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.

Kentucky Passion

Kentucky Passion

Writing books is somewhat akin to winning national championships. After tasting it once, you develop an insatiable craving to do it all over again. The second time around gives you even more joy. As a bona fide author, people no longer regard you as a flash in the pan.

With the release of my newest book, Kentucky Passion, I’ve not only joined the multiple book club, but I think I’ve created something exceptionally special. Kentucky Passion isn’t just your ordinary run-of-the-mill compilation of game scores and player quotes chronicling the program over the years. Rather, it’s a labor of love to all my fellow UK fans; a book for the fans written by a fan—a true-blue, dyed-in-the-wool, card-carrying member of BBN for the past fifty years.

I know that basketball books are a dime a dozen. Here are three specific reasons why I think this one stands out.

It’s a Kentucky Basketball book

The program with the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball is chocked full of memorable moments. The Mardi Gras Miracle, the night the Goose was golden, the Laettner shot, Rick Pitino bolting for Boston, Tayshaun Prince and his five three-pointers—those are all iconic events indelibly etched in the minds of every Kentucky fan. Whether you were there or not when they happened, over the years they’ve all become important milestones marking Kentucky Basketball lore. I was lucky enough to have lived through all of them. My goal is to now take you courtside with me to experience the monumental joys (and occasional heartbreaks) all over again. You won’t just read about them—you’ll live them.

It’s not just a Kentucky Basketball book

John Calipari tells us all the time that Wildcat fans are crazy. I prefer the word passionate. My coauthor, Del Duduit, and I wanted to channel that passion into something that all the Kentucky faithful could use in their everyday lives. Del is a renowned Christian writer, famous for his sports devotional books, who has interviewed famous athletes from all around the world about their spiritual beliefs and faith journeys. In Kentucky Passion, Del takes my basketball narratives and transforms them into practical guides for negotiating the everyday challenges of life. What life lessons can we learn from the University of Jodie Meeks, or the Dream Game turned nightmare, or the Rise of the Jorts? I guarantee you won’t find wisdom like this outside the book of Proverbs.

The book has pictures…and a foreword by the most popular UK player ever

Most of you know my brother, Dr. Michael Huang, the photographer for Kentucky Sports Radio. What you may not know is that he’s just as big a Kentucky Basketball fan as I am. We’ve always wanted to do a joint project on the Cats. A picture is worth a thousand words. Kentucky Passion contains two full-color sections spotlighting fifty of Michael’s notable prints. That alone is worth the price of admission.

Kyle Macy is arguably the most popular player to have ever worn the Kentucky uniform. Back during the days of the ’78 championship, I worshipped the ground he walked on. If you told me then—that forty years later—he’d be penning the foreword for my book, I’d have told you that you were certifiably nuts. I guess that’s the kind of turn of events that dreams are made of. I’m living that dream with Kentucky Passion—and I’d be honored to have you be a part of it.

Here’s the link to get your copy.

Here’s a bonus reason—probably the best reason—to purchase this book. Kentucky Passion was published by—of all people—Red Lightning Books, a subsidiary of Indiana University Press. If those hoops-crazy Hoosiers would bend over backwards to publish and publicize something about their hated border rival, you know the book must be pretty Pulitzer worthy. They released their own book spotlighting IU earlier this year. C’mon BBN—let’s show ‘em who’s king.

Thanks again for being so passionate…and being an integral part of Kentucky Passion.

Name, Image, And Likene$$

Name, Image, And Likene$$

Don’t get me started on this topic. I’m likely to say something I’ll later regret. But for the time being, as far as name, image, and likeness (NIL) is concerned, I’M AGAINST IT!

Now I’m not against individuals making money. After all, this is America. If you’re cunning enough and motivated enough and talented enough, you can make all the money you want.

I’m also not against college athletes having a little extra change in their pockets. They certainly deserve it for all the blood, sweat, and tears they put in the gym perfecting their craft. I just don’t want some pie-in-the sky statute regarding fairness and equity ruining the college game we’ve all grown to love. Football Saturdays and March Madness weekends are part of my sports DNA. Please, don’t do anything to screw it up.

