Oh, So Close!

Oh, So Close!

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

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

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

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

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

Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow felt the pain immediately afterwards.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you next year. WhoDey!

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

Rockin’ Like Old Times

Rockin’ Like Old Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shake, Rattle, and Die

Shake, Rattle, and Die

It was bound to happen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t let Kentucky Basketball Steal your Joy

Don’t let Kentucky Basketball Steal your Joy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday Night Horror

Monday Night Horror

Buffalo Bills’ players, coaches, and team officials kneeling in prayer at Paycor Stadium after abrupt and chilling ending to Monday Night Football (Photo Credit @BuffaloBills).

(CINCINNATI, Oh.) – It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

In what was shaping up as a game for the ages, Bengals versus Bills on Monday Night Football abruptly ended on a chilling note. Bills’ safety Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field after making what looked to be a routine tackle. After the collision, Hamlin—a second-year player out of Pittsburgh—popped back up on his feet but fell immediately to the turf a split second later.

The Buffalo Bills later confirmed that Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest following the hit. His heartbeat was restored on the field, and he was transferred to UC Medical Center for further testing and treatment. He is currently sedated and listed in critical condition.

Talk about scary. In one fell swoop, the overflowing record crowd at Paycor Stadium went from a night of anticipated merriment to several hours of abject horror.

For coaches, players, and their families, it had to be surreal. NFL players are a different breed of tough. They’re desensitized to broken bones, torn ligaments, and concussions as part of what they do. This injury, however, was different. Life or death is not part of the job description. You could see the shock, anguish, and concern etched on the faces of everyone on the sidelines. Imagine being Hamlin’s mom, escorted from her seat in the stands into the waiting ambulance taking her precious son to his unknown fate.

For media members in the press box, confusion reigned. We came to cover a football game matching two of the top teams in the league in their hunt for playoff seeding. We didn’t sign up for this. It’s difficult in that moment of chaos to process reliable truth with the rampant speculation around an unconfirmed medical prognosis. All of a sudden, everyone in the media room had a medical degree, or at least a relative working at the local hospital texting furiously with the latest breaking news on Hamlin’s condition.

As media members, we did the best we could in disseminating accurate information as the events were unfolding before us.

According to my notes, the tragic moment occurred at the 5:58 mark of the first quarter with the Bengals leading 7 – 3. I’ve watched a lot of professional football over the years. During that time, I’ve never seen a stretcher and ambulance summoned so quickly. Medical personnel furiously attended to Hamlin for about twenty minutes while the 67,000 or so looked on in stunned silence.

Watching players from both teams kneel jointly in prayer for a fallen comrade is always one of the most sobering sights in sports.

Five minutes after the ambulance pulled out, we all got the word that “the game was temporarily suspended until further notice.” Forty-five minutes later, after discussions with both teams, the NFL officially postponed the contest. During the next hour, people filed out of the stadium in a very orderly fashion, fully cognizant and accepting of the fact that no more football would be played that night.

In the tunnels underneath the stadium leading to the locker rooms, we witnessed players consoling each other and hugging their family members. Understandably, we had no access to any players, coaches, or administrative personnel.

“I don’t care who you are, you are not coming down this hallway,” said one Bengals’ official.

The evening was a stark reminder that as much as we love the NFL, the league embraces a brand of competitive violence that always leaves the door slightly ajar for these types of potential tragedies.

To be fair, however, this incident was indeed different and somewhat unique. I’m old enough to remember the Darryl Stingley paralysis in 1978, or Joe Theismann’s gruesome ankle injury on Monday Night Football in 1985. The Mike Utley, Ryan Shazier, and Tua Tagovailoa injuries are all nightmarish events. They’re all part of tragic sports moments everyone wishes never happened.

This was worse. Don’t get me wrong—career-ending injuries are awful. Life-altering paralysis is unfathomable. The long-term effects of CTE are becoming exposed as a living hell. But they simply don’t compare to the immediate acuteness of what we all experienced tonight.

Hamlin’s injury was akin to Hank Gathers collapsing and dying on the basketball court. Thirty-three years later, I still can’t get that image out of my mind.

I doubt if I’ll ever be able to dismiss this one either.

