuge of escape. I started taking Bingo on weekend trips. Glorious, fun-loving, carefree joyrides out to the countryside where we could both decompress and chill from the rigors of the work week and Kanisa’s psychotic rants.

Gradually, as I transitioned closer into retirement, those weekend activities became the norm. My worries of having this “mutt I had to take care of” gradually morphed into the merriment of a “little buddy I enjoyed having around.”

Those of you still reading know exactly what I’m talking about. As human beings, we’re wired for companionship. As that companionship with my wife teetered on the brink, many well-meaning friends told me to simply abandon ship. “No need to destroy two lives,” they said.  I didn’t need to hear that. Nor did I need any tempting distractions luring me into activities I would later regret.

No, all I needed at the time was a playful little slobber-mouthed, bug-eyed, tail-wagging, loud-snoring, foul-farting fur ball to keep me company. Bingo ended up going everywhere I went—on long runs, covering sporting events, jaunts to the beach, and cross-country airplane rides out to California. https://huangswhinings.com/2016/05/04/holding-my-breath/ I found myself immersed in the world of pet-friendly hotels, dog parks, and restaurant patio decks. Although life wasn’t necessarily grand, it suddenly became imminently survivable.

And now, here we are—both Bingo and I on the sunset side of our fleeting time on earth. With the average life span of a Boston being ten to fourteen and that of an average American male being seventy-six, our most productive years are undoubtedly behind us. Those sobering statistics don’t lie. If I heed my own advice, I better cherish every single second of our remaining moments together.

Here’s the best thing of all about Bingo. Kanisa loves him more than I do. It took a little while, but he eventually worked his magic on her also. For the past couple of years, the two have been inseparable. He’s been the best therapy money can buy.

So, I want the world to know that BINGO IS A GOOD BOY. As I’m writing this, my miracle mutt is at my feet snoring away. When he wakes up, I’m going to give him a huge hug. Then I’ll leash him to my waist (and heart), and we’ll go running off into the sunset together. https://huangswhinings.com/2016/05/06/i-love-la/

My Country ‘Tis of Thee

My Country ‘Tis of Thee

Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord; Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.

I happened to be down in Hoover, Alabama, for the SEC Baseball Tournament when I heard the horrific news. Another crazed gunman had opened fire at an elementary school, killing nineteen defenseless kids before law enforcement officials ended his rampage.

The contrast couldn’t have been more unsettling. Here I was in my happy place, watching a sporting event I loved, surrounded by thousands of other fans and their families, gleefully enjoying the liberties and freedoms of residing in arguably the greatest nation on the face of the earth.

Meanwhile, less than a thousand miles away in Uvalde, Texas, the parents of murdered ten-year-olds were undergoing unimaginable horror—being asked to submit DNA samples because their children’s bullet-mangled faces were disfigured beyond recognition.

Reports of the soul-shattering sobs of anguished moms and dads being informed of the slaughter gave me pause. CNN interviewing a heartbroken father crying over the loss of his beloved daughter stopped me dead in my tracks.

Like many of you, I was sickened by the news—repulsed, revolted, and on the verge of outrage. Baseball suddenly took a back seat to the real-life drama going on around me. For most of us, sports are just a pleasant distraction anyway. The end of a season pales in comparison to the end of a life—especially twenty-one lives cut way too short.

Unfortunately, reports of these tragedies have become far too common. Sandy Hook, Columbine, Marjory Stoneman Douglas—they roll off our tongue like a John Calipari word salad. Virginia Tech, Umpqua Community College, Cal State Fullerton—the list goes on and on.

To make matters worse, you can’t confine the carnage to just schools and colleges. As we’ve all been reminded of recently, we’re all open targets while shopping in supermarkets, worshipping in churches, and strolling through malls…or perhaps even cheering our teams on at the ballpark.

What’s more, every time we’re faced with a tragedy, we offer up a moment of silence, gather together in prayer, and resolve to make lasting changes. And yet, changes never come.

As a wide-eyed, impressionable four-year-old, I immigrated with my parents to America in 1963. No sooner had we arrived on the shores of freedom, the President of the United States gets his head blown off with a high-powered rifle.

Not long after that, Charles Whitman takes human target practice from the observation tower on the University of Texas campus, killing 14 and wounding 31. Less than two years later, Martin Luther King Jr. goes down to an assassin’s bullet, followed likewise by Robert F. Kennedy. You think those events didn’t impact my prepubescent brain? Of course they did. My thoughts haven’t changed much since then.

I’m Chinese, and Chinese people don’t usually own guns (btw, there aren’t many mass shootings in China). I’ve never owned a gun. The only time I’ve fired an assault rifle was on the range during my time in the Army, so I don’t really understand the American love affair with high-caliber firearms. But I do have good friends who’ll go to the grave protecting the second amendment. After all, America stands proudly as the land of the free and home of the brave. I get it.

But there comes a point when you have to say enough is enough. A country that can’t protect its most vulnerable citizens is not a country worth defending with your life. Whether gun issue, mental health issue, or hot-potato political issue, it’s high time for the highfalutin bigwigs in our nation’s capital to band together and collectively do what’s right and needed for humanity’s sake.

