The Most Beloved Coach in America

The Most Beloved Coach in America

Just mention the name Joe B. Hall, and everybody in Big Blue Nation goes gaga. After all, we’re talking about the basketball coach who followed in the footsteps of the legendary Adolph Rupp by leading Kentucky to their 5th National Championship in 1978. This is the same guy who won 297 games in his thirteen years at the Wildcat helm, and after retirement, became arguably the greatest ambassador for the program with the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball.

So imagine how excited I was to be able to read Coach Joe B. Hall’s brand-new book, “Coach Hall: My Life On and Off the Court.” Joe B. claims it’s not a basketball book, but I’ll have to disagree. Because to those of us who love UK sports, anything associated with our cherished Coach Hall is ultimately related to basketball.

Don’t anybody worry. I’m not going to spoil it for you. But here’s my take for those who want to know if the book is really any good.

Oh, it’s good all right—much better than I thought it would be. Granted, the suspense lags a bit as Joe shares stories about his youth, but it really ratchets up when basketball enters the picture. As Adolph Rupp steps on to the stage, the narrative suddenly goes ballistic.

I won’t say that Joe throws Coach Rupp under the bus. No—far from it. He maintains the same level of respect and deference for his mentor that we’ve always known him to have. But make no mistake about it, Joe goes out of his way to set the record straight on how Coach Rupp did everything in his power to avoid losing his job—including sabotaging Joe’s desire to follow in his footsteps. In Joe’s own low-key approach, he pokes fun at Coach Rupp in ways that made me laugh out loud. I thought I was fairly knowledgeable on what went on behind the scenes—but what Joe ultimately reveals will make you do several double takes.

The book’s an easy read. I finished it in one sitting in just a couple of hours, so don’t expect a whole lot of deep character development. In fact, most of the star players get just a quick mention, and there are only a few chapters devoted to some of the more memorable games. Not surprisingly, Bobby Knight comes across as the jerk that he is. And bring out the Kleenexes for his farewell to Katharine.

Overall, Marianne Walker does an excellent job of making the book readable, entertaining, and most importantly—an accurate portrayal of arguably the most beloved coach in the history of UK Basketball. If I had one major criticism, it’s that the book needed to be longer. It glossed over issues I thought needed closure. From that perspective, it didn’t do justice to the legacy Joe deserves.

Joe B’s popularity has skyrocketed since he stepped down as head coach after the 1984-85 season. Those of you familiar with the program back in the 80s surely remember when this grandfatherly figure from Cynthiana wasn’t loved by everyone. Believe it or not, a lot people wanted him fired.

Since confession is good for the soul, permit me to clear my conscience. I was one of those people who wanted Joe ousted after Kentucky lost to Middle Tennessee State University in the first round of the Mideast Regional of the 1982 NCAA Tournament. Are you kidding me? How can a team with all-stars such as Dirk Minniefield, Jim Master, Charles Hurt, Derrick Hord, Melvin Turpin, and Dicky Beal lose to an opponent with the likes of Ed “Pancakes” Perry and Lucious “Buck” Hailey?

“Joe can’t coach his way out of a wet paper bag,” I remembered saying to my dental school classmates. “Joe must go,” we all chanted. “Hall must fall,” the people screamed.

All these memories came flooding back to me a couple of months ago when I was invited, by Kentucky sports guru Oscar Combs, to former UK player Larry Stamper’s 70th birthday celebration. Of course, Coach Hall was also invited. The legend himself made the trip all the way from Louisville, and fortuitously (for me), ended up sitting immediately to my left.

Here was someone who was larger than life, who I had literally worshipped back in ’78 when the Cats won that first title of my lifetime. (Never mind, just five years later, I wanted him tarred and feathered—but that’s neither here nor there.) The point being now—nearly four decades later—I’m literally breaking bread with the basketball icon of my youth. You talk about living a dream!

We talked about that ’82 team…and when the moment was right, I admitted to him that I wanted him fired after the loss.

“So did a lot of other people,” Joe answered with a wry smile. “Welcome to the club.”

I think that’s exactly why Coach Joe B. Hall is the most beloved coach in America. Despite his exalted status, the guy remains forever approachable. If you ever saw him shopping in Sam’s Club, you felt like you could go up to him and talk hoops anytime. Don’t get me wrong—Coach Hall was serious about his coaching responsibilities, but he never took himself too seriously. As such, he never really got the credit that he deserved.

As the successor to Coach Rupp, Joe B. Hall was “the keeper of the flame.” He knew the importance Kentucky Basketball played in the lives of the people of the Commonwealth, and he guarded that knowledge with every ounce of his being. He knew how vital it was to keep not only the winning tradition, but the passion alive.

During his coaching tenure, Joe B. took a boatload of All-American primadonnas and not only made them winners on the basketball court but also instilled in them the discipline necessary to be productive young men. In other words, Coach Hall—through the players he coached—reflected (and continues to reflect) the glory that is Kentucky Basketball back to the rest of world. He made us all proud to be citizens of BBN.

As the party celebration wound down, I relished my time in the presence of Wildcat royalty. I sat enthralled—between bites of Larry Stamper’s delectable homemade banana pudding— listening to Larry and fellow teammate Jim Andrews reminisce about their playing days. I learned that Kevin Grevey and Jimmy Dan Conner were two of the messiest teammates around. I also learned about a harrowing plane ride down to Louisiana and the subsequent reason why Larry had a clunker of game against LSU.

