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.

Damn You, Coronavirus!

Damn You, Coronavirus!

(photo credit Bluegrass Sports Nation)

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) — Other than World War III, this current global pandemic has to be the most significant challenge we’ll face in our lifetimes. Nothing can rival the isolation, the destruction, and the fear generated by an invisible pathogen that has killed our economy, our loved ones, and our sense of security all in one fell swoop.  

Many have said that the sporting world is a microcosm of society. If that’s true, then rest assured that us die-hard sports fans are suffering through the exact same voids of discouragement and despair as the rest of the planet. COVID-19 has entered our lives like a thief in the night and robbed us of everything that we hold dear. March Madness, The Masters, and Keeneland—all gone in the blink of an eye.

As bad as it for those of us watching from the peanut gallery, imagine the anxiety of those actually in the arena. I’m not talking about the megastars of major sports like the NBA or MLB. Those guys won’t miss a beat. I’m talking about those in the trenches—the grinders who have busted tail to get where they are, only to see their hopes and dreams curtailed by an unseen enemy.

I’m talking about somebody like Chip McDaniel. The former University of Kentucky golfer was embarking on a young professional career that was headed into the stratosphere. The 24-year-old hometown hero from Manchester had turned pro in 2018, immediately made the cut in his first professional tournament at the Barbasol Championships, and then quickly followed that up with his first pro tournament win at the Governor’s Open.

If that weren’t impressive enough, McDaniel went on to finish 1st in sectional qualifying for the 2019 US Open, made the cut at Pebble Beach, and ended up finishing 78th amongst the best golfers in the world. Surviving the rigors of Q-School finals in December, McDaniel had just finished up the first six tournaments on the Korn Ferry Tour when his golfing world imploded.

“It just came to a stop,” Chip told me on a phone interview the other day. “I went from hardly being home to being home basically 24/7—which was nice for two weeks. And then it kind of set in that it wasn’t just a short break. It was definitely an adjustment for most golfers I would say.”

An adjustment is a definite understatement. Were I in Chip’s shoes, I’d be going ballistic—throwing thunderbolts of anger and loathing at the golfing gods who brought this on. To have worked so hard to get to where I’ve gotten in life, only to see everything potentially vaporized by a bat out of China would send me into bouts of depression and self-pity. Damn you, Coronavirus would be my mantra of the day.

If you know Chip, however—or the entire McDaniel clan for that matter—you know that would never be the case with him. In fact, dejection and despondency about his career was the farthest thing from his mind.

“What’s been the hardest part for me is being at home and not being able to see the people that I normally don’t get to see because I’m traveling all the time,” Chip explained. “Now it’s like I’m stuck at home, but I still can’t see them because my parents are a little paranoid that I’ll be a carrier and give it to my grandparents.”

So, what has he been doing with all this extra social distancing time? Thankfully, many of the golf courses are still open, and Chip is able to get out of his house consistently to improve his game. He’s been working diligently to get his body in better shape, to sharpen his faith, and to keep a positive attitude.

“It’s pretty crazy,” Chip explained. “I feel that this is almost so crazy that the whole country—the whole world—is on pause basically. From a career standpoint, it’s probably a better situation for me than with an injury. I think once everything goes back to normal, it’ll almost be like a restart button. I feel like that’s the only way I can think about it and just try to prepare myself for that moment that it does start to go back to normal.”

And therein lies one of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard from anyone on how we should be dealing with this unwelcome interruption in our lives. Whether uber-talented professional golfer or below-average fledgling sportswriter, Chip McDaniel and I have a common Coronavirus goal. We’re both striving to emerge from this pandemic better than when we went in.

“Continue to stick to yourself,” Chip reminded me. “And try to focus on something to make yourself better when you go out. That way you distract yourself from what’s going on. And then when it’s over and everything is back to normal, you’ll be a little bit better than when it started.”

Wise words, indeed. If everyone heeds that sage advice, then we really have nothing to fear. Because if we’re all just a tiny bit better than we were before, then the world will undoubtedly be a more joyful place for everyone.

Dr. John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Group Media. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at Nolangroupmedia.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs. 

