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.

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Let Freedom Ring

Let Freedom Ring

This blog posting really isn’t about basketball at all—which is exactly my reason for writing it.

Final Four? I don’t care. I guess I’m a sore loser. The minute Kentucky gets eliminated in the NCAA tournament, I just want to get as far away from basketball as possible. Two years ago, after UNC’s Luke Maye sent the Wildcats prematurely packing, I immediately started packing for my own trip to Turks and Caicos. When Kansas State upset the Big Blue last year, I booked the first flight out for the Florida gulf coast. This year, unfortunately, I’m headed out early again—to someplace far away from Minneapolis, where I can put overtime losses to Bruce Pearl completely out of sight and out of mind.

You see, less than twenty-four hours after returning from the disappointment in Kansas City, I was stuffing my suitcase for Washington, DC. I’ve been there many times over the course of my lifetime, but never while the cherry blossoms were in full bloom. I’m killing two birds with one stone on this trip—making my wife happy and NOT watching basketball during the first weekend in April.

Ah, the memories come flooding back. My first visit to our nation’s capital was with my mom and dad back in the mid-1960s. As newly minted, starry-eyed, first generation immigrants from China, my parents wanted to show first hand—to their number one son—the sights and symbols representing their personal pursuit of the American Dream. Where better than Washington, DC, where founding fathers and freedom fighters named Washington, Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln stood sentinel over democracy? Granted, I was only six years old at the time, but something deep down inside of me still resonated with this Land of Opportunity. Even back then, the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness sounded pretty darned good to me.

I returned to DC again in the early 1980s, this time as a recent college graduate, indoctrinated with the liberal agenda and misguided cynicism flowing out of all university campuses. The city had a different vibe for me this time around. Thoughts of American imperialism, social injustice, and racial inequality sadly replaced the wide-eyed innocence of my earlier visit. With malice towards none; charity for all suddenly became a slogan that pipedreams were made of. Not going to happen in this America, I surmised at the time.

I returned to Washington again in the early 1990s, a thirty-something professional with a beautiful wife and one-year-old daughter in tow. Ten years in the military with a stint living overseas, and my thoughts on America had changed. The good ole’ USA was now all about capitalism—making a buck, keeping up with the Joneses, and paying off your mortgage. To me, DC represented all that was worth striving for—the money of the Federal Reserve, the power on Capitol Hill, and the status of the West Wing. I have a dream. It was a different dream than Dr. Martin Luther King had, but it was my dream, nonetheless.

And now, nearly three decades later, I’m back again—armed with a lifetime of experiences and a bucketload of supposedly new wisdom. It’s somewhat bittersweet. My mom has since passed, my daughter is all grown up, and I’ve been retired and put out to pasture. On a beautiful sunny weekday morning, I stroll leisurely along the National Mall, with plenty of time to ruminate about life’s regrets, growing old, and what America has meant to me.

Over a half a century as a naturalized American citizen gives me a perspective grounded mostly in gratitude. I’m grateful for many things—a fine education, access to health care, and languorous walks with my dog. But as I pause in front of all the different war memorials, I realize that the thing I’m mostly grateful for in America is freedom. Freedom to speak, write, gather, and worship as I choose. The United States of America still has its faults, but in terms of individual freedom, it remains the greatest nation on the face of the earth.

Walking up the steps of the Jefferson Memorial, I’m reminded that with freedom comes responsibility. Freedom isn’t free. Many have died fighting for it. May we think of freedom, not as the right to do as we please, but as the opportunity to do what is right.” (author unknown)

Our Founding Fathers got it right in the beginning. We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…” May Washington, DC remain forever a bastion of liberty and a beacon for democracy. Let freedom ring!

By the way, the cherry blossoms were beautiful in April. My wife is happy. Final Four? Who does Duke play again?

Dr. John Huang is a retired orthodontist living out the American Dream covering University of Kentucky Sports. He is a columnist for Nolan Group Media and lead writer for Sports View America. If you enjoy his writing, you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @KYHuangs.