Before you accuse me of being a self-centered loser, here’s a little background information for those of you who aren’t quite sure where I’m coming from.

What is NIL?

The NCAA recently enacted legislation allowing student-athletes in college to benefit and profit off of their names, images, and likenesses. It was a reluctant move by the much-maligned governing organization which—for the past few decades—has profited heavily from the cash cow directly generated by those who they allegedly claim to serve.

Over the years, the NCAA (and the conferences and schools it presides over) has raked in millions and millions of dollars in gate receipts and television revenue while the athletes themselves aren’t allowed to participate in any of the free-for-all money grab going on around them. Supposedly, these football and basketball prodigies hammer away as indentured servants. They allegedly don’t have extra money to eat at McDonalds, to go on dates, or even to do their laundry (cue in violin music, please). All the while, the overlording rule-makers stare greedily at their own bank accounts bulging at the seams.  

So why did the NCAA finally reverse course and cave?

Public pressure for one. When individual states (including Kentucky) started enacting legislation giving student-athletes free rein to cash in on autograph signings, appearances on Cameo, and t-shirts and sponsorships bearing their faces, the Big Bad NCAA and its president—Mark “Darth” Emmert—was forced into action.

Why Everybody Loves NIL

Everyone (but me) seems to be applauding and cheering on this new legislation. Coaches like Mark Stoops and John Calipari have both put on happy public faces. They really don’t have any choice but to clap loudly, or else they’ll come off looking like jerks. Think about it. If you’re making millions coaching these young men, you have to feel obligated to give them a little extra piece of the pie—or you really are a jerk.

Media people all seem to love the decision too. They see themselves as the ones anointed to proclaim good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the captives, and the release from darkness for the prisoners. They’re all celebrating (at least outwardly) the clarion call of all these previously oppressed athletes rising up on a level playing field and sticking it to “The Man.”

Of course the athletes themselves are ecstatic. “It’s long overdue,” they cry. “Here we come. Better put a few more Big Macs on the grill.”

Why I Don’t Like NIL

Here’s the way I look at it. The NCAA set up and organized the platform for all the players to compete. They put in the effort, took the initial risk, financed the infrastructure, made all the network deals, and promoted the heck out of their product over all these years. Why shouldn’t they continue to reap the fruits of their labor? If athletes can get a better deal somewhere else, then just go outside the system and do it. No one’s stopping you.

NIL Cheapens the Value of a Scholarship

If you’re telling me that a free-ride lifetime athletic scholarship isn’t an overly fair tradeoff for playing the game you love, then you’re  devaluing the worth of a college degree. My parents, frugal as they were, advised me to spend money freely on two things: my home and my education. I’m proud to say that my UK degree remains to this day my most valuable asset.

I also just spent a small fortune putting my daughter through a private out-of-state university. If the University of Southern California had offered to pay for all her tuition, books, room and board, private tutoring, first class travel, deluxe hotel accommodations, and state-of-the-art medical care for her entire four-year stay, I would have gladly kissed the feet of Tommy Trojan (and retired earlier).

Current UK athletes should value their education in the exact same vein. The University of Kentucky, with its rabid Big Blue Nation, has already increased the value of their individual names, images, and likenesses—several fold—just by inviting them into the successful UK corporate brand. They’ve just been given the best education money can buy—without having to plunk down a single penny.

NIL Invites Too Many Outside Influences

And yet, even with this glorious free ride, everyone demands that these student-athletes share in the pot. As I said earlier, that’s fine with me—just not at the expense of choking the golden goose that has fueled our appetite for amateur sports as we know it. Unscrupulous agents descending on campus, rival deals between teammates dismantling team chemistry, and member institutions losing significant portions of their revenue stream to boosters paying the athletes directly could all potentially upset the apple cart.