Dr. John Huang covers professional sports for Sports View America. This post first appeared on SportsViewAmerica.com. If you enjoy his writing, you can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

Meeting the Challenge

Meeting the Challenge

Bill Owen enjoys his last official day on the job at his beloved Rupp Arena (Dr. Michael Huang Photo).

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – If those Rupp Arena walls could talk, I’m sure they’d sound a lot like Bill Owen.

Owen, President and CEO of Lexington Center Corporation for twenty-two years, retired from his position as chief cook and bottle washer for one of Lexington’s most iconic and recognizable public-gathering facilities on December 31, 2022. A big Kentucky basketball fan, Owen appropriately spent his last official day on the job—at Rupp Arena—watching the Wildcats dismantle their in-state rival, the Louisville Cardinals.

“You can’t grow up in Lexington and not be a Wildcat fan,” Owen explained. “When I was in high school, I had a paper route, and [UK Athletics Director] Bernie Shively was one of my customers. Once a month, I would go to Memorial Coliseum and walk past Coach Adolph Rupp’s office, and Bernie Shively would pay me my $3.20.”

Growing up Blue

As such, Owen’s connection to Lexington and the University of Kentucky was solidified early on. Born in Gainesville, Georgia, Owen moved to Lexington when he was only two years old. His father served as head pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, so the preacher’s kid grew up in the Ashland Park area of the city, attending Cassidy Elementary, Morton Junior High, and Henry Clay High School.

Owen would naturally go on to attend the University of Kentucky. After graduating with a degree in history (class of ’73), he surprisingly found himself working in commercial real estate development and asset management. Six years learning from Wallace Wilkinson (before he became governor) and another six years working with the renowned Webb Brothers honed his business skills to a tee. That led directly to Owen taking on his Chief Administrative/Financial Officer role for Lexington Center Corporation in 1991. Nine years later, when Tom Minter retired, Owen took on the role of President and CEO.

Lexington Center Transformation

If you somehow hadn’t noticed, the Lexington Center recently underwent a transformative facelift under Owen’s dedicated watch. The project was unique—not a mere renovation, mind you, but rather a virtual complete replacement and restoration. Because most indoor sports venues traditionally have short shelf lives, you won’t find many comparable basketball arenas like Rupp—not only surviving, but still relevant and thriving forty-five years after initial construction.

“They blew up Charlotte Coliseum after only nineteen years,” Owen ruefully recounted. “I’ve got underwear that’s older than that.”

In today’s climate, working with a daunting $310 million budget is nothing to scoff at, and Owen made sure every penny of it was properly distributed and allocated in this latest rebuild. The result is a brand spanking new looking Lexington Center, a shining beacon of pride within the local civic, arts, and business communities. None of that would have been possible without Bill Owens spearheading the charge.

And what a fabulous charge it’s been. Big-time concerts, memorable sporting events, and world-renowned visitors are all part of Lexington Center Corporation’s rich and vibrant pedigree crafted during Owen’s sparkling tenure.

Rupp Arena

The parade of concerts featuring A-list celebrities visiting Rupp Arena is long and lengthy—everybody from Paul McCartney to Elton John to Tina Turner. Owen specifically remembers being wound tighter than a banjo string the time he booked Turner. When it came time for her sound check the day of the concert, the “queen of rock ‘n’ roll” was nowhere to be found. It turns out her limo driver had mistakenly taken her to Louisville instead of Lexington. Fortunately, with the help of a police escort and a slight curtain delay, the Rupp audience rocked for a full two and a half hours as Owen looked on in relief.

Then there was the Garth Brooks concert on Halloween weekend in 2014. If you remember, Brooks played four performances over two nights in front of 70,000 adoring fans. Over the years, Owen admits to becoming somewhat celebrity desensitized, but he remembers meeting Garth backstage and talking about their kids attending the same colleges.

“By gosh, here I am standing here talking to Garth Brooks, and it’s like I’m talking to another dad I just met at a tailgate,” said Owen, himself a proud father of three.

The very next night, however, it was back to reality as the University of Kentucky hosted Pikeville in a college basketball game. When it came to Rupp Arena, there was never a dull moment.