All the while, Joe B. listened patiently, sat serenely, and just smiled—like a proud father watching over his precocious kids, basking in his own memories as the patriarch of the greatest blue-blooded family in the history of the game.

Godspeed Joe! Thank you so much for being exactly who you are. Here’s another big hug on behalf of a loving and grateful Big Blue Nation.

 

Derby Sober

Derby Sober

(LOUISVILLE, Ky.) – Truth be told, the Kentucky Derby really isn’t about the horse race. What really captures one’s imagination is the spectacle of the entire Derby Day experience. Oh sure, history will note that Country House won the 145th annual “Run for the Roses” after Maximum Security was disqualified for interference. But the real memories of the first Saturday in May always fall back to the pageantry, the traditions, and the pomp and ceremony taking place in and around the race itself.

“It’s a great moment,” said winning jockey Flavien Prat. “It’s a dream come true…it’s amazing. I mean, there’s no race like the Kentucky Derby. And I was hoping to ride it, ride the Derby, and to win it.”

Few venues in the sporting world dare to rival the iconic twin spires of Churchill Downs. The ivy at Wrigley Field, Notre Dame’s Touchdown Jesus, or the Green Monster at Fenway you say? Those are decent choices, but they usually conjure up images of specific teams or season-long events. You show anyone a picture of those quintessential Churchill steeples, however, and all thoughts zoom directly to the Kentucky Derby. For one specific day out of the year, the entire sporting world focuses on our little corner of the Bluegrass State—our ultimate claim to fame. For you see, it’s not the regal, four-legged, three-year-old thoroughbreds that make for the most exciting two minutes in sports—but rather the bourbon, the burgoo, and the big hats that end up capturing our fanciful imaginations.

I grew up in the Commonwealth, but this is only my second official Kentucky Derby—my first as a credentialed media member. Like your first dog, your first car, or your first wife, it’ll forever be hard to top the sentimentality of that initial experience.

https://huangswhinings.com/2016/04/21/kentucky-fried-derby

But being part of the press corps this time around definitely has its advantages. As a scribe for Sports View America, I’m getting in for free.

According to StubHub, the Derby’s not cheap. A general admission ticket for a spot in the infield usually runs you eighty bucks—an option I wouldn’t recommend, unless you’re someone under thirty with a bon-a-fide death wish. Want to upgrade? A decent seat in the grandstand will likely set you back three to four hundred dollars. If you really want to waste your money, try Millionaires Row—where for a cool six grand, you’ll likely rub elbows with celebrities like Tom Brady, Jennifer Lawrence, or one of the Kardashians.

Speaking of celebrities, the Derby’s really just a glorified fashion show. Both sexes dressed to the nines—or tens for that matter. Seersucker suits, oversized fascinators, and hideous hats grace the walkways. It’s at events like the Derby when you suddenly realize that one man’s fashion is another man’s clown suit. Regardless of perspective, you can dress like a bum if you’re a member of the media. No need to spring for outlandish suspenders or Gucci shoes. Faded jeans, a flannel shirt, and that prized credentialed lanyard hanging around your neck will get you up close and personal to the horseflesh at hand.

Parking, food, and accessible toilets are additional media perks for me this year. Unlike before, I’m not paying thirty bucks for a two-mile hike to the track with porta potty privileges along the way. Instead, I’ve got a reserved spot in the media lot, just a short jaunt to the hallowed front gates. Once inside, I’m treated to quite the spread at the Derby day media buffet. Meats, salads, and desserts all laid out for you to grab and go. No alcohol, though. If you want a sip of that $15 mint julep, you’re on your own. Which begs the question: Can you really enjoy the Kentucky Derby if you’re completely sober? I’m about to find out.

Everyone at this Derby appears just a tad bit tipsy. It’s one big party—and who doesn’t enjoy being the life of the party? Even so, there are two lines of inebriation you simply can’t cross. Don’t get sick, and don’t get naked. Abstaining from liquid courage, I wisely avoided both—leaving the cookie tossing and wardrobe malfunctions to those far less inhibited.

You’d think bad weather would have discouraged some of the crowds today. That wasn’t the case as 150,729 filed in despite the chilly and messy rain. It made for some long and soggy lines at the betting windows—and even longer ones for the food kiosks and bathrooms. Often times, just walking around became a challenge. The pungency of the spilled liquor, grilled meats, body odor, damp air, and ubiquitous cigar smoke became noticeably more unpleasant as the day wore on. Looking around, trash piled up everywhere. The only thing messier was the postrace traffic—horrifically long shuttle waits, Uber lines, and jumbled backups tripling the usual time needed to get home.

Can you enjoy the Derby while sober? If you don’t like crowds, gambling, long lines, drunk people, sick people, loud people, bad traffic, bad weather, bad smells, bad internet, and bad steward rulings, then the answer is a resounding “NO!” But not all events in life are meant to be pleasant. It’s the unique experiences that we so often covet, and many aspects of the Kentucky Derby remain distinguishingly unique. The pre-Derby singing of My Old Kentucky Home is still one of the most sentimental and memorable experiences in all of sports.