And this doesn’t even include what could happen in the media world. Imagine a scenario where the best player appearances, the best player interviews, the best of anything media related always goes exclusively to the highest bidder. If you’re an outlet with cash to burn, then you’ll control the flow of information. That type of police state can’t be good for the game (unless you’re JMI Sports—UK’s current multi-media partner). And that certainly doesn’t bode well for all the other legitimate and hard-working journalists scrambling for their livelihoods to report news and maintain accountability.

To me, all these risks simply aren’t worth it for what amounts to the nickel and dime benefits that NIL legislation targets. Many ivory tower purists will argue that it should come down to what’s best for the student-athlete. Here’s where it gets hairy because what appears good on the surface is what could ultimately cause the entire system to crash and burn.

The Ultimate Demise

I never played college sports, but I do listen to people who did. The other night, while I was waiting to go on as a guest on Dick Gabriel’s Big Blue Insider radio show, I heard some insightful comments from the guest who was on ahead of me. Former UK linebacker Kash Daniel, who could have personally benefitted immensely if NIL had been enacted during his playing days, had these extremely perceptive thoughts.

“Scheduling is one of the biggest challenges these programs are going to face,” Kash said. “Playing college athletics at the Division I level, no matter what sport it is, is a full-time job—plus going to school. When you’re not in class or with tutors or anything that requires your academic attention, you’re in practice, you’re in treatment, you’re in extra study hall, you’re watching extra film. You’re literally doing everything you can to be the best player you can be…I don’t really know how you could do [NIL activities] during the season.”

“It really just comes down to the administrators, the head coaches, the team captains to say, ‘Hey, this is great. We get to make a little extra coin off our name now. But remember why we’re here. Remember that we still play for the University of Kentucky, we still play for Coach Stoops, and we still play for one another.’”

College coaches, like Calipari and Stoops, have always harped endlessly about player distractions—friends and family whispering in your ear, girlfriend problems, impending career choices, and mental health challenges all vying for those precious 24 hours in your day. NIL could easily become the TOP distraction. Remember, these ARE student-athletes. Their focus needs to be in the classroom and on the court—not on making money, analyzing contracts, and paying taxes. They don’t need the stress of another full-time job. They should enjoy their college experience—perhaps the best four years of their life—without having to compete with fellow teammates for a table at the next car dealership giveaway.

The truth is that NIL will not be a good thing for the majority of student-athletes. It’s an additional headache that will simply not be worth it.

It certainly won’t be worth it if it messes up my Football Saturdays, my College World Series, or my NCAA tournament. Everyone agrees that there are already plenty of outside influences affecting the purity of the college game. Welcome now to the Wild Wild West. NIL could be like that thief in the night, signaling for all of us the beginning of the end.

Granted, for those very few uber-talented student-athletes who are graced with wise outside counsel, these next few months could provide for a significant personal financial windfall. More power to them.

My prayer is that for the rest of us mortals in the sporting world, NIL proves eventually to be much ado about nothing.

The Most Interesting UK Basketball Player In The World

The Most Interesting UK Basketball Player In The World

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – Just last week, I participated on a media videoconference featuring the newest addition to the UK basketball roster. Savhir Wheeler, a transfer from Georgia who led the SEC in assists last season, knocked it out of the park with all the media members in attendance. The 5’10” guard was engaging, articulate, and knowledgeable when responding to the various reporter queries. In a virtual world fraught with one-sentence answers and predictably canned responses, I left the twenty-minute session thoroughly impressed.

That got me to thinking: what are some individual qualities that make for an interesting player interview? Or more specifically, who were the players that are considered the best interviews ever in the history of Kentucky Basketball?

Those are certainly tough questions to answer, especially for a media novice like me. I’ve only been at it for the past five or six years, so my knowledge is circumspect and my experience a bit limited. Plus, who’s to say what makes for a great interview?

I can say that during my short time on the beat, the sophisticated eloquence of a Reid Travis or the infectious personality of a Tyrese Maxey certainly stand out. But to even come up with a partially inclusive list, I knew I’d have to dive deeply into the history of the program.