 

Ben and Jerry’s

When it comes to food worship, everyone has an idol. For many, a juicy steak paired with a properly aged Cabernet Sauvignon is what drops you to your knees. For others, it may be freshly grilled Maine lobster that triggers a Damascus Road conversion experience. Still others bow down to the golden altar of french fries, chicken wings, and barbecue brisket.

Whatever your individual heart may desire, there’s one food that’s sure to be found behind St. Peter’s heavenly gates. It’s sweeter than salvation and purer than silver or gold. It’s like a lamp to your feet and a light for your path, with flavors as sharp as a double-edged sword.

What is this heavenly nectar, you ask—a food so universally praised, exalted, and glorified by both the calorie conscious and lactose intolerant? I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream—OF COURSE!

With that said, I’m going in search of the holy grail of dairy delights…and where better to make my sacred pilgrimage than to the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream factory in Waterbury, Vermont. This ain’t no Baskin Robbins castoff. No, this is the real thing—a 900-mile journey to the birthplace of Cherry Garcia and Chunky Monkey.

In the interest of full disclosure, I know I’m heading up to the Green Mountain State right smack dab in the middle of leaf viewing season—but that’s neither here nor there. I assure you that my search for spiritual nirvana and the salve for my sweet tooth remains my singular focus. I’m also fully prepared—armed with the proper discipline, metabolism, and genetic make-up to survive any thousand calorie assault on my cholesterol count and waistline. Bring it on!

I’m not quite sure what I was expecting, but I was a bit disillusioned pulling into the factory grounds. When one approaches Mecca, you anticipate enlightenment—or at least neon signs, costumed characters, and a shuttle ride to the shrine entrance. Instead, all I was greeted with was a packed parking lot and a 50-yard trek up to the summit mount.

Once crested, I was met with a veritable madhouse of lost souls, all looking to gain entry into the temple of delight. The line for tickets was longer than eternal damnation. Undaunted, I bite the bullet and settle in for the hour-long wait for my ascent into paradise. Paradise today is relatively affordable. For four dollars a pop, I watch a movie where Ben and Jerry convince me that eating their ice cream makes me the most environmentally friendly, socially conscious, and charitably generous consumer ever to grace the planet. I’m then given a sneak peek behind the veil, where I’m treated to more than I want to know about what really goes into my ice cream.

At the end of the tour, our tour guide—who had obviously given one tour too many—delivers four bad cow jokes before serving the requisite samples to the masses. The flavor of the day involved some foreign concoction right off the assembly line—a strange blend of chocolate and orange that left my taste buds frazzled and my mind totally perplexed and confused.

Was this all there was to it? Had I been hoodwinked into false belief? Were the Ben & Jerry cows really just golden calves? Where were the baptismal vaults of my favorite Vanilla Heath Bar Crunch? Was it truly a flavor forever dead and buried—never to be resurrected?

The only way to seek truth was to taste it. Making my way to the holy kiosk, I go all out and do something I’ve never done before. I order a quintuple scoop. Diabetic coma be damned. You only live once, right? If my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, I’m filling it with caramel swirls and cookie dough.

Obviously, this ordeal did not end well. Excessive pursuits never do. Like many other things in life, moderation is the key. I REPENT! Next time I get a hankering for Ben & Jerry’s, there will be no thousand-mile sojourn to the promised land. A five-minute drive to Kroger is all I’ll ever need. Haagen-Dazs anyone?

John Huang is a retired orthodontist who worships both God and ice cream. He’s currently working with former LEX18 sportscaster Alan Cutler on his new book. If you enjoy his writing, you can 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

 

 

IndyFabulous 500

IndyFabulous 500

(INDIANAPOLIS, In.) — When I was 10 years old, I got an Aurora AFX electric racing set for my birthday. I remember spending hours running my toy cars around the dual slot courses, often pretending I was behind the wheel of some jacked up Formula One racer. If it was Monday, then I was Jackie Stewart, expertly negotiating the hairpin turns of Monaco. On Wednesdays, I was Emerson Fittipaldi winning another Formula One Championship trophy. Come Friday, I was one of the Unser brothers, or maybe even A.J. Foyt on my way to a coveted checkered flag at Indy.