When I asked winning trainer Bill Mott what the most memorable aspect of his Kentucky Derby experience was, here’s what he told me. “You know what I enjoy the most is just training the horses. I mean, that’s what I live for—get up in the morning, come out and see the horses…I woke up this morning and said “Oh (bleep), this is here. It’s finally here…When you finally reach a point when the training goes well, it’s actually very memorable. That part of it means the most to me.”

“…walking into that circle at Churchill Downs, it’s a pretty special event,” Mott continued. “Why do it the easy way, you know what I mean?”

Having just covered my first Kentucky Derby and seeing history being made, I know exactly what he means.

Dr. John Huang is lead writer for Sports View America. This column was featured in the Apr/May print edition of Sports View America Publications. If you enjoy his writing, you can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

Crazy Rich Asians

I’ve always been fascinated with the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. In fact, when I was a kid, my dream was to move to Los Angeles and become a movie star. Unfortunately, I was susceptible to stage fright, I was too ugly, and I had bad teeth—so I became a dentist instead. I guess things worked out OK, but I always wondered how different my life would have been as an Asian Tom Cruise.

So, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the premiere of Crazy Rich Asians, the first Hollywood movie to feature an all Asian cast, writer, and director since the Joy Luck Club debuted a quarter of a century earlier. It’s a romantic comedy about an ordinary Asian-American woman (Constance Wu) who gets thrust into the glamorous world of the super-rich Chinese when she travels to Singapore to meet her boyfriend’s (Henry Golding) family.

Normally, I prefer action movies to chick flicks on the big screen, but given my Asian heritage, I felt this groundbreaking film would be worth a couple of matinee priced tickets and an overpriced bucket of buttered popcorn. Besides, the film had gotten positive reviews by fans and critics alike, so I was looking forward to the experience.

What happened next is kind of difficult to explain. As I approached the box office, I suddenly became acutely aware of me being Asian. It’s certainly not the first time I’ve felt that way. As a first generation Chinese, I moved to the U.S. when I was four years old and have always accepted the fact that I was different than everyone else. There weren’t many Asians (we were called Orientals) living in Lexington, Kentucky back in the sixties, so I was subject to all the slurs, prejudices, and insults hurled my way by adults who knew better and nasty kids who didn’t.

“John Huang went to Hong Kong to play ping pong with King Kong’s ding dong,” they would chant as they slanted their eyes and bucked their teeth out. “We’re going to get you for Pearl Harbor, Chink!” they shouted at me. They didn’t care if I was Chinese, Japanese, or Siamese—to them I was a nerdy foreigner with thick glasses, good math skills, and small hands.

OK, I’ll admit I’m still somewhat scarred by it all, but you really couldn’t blame anybody for all the negative stereotypes—propagated pervasively through the Hollywood film industry. For years, roles for Asians consisted of bit parts playing enemy soldiers in battle scenes or comic sidekicks in a kung fu movie. Caricatures like Long Duk Dong became more of the norm. Rarely did we see an Asian man in a leading role outside of a Harold and Kumar series or a Jackie Chan sequel. Just as the yellow-face portrayal by a squinting David Carradine in the hit 1970s TV series Kung Fu seemed grossly off kilter, the casting of Scarlett Johansson as the beloved manga and anime character Major Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell set off a backlash of furor within the Asian movie-going community. After all, couldn’t they have just gotten an Asian actress to play the part?

Anyway, as I purchase my tickets and walk into the multiplex, I feel strangely out of place. It’s 2018, and Asians are now everywhere in central Kentucky, but for this particular showing, my wife and I are the only Asians in the theater. As we round the corner and stare up at the multiple rows of stadium seating, I feel as if all eyes are on us, as if WE’RE the show. I’m sure it was my imagination, but I even thought I heard some snickering as we took our seats. Great–I’m suffering from a cultural identity crisis in late-middle age even before the previews come on the screen.

When the opening credits finally begin to roll, I settle a bit more into a comfort zone. The movie itself reminds me of a marriage between The Hangover, Part 2 and the original Meet the Parents, only with Asians playing all the parts. It’s clever, well written and directed, and the shots of Singapore are Travel Channel worthy. The plot picks up quickly once you quit thinking about Wu as the mom in the TV sitcom Fresh off the Boat. The characters are unique, mostly likeable and believable—even with their scholarly British accents—with Ken Jeong and Akwafina stealing a couple of laugh-out-loud scenes with their endearing facial expressions and crazy antics.

For me, though, the way director Jon M. Chu addresses the age old theme of love, money, and family is what makes Crazy Rich Asians a must see movie in my book. Those themes are universal in any culture, but an understanding of underlying Asian traditions and familial piety added exponentially to my enjoyment. I won’t spoil it for you, but I didn’t really like the ending. Otherwise, it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen in a while. You don’t have to be crazy, rich, and Asian to enjoy the movie—but being at least one out of the three probably helps.

John Huang, a retired orthodontist, is a wannabe movie star. He currently is a columnist for Nolan Media Group, Bluegrass Sports Nation, and Sports View America. Follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

Keeneland Anyone?

Keeneland  Anyone?

“Hey John, are you heading to Keeneland?” I’ve been asked that question numerous times over the past five decades. After years of hemming and hawing, it’s time to finally come clean.