“What that building contributes to the community,” Owen gushed. “Obviously it’s the home of UK Basketball, which is its marquee and our most important relationship—but for the community and for the state of Kentucky, it’s so much more. You can’t underestimate its impact. Being able to stretch its life well beyond its peer group, that’s kind of special.”

As far as basketball games at Rupp, Tayshaun Prince’s five three-pointers to begin the game versus North Carolina stands out prominently in Owen’s mind. Hosting NCAA tournament games also provided quite a thrill. Coincidentally, Owen served as the official scorer’s table representative when Rick Pitino’s Louisville squad was upset by Texas A&M in 2007.

“Had Pitino not done that, we would have never heard of Billy Gillispie,” Owen quipped.

Convention Center

Not to be outdone, the Lexington Convention Center has had its share of grand moments and distinguished visitors as well. President George W. Bush came a calling for the Little League International Congress in 2010. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama also made visits to the Lexington Center during subsequent years.

“Growing up in Lexington, I think of our little burg of a community,” Owen reflected. “But yet, here we are hosting sitting and former presidents in our convention facilities. It’s something you think about. Our organization met that challenge. I guess that’s one of the things that’s significant with the Lexington Center’s staff. As an organization, we met every challenge. I can’t think of a thing that we were ill equipped to achieve. And now opening this really grand new facility, that’s kind of the zenith of it.”

Owen, with President George W. Bush, at the Little League International Congress held at the Lexington Convention Center in 2010.

Opera House

And finally, there’s the Opera House, one of the smallest theaters in the country that still offers its patrons a touring Broadway series. The city bought it through Lexington Center Corporation, renovated it, and gave it new life.

“I’m reminded of the line from The Wizard of Oz,” Owen said. “Dorothy, with tears in her eyes, looks at the Scarecrow and says, ‘I think I’ll miss you most of all.’ And they put that on a plaque on the entrance to the Opera House. And it’s next to a plaque where the original founders and board of directors of Lexington Center Corporation are listed. And to think that my name is up there with them. That’s very humbling—particularly for somebody who grew up here.”

Owen’s commemorative plaque at entrance to the Lexington Opera House. “I think I’ll miss you most of all.”

Disasters Looming

Lest you think Owen’s tenure was all sunshine and roses, think again. Two of the most significant world-wide crises occurred on his watch.

For Owen, 911 resulted in many sleepless nights. As a public assembly building manager, he spent countless hours poring over those endless reviews by Homeland Security. Think about it. That fateful Tuesday morning in 2001 forever changed the manner in which people gathered for concerts, conventions, and ballgames.

Covid-19 threw Owen an even bigger haymaker.

“March 12, 2020, for me was the day the earth stood still,” he recounted. “We’re in the second day, first game of the girls’ Sweet 16 tournament. We had just come off of three record-setting financial years. The arena is deeply under construction…and it all comes apart.”

In one fell swoop, Lexington Center went from one hundred twenty-six full-time employees to, at one point, only seventeen. Personnel decisions are always difficult. After all, it’s your work family. Time after time, Owen had to tell a lot of good friends that they couldn’t work there anymore. That was especially tough.

Tensions with UK

Here’s something I perceived was even tougher on Owen. Over the years, it’s been well documented that the city of Lexington and the University of Kentucky have engaged in a tireless (and often bitter) tug of war over ownership rights to Rupp Arena. Should a downtown location be the major community focus, or would an on-campus facility better serve the needs of the university? With so much at stake financially, it’s natural for friction to develop between the two negotiating factions, especially when they possess different end goals.

You know you’ve struck a nerve when you’re satirized in an editorial cartoon.

And yet, Owen kept his cool and remained philosophical through it all—the fickle fate of his beloved arena forever at the mercy of an unexpected regime change, a newly elected public official, or the ever-shifting whims of the state legislature.

“I’ve been married fifty years,” he told me. “UK has been in this building forty-six years. Our relationship with UK as our tenant is not unlike my relationship with my wife. It’s not like it’s been fifty years of wedded bliss and everything great. Nor has it been fifty years of combat and conflict. There’s been a share of both. But overall, both of us are a lot better off because of the relationship. And that’s kind of the way we are with UK. There are times when it’s been more of a business relationship. And other times it’s been more of a partnership.”

