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.

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.

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

Heartbreak At “The Grove”

Heartbreak At “The Grove”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Much ado about nothing

<strong>Much ado about nothing</strong>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collision Course with Destiny

Collision Course with Destiny

Remember when your mama told you, “if you can’t say anything good about anyone, then just don’t say anything at all”? Well, I can’t say anything good about Mike Krzyzewski.

But rather than just ending this blog post right here, let me try and explain.

You see, I’m a Kentucky basketball fan. And no True Blue, dyed-in-the-wool Kentucky Wildcat basketball fan feels any affinity whatsoever for the head coach of the Duke University Blue Devils.

It’s not that we don’t think Krzyzewski is a good coach. In fact, many of us think he’s one of the best to have ever coached the college game. Nearly 1,200 wins, five national titles, and 47 years at the helm unequivocally qualifies as Hall of Fame worthy. It’s just that the guy was coaching Duke when Christian Laettner hit the infamous last-second shot in the 1992 East regional finals to end Kentucky’s “unforgettable” run. That memory alone is enough to rankle everybody with a Big Blue pulse—as it should. To further twist the knife, Krzyzewski then went on to also steal a couple more banners (2010, 2015) that should rightfully be hanging in the rafters of Rupp Arena.

Coach K announced at the very beginning of this basketball season his plans to retire at the end of the year, setting off a firestorm of victory parades and sugary farewells. Week after week, we’ve heard a plethora of platitudes from national pundits about the 75-year-old coaching icon. Listening to all their unctuous drivel, you’d think Krzyzewski could give Jesus a run for his money.

I don’t care that Mike Krzyzewski is a wonderful family man. So what if he’s charitable to his community. Big deal that almost all his coaching colleagues speak highly of him when asked. None of that matters one iota to me. His 30-game curtain call has rendered me nauseous.  

Frankly, my dear, I can’t take it anymore. I’m sick of Coach K, and I’m sick of Duke University. The entire campus reeks of elitism and arrogance—the gothic architecture surrounded by well-manicured lawns and populated by a rich, entitled student body. In my mind, they’re all just a bunch of Ivy League wannabees with an oversized alumni endowment to match. I’ve noticed that Duke graduates are quick to snicker at my UK pedigree, as if I purchased my degrees at the local diploma mill.

In a wonderful twist of irony last night, Duke’s most hated rival—the North Carolina Tar Heels—crushed the Blue Devils in Coach K’s last regular-season game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. “Rat Face,” as he’s not so affectionately referred to by the Carolina faithful, was beside himself afterwards. Oh, there was none of the grandstanding we usually see from the potty-mouth, ref-berating, holier-than-thou Krzyzewski. Instead, His Imperial Highness assured everyone fawning shamelessly over him—including a litany of former players—that Duke’s season was not yet over.

That brings me to my point. I’m afraid that UK and Coach K are on a collision course with destiny. It’s a repeat of sorts, just like in 1975 when Kentucky played UCLA for all the marbles. If you remember, Coach John Wooden announced his retirement right before that one, and the Wildcats wound up on the wrong side of the storybook narrative.

The whole basketball world dubbed Kentucky as villains that night, and everybody—including the refs—conspired against them. As a result, Wooden rode off into the sunset with Kentucky’s championship banner tucked firmly in hand. Lord, don’t let it happen again.

I don’t usually subscribe to conspiracy theories, but this coronation for Krzyzewski is too obvious to ignore. With the NCAA selection committee and the television networks working in cahoots, a Kentucky versus Duke matchup is all but assured. The only remaining question is if Krzyzewski cuts down the nets. They’ve cued up One Shining Moment—the world is ready to celebrate.

It’s high time we spoiled the party.

If you enjoy my writings as a basketball fan, check out my latest book, KENTUCKY PASSION, available in bookstores and online at https://www.amazon.com/Kentucky-Passion-Wildcat-Wisdom-Inspiration/dp/1684351669 . Follow me on Twitter @KYHuangs.

Weekend at Tourneys

Weekend at Tourneys

Okay, the SEC/Big East Challenge isn’t technically a “tourney,” but I needed a clever title to lead off this blog post. I’m hoping you get the movie reference as I bask in the heartland of America this weekend between the sports doubleheader of my dreams.

You see, I’m officially credentialed for the AFC Championship game on Sunday in Arrowhead Stadium between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Kansas City Chiefs. However, I cruised into town a day earlier just so I could slide over to historic Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday to watch my Wildcats spank the Jayhawks in what was supposed to be college basketball’s game of the year.

The buildup for this one had been huge, with ESPN’s College GameDay crew salivating in anticipation of a titanic tussle between the top two blueblood programs. The Jayhawk fans were also jacked. Their team had won four of the last five against the Wildcats, and they fully expected to be feasting on Kentucky fried chicken before the final horn sounded.

Haha, by now you know the ending: Kentucky 80, Kansas 62, in a game totally dominated by the Wildcats from beginning to end—a brutal beatdown for the ages. Forgive me if I gloat.