Fast forward fifty years and I find myself once again at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This time, however, it’s not some fantasy concocted from my years as an AFX driving legend—this time it’s for real, as an on-site correspondent for Bluegrass Sports Nation. Together with a boatload of rabid racing fans and hundreds of other sports journalists of every ilk and breed, I’m taking in all the sights and sounds of a once-in-a-lifetime bucket list experience. It’s the Indianapolis 500–exciting, smoking hot, and LOUD!

Those of you familiar with “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” know that the Indy 500 isn’t just a one-day event. In fact, the lead up to the race itself is frequently referred to as the “Month of May” because of all the painstaking preparations prior to the green flag. Pole Day, Bump Day, Carb Day, and Fast Friday all comprise a twisted conglomeration of testing, qualifying, and positioning for the 33 cars that will be eventually vying for the gigantic Borg-Warner trophy. It’s a combination of a global sporting event and a local state fair, with the pungency of burning rubber mixing pleasantly with the cooking oil aroma wafting from a perfectly crafted batch of deep fried elephant ears. Mix in the occasional dose of fetid body odor and you’ve got all the ingredients necessary for a memorable world class gathering.

The media credentialing process for this 102nd running of the Indy 500 was akin to vetting for senate confirmation. Approval required disclosing everything from your eighth-grade math scores to your current underwear size. Once approved, race officials then required you to make an in-person advance trip to their offices for the requisite photos, waivers, and officially issued race IDs. Forgive my exasperation, but a six-and-a-half hour round trip car ride to stand in a line reminiscent of the DMV just isn’t my cup of tea. Only a chance elevator encounter with David Letterman kept the day from being a total washout. The former late-night TV host turned racing team co-owner dished up his best elevator etiquette—surprisingly polite and friendly while smirking behind those gapped central incisors and that bushy white beard.

Race Day dawns early as I’m inside the gates just after 6 am. Even at this early hour, tailgating is already in full force as I make my way through a mass of RV’s, portable toilets, and revelers in various levels of undress. Photographers stationed at the famous third turn of the speedway track have been camped out in their precious slots since midnight. They’ll be no such shenanigans from this old scribe, as I make my way to my reserved seat inside the monstrous four-story, air-conditioned media center directly across from the finish line. The entire set up reminds me of Mission Control on launch day, with rows and rows of journalists huddled over their computer monitors amidst the backdrop of the picture plate glass windows overlooking the cosmos that is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The thing that immediately strikes me is the size of the complex. A two-and-a-half-mile oval is huge enough, but there’s also a modern infield road course and four holes of a neighboring golf course shoehorned into the raceway grounds. Two hundred and fifty thousand permanent grandstand seats together with room for 150,000 additional patrons in the infield makes the IMS the highest capacity sports venue in the world. Slathered in sunscreen and armed with earplugs, on the second hottest day in race history, I’m ready to take it all in.

I make my way down to the garage areas just down Gasoline Alley. It’s here that I get my first up-close glimpse of the mechanical wizardry known as Indy cars—single seat, open cockpit, open-wheeled, purpose-built beauties utilizing 2.2L V6, twin-turbocharged engines, tuned to produce a range of 550-700 horsepower, and designed to travel at speeds well over 200 mph. It’s surreal seeing them in such a dormant state, as if they’re silently and prayerfully meditating before being unleashed into battle like gladiators into the coliseum.

Speaking of gladiators, Indy car drivers all appear larger than life—regal, majestic, and dignified—as if sitting in the cockpit of these supercharged rockets automatically endows them with a sense of superhero strength, stamina, and good looks. In reality, they’re just mere mortals, susceptible to the purposefully unspoken possibilities of injury and death as they’re hurtling around the track at such ungodly speeds. Fourteen drivers have been killed in the actual race, the last being Swede Savage in 1973, who ran over a patch of oil that caused him to hit the inside wall in turn four, which shot him to the outside wall where he crashed again.