Who’ll Steer the Ship Now?

At age 71, Owen appears fully prepared for the upcoming retirement transition. In 2018, Lexington Center Corporation entered into a booking and management agreement with OVG, Oakview group. The California based private management company fully took over operations in October of 2021 and has since become the new Bill Owen—just as the old Bill Owen dutifully served out his term as Director of Construction in order to complete the final phases of the building project.

Understandably, Owen has a few reservations about an out-of-state corporate entity making future decisions regarding his community treasures.

“I’ve had to make my share of decisions,” Owen acknowledged. “In twenty-two years as CEO here, I’ve made an awful lot of decisions with my head. But I’ve made some with my heart too. Can you develop that if you don’t have a personal connection with the community? You probably can, but it’s easier to develop if you’ve got that connection.”

Grandpa Bill

On a personal level, I can’t see Bill Owen sitting on the couch watching Netflix and eating Bonbons. You never know, though. Everyone has their own way of dealing with major life changes.

Family Strong! Seated Left to Right: Owen, wife Debby, daughter Katie. Standing Left to Right: Daughter-in-law Sydney, son Grant, daughter Kristen.

“You can prepare for retirement every way but emotionally,” Owen said with a wry smile. “You can’t prepare emotionally until you experience it. I’ve worked steadily since I was fifteen. I got my last paycheck a week or so ago. I told my wife, ‘I’m not getting a paycheck anymore.’ That’s an adjustment.”

Owen’s wife, Debby, hates to fly, so large-scale travel most likely won’t be an adjustment problem in the years to come. Although they own some Florida property, Owen assures me he’s staying put in Lexington. He may do some consulting. A distillery docent or a horse farm tour guide aren’t out of the question, either. Most importantly, Owen just enjoys spending time with his three-year-old grandson, L.J.

“He’s taken over without firing a shot,” Owen joked. “Had I known they’d be so much fun, I would have had them first. It’s nice being close to family. I’m blessed with that.”

Owen, with grandson L.J., at a recent UK basketball game.

Thoughts Regarding Legacy

Sitting in the concourse of Rupp Arena, I asked Owen about leaving a legacy. What were his most significant professional accomplishments? How did he want others to remember him as he walked out the door?

“That’s a tough question,” he answered pensively. “I managed to be a part of keeping the torch lit. And improving all of our facilities—Rupp Arena, the Convention Center, the Opera House primarily—and extending our facilities’ contribution to the city, and to the community for a long while.”

Owen then whipped out his phone and showed me a picture of a brand-new street sign on the private driveway connecting Manchester Street to the Rupp Arena garage. The sign said “Bill Owen Way.”

“That was bestowed on me just two weeks ago,” he said. “I’m very proud of that. I’m very humbled by that.”

The newly dedicated Bill Owen Way leading up to Rupp Arena.

The Importance of Faith

Appropriately, I concluded my chat with Owen about a topic very near and dear to his heart—his Christian faith. Over time, I’ve interviewed a lot of successful individuals, and I’ve noticed one thing in particular. People of faith are somehow different. There’s a special aura surrounding them. That was certainly true of Owen. Through all his business successes, the son of a Baptist preacher always managed to keep spiritual things at the front of the line.

“I’ve grown up in the church,” he said. “I was active in leadership. I taught Sunday School. A personal faith and belief in God and reaching him through a Savior in Jesus Christ for me is an important part of my life. It always has been. The hope of something grander after this life is something I was taught, something I believed—and still believe.”

“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.’”

Congratulations, Bill Owen, on your retirement.

A very hearty “thanks” to you and your talented and dedicated staff at Lexington Center Corporation for always meeting the challenge!

Dr. John Huang is a UK columnist for Nolan Group Media and editor-in-chief of JustTheCats.com. He also covers the NFL and MLB for Sports View America. You can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs. If you enjoy his writing, be sure to check out his new book, KENTUCKY PASSION. https://www.amazon.com/Kentucky-Passion-Wildcat-Wisdom-Inspiration/dp/1684351669

Free Wheeler

Free Wheeler

Kentucky’s starting point guard, Sahvir Wheeler, has been a lightning rod for criticism (Dr. Michael Huang Photo).