Mind you, today’s win was extra special because it took place in Allen Fieldhouse. I’ve never been to “The Phog” before. It’s on my Mount Rushmore of iconic basketball venues (together with Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion, and—of course—Kentucky’s Rupp Arena). By most everyone’s standard, it’s a bucket-list destination.

To begin the Allen Fieldhouse experience, you walk into the hallowed halls of what looks like an airplane hangar. Immediately, you’re thrust into the distant past through a collage of exhibits and display cases. Trophies, personal mementos, and championship paraphernalia dating back to what seems like the beginning of time bombard your senses. The original rules of basketball are etched on the northwest annex of the building. You feel as if you’re standing on holy ground.

For this is where college basketball started. It’s like the “big bang” of big-time hoops with the ghosts of James Naismith, Phog Allen, and Adolph Rupp still roaming the various nooks and crannies. “Pay heed, all who enter: Beware of ‘The Phog,’” says the sign over the tunnel leading into the arena. Placards listing every single player who ever wore the Kansas uniform line an entire concourse wall. There’s definitely a sense of reverence and tradition you don’t get walking into Rupp Arena—or anyplace else for that matter. Lambeau Field perhaps? Maybe Fenway or Wrigley? Wimbledon?

There’s also no pretense with this place. It’s old and decrepit—and it doesn’t care. Forget about keeping up with the Joneses. Built in 1955, the building remains perfect just as it is, comfortable in its own antiquated, creaking skin. It’s hard to believe it seats only a couple of thousand less than a massive Rupp Arena. The stands are compact, the bleachers vertical in scope, with nary an extra inch of extra space for proper ingress or egress.

It’s also hot today—nearly unbearably hot. With outside temperatures approaching sixty, inside it’s ninety degrees and humid. It’s a breeding ground for Covid I’m sure. But unlike Rupp Arena, at least ninety percent of the patrons don masks.

And it is loud in here. From what I’ve been told, it’s consistently loud—not just when the Wildcats come calling. It’s a piercing type of loud too, whereas Rupp is more of a roar. I’ve heard it louder in Rupp (Minniefield to Bowie half-court alley-oop and dunk, Unforgettables beating Shaq, Tayshaun’s five threes). But to be fair, it’s hard being vocal when your team’s getting slaughtered. However, I will concede that when the 17,000 or so on hand started swaying to the singing of the KU alma mater and then morphed into the “Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk” chant, goosebumps broke out on everyone, including myself.  

Today is also the first time in six years that I’m watching the Kentucky team play as a fan—with absolutely no media obligations. It’s liberating for sure to be able to cheer openly, loudly, and freely again with no repercussions whatsoever from the press box police. I’m even boldly brandishing the blue, shedding any specter of objectivity or impartiality that team media allegedly bears.

To be honest, I’ve missed this feeling more than I thought I ever would. I forgot what it’s like to feel your heart race or the angst rising in your gut right before tipoff. As the game begins, you’re straining as never before with every single misfire, contorting your body as if willing the shot to go in or grabbing that next rebound yourself. When things go well, you’re high-fiving others and yelling “Go Big Blue” at the top of your lungs.

My seat purchased from StubHub isn’t bad at all. It set me back a couple hundred, but it’s better than my usual media seat at Rupp. Of course, I’m surrounded by Kansas fans. A mom and daughter are seated next to me on one side. They’ve got their faces painted and are loaded for bear. On the other side of me are two old curmudgeons who apparently have been following the Jayhawks for decades.

By the time the final horn sounds, the mom and daughter are deathly quiet, their painted faces dripping with frowns. The two curmudgeons are lamenting about what Bill Self did wrong and how Calipari outcoached him. I’m all smiles.  

As a fan, there’s nothing more exhilarating than charging onto an enemy’s homecourt and taking their hearts. To do it in an environment considered by many to be the best in all of college basketball makes this a memory I’ll forever cherish.

If the Bengals win their game against the Chiefs today, perhaps I’ll retire permanently from this media gig. It’s much more fun being just a fan.

If you enjoy my writings as a basketball fan, check out my latest book, KENTUCKY PASSION, available in bookstores and online at https://www.amazon.com/Kentucky-Passion-Wildcat-Wisdom-Inspiration/dp/1684351669 . Follow me on Twitter @KYHuangs.

What’s so Dang Special about the Rafters of Rupp?

What’s so Dang Special about the Rafters of Rupp?

Photo Credit Chet White/UK Athletics

Happy New Year, everyone. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been a bit Bah-humbug this holiday season. As many of you know, I lost my dad in September, so getting through the first Christmas without him has been a bit of a struggle. It’s hard watching others in the festive spirit when that sense of loneliness eventually takes hold.

But with life, you learn to deal with the good and the bad. A month after my dad dies, I’m blessed with two new book releases. As my wife continues to battle her demons, my daughter’s career continues to thrive. You get the message. Just survive and advance—because you never know what blessings will be lurking around the corner in the new year.

Speaking of blessings, Huangswhinings.com turns six this year. Thanks to all who continue to follow along. Your readership means more to me than all the tea in China (and that’s a good thing). With that said, let’s start the year off with something uplifting.