Who better to do that than Alan Cutler and Larry Vaught? The two media stalwarts are older than dirt, but they’re also uniquely gifted at doing what they do best—drawing meaningful responses and getting great answers from those being interviewed. They operated, however, under two somewhat different parameters.

For Cutler—the iconic, longtime LEX18 anchor and reporter—honesty and trust were at the top of his list. He learned early on that trust between media and players worked both ways. He had to first gain the players’ trust before he could even attempt to penetrate their outer shell. Only afterwards would they then start telling him things that they wouldn’t have otherwise revealed.

Rex Chapman has been the most honest interview at UK for me,” Alan admitted. “He’s not afraid to be vulnerable and tell the world how he really feels, even if it hurts.”

That same type of honesty and vulnerability could be found in two other Cutler favorites, both cut from the same cloth.

Ed Davender—I would purposely ask him tough questions because he could handle it,” Cutler explained.  “We both come from Brooklyn. I don’t think anyone else at UK called me Cutler to my face. It still hurts anytime I hear his name. He should have played in the NBA forever.

“As for Jamal Mashburn, he was tough—a strong New Yorker. He told me in his first interview that being a successful businessman was his road after basketball. BINGO!”

Larry Vaught—a seven-time winner of the Kentucky Sportswriter of the Year award—had a slightly different ranking system. For him, relatability and spontaneity were the attributes he most valued.

Willie Cauley-Stein once told Larry that he could not go to the NBA because he would have to figure out where to eat and pay his bills on his own if he did. Likewise, the lovable Melvin Turpin once revealed to Larry going into Rupp Arena that if he messed up in game, Coach Hall was going to make him run stairs during the game—and he believed it.

Those types of answers are always endearing—and anticipating the unexpected is something every reporter relishes. If only the players of today would more often speak their minds.

“With Dirk Minniefield, you never knew what he would say,” Vaught volunteered. “And with DeMarcus Cousins—enough said—every quote was golden.”

Like Cutler, honesty and openness are also commendable traits in Vaught’s book.

Derek Anderson was never afraid to be blunt and honest,” Vaught emphasized. “And Derrick Miller always called me Mr. Vaught, and even in tough times was always very honest and willing to talk with me. Roger Harden could always analyze a game and never made excuses.”

For both Cutler and Vaught, just being friendly, gregarious, and affable were slam-dunk qualities that often made a big difference. For Cutler, players like Reggie Hanson and Sean Woods were the life of the party. Reggie’s “million-dollar smile” and Sean’s playful sense of humor made for many hilarious soundbites and memorable stand-ups.

For Vaught, an engaging Rick Robey (like after the scolding he gave Jim Master when he showed up late for Robey’s summer camp at Centre College) or a charming Richie Farmer with his eastern Kentucky twang were always good for a story AND A LAUGH.

To be honest, both Alan and Larry admitted that this list could go on and on—and that inevitably, there would be many others that would rightfully deserve to be included. They’re both correct in that because in this world of media interviews, relationships are ultimately what matters. Develop a good relationship with any player, and you’ll eventually get a story worth reporting.

Unfortunately, good relationships take time. It’s next to impossible—in this one-and-done era—to get to know someone in the few short months they’re on campus. Throw in the limited access imposed by the pandemic and the UK Athletics powers that be, and it’s no wonder that everyone starts reporting on the exact same drivel.

I’m not giving up, though. Somewhere out there, there’s an Antoine Walker, a Ramel Bradley, or a Lukasz Obrzut just waiting to break the internet. Like Jack “Goose” Givens or Kenny “Sky” Walker, it’s just a matter of them sticking around long enough for us to get to know them better…or for legendary journalistic pros like Alan Cutler or Larry Vaught to finally coax it out of them.

Who’s your vote for the most interesting UK Basketball player in the world?

It’s Time To Dress It Up

It’s Time To Dress It Up

If the suit makes the man, then Coach John Calipari hasn’t been much of a man this year.