Comprehensive background checks for gun owners and gun violence restraining orders are an obvious first step. That to me is a no-brainer. The best way to stop these mass shootings is to prevent them from happening in the first place. Go a step further and reinstitute the universal ban on assault weapons and crack down on high-capacity magazines. Make it mandatory and easy for students to report perceived threats amongst themselves. Power-hungry politicians need to quit pandering to the cash cow that is the NRA.

If those actions restrict our freedoms, so be it. We made the same concessions when the towers went down. It’s the price we pay for living in a civilized nation. Despite our growing divisiveness, I still think the United States of America remains the greatest nation on earth.

I’ve got a six-year-old nephew who I love sharing time with. I can’t imagine dropping him off at school for the very last time ever. Or taking him to a ballpark for a bullet through his brain. And yet, that’s exactly what I’ve been despondent about over the past forty-eight hours. It’s exactly what our country should have been obsessing over for the past forty-eight years.

We can do better. We NEED to do better!

My country, ‘tis of thee

Sweet land of liberty

For this I…GRIEVE!

Land where my neighbors died

Land of political pride

From every mountainside

Let bullets reign.

But the greatest of these is FOOD

But the greatest of these is FOOD

And now these three remain: sex, sleep, and food. But the greatest of these is FOOD!

I’ve always loved food. Not only does eating food satisfy one of man’s basic biological needs, it can also give rise to one of his greatest earthly pleasures. That’s certainly true for me. Whether traveling the world sampling international cuisine or vegetating on my couch watching NetFlix, gluttony sadly sits atop my seven deadly sins list.

When it comes to food, I don’t discriminate. I’m as comfortable chowing down at any hole-in-the-wall burger joint as I am at a three-star Michelin fine dining restaurant. Fast food, comfort food, ethnic food, or junk food, it doesn’t matter a lick to me. I can handle vegan, vegetarian, sweet, or savory. If the food is good, bring it on. I’m like a Chinese Andrew Zimmern swooping in on his next delicious destination.

That’s why I’m heading down to the Asian Food Fest in downtown Cincinnati this weekend. This vibrant community festival celebrates culture and cuisine from the entire Pacific Rim and beyond. For me, it’s like a nostalgic trip down memory lane. I grew up eating all sorts of Chinese delicacies, so I’m looking forward to reconnecting with some of my fondest gastronomical delights.

In the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t drive up here solely to attend the food festival. I’m here on assignment covering the Cincinnati Reds. It’s the doubleheader from hell as the Reds are taking on the Pittsburgh Pirates in a drawn-out twin bill. Twelve consecutive hours in purgatory is a bit too much for anyone to sit through, so I’m taking a break between games to gorge myself silly.

As I approach the plaza on foot, I get my first whiff of paradise—the scintillating smells of simmering spices serenades my nostrils. This is what heaven must be like. But instead of streets paved with gold, the streets are lined with food vendors serving the tasting menu of my dreams. There’s no fake chop suey like you find at your local Kroger deli. Nope—you’re talking Malaysian Chicken Rendang, Kalua Pork Nachos, Vietnamese Empanadas, and the most delectable tofu Pad Thai this side of Bangkok. Where do I even begin?

There’s a definite strategy involved in approaching these food festivals. You can’t waste calories by making bonehead choices. The days of eating as much as I want without expanding my waistline are long gone. There’s no more tapeworm or hollow leg to fall back on. In other words, I’ve got to pace myself, be selective, and loosen my belt accordingly.

My strategy, then, is to start slow and to look for the longest lines. I queue up behind several Asian couples at this one place claiming to serve authentic Chinese fare. One bite into the barbecue pork steam bun stuffed with quail egg and Chinese sausage tells me I made the right choice. The sweet fluffy dough evokes a flood of memories from my youth. I can’t help but think of my dear Mama, rising up early to painstakingly hand knead the flour, roll out the dough, and lovingly craft those magically delicious baos.

A revelation suddenly occurs to me. Not only does everything taste good, but each item I choose has an indelible memory attached to it. The spicy coconut-based broth of the Curry Laksa reminds me of the first of many meals my beloved bride cooked for me. The authentic Nepalese Momo Dumplings spur recollections of food binges with my brother. When I marvel at the delicate scallion pancake holding together my Chinese Pork Taco, I’m reminded of the importance of solid life-long relationships. Never mind the Caucasian dude beside me choking on the spices, I’m in my happy place.

The food we eat is more than just sustenance. It’s our life as well as our lifeblood. It’s all the sights and smells and textures and tastes joining together to form a symphony of life experiences. You vividly remember exactly where you were when you bit into that first soup dumpling or tasted the crispiness of Peking Duck for the very first time.

Food speaks to you—just like a soothing musical ballad—in ways that words cannot. It takes you back to all those special times, to all those memorable places, and reconnects you with every person you’ve ever broken bread with over the course of your precious lifetimes.

Try saying that about sex, or sleep, or shelter, or any of our other basic human needs for that matter. You can’t. That’s why the greatest of these is food.