I’m fortunate to meet up with my friend Del Duduit, Zach Veach’s youth basketball coach, whose connection to the 23-year-old Verizon Indy Car driver gave us all a special rooting interest for his Andretti Autosport team. As we wander around, it’s like a Who’s Who of racing, a virtual racing legends hall of fame with the anticipation of surprising encounters lurking around every pit bay corner. I’m introduced to George Del Canto, the owner of the Kingdom Racing team. George is a true man after God’s own heart. He gave up a lucrative career in finance and now uses his platform on the racing circuit to spread the Gospel of Christ.

As the massive crowd continues to filter in together with the oppressive heat and humidity, I catch a quick glimpse of Sage Karam, a cocky-looking 23-year-old whose fastest post-qualifying speeds makes him a legitimate contender. I don’t know—maybe I dreamed it—but I thought I also saw Danica Patrick, who’s competing in her eighth and final Indy, surrounded by an impenetrable crowd of security and neck straining well-wishers. And of course, Roger Penske and his Team Penske, with their 16 Indianapolis 500 victories and the litany of big-name drivers driving for the Captain himself. Gary Bettenhausen, Mark Donohue, Bobby Unser, Rick Mears, Mario Andretti, Tom Sneva, Danny Sullivan, Danny Ongais, and Al Unser—all names from the past transporting me back to those fun times around the little toy track in our basement back home.

When Jim Cornelison belts out his version of Gomer Pyle’s “Back Home Again in Indiana,” I can barely contain my emotion and excitement. Following the ear-splitting fly by, the green flag mercifully drops and I’m revved up higher than a souped-up racing tachometer. It’s goosebumps galore as the crescendo cheers of more than 300,000 racing fans vie greedily with the incessant engine roars zooming rhythmically before my very nose.

For the record, the winner of the 102nd running of the Indianapolis 500 today was 37-year-old Australian native Will Power of Team Penske–the one driver who zoomed around the track just a little bit faster than everyone else. Power started in the 3rd position and led 59 of the 200 race laps. Afterwards, he celebrated with the customary swig of winner’s circle milk–the innocence of the simple tradition belying the intricacies of his hard-earned, long-awaited, first-time victory.

“It was the last box to tick to be considered as a very successful driver,” Power said, referring to the win today. “I still have plenty of time left to win more 500s and championships and races…It’s what I needed so badly and wanted so badly and it came true. Anyone here knows how that would feel if you want something so much and it comes through to you through hard work and determination.”

As for me, it wasn’t the race results that captivated my fancy today. It’s seldom the results. For me, it’s always about the experience of the moment. In that respect, the Indianapolis 500 certainly did not disappoint. I’ll be honest–the sheer size, pageantry, and celebrity of the venue took me a little by surprise. The dizzying speed of the cars set me a bit on edge and the massiveness of the crowd became a tad bit intimidating. But that’s exactly why it’s the spectacle that it is. A bucket list item for sure—with plenty of drama, intrigue, and pomp for everyone lucky enough to attend.

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

Resiliency

(KRABI, Thailand) – If there’s one key attribute still in question for a successful run by this Kentucky basketball team, it has to be their resiliency. After demoralizing back-to-back losses to Missouri and Tennessee, BBN is wondering whether John Calipari’s crew can somehow regain that bit of an edge—that toughness and bounce back ability—desperately required to steal some remaining conference games and salvage the rest of the season. Coach Cal claims the ceiling remains as high as ever for this team. We’ve had glimpses of their raw talent along the way, but these kiddie Cats have been beaten, battered, and bruised in the arduous learning process. Can they recover and pull it all together in time to make that deep run into the NCAA tournament? I don’t know. It depends on one thing—their resiliency.

