Heart of Big Blue Nation

Heart of Big Blue Nation

Hey Everyone, I want to announce the launch of a brand spanking new project that’s soon to take flight. It’s a creative idea that’s been bouncing around in my brother Michael’s head for the past couple of years. You’ve probably heard of Michael. He’s the photographer for Kentucky Sports Radio and goes by the moniker Dr. Mike. According to his wife Michelle, Michael’s the greatest photographer who’s ever lived. He’s no Ansel Adams in my book, but I’ll have to admit he’s pretty good at what he does.

You see, Michael, Michelle, and I have all been long-term, die-hard Kentucky fans ever since we can remember. We all still have nightmares about the Laettner shot, we all think Coach Cal should have won at least two more championships, and we all agree that following UK sports may be the highlight of our very lives.Huangs

In other words, we’re no different than most of you. The one major distinction is that despite having had full-time medical and dental careers, the Huang brothers somehow lucked their way onto press row as bona fide UK media members.

Here’s the plan for the aforementioned project. As fans, Michael, Michelle, and I know the pride and joy of being a part of the greatest fan base in all of sports. Sure, we’re as passionate as anyone else about winning ballgames, but deep down inside, we’ve always sensed that citizenship within the BBN is about much more than that. There’s a special bond that Wildcat fans have to their program and a connection to one another that you just can’t find anywhere else. We’ve observed that first-hand as objective media members. Our goal now is to try and find out exactly why that is.

Since this project is about you—the Kentucky True Blue fan—we need your help. Over the next few months, the three of us will be compiling a series of photos and stories about your love affair with the BBN. Michael will have his camera, I’ll have my pen, and together with Michelle, we’ll be seeking out the most passionate, the most poignant, and the most powerful stories you have to tell.

Your narrative can include something as simple as your first memories as a Wildcat fan, or the reason you act so crazy after a loss, or how you got tongue-tied meeting that famous UK player. All we ask is that it be interesting, entertaining, and emotion-evoking. The more unique, the funnier, the more thought-provoking, the more tear-jerking—the better.

Our hope is that the end result will be something akin to https://www.humansofnewyork.com, but obviously with a decidedly Kentucky flavor. In other words, we want to capture your Big Blue Hearts.

So, when you see us at the different venues in the upcoming weeks, flag us down. Tell us your story in your own words and pose for that picture that’ll ultimately make you famous. If you make the cut, we’ll put you on our website https://heartofbbn.com/. If your story’s really compelling, you’ll make it into the book.

Either way, we’ll be sharing your love, your fandom, and your heart for BBN with the rest of the world. It’s a venture that’s long overdue. Now, Go Big Blue!

If you want to be a part of this project, contact Heartofbbn@gmail.com. Be sure to follow me on Twitter @KYHuangs for updates.

Fair Pay To Play Is Foul Play

Fair Pay To Play Is Foul Play

Coach John Calipari loves to talk. During his press conferences, he’s likely to babble on endlessly about who knows what. Most of the time, if you ask him a specific question, his answer will have nothing to do with what you originally asked. When Cal gets on one of his infamous rants—whether it’s about his former players in the NBA, or his quest to end generational poverty, or his current players pooping ice cream—I usually end up tuning him out.

However, Coach Cal said something the other day that may have slipped under the radar. Ironically, it had to do with the hot topic of the day—that dad gum California Fair Pay to Play law that will allow student-athletes to profit from their own likeness while still enrolled in school. Although he said he hadn’t had a chance to digest the specifics, it sounded like our hall of fame coach was speaking out against the new California Senate Bill 206.

“My biggest concern is that we minimize and diminish education,” Calipari conceded when pressed on his opinion of the new law. “The reality of it is, the players that have that opportunity to go (to the NBA straight from high school), it’s one percent. So we’re going to do everything to make this about all the other stuff and diminish education.”

I couldn’t agree more. Since when has the value of an athletic scholarship been so trivialized?

Growing up as a child of immigrants pursuing the American dream, I was told often by my parents that a good education was the key to future opportunity. I heeded their sage advice, studied hard, and pursued as many degrees as I possibly could. I ended up doing pretty well for myself—but it was my parents who paid the price of my in-state tuition with their hard-earned dollars.

If you would have told my mom and dad that I could have had a top-notch college education, complete with, room, board, books, a stipend, 24-hour food service, free shoes, nutritional counseling, fitness training, academic tutoring, state-of-the-art health care, and high-level coaching—all while traveling around the country on charter flights and plush hotels to play ball—they would have thought they’d hit the lottery. In a way they would have, as a four-year scholarship and all the associated amenities nowadays can escalate well over a quarter of a million dollars.

Since when is that not enough? Why do we feel the need to constantly stoke the fires of free enterprise, capitalism, and greed—at the expense of a bona fide college education?