For those of you not familiar with this beautiful part of horse country, Keeneland represents everything that is true and noble and right and pure about the bluegrass region. Every April and October, this renowned thoroughbred racecourse welcomes thousands of visitors to its semi-annual meets with a healthy dose of southern hospitality. A national historic landmark, its timeless beauty in an idyllic setting provides for a tantalizing glimpse of heaven on earth.

I’ll confess, I’ve only been to Keeneland a handful of times in my lifetime. My first foray into the hallowed grounds happened when I was ten years old. I tagged along with a friend’s family and we promptly won $22 on a $2 wager on horse #2 in the #2 race of the day. In glorious celebration, we took that winning ticket and splurged on chopped steak dinners at the now defunct Mr. Jim’s Steakhouse on Nicholasville Road later that evening.

Fast forward a decade and I’m in dental school. On Wednesday afternoons, the student clinics were closed and many of my classmates spent that time soaking up the Keeneland sunshine. While I sequestered myself in the dental school laboratory setting denture teeth in wax, they waxed eloquently about exacta wins, bourbon shots, and encounters with fast horses and beautiful women. I vowed that if I ever became a real dentist, I’d spend all my Wednesday afternoons making up for lost time.

Upon finishing my military service, I moved back to Lexington and took my mother-in-law to Keeneland. She’s opposed to large crowds, gambling, traffic, rich people, drunk people, and all forms of animal cruelty so I didn’t think she would enjoy it. To my surprise, she loved it. To this day, the image of Grandma Jenny with my daughter, Katie—perched delicately on her shoulders—dressed to the nines, cheering on their favorites past the finish line, still never fails to bring a broad, joyful smile to my all too brooding lips.

About ten years ago, a good buddy of mine from Georgia came up for a visit and I invited him to Keeneland. He’s kind of a highfalutin big wig with a nose for the finer things in life, and he equated Keeneland with the Masters golf tournament at Augusta National. Now that he mentioned it, I can certainly see the similarity. The graceful elegance, the grand tradition, the regal hospitality, the “je ne sais quoi” of top venues in their respective industries. I’ve witnessed first-hand the beauty of Santa Anita Racetrack in Southern California. Keeneland takes a back seat to no none.

The Keeneland Track Kitchen also has no rival when it comes to sunrise breakfasts. Bacon, eggs, and, hash brown potatoes never tasted so good as on a cool crisp fall morning right as the horses are finishing their early morning workouts. On a related note, I’ve also been to Keeneland many times for my own personal workouts–but participating in the annual Thanksgiving 5K runs held on the racecourse grounds, picnicking with the pops, or attending boring seminars and endless business lunches probably shouldn’t really count when adding up all my true Keeneland experiences.

So that’s it. You’re probably surprised. Even more so when you discover that I only live a stone’s throw away from the track itself. I’ve missed out on all those pari-mutuel winners, derby prep races, Phoenix Room buffets, and On-The-Hill tailgating experiences on the bucket list of native Kentuckians and Saudi sheiks alike. My brother, Michael, has spent more afternoons at Keeneland than you can shake a stick at. He’s even become famous for taking those colorful, jaw-dropping prints of all the racing action.

But not me. As you can see, I’ve rarely made an appearance and I’m trying to figure out why. Perhaps I’m just too darn anti-social. Maybe I don’t like the thought of losing my hard-earned money on the whims of temperamental four-legged hacks. It could be that I’d just prefer to walk my dog. Or it’s possible that I’m just too ignorant, or stupid, or, lazy, or ugly to take advantage of a unique opportunity to enjoy myself and have the time of my life with people I like being with. You tell me. Opening day at Keeneland begins now.  Anyone else want to join me?

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

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

Check out his most recent Cincinnati Bengals and other professional sports coverage at http://www.bluegrasssportsnation.com/category/writers/john-huang

 

In Search of Rafael Nadal

In Search of Rafael Nadal

Rumor has it that there have been a couple of Rafael Nadal sightings so far this week. The lone mega-superstar remaining in the men’s portion of the Western and Southern Open tournament has supposedly been spotted on one of the practice courts. Because he received a bye directly into the second round, Rafa has yet to play an official match even though it’s already Day 4 of the tournament. I’ve yet to catch a glimpse of him either on the court or in the media center. Like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster, I’m beginning to wonder if he’s even here. It’s time to go in search of Rafael Nadal.

With 15 Grand Slam trophies and 10 French Open titles, the 31-year old Spaniard will also, at tournament’s end, assume the mantle of the #1 player in the world. If not for Roger Federer, Nadal could arguably be considered the greatest ever in the history of the game. But Roger’s not here, so everyone’s focus is on Nadal. Every fan wants an autograph, every media outlet wants an interview, and every opponent wants a piece of his flowing scalp. Throw in the local paparazzi and you can see why Nadal would seek witness protection. You won’t see him casually strolling the tournament grounds, eating nachos, or playing video games in the player’s lounge. I bet he’s holed up in some private mansion up on the banks of the Ohio, sipping a red sangria while listening to some mellow Mallorcan melodies.

Nadal’s allegedly playing Richard Gasquet on Center Court this evening, so I’ve rearranged my whole schedule to witness this apparition. As match time approaches, Rafa’s adoring fans pack the stadium in anticipation of another expected coronation. Sure enough, as the buzz of the crowd intensifies to a soaring crescendo, Rafael Nadal struts in royally—tanned and toned– as king of this particular court. He’s real, he’s here, and he’s ready for battle.