I’ll readily admit that I’m no fashionista. Although my hat game was strong during the ponytail era, I’ve never ever owned Armani suits or donned Gucci shoes. I do believe, however, in dressing for success.

That’s why, as an orthodontist, I usually attended patient consultations in a coat and tie. And why, in the early years of my new media gig covering sporting events, I frequently showed up in a three-piece suit. I wanted to represent my practice—and subsequently the media outlets for whom I wrote—in the most professional light possible in front of my patients, peers, and business clients.

I realize that coaching basketball games is different from working in a clinic, bank, or on Wall Street—but the optics of representing your company, your organization, or your university in a professional manner remain exactly the same. How you look matters. If you appear at company sponsored events unkempt and sloppily dressed, that’s a poor reflection of the people you represent.

You’ve undoubtedly noticed that for the past few games, Coach John Calipari has been casually attired in a sport coat while ranting on the sidelines. Mind you, this was an actual upgrade from the track suit he wore during much of the preconference slate. To the chagrin of many in BBN, both blazer and windbreaker are no substitute for the regal pin-striped suit and tie we were all accustomed to seeing in years past.

I’m not saying the team struggles this year are directly related to the missing suit and tie on the sidelines, but as long as we’re all piling on, I thought I’d add fuel to the file.

Granted, Calipari is just a basketball coach, but he’s also the most famous face associated with the University of Kentucky. Just as you wouldn’t expect the leader of the free world to conduct business in sweats and tennis shoes, you shouldn’t expect the coach in charge of the program with the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball to be sloppily attired either—especially since his image is so prominently displayed across countless media platforms.

I’ve always perceived Coach Cal to be more image conscious than he lets on. Frankly, I was surprised he chucked his customary and formal game-time threads. Was it just a matter of a Covid-19 blip, or had he finally abandoned style for comfort in his old age? How does he feel coaches should be dressed on the sidelines?

“I would tell you whatever makes them comfortable,” he answered when I asked him directly. “No, I won’t do any suit and tie. But I needed to feel like I was coaching again. And I was kind of feeling like this was all pick-up basketball. I wanted to feel like I was coaching. That’s why I did it. I didn’t do it for any other reason. But I would tell any coach, ‘whatever makes you comfortable.’ Coaches dress different. If they’re comfortable in a sweat suit or a t-shirt or a pullover shirt, be comfortable. I’m just more comfortable with a sport coat and a pair of jeans—which is what I’ve been wearing.”

For all I care, Calipari can wear a bathrobe and bunny slippers during his time away from the university. But when he’s on company time—i.e. coaching during games—he needs to be attired professionally. I’d prefer the sartorial splendor of a Jay Wright or Jerry Stackhouse every single night, but I guess I can live with the sport coat and slacks. Just please don’t regress to Huggy Bear sweats or Mike Brey shorts.

On the Women’s Basketball side, I have no complaints. Former head coach Matthew Mitchell was certainly GQ worthy while strolling the sidelines. Current head coach Kyra Elzy continues the tradition by knocking it out of the park. Just like Coach Cal, however, when it comes down to what to wear during games, the first-year head coach feels as if it’s to each their own.

“As far as how people are dressed, it’s up to each individual,” Elzy explained. “To coach good, you want to feel good. You just wear what you’re comfortable with…I’m not dressing any different than I normally dress. Thank you for everybody watching.”

And therein lies the key. Remember, everybody’s watching. You’re a professional, a mentor to future generations, and a representative of the state university. Act like one. Be like one. Look like one. It matters more than you think.

When it Comes to Getting the Coronavirus Vaccine, Should Kentucky Basketball Players Cut Line?

When it Comes to Getting the Coronavirus Vaccine, Should Kentucky Basketball Players Cut Line?

The one thing we all agree on as a cultured society is that there’s a special place in Hell awaiting those who cut in line. We’ve all experienced it. You’re queued up at Kroger, or at the airport check-in counter, or ready to board a Disney World ride after a two-hour wait…and some goober with a FastPass suddenly bolts right in front of you.