Resiliency definitely applies to the people of Phi Phi Island. This tropical paradise located in the Andaman Sea off the southern coast of Thailand was wiped off the map by the Tsunami of 2004. On December 26, at 9:45 am local time, a massive 15-foot tidal wave swept over the island, killing nearly 2000 inhabitants, and decimating the entire island infrastructure. I was on Phi Phi exactly one year before the Tsunami hit. Now, nearly fifteen years later, I’ve returned to check out what has changed since then.

Amazingly, everything has been rebuilt and looks exactly the same as I remembered it. There are the same cluster of food stalls, the same open-air shops, the same tourist agencies hocking long boat rides to Monkey Island, the same restaurants selling Thai seafood delicacies at unbelievably reasonable prices, and the same resort hotels offering five-star comforts for fifty bucks a night (breakfast included). It’s a testament to the resiliency of the Thai people and their unending quest for the tourist dollar. I guess if you rebuild Shangri-La, the people will come.

And come they do. On this random weekend in February, I’m surrounded by hordes of vacationing tourists from all different continents looking for some fun and sun in this mecca known for its natural beauty by day and manufactured debauchery by night. I’m simultaneously awed and perplexed by the contrast. The rich turquoise water surrounding the towering limestone karsts makes for idyllic cinematic backdrops perfect for Hollywood. In fact, Leonardo DiCaprio’s movie, The Beach, was filmed here back in 2000. Unfortunately, on this day, Maya Beach bears no resemblance to the one on the silver screen as I’m packed shoulder-to-shoulder with more Chinese visitors than in Tiananmen Square.

At nighttime, the bars are hopping—sunburned Scandinavians looking to cap off the perfect day of scuba diving with a nightcap of Singha and karaoke. The world-famous Reggae Bar even has a regulation Muay Thai Boxing ring where drunken revelers can volunteer to punch each other’s lights out for a free round of Mae Khong whiskey. Being neither a drunk or a reveler, I politely and wisely pass on this one as an inebriated, overweight English bloke gets his face pounded like a puff of Beef Wellington pastry.

Meanwhile Slinky’s on the beach offers free buckets of booze for “naked boys and topless girls.” I’m still not sure I understand the premise as the crowd cheers on the Aussie frat boy doing the limbo to ear-splitting electronic dance music with his glorious manhood on full display for the world to see.

What I do understand is resilience. It’s not just the toughness required for a basketball team in turmoil or the indomitable spirit of native peoples rebuilding their island livelihood. No, it’s more about everyday persistence—being able to take a punch and just trying to hang on when fate sends you reeling. It’s about keeping the faith and clinging onto that morsel of hope when it’d be so much easier to just simply walk away. It’s about pressing on with life after you’ve gotten a bad diagnosis or lost a loved one to tragedy. Resilience is about the persistence required to fight through a bad relationship, financial ruin, drug addiction, or mental illness. It’s about Jimmy V saying, “don’t give up—don’t ever give up.”

As I walk hand in hand on the beach with my lovely bride watching another jaw-dropping Indian Ocean sunset, I’m reminded once again that resiliency is hard, but it definitely has its rewards. I’m cherishing this time together because who knows if and when we’ll be able to experience it again. But at least for one glorious month in a land half way around the globe, I got a fleeting glimpse of the other side of heartache. I pray that you’ll experience it too. Whether cheering for the Wildcats or for something else nearer and dearer to your heart, here’s to resiliency and the bounty it can bring. Thanks for letting me share. I hope you enjoyed the ride.

John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Group Media. 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/

Christmas Without Christ

(BANGKOK, Thailand) – On countless occasions in the past, I’ve heard Kentucky Basketball referred to as a religion. Hopefully, that’s more a validation of our basketball identity than a trivialization of our lukewarm faith. Here in Thailand, basketball disinterest notwithstanding, there’s absolutely no ambivalence about the identity of its citizenry. The Thai people are Buddhists through and through–over 64 million of them accounting for nearly 94% of the entire population.