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – Most sports fans love an occasional juicy quarterback controversy. How about, then, a point guard controversy? Not since the days of Saul Smith has Kentucky Basketball experienced the vitriol and venom currently coming Sahvir Wheeler’s way.

Smith, if you remember, was the son of then UK coach Tubby Smith. Arguably, Saul had decent point-guard skills, but many passionate UK fans thought he just wasn’t a Kentucky caliber point guard. Not only did he take up a valuable slot on the roster, but his presence alone discouraged other more talented point guards from even considering the Wildcats.

The taunts and jeers directed toward Saul by opposing fans in hostile road venues were downright legendary (and not fit to print). That shouldn’t really surprise anyone. What really was surprising were the insults and epithets hurled at Saul by supposedly loyal UK fans.   

Wheeler, for those who haven’t guessed, is the current starting point guard for the No. 13-ranked Kentucky Wildcats. A transfer from Georgia—playing in his second season for Coach John Calipari—Wheeler led the Southeastern Conference in assists for the past two years in a row. Listed at 5-9 and 180 pounds, the senior from Houston, Texas, has the necessary skills to thrive at the collegiate level. His statistical accomplishments thus far speak for themselves.

I’m not saying the level of disgruntlement with Wheeler is approaching anything like it was with Smith during his playing days twenty years earlier. But with the advent of social media, the naysayers are louder, they’re just as insensitive, and everyone seems more vicious than ever.

The rumblings started last year on the trip to Notre Dame. Wheeler played 29 minutes but had as many turnovers (2) as he did assists in Kentucky’s disappointing 66 – 62 upset loss. Left wide open as the game wound down, Wheeler missed all five of his attempts from the field (0 – 2 from behind the arc). To add insult to injury, Irish players in the postgame interviews disclosed the game plan was to let Wheeler take open shots because they knew he couldn’t make them.

Ouch! That’s not good.

The discord with Wheeler escalated throughout the year and reached a peak during Kentucky’s shocking defeat to Saint Peter’s in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Wheeler and his teammates acted as if they had never played the game. Rushed shots, turnovers, and missed free throws (one a near air ball) with the game on the line led to one of the worst moments in the storied program’s history. Once again, the questions arose about whether Wheeler could hit open shots, make split-second decisions, and lead the team in crunch time.

Enter, this season, Cason Wallace. The 6-4 freshman guard—also from the Lone Star state—has superstar written all over him. Blessed with a maturity beyond his years, and the athletic size and skills to match, Wallace landed in Calipari’s starting lineup with both guns blazing. Although playing off the ball with Wheeler on the court, the silky-smooth Wallace’s shot-making (53% FG, 52% on 3-pointers), ball-handling, and defensive wizardry (22 steals) had people clamoring for him to immediately wrestle the point guard duties away from Wheeler.

Meanwhile, missed open shots (39% FG, 32% 3-pointers), bricked free throws (59%), out-of-control turnovers (15), and a lingering knee injury continued to plague Wheeler during the first nine games of this regular season. In the most recent contest versus Yale, he took more shots (14) than Wallace, Antonio Reeves, and CJ Fredrick—Kentucky’s designated dead-eye shooting trio—combined. Worst yet, Wheeler seemed constantly rushed, pounding the ball well into the shot clock and having to throw up prayer after prayer before time would ultimately expire. Through it all, he only registered one lonely assist.

Scroll through any social media timeline, website commentary, or message board posting, and I’ll guarantee you’ll find a post or two eviscerating Wheeler. To be honest, I’m somewhat embarrassed reading through the stench. He’s a college student for God’s sake. It’s hard enough suffering through daily Calipari tirades in practice. How difficult must it be to endure all this additional mindless drivel from the peanut gallery as well?

Well, it turns out that Sahvir Wheeler is a bigger man than those who are trying to tear him down. I asked him recently how he deals with the constant negativity surrounding his play and about the alleged point-guard controversy brewing among fans and media.