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) –Twenty minutes before tipoff of the Kentucky versus High Point basketball game, nearly twenty-thousand Wildcat faithful showered visiting Panthers’ coach Tubby Smith with a well-deserved—albeit long-overdue—standing ovation. The deafening roar spread quickly from floor level to ceiling as the former Kentucky head coach’s retired jersey joined those of forty-three other UK greats in the hallowed rafters of Rupp Arena.

With the unique honor, Orlando “Tubby” Smith became the latest member of a select UK fraternity to occupy such rarified arena air. Understand that retired jersey recipients are elected by the Retired Jersey Subcommittee of the UK Athletics Hall of Fame Committee. To qualify for inclusion, the elected recipient must be a previous inductee of the UK Hall of Fame. There is a five-year waiting period after leaving UK to be eligible for inclusion in the Hall of Fame and another five-year waiting period after that to be eligible for jersey retirement. In other words, it takes time to get up there…and it’s HARD!

Despite a boatload of other basketball awards and achievements—including three-time National Coach of the Year, three-time SEC Coach of the Year, five regular-season SEC championships, five SEC Tournament championships, ten NCAA Tournament appearances, and one National Championship—owning real estate in the rafters may arguably be Tubby Smith’s greatest achievement to date. At least it should be in the minds and hearts of die-hard Kentucky fans.

Why do the rafters hold such a sacred and special place in Tubby’s heart?

“Respecting the tradition that Kentucky has for their basketball program,” Tubby responded, after the Wildcats drilled his High Point team 92 – 48. “It’s the No. 1 basketball program in the history of college basketball, so that’s why it’s such a thrill, an honor to be a part of the legacy of Kentucky by having your banner raised in Rupp Arena.”

Other retired jersey honorees, when telling their stories in From The Rafters of Rupp—The Book*, heartily agree.

“I’ve dreamed of winning state tournament games, and state champi­onships, having great games, and scoring a lot of points,” said Richie Farmer, Clay County legend and member of the UK 1992 Unforgettables. “But you just don’t dare dream that your jersey will ever be retired and be hanging in the rafters of Rupp Arena, especially with the amount of talent that’s played here…it’s a very special thing.”

“It’s a great thing to see my jersey hanging from the rafters of Rupp Arena,” former UK head coach Joe B. Hall added. “I would have never made it as a player. But to be honored that way—with all of those great players, and Coach Rupp, and Cawood Led­ford, and Bill Keightley—that was just a super honor, one that I cherish.”

“There are certain accolades that you get that really mean a lot,” explained Jack “Goose” Givens, hero of the 1978 National Championship game. “After a while, most of them kind of go away—they don’t carry the same weight as they once did. But to see your name up in the raf­ters, No. 21, it’s really special.”

And then there’s Kyle Macy, my Rafters coauthor and arguably still the most popular player to have ever worn the Kentucky uniform.

“It’s a great honor to have your name in the rafters of Rupp,” Kyle writes. “Because you don’t just look at your jersey when you see it up there, but you look down the row—both ways and on the other side—and you see some of the names that are up there. And knowing the his­tory of Kentucky Basketball, it’s just such an honor to know that you’re up there hanging with those guys.”

Coaches and players all agree that the rafters are indeed a special place—almost reverential in nature—reserved for those pioneers in the past who paved the way for the superstars of today. It’s a holy temple of sorts to Kentucky basketball fans, a shrine to all those worshipping at the altar of hoops heaven.

Perhaps Goose said it best.

“It speaks to our generation,” Givens continued. “But it also speaks to those young guys who are out there playing basketball now who look up there every now and then and see the banners. They see the names, and they don’t know who we are. They don’t know Kyle Macy, Jack Givens, or Dan Issel. But they do know that they have their jerseys up there, so they must be very special. That’s one of the things that I still carry with high regard in hav­ing my jersey retired up there and being in the rafters. That’s still very special.”

You can’t buy your way into the rafters. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or who you know. No one cares whether you played in the NBA, or how many halls of fame you belong to, or what kind of car you drive. It’s simply what you did at Kentucky, with Kentucky, and for the Kentucky basketball program that counts.

For that reason—in the eyes of real Kentucky basketball fans—it may just be the highest honor you could ever receive. Look up, people. That’s holy ground up there. That’s what’s so dang special about the rafters of Rupp.

Congratulations Tubby, and congrats to all those basking in your company. May your legacy be long lasting and all-encompassing throughout the entirety of a grateful Big Blue Nation.

* “From The Rafters of Rupp—The Book” is now available in local and regional bookstores or online at https://www.acclaimpress.com/books/from-the-rafters-of-rupp-the-book/

In 1978, everybody wanted to be Kyle Macy. If you told me then, that four decades later, I would be writing a keepsake legacy book with Kyle honoring the program with the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball, I would have told you that you were certifiably nuts. It just goes to show you that you CAN live out your dreams. Keep striving. Aim high—for the rafters.