The Thais wear their religion on their sleeve–praying, giving alms, and worshipping much more genuinely and fervently than what I’ve experienced with their American evangelical counterparts back home. Monks in their saffron colored robes walk the streets every morning, receiving offerings from a dutiful and reverent population. In Thailand, the landscape is dotted beyond description with a myriad of ornately decorated, jaw-dropping temples. Each of these opulent palaces are chocked full of buddhas—all sorts of emerald buddhas, golden buddhas, and even reclining buddhas—stark and ever-present idols vexingly vying for everyone’s adoration and adulation.

I’m no expert on Buddhism, but from what I’ve learned, it seems to be a belief system devoid of much optimism. The endless cycle of reincarnation and the near impossibility of attaining nirvana are complete opposites of the unconditional love, everlasting hope, and eternal life promised to all those who believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. With that said, I still find it hard to accept that the millions of people so committed to their own belief system in this part of the world may likely all end up perishing in eternal fire. Who am I to question God’s sovereignty, but it doesn’t seem quite fair to be placed squarely behind the eight ball just because you were born into a culture that proudly identifies themselves as followers of the Enlightened One. Face it, if you were born here, you’d also be lighting candles, burning incense, and pressing gold foil on the next random buddha icon that came your way.

If only Christians in America identified with Jesus with similar devotion and vigor—or simply identified themselves with half the zeal we usually reserve for our basketball team. I’ve learned on this trip that I’m as guilty as anyone in that regard. I love Thailand and could easily stay here forever if not for one thing—the land formerly known as Siam is simply NOT part of Big Blue Nation. During my entire stay in Bangkok, I haven’t encountered a solitary soul who gives a hoot about Kentucky Basketball. Regular Thai citizens couldn’t pick John Calipari out of a lineup. They wouldn’t know PJ Washington from George Washington, Kevin Knox from Fort Knox, or Malik Monk from a Buddhist monk. They think Matt Jones once sang Delilah, and that Meisterbuerger is a low-end sandwich chain. It bothers the heck out of me that they’re ignorant to the winning ways of BBN.

It’s humbling for UK fans to admit that 99.9% of the people in Thailand (or the rest of the world for that matter) care absolutely nothing about that which makes us so passionate. They simply can’t understand why I’m walking around looking for passable WIFI connections at 7 am in the morning just so I can pick up Tom Leach on his iHeartRadio broadcast in real time. They have no earthly idea why this idiot in blue is so jacked up on a floating market boat ride as the final seconds tick away in Kentucky’s massive win over West Virginia. They can’t imagine anyone in their right mind going bonkers over a sport other than soccer or boxing or badminton (yes, badminton). Did it really take me traveling halfway around the globe to finally realize that whether Kentucky wins or loses makes absolutely no difference in the overall world order?

But that doesn’t stop me from cheering like a madman for the Big Blue 9000 miles from home. That’s still a huge part of my identity. It’s who I am and a defining part of my history. It can’t be manipulated, or suppressed, or faked, or erased—just as the Laettner shot can’t be erased. It’s as real as Kyle Macy’s socks, or Antoine Walker’s shimmy, or Jamal Murray’s bow and arrow. It’s why I can’t stand Duke, or North Carolina, or Indiana, or Digger Phelps for that matter. It’s why my moods fluctuate based on the shooting percentages, turnover to assist ratios, or girlfriend problems of 18-year old prodigies who are blessed with the ability to dribble and dunk. Sure, all True-Blue fans always want Kentucky to win every game by twenty points, but whether Kentucky winds up on the NCAA bubble or wins the NCAA championship shouldn’t ever diminish our passion and zeal for simply cheering on the Blue and White.

At least that’s what I keep telling myself. If you’re a true Wildcat fan, rooting wholeheartedly for your team—win or lose–is inherently a part of your identity, a part of your DNA. Coach Cal says relax and enjoy the process. But just like the Thais and their religious fervor, there’s been something inherently missing for the past few years in our Kentucky Basketball worship experience. A season without a championship is like Christmas without Christ. I want the prize. After Kentucky pulled off a miracle 17-point comeback against Huggy Bear in Morgantown on Saturday, we’re suddenly back in the hunt. Championship number nine can’t come soon enough.