“I think that’s you guys,” he said disarmingly with a smile on his face. “That’s a lot of the media. I’ve never had any friction [with Wallace]. Even last year there were people who said there was friction with TyTy [Washington]. That’s never the case. When there’s a dead ball, I get it. Sometimes, when there’s a rebound, I just run, and Cason has it. I think we just naturally feed off each other that way. We have two aggressive, down-hill guards who defend on both ends.”

That’s truth speaking. Whenever I’m asked about whether I think Wheeler or Wallace should be the point guard, my answer is always, “Yes.” I think Kentucky needs both at peak efficiency to make a run at a ninth national title this year. Let’s face it, we all thought this team would be full of long, athletic, and skilled players running, dunking, and blocking opponents’ shots.  We also envisioned shot makers who could fill it up from the perimeter. The team needs Wheeler’s speed to generate all those transition buckets. They also need his passing skills getting the ball into the shooters’ hands.

The stagnant UK offense we’ve seen thus far isn’t entirely Wheeler’s fault. Neither is dribbling out the shot clock and then driving the lane out of desperation. That’s a coaching issue, and one that we all assume Calipari will iron out with Wheeler by March. Remember, Calipari is the Hall of Fame coach making nine million dollars a year. Berating Wheeler privately and banishing him to the bench should be left in his capable hands—not ours.

Plus, Wheeler is smart enough to ignore all the chatter. He’s got a personal Instagram account he uses to deal with NIL. But other than that, all your insults are like water off a duck’s back to him.

“If you guys are saying some great stuff, I have no idea,” he readily acknowledged. “If you guys are killing me, I have no idea. It’s been good. I love the fans. I know the fans who are at the games, they come up to me and show me love. It’s been pretty awesome so far this year.”

I’m not sure I believe Wheeler. After all, he’s only human. I’m sure some of the things he hears is bound to leak through and upset him—especially when it gets personal. But Wheeler’s response and attitude is exactly the resiliency I want in my point guard. The guy’s tough as nails. He has a huge heart. He realizes what it takes to be a winner. With a little more guidance from his coach, the negative chatter should readily subside.

“That’s part of it,” Wheeler willingly conceded. “If you’re not doing anything right, you won’t have anyone hating on you. It’s all part of it. I’ve learned to embrace it, enjoy it, to keep learning and keep on winning.”

Sounds like a guy who has his act together. I wouldn’t worry about him one iota. In the end, Sahvir Wheeler doesn’t care what you or I think. In the game of life, he doesn’t need any of us to set him free.

Dr. John Huang is a UK columnist for Nolan Group Media and editor-in-chief of JustTheCats.com. He also covers the NFL and MLB for Sports View America. You can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs. If you enjoy his writing, be sure to check out his new book, KENTUCKY PASSION. https://www.amazon.com/Kentucky-Passion-Wildcat-Wisdom-Inspiration/dp/1684351669

The best take yet on NIL

<strong>The best take yet on NIL</strong>

The problem with NIL (paying college athletes for use of their name, image, and likeness) is that nobody feels comfortable speaking out against it. Seriously, who in their right mind begrudges student-athletes for seeking fair and legal compensation from the massive money-making machine that is the NCAA?

This is America, after all—the land of opportunity, free enterprise, and capitalism. If Will Levis and Oscar Tshiebwe can pull in a million bucks in endorsements alone while throwing touchdowns and grabbing rebounds, then more power to them.

As with every opportunity in life, however, there are pluses and minuses. There is no free lunch. Sure, Will and Oscar can rake in the cash, but if they become fat and happy during their college careers, is that necessarily good for the game?

I know a lot of people who think these current developments are horrible for the game. Sadly, they can’t really speak out coherently against NIL without sounding like old men shouting “get off my lawn” at the top of their lungs. Voicing any opposition to NIL in the current sports landscape makes you look jealous, self-absorbed, petty, and dated.

That is, until you hear someone like Keenan Burton expressing his views. Burton played wide receiver for the University of Kentucky from 2004 through 2007. By the time he was drafted by the St. Louis Rams of the NFL, the Louisville native ranked fourth in school history in receptions, second in receiving yards, and second in touchdowns. Trust me, the guy has credibility.