I’ll have the Mung Bean Noodles to go, please.

Books and Pizza

Books and Pizza

Two of my favorite life activities are writing books and eating pizza. Whenever I combine the two passions, it makes for one glorious day. Occasionally, my joy overflows and I feel compelled to share. Sunday was one of those times.

It’s Palm Sunday, and I’m headed out riding—not on my ass—but in my trusty white convertible. The temperature’s not quite warm enough to cruise with the top down, but the sun is shining, and the central Kentucky countryside is resplendent in all its verdant glory.

Beside me is Kyle Macy. Yeah, THE KYLE MACY, arguably the most popular Kentucky basketball player to have ever worn the uniform. Kyle and I did a book together titled From the Rafters of Rupp, and we’re headed up the backroads of horse country to Cynthiana, Kentucky, to do a book signing.

You never know how these appearances will pan out, so I’m wound tighter than a banjo string. Kyle, however, is just Kyle—cool, calm, and as collected as ever. We arrive about twenty minutes early at our pre-arranged venue. Kyle is confident we’ll sign a million books. I’m just hoping we won’t be the only ones there.

As usual, my worries are unfounded as a nice crowd materializes. Kyle dazzles them with his wonderful gift of gab. It amazes me how surprisingly candid he is when talking about UK Basketball. It’s obvious he loves the program—but as you’ll see in the book—he’s not afraid to speak his mind either. I, on the other hand, have been guzzling the blue Kool-Aid. I know the people aren’t here to listen to me anyway, so I stick to the party line whenever I’m asked a pointed question. Kyle rolls his eyes and tells me I’ve still got a lot to learn.

The Next Chapter Bookstore (thenextchapter41031.com) is a real gem. It’s relatively new, having opened in November of 2020…and having expanded to their fabulous new location in October of last year. The three owners—Jennifer Renaker, Ashley Peak, and Sherry Judy—greet us like long-lost cousins. You can feel the love they’ve poured into this business enterprise, as they bounce around energetically making everyone feel welcome. I see my other UK basketball book, Kentucky Passion, prominently displayed on the front shelf. Yep, this place is awesome. THIS PLACE IS AWESOME, INDEED! I’ll be back for sure.

After the books are signed and everyone’s happy, Kyle and I prepare for part two of our Sunday afternoon doubleheader. We’ve been invited for some homemade pizza at the house of the King. Doug Hampton is a former basketball referee and world-famous auctioneer. He’s also a New York Pizza School graduate and is well-known for his mouth-watering pies.

Before we indulge, however, we stop off on a parcel of holy ground. This is Joe B. Hall country, and no visit to Cynthiana would be complete without a visit to his mural. It’s much bigger and grander than I had imagined. Prior to his recent passing, many considered Joe the most beloved coach in America https://huangswhinings.com/2020/02/20/the-most-beloved-coach-in-america/. Kyle played for Coach Hall on that 1978 national championship team, and he assures me that Joe B. was as classy as they come.

The Dugan’s Pizza experience was downright heavenly. To be perfectly honest, it may just be the best pizza I’ve ever had. The dough was exquisite—tantalizingly chewy on the outside with a delectably airy and fluffy middle. The sauce was orgasmic, a puree of ripened tomatoes enhanced with the perfect blend of basil and garlic. And man…that cheese…the thought of that caramelized specialty brick cheese oozing together with the stringy mozzarella and sprinkled liberally atop with parmesan has me quivering as I write. Top everything off with a thick juicy slab of bacon or some flavorful pepperoni, and let’s fight to the death for that last corner square.

Predictably, Kyle and I gorge ourselves. He has four slices. I’m five-and-done. We both then cruise back towards Lexington disgustingly fat and happy. But WAIT…Kyle has a sweet tooth. He’s not done yet. We go for broke, pull up to the nearest Dairy Queen, and order our Blizzards. Just our luck—their ice cream mixer is broken.

I’m a bit ticked off, but Kyle shrugs it off. The guy is literally one cool cat. I figured with all the accolades and adoration he’s received over the years, these types of outings would get old in a hurry. I ask him if he enjoyed the day.

“Absolutely,” he answers me. “It’s always fun meeting people and talking about UK Basketball.”

I’m no Kyle Macy, but I’ll second the motion. Life is all about relationships—nurturing existing ones and formulating brand new ones. That’s easy to do with the folks in Cynthiana. They’re some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Plus, they bought all our books and fed us the best pizza south of Brooklyn. You can see why I’m feeling truly blessed. I’m living the dream.

Kyle and I will be at it again next week. Bullitt County, here we come. Crank up those Oreo Blizzards.

Books and ice cream, anyone?

Head on over to The Next Chapter Bookstore and pick up your signed copy of #FromTheRaftersOfRupp or #KentuckyPassion. Can’t make it out? Order here https://www.acclaimpress.com/books/from-the-rafters-of-rupp-the-book/

or https://www.amazon.com/Kentucky-Passion-Wildcat-Wisdom-Inspiration/dp/1684351669

and we’ll find a way to sign it for you next time you’re in town. In the meantime, be sure to follow me on Twitter @KYHuangs.