John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Group Media and Bluegrass Sports Nation. He’s currently trying to cover University of Kentucky Sports while traveling abroad. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.Huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

John Talk Thai

(Bangkok, Thailand) –When Kentucky Men’s Basketball coach John Calipari recently told media that we “don’t know sh@#,” he was only partially right. For you see, I do know “sh@#” because I’ve had the trots ever since I landed in Bangkok. I understand it’s mostly my fault, though. The food is fantastic here and I just can’t help gorging myself. The problem is that the Thais like their food laced with chilies that could choke a Chinaman, so my bowels are more exhausted than Shai Alexander.

There’s food everywhere in Bangkok. From high-end eateries to run-down food stalls, you can find anything your palate desires 24 hours a day. I’ve already gulped down oysters as big as my fist, prawns the size of lobsters, and all sorts of slippery, slimy, fruit and veggie type things that wouldn’t make the cut in America. Street food is outrageously cheap, but like anything else in life, you pay your money and take your chances. The smells emanating from these food kiosks can be somewhat overwhelming. I don’t want to sound like the ugly American, but on the list of smelliest cities, Bangkok would rank near the top. It stinks here! The combination of fried grease and exotic spices mixing together with diesel fuel and auto exhaust is ever present and distinctly pungent. It’s similar to the Cats’ second half meltdown against South Carolina–not necessarily nauseating at first, but bothersome and irritating nonetheless.

What is nauseating is Bangkok traffic. I’ve driven in LA and it’s much worse here. Gridlock everywhere for hours at a time. It’s not chaotic like Cairo, nor brutal like Beijing. It’s actually quite orderly as Thai drivers are surprisingly courteous, there’s virtually no horn honking, and zero apparent road rage. It’s just that crawling along at two kilometers an hour on an eight-lane highway makes me want to gouge my eyes out and shove bamboo shivers up my fingernails. Patience is said to be a Fruit of the Spirit. It’s something I’m sorely lacking when it comes to sitting in Bangkok traffic.

Getting in my morning runs here in Bangkok has been a bit of a challenge also. In addition to the usual uneven pavements, potholes, and overhanging tree limbs encountered along urban sidewalks, you also have to dodge the omnipresent food stalls, motorcycle swarms, and the occasional strolling Buddhist monk—all while breathing in the suffocating auto exhaust. Kind of defeats the purpose of attempted aerobic exercise if you ask me. I also miss my dog on my runs. Every dog I’ve seen in Thailand appears lethargic and listless, beaten up by life and waiting to be featured on the next bootlegged Chinese restaurant menu.

Outside of Bangkok, it’s much more pleasant. My sojourns along the beaches of Hua Hin provided me ample opportunities to relax and recharge. Imagine waking up to glorious 80-degree temperatures and a fabulous sunrise, with someone to bring you a tropical drink or to trim your neglected toenails at every beck and call. Check your modesty at the door if you choose to get the herbal body scrub and exfoliate treatment. You’re getting EVERY part of your body scrubbed and exfoliated.

And now, a word about Thai massages—they are grossly overrated. First of all, they hurt. You know you’re in trouble when you pay for the session behind the curtain. Having the Thai version of Attila the Hun slapping my calves with impunity, poking wooden rods up my insoles and making my vertebrate pop like firecrackers on the Fourth of July just wasn’t my cup of tea. At one point he performed a move on me worthy of any WWF escape maneuver—probably classified as chiropractic malpractice in the States, but here it’s just comic amusement at the poor foreigner’s expense. You’ve been warned.

And finally, nobody with obvious Kentucky ties has yet approached me on this trip. I’ve been sporting the BLUE every single day trying to attract fellow citizens of BBN for some engaging conversation. So far, no takers. The cute couple with matching Lebron jerseys and the Thai dude shooting hoops in Kyrie Irving gear were oblivious to my braggadocio about reppin the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball. Now after the Cats’ crushing loss to the Gators, I’m just looking for someone to commiserate with in the worst way.

Sigh! Such is life in this part of the world, where no one cares but me. Go Cats!

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