Not so fast, my friend. During warmups, the skies open up and Nadal quickly disappears back into the stadium tunnel to escape the unwelcomed rain delay. Did I really see him briefly out on the court, or was that just a figment of my overeager imagination? To me, he’s like a ghost—a Spanish speaking specter disguised in colorful Nike gear.

After the rain showers have dissipated and the court has dried, Nadal emerges a second-time ready to play. Say what you may, the guy’s a symbol of purposeful persistence. He attacks every ball as if it’s match point at Wimbledon. They’ll be no gimmes for Gasquet this evening, as Nadal pounds every forehand while chasing down every errant shot. You would think at his age, he’d want to concede a few points here and there just for the sake of energy conservation. Instead, he’s going full throttle in heat and humidity, trying to win every point and beat you into submission. You have to love that passion, drive, and determination. In two quick sets, Nadal bids adieu to the Frenchman who really never had a chance.

After the match, Nadal addresses the Center Court crowd and signs a few obligatory autographs on the way out of the stadium. He’s completely enveloped by his security team, protected like El Chapo against a vindictive cartel. Forget about a selfie with the man of the hour. They’ll be no post-match interview either. Nadal is out of here as surreptitiously as he came in, his big burly security detail running interference for him like a well-tuned offensive line. For all I know, they’re off to Jeff Ruby’s for the late-night $72 ribeye specials.

The sad part about all this sequestration is that Rafa purportedly is a really nice guy. He’s someone you wouldn’t mind playing a round of golf and downing a few beers with—or maybe having in your fantasy football league. He always appears friendly, cordial, and accommodating in public. How ironic that Rafa and Roger—two major tennis icons—also happen to be two of the most affable and congenial people in the sport.

But wait a minute! Despite the midnight hour, an announcement comes over the media center intercom that Nadal has agreed to make a few post-match comments after all. I rush down to the interview room to hopefully catch a glimpse of this champion up close. He fields the first few queries which are all about the match tonight and the upcoming US Open. That’s fine, but I want to know his thoughts much further into the future. When he furtively glances my way, I ask him if the success Federer is having at age 36 influences his thinking on how long he’ll be able to continue playing at such an elite level.

“No,” he answers definitively. “I do my way, and Roger did his way, no? Everybody is different. For me, personally, I always say the same. I’m going to keep playing until what I am doing makes me happy. I am a very lucky person that I can choose when I want to stop, so that’s the real thing.”

After an awkward pause, he seems compelled to further expound. “If I am happy doing what I am doing, and especially if I am healthy, I continue, I keep going, because I love this sport,” he continues. “I love the competition, and I still feeling the passion for what I am doing, no? When I arrive the days I lose one of these things, I gonna do nothing.” Now that’s a man after my own heart.

As the session concludes, I follow Rafa out of the player’s exit as he loads his racquet bags into a tournament SUV. I want to say something meaningful to him but nothing comes to mind. We’re just two dudes looking to head home after a long day at the office. As I walk back to my car through the dimly lit parking lot, I glance back and see Rafa personally tipping the valet. Something about that simple act just makes me want to smile.

Greatness in tennis is like pornography in general. I can’t really define it exactly, but I know it when I see it. I think I witnessed it tonight. I came to this tournament in search of Rafael Nadal. What I found was greatness personified.

John Huang is a guest columnist for Bluegrass Sports Nation. If you enjoyed this column, please check out the following links to his previous blogs in this tennis series.

#1 Tennis Anyone? https://huangswhinings.com/2017/08/13/tennis-anyone

#2 Tennis Fantasyland http://www.bluegrasssportsnation.com/tennis-fantasyland/

#3 Tennis is Served http://www.bluegrasssportsnation.com/tennis-is-served/

 

 

Still Awesome After All These Years

I mentioned in a previous post that there are currently only two musical acts I would still pay good money to see. John Mellencamp was the first and I proactively checked him off the list last October.

Just the other night, I finally got to attend my first Paul Simon concert and thus, cashed in my musical bucket list exacta ticket. Unless Michael Jackson miraculously comes back from the dead, I’m now perfectly content from here on in to get my musical fix solely through ipod downloads and YouTube videos. I’m two and done. I’m too old to fight unruly crowds and too picky to settle for bad venues. There will be no more live concerts for me.

I still haven’t fully recovered from my last PNC Pavilion experience where I was forced to endure ninety minutes of Backstreet Boys hell. Listening to boy bands are demeaning enough but just getting in and out of the parking lot* at Riverbend in Cincinnati is usually an ordeal in itself. Doing it while short on time is downright asking for trouble.

That was my predicament as I sped down I-71 from the River City after attending the Kentucky versus Louisville baseball game earlier that day. Stinking to high heaven while lathered in stale sunscreen and sweating profusely from covering a season-ending defeat, I slid into my reserved floor-level seat just seconds before Simon popped onto the stage. Despite being sandwiched between two people the size of sumo wrestlers, I was ready to kick back, relax, and groove to five decades of music from one half of a musical duo that never should have split up.