Whether it’s a bathroom line—and you REALLY need to go—or you’re stuck in construction traffic and some idiot on a cellphone zips past you for a last-minute merge, alarms go off in our head warning us that we’ve somehow just been screwed.

Your blood pressure goes up. You stare at the perpetrators with disdain. You question when the cosmic laws of karma will finally kick in and teach these elitist snobs a lesson they’ll never forget.

This immutable law of “waiting your turn in line” was exactly why Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari was so quick to clarify his statements the other day regarding his players getting preferential treatment during the Covid crisis.

“The safest place for all these athletes is on our campuses,” Calipari said initially when asked about the possibility of a shutdown to the basketball season. “Most of us have hospitals, whether they’re in our town or somewhere close by, if something does happen. And they move to the front of the line and get the best care.

That’s not breaking news. We’re all accepting of the fact that UK basketball players are treated by a different standard than the rest of us commoners. They’re coddled, pampered, and often worshipped like deities. First-class charter flights, five-star hotels, and the best medical care that money can buy. It’s all part of the scholarship package enticing them to come.

That’s not all. If they come to UK, these players will never have to wait for a table at a restaurant either. The occasional comped meal, front-row concert tickets, and all the swag you care to muster are simply par for the course—universally accepted perks for being able to dribble and shoot (although with this team, the jury is still out on whether they can indeed dribble or shoot).

So why, then, did Calipari feel the need for clarification?

“I want to be very clear,” he tweeted out shortly after he made his initial statement. “Our guys are not jumping to the front of the line if we have any health issues. I could have said it better. What I mean is these kids are better off here because of the access to our hospitals being close by and because we can monitor them as a staff.”

Say what? We all know UK basketball players go to the front of the line whenever they have health issues. So why did Calipari say they didn’t? Does he really want us to believe that Terrence Clarke had to call for an appointment when he recently tweaked his ankle? Would Olivier Sarr really have to take a number and sit in a crowded waiting room if his tooth abscessed? Of course not. When it comes to health care issues, they’re shuttled immediately to the front of the line.

With the news of the first shipments of the Coronavirus vaccine being distributed as we speak, a more pertinent medical issue popped into my head. I wondered where the current UK basketball players will rate when it comes to getting inoculated. Will they jump to the front of the line? Perhaps a better question is should they jump to the front of the line.

The answer depends on who they’re jumping over. If it’s over the first responders, other critical medical personnel, or the elderly, then the answer is a resounding “no way!” It’s crucial that our society protect those on the front lines and those who are most vulnerable. Calipari is right on point here. To jump in front of those folks would be a blatant travesty of justice. If that happens, I’ll be the first to scream in protest.

Perhaps a more difficult question is should the UK players cut in front of someone like you or me?

I’m a relatively healthy guy, but I am approaching the age of vulnerability. I’m a cancer survivor, my blood pressure and sugar levels are higher than I want them to be, and I do my share of long-distance travel on airplanes. In other words, I could really benefit from getting vaccinated, and getting vaccinated early on in the process.

But I’m also exactly the kind of guy who’ll probably get bumped by the UK players. Because in the high-stakes world of college sports, they’re deemed more valuable than an “average-Joe” like me. So they’ll most likely get their shot in the arm first.

Surprisingly, I’m OK with that. I understand that life’s not fair. It never has been, and I’ve come to accept some of life’s inequalities—especially when UK basketball players are involved. I’m even guilty of hero worship myself. When I ran my dental practice, UK players always got preferential treatment if they came to see me. It wasn’t always the right thing to do. It certainly wasn’t fair to my other patients. But it’s part of human nature. I loved my Wildcats and was always eager to show my appreciation for the pride and joy they brought me.

And I think that’s a key to this decision-making process of when the players should get vaccinated. Kentucky Basketball is important to a heck of a lot of people in the Commonwealth. It creates a lot of happiness in a year where joy is hard to find. It provides a much-needed jolt of serotonin to our dopamine deprived brains. We need the players to stay healthy so that the season can be played out. It’s important to the overall economy, but even more critical to our individual psyches.