So, when Burton made an appearance on Alan Cutler’s new show (on WLXG ESPN Sports Radio 1300 and 92.5), he parlayed his personal thoughts into what Cutler termed as “radio gold”—the best NIL take he’s heard thus far.

“What I think is going on is that you have these kids who are not committed to a brand,” Burton explained. “They’re not committed to a school. They’re committed to themselves. Once that school doesn’t tell them what they think they are worth, then they’re not going to go there.”

Burton admits that he would have made a whole lot of money if NIL existed back in his day. But that’s not what drove him. In fact, the concept of NIL would have worked counter to everything he stood for. As a college athlete, Burton knew he needed to stay hungry and properly focused.

“What’s happened with the game right now—especially for a lot of kids—is that they’re totally focused on ‘what can be given to me’ as opposed to ‘what can I earn.’ And I think that’s an issue…It sucks, but it’s just that these kids are not motivated when it comes to the grind.”

That sounds like the age-old issue of ENTITLEMENT creeping into the conversation. Burton lamented that gone are the days when athletes would commit to the brand because they wanted to be at Kentucky to play ball.

“For a kid like me, who didn’t have any offers, but Kentucky came and it meant something to me to put the blue and white on—to put Kentucky on my chest. And I don’t see that in any of these kids. Not to say that they won’t play for the greater good of the university. But if they have to choose between themselves and the school, they’re always going to choose themselves. I could have done that. I could have chosen myself, but I didn’t. I chose the school. It may have hurt my future, but I don’t regret the decision that I made.”

There you have it. It’s not so much the idea that money is changing hands, but that the character, makeup, and fortitude within young people is changing for the worse right before our eyes. That’s the huge downside and worrisome aspect to all this NIL talk.

So, what can be done about it?

Unfortunately, the horse is out of the barn. We’re truly dealing with the Wild Wild West, and Kentucky has been painfully slow in getting in on the NIL action. According to Burton, they’re well behind the eight ball in the nuclear arms race to build up the necessary NIL money to stay competitive.

Kentucky has no football tradition. What’s stopping any school from approaching a Barion Brown or Dane Key and telling them they’re losing their quarterback next year and they have no backup to get them the ball? It’s only a matter of time before they transfer to another school which can offer them a boatload of NIL money.

“The days of guys that really care about the sport—that care about the brand, that care about whether or not they were a part of something special, that’s not already built—those days are over. It’s over. It’s what can you pay me.”

Strong words indeed, but Burton wasn’t finished piling on. He went on to imply that Kentucky’s misfortunes on the gridiron this year may be directly related to the NIL mindset. Remember early on when people scoffed at the notion of jealousy over other teammates’ NIL deals creating all this locker room dissension? No one’s laughing now as human nature rears its ugly head.

“I’m just looking at me, Stevie [Johnson], Andre’ [Woodson], Jacob [Tamme], Wesley [Woodyard], and some other guys making a quarter of a million to a million dollars a year. And I’m listening to an assistant coach who’s making two hundred and fifty thousand? And I’m supposed to listen to you? So, it goes past the game. It goes back to respect. It goes back to am I coachable? Am I teachable? Am I somebody who can be trained, developed? Because I’m not listening to you because I make more money than you make in a year. And I play for you. So, why would I listen to you?”

“I’m sure they’re dealing with that right now with Will Levis. I don’t know how much money he makes. I don’t know what he’s getting in endorsements right now with NIL and all that stuff. But I’m sure there are some guys in that locker room who are like, ‘Nah, nah, nah, no, uh-uh.’ And I hate it because [Levis] seems like such a good kid. It’s no fault of his.”

Burton explained, however, that if Andre’ Woodson made a million bucks while he, Johnson, Tamme, and Dicky Lyons Jr. split a million, there’d be hell to pay in the locker room.

“We’re catching all his passes,” Burton said. “You don’t want to think like that. Obviously when it comes to the grind, that’s what I care about the most. The money would be what it is. But when you’ve introduced it, you can’t unlearn it.”

Cutler ended the segment by asking what Burton would do if he were the commissioner of college football.

“I’d resign,” Burton answered.