Sure, Garfunkel was missing tonight, but Paul Simon can still hold his own as a solo songwriter, artist, and on-stage performer any day of the week. The guy is 75 years old, has a bit of a paunch, and looks like your grandfather with a bad back-to-front combover, but he can still rock the house. Wearing a jacket in 83-degree weather and backed by his talented band, he opened with the beautifully rhythmical Boy in the Bubble from the award-winning Graceland album, and finished up with a solo acoustic version of the hauntingly iconic The Sounds of Silence that could put your dog down. In between, he dazzled the audience with an array of familiar tunes such as Homeward Bound, 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, Obvious Child, and Graceland. At one point in the evening, the crowd became so energized with Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard that he even volunteered to play it twice. When he broke out with back-to-back strains of Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes and You Can Call Me Al during the latter part of his set, I thought the Skyline Chili Vision video boards bordering the stage would literally explode with excitement.

Even during the obligatory newer and lesser known songs, the audience responded with much more than the usual polite and tepid applause. Likewise, Paul Frederic Simon seemed genuinely thankful and appreciative of all the cheers, salutes, and accolades thrown his way. During one of his numerous standing ovations, he looked directly my way and nodded, as if personally acknowledging the one hundred and sixty-three bucks I had surrendered to Ticketmaster for my seat in the pit. As I looked to my left and right, I noticed that many of the fans in attendance were a bit younger than I had envisioned (younger meaning younger than me), but good music is timeless and Paul Simon’s music continues to mesmerize multiple generations. After nearly two and a half hours and two and a half encores, Simon finally sauntered off the Cincy stage for a well-deserved slice of LaRosa’s, a mug of Hudepohl, and a scoop of Graeter’s. Whether composing the soundtrack to The Graduate, or performing with Garfunkel in Central Park, or marrying Carrie Fisher, the guy’s still awesome after all these years.

*It took me a good 50 minutes to clear the parking lot even though I was parked near the Belterra Casino.

If you enjoy my writing, please continue to visit me at http://www.huangswhinings.com and follow me on Twitter @KYHuangs

Hurt So Good

I’m the last person in the world qualified to report on concert performances. Don’t get me wrong, I listen frequently to recorded music but just have minimal interest in attending live events in actual venues. Fighting unruly crowds and breathing tainted air while catching the next great act on their next great tour just wasn’t my cup of tea. I didn’t see my first band in person until I was in my mid-twenties (The Who when they played at Rupp Arena), and I can probably count the number of concerts I have attended since then on the fingers of one hand.

I’m certainly no music guru. Currently I wouldn’t recognize Kanye if I saw him in Kroger and I can’t name you one single Taylor Swift song. I don’t know the difference between Adele versus Bieber and I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that I don’t remember whether Willie Nelson is alive or dead. Let me just say that I enjoy listening to certain familiar tunes that I grew up with and I can be easily entertained with a good set of headphones by a few artists I like. But when it comes to live concerts, there are probably only two acts I would currently pay to see. One is Paul Simon and the other is John Mellencamp. Well, guess what—Mellencamp’s coming to town.

He’s actually coming to Richmond for the EKU Center for the Arts series.  Believe it or not, I’ve always secretly identified with this long-haired, cigarette smoking rebel, fighting authority in America’s heartland while still professing loyalty to his hometown roots. It’s a feel-good sound with a definite bad-boy edge, somewhat similar to a midwestern version of Bruce Springsteen—only less full of himself and with a better beat.

The venue here holds about 2000 people and it’s entirely full tonight. I’m seated about 15 rows back in the center orchestra section—still a bit too cheap to spring for the premium VIP seating up close I guess. Just on looks alone, the other people here are a variable lot, a selected few coming in rather formal attire but the rest are like me dressed in jeans and a casual shirt. There are equal number of males and females, with the median age being on the sunset side of 50. The few inebriated individuals and the love birds on Cialis sitting in front of me remind me of why I don’t attend concerts.

After Carlene Carter’s 40-minute opening act, another 40-minutes goes by before Mellencamp finally comes out on stage in a white shirt, dark vest, black jacket and jeans. He’s sniffing like Donald Trump and looks like he hasn’t slept in a week. He appears wrinkled and weathered, not totally unexpected from a 65-year old exposed to the rigors of a life in rock music. At this point, he’s not totally washed up yet but his days of filling large arenas are long past and you’re not going to hear any of his stuff crack the Top 40. I know he’s a Hoosier at heart with political views leaning left of Lenin, but this dude’s music still resonates with me.

For the next 100 minutes, Mellencamp regales the audience with a progression of old and familiar melodies such as Small Town, Pink Houses, Paper in Fire and Authority Song while mixing in a few of his more recent ballads like Troubled Man. When he breaks out an acoustic, sing-along version of the little ditty about Jack and Diane, the crowd goes nuts and there’s absolutely no question that these hits from those John Cougar days are what most of his fans want to hear. Every time Mellencamp rocks out a familiar tune, knees pop and necks crane as the geriatric crowd struggles to rise to its feet. I’m most impressed by how engaged Mellencamp and the band appear throughout the evening, knowing that this performance is just another weary, non-descript stop on a long and monotonous cross country tour.

As I’m watching the performers on stage, I’m magically transported back to my wilder college days—celebrating another successful round of killer final exams with a big bag of Cheetos, a Fresca, and some Mellencamp. Or how about those rowdy Saturday nights spent in the dental school lab, waxing up a set of deluxe dentures to a Scarecrow cassette. Whether at the library or disco, chess club or night club, there’s just something about music that transcends our physical being and sucks at our cosmic souls. It speaks to us in ways that words and actions and even thoughts can never do. Music is almost spiritual in nature and yet music remains completely tangible to our senses. It is both seen and unseen–notes on a page, fingers on guitar strings, Mellencamp performing on stage. I’m giving this magical evening a five-star review. Hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.