And a Little Child Shall Lead Them

And a Little Child Shall Lead Them

Kentucky’s Immanuel Quickley just did something that has never been done. The Wildcats’ sophomore guard just won his second straight SEC Player of the Week award. Immanuel’s numbers on the court this season have been supremely impressive. But it’s his faith-based leadership among his teammates that will have far more eternal significance. Here’s a sneak preview of my upcoming column appearing in the Nolan Media Group newspapers later this week.

 

Immanuel Quickley prepares faith-driven Wildcat team for postseason success

By Dr. John Huang

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – When asked what he likes about this year’s team, Coach John Calipari was quick to point out his talented backcourt trio. “I like that we’re playing three point guards,” said Kentucky’s hall of fame coach.

Although Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley, and Tyrese Maxey may eventually lead Calipari’s team to another coveted national championship, there’s another trio of Wildcats who will ultimately guide them into the sacred Promised Land.

When it comes to spirituality on Kentucky Wildcat basketball teams, I don’t recall a more outwardly vocal trinity than Immanuel Quickley, Nate Sestina, and Keion Brooks. The three are part of eight scholarship players this year who are rapidly capturing the hearts of BBN.

We’re all familiar with Quickley’s story. The sophomore guard from Havre De Grace, Maryland has stated on numerous occasions how important his faith has been to him. A devout upbringing, an active church life, and studying God’s Word have been the hallmarks of his early life of piety.

“I started putting God first,” Immanuel—which means ‘God with us’—told us at a recent media session.

That means getting up early and starting off each day with a daily devotional. Having glided through the Psalms, the Gospel of Luke, and now on to the Book of Isaiah, the Wildcats’ most consistent player appears poised to finish out this season with some pretty God-sized biblical accomplishments.

“Honestly, I know why I read the Bible,” he explained. “I think just starting from the beginning and trying to read it to the end like it’s a regular book—it gives me something to look forward to. Instead of just reading random stuff, I keep building and having something to go back to.”

Immanuel’s dedication to God’s Word has not been lost on Nate Sestina, his traveling roommate on road trips. The two have developed a special bond, occasionally even delving into some deep spiritual discussions. Taking after Immanuel’s lead, the graduate transfer from Bucknell has faithfully relied on Scripture in his attempt to bolster confidence in himself.

“I follow this Bible verse very closely,” Nate shared with me after a recent practice session. “It’s Proverbs 16:3—’Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and he shall establish your plans.’ I’ve actually talked to Immanuel about it. So, he likes it a lot too. But, just believing that whatever I do, that God’s got me.”

Keion Brooks is another Wildcat who’s not afraid to talk openly about his Christian faith.

“It’s extremely important to me,” the 6’7 freshman from Ft. Wayne, Indiana has admitted on several occasions. “It’s a big part of who I am.”

Brooks, when speaking to reporters, often appears reticent and shy. But he was bold and confident when talking about the gratitude and contentment stemming directly from his biblical beliefs.

“God has blessed me with being able to be here to wake up every day,” he said with an unmistakable look of serenity. “Being able to be a part of this great program. Being able to meet so many great people throughout this world. Just blessing me with the talent to play basketball. Basketball has taken me all over the place, all over the country. I just want to pay my dues back to Him because He’s just put me in a great place with a great family and support system to do some phenomenal things. So I just got to make sure I do my part to play hard and continue to believe in Him.”

When John Calipari tells us over and over that these are good kids, it’s not just coach speak. From what I’ve gleaned, this year’s crew consists of a bunch of really GREAT kids—kids that know their roles, kids that are fully aware of their exalted status as Kentucky Basketball players, and kids who will hopefully bring the Wildcats another national championship.

As Immanuel Quickley is learning in the eleventh chapter of Isaiah, “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; And a little child shall lead them.”

I’m not sure whether God is necessarily a University of Kentucky Basketball fan or not. But it sure can’t hurt that Immanuel Quickley–whose Twitter handle just happens to be @IQ_GodSon–obviously has his priorities in the right place. Whether on the basketball court or in the arena of eternal life, you can be certain that @IQ_GodSon is getting everyone ready for the day of reckoning.

I’m ready. Are you?

Dr. John Huang is a regular columnist for Nolan Group Media. If you enjoy his writing, you can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs

 

The Most Beloved Coach in America

The Most Beloved Coach in America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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