John Calipari quips that he hasn’t been wrong since 1978. Well, he’s wrong here. His players are going to cut line when it comes to the vaccine. They already do it when it comes to other medical and social issues. In our sports-obsessed culture, they’re treated as VIPs. Most of us are fine with their preferential treatment.

Just don’t insult our intelligence by denying that it happens. 

Why I Do Stupid Things

Why I Do Stupid Things

I just returned from a grueling road trip to Columbia, Missouri. It’s the home of the University of Missouri Tigers, and my Kentucky Wildcats were matched up with them on Saturday afternoon at the midpoint of this year’s 10-game SEC gauntlet of a schedule. For the record, Kentucky laid an egg and got pummeled—but that’s not the point of this post. Or maybe it is?

The question I’ve been asked time and time again is why would a guy like me continuously invest the time and energy to follow a football team that is known for ripping your heart out year after year in the most perplexing manner possible?

Let me try to explain because I think that’s a fair question.

You see, it’s a 14-hour round trip to Columbia. The drive through the flatlands of the Midwest is ridiculously boring. The traffic around St. Louis can be stifling and the weather this time of the year is already cold and dreary. Missouri isn’t a big foodie destination either. I’m not a big fan of those cracker-crust pizzas, and the steamed dumplings in Columbia weren’t worth the bamboo chopsticks my carryout order came with. Wouldn’t my weekends be better spent working towards world peace or finding the cure for cancer?

To add to my misery, I made the trip alone. A good buddy and colleague bailed out at the last possible minute. I get that—things come up. Plus, don’t forget there’s still a pandemic going on, gas and hotels still cost money, and media outlets are more selective than ever now in who goes where.

Speaking of which, I was the only UK media person—outside of the normal UK staff and broadcasting network—to cover the game. I don’t think that’s ever happened before. It’s a whole different media world out there than it was just a few short years ago. No Herald-Leader, no Courier-Journal, no Cats Pause, no local TV stations—no nothing.

Only me. Wouldn’t it have been better to drown my sorrows from the comfort of my basement couch? Was I nuts for going?

I don’t think so…and here’s why.

It’s simple. I’m a fan. I’m no different than most of you. For die-hard Kentucky fans, it’s always about the journey rather than the destination. Sure I want Kentucky to win just as much as the next guy (probably more), but after a half century of heartbreak, I’ve finally realized that it’s not the won-loss record that ultimately tickles my fancy.

Nope, it’s the realization that—as a sports fan—regardless of the misery I may be currently experiencing, that tantalizing jolt of euphoria could be just around the corner. That game winning kick, that season-saving interception, or that once-in-a-lifetime comeback victory could be just a road trip away. AND I DON’T WANT TO MISS IT!

So I go—to out of the way places like Columbia the week before Halloween, through the backwoods of Mississippi to hamlets like Starkville, and Auburn, and Fayetteville—all because I want to witness with my own eyes the next great iconic moment in Kentucky Football history.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not equating momentous football victories with the moon landing. However, we all know that—as fans—there are certain moments that will always be a part of our hearts forever. Following the Cats to the end of the earth is part of our DNA. It’s an integral part of who we are, a perfunctory rite of passage, our unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness within our Big Blue Nation.

Because despite our travails, every once in a blue moon, we stumble upon those magical moments of heaven on earth. Like in Gainesville two years ago when Kentucky broke that 31-game losing streak against the Gators. Or like in Knoxville the weekend before last when the Cats dismantled Rocky Top and ended that ignominious 36-year losing streak.

So I’ll pack my bags, download some podcasts, and hunker down for some monotonous travel, greasy fast food, overpriced hotels, and bad football.

I know there’ll be plenty more duds like Missouri lurking in the future. But hidden among them will be those memorable gems you simply can’t miss. It’s the price you have to pay.

Trust me—it’s absolutely worth it.