If you enjoy my writing, please continue to visit me at http://www.huangswhinings.com and follow me on Twitter @KYHuangs

 

(D)ark Encounter

(D)ark Encounter

The saga of Noah’s Ark arguably remains one of the most well-known stories in all of Scripture. Most of us can vividly recall sitting in Vacation Bible School and hearing for the first time the enchanting tale of this hand-picked man of God, his boat, and the relentless floodwaters. Images of all the animals marching two by two up the boat ramp, one male and one female (Genesis 7:9), still virtually leap out from the pages of our childhood picture books. Transgender issues aside, it should be comforting for us to know that the distinction between the sexes certainly was not lost upon the creator of the universe at that critical historical juncture.

Whether or not we regard the story of Noah to be literal or metaphorical, our fascination with the concept of a ginormous floating vessel carrying the last remnants of humanity remains intriguing to say the least. Surely all of you must have wondered at some point in your life what it was like to actually be on that boat. Well here’s your chance–because I’m headed to the brand spanking new Ark Encounter in nearby Williamstown, and I’m taking you with me.

Not only are we going, but I purchased tickets for opening day. What would cause someone to fork out a $40 admission and $10 parking fee to be one of the first in line to this cheesy attraction, you ask? Other than having no job, too much time on my hands and some extra change in my pocket, I’m not quite sure. Let’s just say I’ve always liked a bit of hokiness sprinkled into my travel adventures. I usually gravitate toward places with beautiful natural scenery, cultural relativity and historical significance, but I also enjoy a dose of Kings Island with my Cayman Islands, a dollop of Dollywood with my Hollywood, and a dash of Pigeon Forge with my Valley Forge.

In order to beat the crowd and the heat, I’m here an hour before the park opens. Already there are hundreds of other cars, many with out-of-state license plates, parked in the expansive asphalt lots just off I-75. The news media is also here in full force.  I’m part of this massive group of early bird visitors, queuing our way on to the lead shuttle buses, surreptitiously eyeing each other as we all jockey to become one of the first in line on this maiden voyage.

As the shuttle crests over a steep knoll on the mile long ride, my eyes capture the first close-up glimpse of what some have referred to as the largest timber-framed structure in the world. Rather than the expected “wow” moment, mine is more of a “what-the-heck” moment. I guess I’m a bit disappointed, especially considering the $92 million price tag. Oh sure, it’s big enough (510 feet long, 85 feet wide, 51 feet tall)–but its location in the farming fields of My Old Kentucky Home severely limits its resale value and functionality. The whole set-up just seems somewhat odd.

There’s supposedly more to see here than the boat itself. As I step off the shuttle, I notice that the grounds are well landscaped, surrounded by the usual assortment of budding topiary gardens, kettle corn kiosks, and the obligatory gift shop. Emzara’s Kitchen serves up a mean cheeseburger. The dining area is ringed by realistic life-sized stuffed animals staring at you as you take bites out of their next of kin. The Ararat Ridge Zoo next door (fee not included in Ark Admission) advertises real live animals including Tibetan yaks, kangaroos, and ostriches, while the Screaming Eagle Zip Lines (fee also not included) beckon the truly adventurous and young at heart.

As I make my way past the ticket booths into the boat interior, it’s not as I expected. It’s way too sterile, too institutional–as if it were manufactured by Boeing rather than hand crafted by Noah and Sons. The magnitude of constructing something like this back in the day should stagger the mind. Remember there was no Home Depot to run to if you needed more power tools or you ran out of nails. I know we’re in the bowels of a boat, but it’s also way too dark and gloomy in here. The scent of treated lumber and disinfectant immediately overwhelms my nostrils. I was expecting more of a barnyard smell given all the animals and such but I’m disappointed to learn that there are actually no live animals on board at all–just a few stuffed mammals and simulated lizard looking creatures in crates. Audio wise, I do hear some very realistic bird cackles emanating from the boat speakers. Otherwise, the middle-eastern belly dancing music seems awkwardly inappropriate.

As I move along the different exhibits throughout the three spacious levels, there is no shortage of reading material. The display signage and placards are all colorfully designed, but still somehow remind me of my middle school poster board projects. I learn all about the pre-flood world, about the number and types of creatures brought on board, and about how Noah’s family could have maintained the Ark and cared for up to 7000 animals during the Flood. We get to roam through the family’s magnificent Living Quarters–although the Ark creators admit to invoking plenty of artistic license in their renderings. Through it all, I get the sense they’re trying a bit too hard to convince me of the absolute inerrancy and literalness of the biblical flood account.

Overall this experience has been just a bit too tame for my liking. For 40 bucks a pop, I keep waiting for some sort of earth shattering thrill or spill. I’m not asking for something akin to the death plunge on the Tower of Terror ride at Disney/MGM studios, but shouldn’t the boat at least move a little bit? If the earth is flooding, shouldn’t we get just a little bit wet? Where’s the IMAX movie, or the dudes posing as Ham, Shem, and Japheth roaming the boat in character?