Smart man. At the beginning of the process, everybody was clamoring for NIL. Now, people aren’t so sure. Be careful what you ask for. The sport we all love may be imploding—with Kentucky at the bottom of the ash heap.

Check out the entire interview here. The NIL talk begins around the 43:30 mark of the 11/18/2022 episode: The Alan Cutler Show | WLXG – Lexington, KY

Interestingly, here was my initial take on NIL: https://huangswhinings.com/2021/07/11/name-image-and-likene/

Dr. John Huang is a UK columnist for Nolan Group Media and editor-in-chief of JustTheCats.com. He also covers the NFL and MLB for Sports View America. You can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs. If you enjoy his writing, be sure to check out his new book, KENTUCKY PASSION. https://www.amazon.com/Kentucky-Passion-Wildcat-Wisdom-Inspiration/dp/1684351669

Daughter Dearest

<strong>Daughter Dearest</strong>

Our daughter, Katie, got married this weekend. From the very second she was born, her mom and I always wondered if her wedding day would conjure up some bittersweet moments. We figured we’d get sorrowfully choked up watching our one and only child cleave from her parents and unite as one with her brand-new husband.

Sadly, no longer would I be the main man in her life. Even though I loved her first, there was a new sheriff in town. Maybe I’m biased, but I think wedding days are especially difficult for dads with daughters.

Emotions ran high as I saw my little girl in her wedding dress. While standing in an alcove off to the side, my mind played through a kaleidoscope of images of her being born. Immediately after delivery, Katie had trouble breathing. The doctors thought there might be something wrong with her heart. That’s every parent’s nightmare.  

I remember the ecstasy of finally bringing her home from the hospital for the first time. Then, as the years flew by, teaching her how to swim, dropping her off at school, and taking her to Space Camp. There were also those god-awful piano recitals, suicidal toboggan rides down Stonewall Hill, and endless treks on our adventure vacations around the globe.

How could it have possibly gone by so quickly? How did she grow up so fast? Why didn’t I savor those precious moments more? I’d say that’s every parent’s lament.

Suddenly, the big moment was upon us. It was as peculiar as it was poignant taking Katie’s hand, walking her down the aisle, and proudly giving her away. As the wedding officiant, it was even more surreal leading the couple through the ceremonial vows proclaiming them as husband and wife. How many other dads get that honor?

Please God, don’t let me mess it up.

To begin the ceremony, I talked about how marriage is more than a legal contract between two people. It’s a holy covenant that God designed between a man and a woman to reflect the relationship between his son, Jesus, and his beloved bride, the church. As such, there are oaths and vows and sacred promises made to one another. There are signs and symbols and ceremony involved in the process. I emphasized to the bride and groom that there was much more to it than just my signature on a page.

Moving forward, I then gave Katie and CJ what I thought was the secret to a successful marriage relationship. The secret is twenty-five percent. Let me explain.

Everyone has heard that marriage is a fifty-fifty proposition, that the husband and wife are equals. But I’m telling you right now that it’s not enough for the couple to meet each other halfway. Fifty percent simply is not adequate. You have to put in that additional twenty-five percent. If both parties go seventy-five percent toward each other, chances are excellent that the marriage will overflow with grace, mercy, forgiveness, and the unconditional love that God desires for it.

And then occasionally when the sh*t hits the fan, one of the partners might just have to suck it up and go one hundred percent of the way.

I’m confident that Katie understands that already. She and I have been through the fire. We’ve battled through some horrific trials together in dealing with Kanisa’s life-altering mental health issues. I couldn’t have survived without my precious daughter. I can’t adequately express how thankful and proud I am of her for always being there for me. We’re as close as a father and daughter could possibly be to each other. And now I’m giving her away.

As the couple exchanged rings and I pronounced them husband and wife, I was struck by the sanctity of the moment. Strangely, there wasn’t a trace of sadness coursing through my mind or heart at all. Rather, the only emotion I felt was a pure sense of joy watching Katie and CJ embark on a lifelong covenental journey together. Kanisa and I weren’t losing a daughter after all. God was blessing us with a pat on the back.

Katie and CJ—on the biggest day of your young lives, I’m the happiest man on the face of the earth.