The park brochure claims I could spend a week here, but I’m out in an hour-and-a-half. Upon exiting, I still have many questions about the boat and the fanciful tales surrounding it. This shouldn’t surprise you as I’ll be the first to admit that most biblical stories often defy the very core of my scientific thought processes. However, I’ve learned over time not to let that intellectual uncertainty detract from my faith and the validity of Scripture. Divine inspiration of God’s Word can come to us in many inerrant forms without always having to be literal in nature. Truth is truth whether it can be confirmed by science or not. Noah’s story is just the beginning in a long line of stories that God uses to speak personally to us–telling us how much he loves us and how much he wants us to love one another. If that gets you closer to the gospel truth, then I encourage you to visit the Ark Encounter. It might be the best $50 you’ll ever spend. Otherwise, I’d give Ark Encounter one star. I learned that I’m bored and put off by overpriced museums and would rather spend my money on a good steak dinner.

If you enjoy my writing, please continue to visit me at http://www.huangswhinings.com and follow me on Twitter @KYHuangs

 

I Love LA

I Love LA

I love LA! I love it for a bunch of different reasons but reason #1 has to be the weather. New York, Chicago, and Lexington typically have sweltering summers and frigid winters but in LA, it’s always 73 degrees and sunny. Call me a climate hedonist, but I’ll trade that any day of the year for traffic gridlock, outrageous housing costs, and the occasional earthquake.

Bingo and I stepped off the plane yesterday to–you guessed it–73 degrees and sunny, with a gentle refreshing ocean breeze. We’ve got the Blue Pacific  to our west and the San Gabriel Mountains to our north with palm trees and movie stars mixed in for good measure. On our two mile run out to the ocean this morning, Bingo was a virtual babe magnet–kind of like a four legged David Hasselhoff during the height of Baywatch. Now he’s snoring away on the rooftop deck, no doubt dreaming about his newfound canine celebrity status and exhausted from this morning’s foray onto the Sunset Strip.

Most people think of LA as one huge city, but it’s really just a bunch of diverse neighborhoods stapled awkwardly together and bisected by a bunch of freeways and a mountain range. Within each of these neighborhoods, you can find whatever tickles your fancy. Hipster wannabes can head over to Echo Park or Silver Lake. Wanna smoke some weed? Just visit one of the many medical marijuana clinics over by Venice Beach. Do you have a desire to live out your retirement days in total comfort and obscurity?  That’s what infamous mobster Whitey Bulger tried to do in Santa Monica until the FBI came knocking. Want people like OJ or Travolta as your neighbor? Move to Brentwood. Looking for a beach view from rocky cliffs? If you’re like Beyonce and want to purchase Cher’s former home, try Malibu. Craving some sushi? The Little Osaka district in Sawtelle is for you.

Speaking of sushi, another reason I love LA is the abundance of ethnic food. You can get anything here. Mediterranean kabobs, Korean bulgogi, Vietnamese pho, Chinese soup dumplings, all sorts of exotic seafood, and of course anything remotely Mexican. It’s probably not quite as energized and competitive as the Manhattan food scene, but people in LA don’t feel the constant need to be so driven. Sure, if I lived here, I’d want to be successful and famous as “the orthodontist to the stars”, but I’d also like to carve out enough time to chill out at Starbucks, do some yoga, meditate on the beach, and munch on some octopus seaweed rolls. It’s like “whatever” here 365 days of the year. Oh yeah, LA also has In-N-Out Burger. The cheeseburger with animal style fries is to die for. You can’t get that in New York.

You also can’t get Kobe in New York–or Kareem, or Magic for that matter. Growing up, I always found myself cheering hard for LA sports teams. I loved the Lakers and Showtime as well as the Dodgers and Fernando Valenzuela. My favorite football team was the LA Rams who are supposedly moving back to the city after a prolonged absence. Merlin Olsen was my favorite player back then until he became Father Murphy and started selling flowers. And how about the Wizard of Westwood in Pauley Pavilion or those USC Trojans playing in the LA Coliseum–FIGHT ON, man!

Another reason I love LA is because it’s in the Pacific time zone. There’s something impishly mischievous about waking up at daybreak and realizing it’s already approaching 9:00 in Lexington. Rabid sports fans can watch NFL football starting at ten in the morning here and Monday Night Football rarely ends past nine at night. I can sit through an entire World Series baseball game and still have plenty of time to hit the Kogi food truck for some late night Korean quesadillas–and still be in bed by 10:30. Sunsets are especially awesome here on the west coast. Anyone can wax poetic while sipping a cool drink on an ocean pier as dusk settles over sand to sea. 

Finally, the real reason I love LA is because my daughter Katie lives here. It’s hard to emotionally accept the reality that your one and only little girl now lives in a strange city 3000 miles away. She came out west for college and I can kind of understand why she decided to stay. A dear friend of mine recently said that we try to raise our kids with roots but we have to give them wings also. So rather than fret about Katie’s decision, I’ve tried to make LA my second home. Bingo and I are here for a week and we’re going to savor every second of our precious time together. I’m afraid Bingo’s already getting into this west coast vibe and might not want to come back to his old Kentucky home either. Roots and Wings! We love LA!

If you enjoy my writing, please continue to visit me at http://www.huangswhinings.com and follow me on Twitter @KYHuangs. You can also e-mail me at KYHuangs@aol.com and I’ll send  you a personalized invitation whenever a new post appears.