Not only is the suggestion of allowing student-athletes on scholarship to start monetizing their name, image and likeness (NIL) an insult to the value of an educational scholarship, it also opens up a Pandora’s Box that I don’t want to deal with as an alumni and fan.

I’ll go on and say it—I don’t want anyone on a full athletic scholarship being distracted by the lure of earning a wheelbarrow full of cash on the side. I don’t want that used car dealer on Richmond Road funneling $50K a year into Khalil Whitney’s pockets, when that money could have been used to provide air conditioning for Memorial Coliseum. I don’t want that snarky orthodontist down the street capitalizing on Tyrese Maxey’s infectious smile at the expense of a facelift for the Hillary Boone Tennis Complex. I don’t want Lynn Bowden signing autographs at the local sports bar during bye week when he should be preparing to take snaps at quarterback.

Numbers don’t lie. Anything going into the players’ pockets will ultimately come out of the university’s coffers. If you’re a high-end donor, why contribute to the university when you can pay the player directly? Less money for the university means less funding for facilities upgrades and lower budgets for the lesser sports programs.

If that’s not detrimental enough, think about the potential internal strife within a program itself. What would happen if the shady orthodontist referenced above wanted to pay freshman Tyrese Maxey $100K for his intoxicating smile while allocating a measly $10K for Nick Richards’ gap-toothed grin. Might have a bit of an effect on team chemistry—wouldn’t you say?

These student-athletes are busy enough hitting the books and the practice courts. They don’t need to be out there in the wild west filming commercials or posing for billboards at the mercy of unscrupulous boosters. What would happen, God forbid, if they ended up being a bust and having to transfer out? My point is this—if these student-athletes are already riding comfortably on their university’s scholarship gravy train, then let them wait until they graduate before selling off their body parts.

I agree with Coach Cal. Let the five or six players who are good enough each year go directly to the NBA. For the other 99% graciously benefitting from their scholarships—let’s not let ignorant self-serving politicians throw the baby out with the bath water.

Or better yet—let’s just take Coach Cal’s car dealership endorsements and split them evenly within the team. That way, everybody wins!

If you enjoy my writing, please check out my musings on University of Kentucky sports on my new website at www.justthecats.com, or follow me on Twitter @KYHuangs.

A Good Man Down

A Good Man Down

For most of us, involvement in sports is a pleasant distraction. Cheering on our favorite teams and rooting for our heroes cushions the slings and arrows of everyday life. Who doesn’t look forward to Saturdays in the fall—those sacred times of respite from that dead-end job or nagging spouse?

Occasionally, however, the pain and hardship of the real and sporting worlds collide. When athletes suffer debilitating injuries, it suddenly dawns on us how real and vulnerable they are. They battle with many of the same emotions and worries that we deal with. The big difference is that they’ve potentially lost their livelihood, and their battles are frequently fought on the public stage.

It seems like every year, the UK Football team has had to deal with a debilitating preseason injury. This year, it was safety DaVonte Robinson with a quad injury. Last year, it was offensive lineman Landon Young with a torn ACL.

“If you play this sport, it’s going to happen to you at some point or another if you play long enough,” said head coach Mark Stoops. “So it’s very hard because those guys put a lot of work in. They put a lot of work in for a lot of years for only so many opportunities.”

Debilitating injuries are bad enough, but it’s the ravaging illnesses that really get my goat—that make me question my worldview of life as defined by my Christian faith. You look at the cancers that coach John Schlarman and linebacker Josh Paschal are dealing with—and you just can’t help asking “WHY?”

Now we have the situation with UK golfer Cullan Brown. Just two short months ago, Cullan was on top of the world. As a newly minted freshman on the Wildcat Golf team, he made the cut in his first professional tournament at the Barbasol Championship. His engaging personality and infectious grin were contagious. He made everybody around him feel good. His interviews were already becoming legendary. He had game too. I couldn’t wait to cover the exploits of this burgeoning superstar from Eddyville.

All that changed this week when we heard the scary diagnosis. Cullen has osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer that can be deadly. It was discovered in his left leg, but apparently was found early enough that his doctors feel it is “fully treatable and beatable.” That’s certainly good news–but with cancer, you just never know.

If anyone can beat this thing, it’ll be Cullan. But he can’t do it alone. He and his family covet your prayers. They also welcome your donations to help with medical expenses at

https://www.gofundme.com/f/birdies-for-brownie?utm_source=customer&utm_medium=copy_link&utm_campaign=p_cp+share-sheet

What do you say to someone like Cullan or Josh who’s facing such immense challenges entering the prime of their life?

“We support them, that’s for sure,” said Coach Stoops. “We support them and encourage them and go sit with them and talk with them, but there’s not, I don’t think there’s anything, any one thing you could say to somebody to make them feel a lot better.”

Hey Cullan, keep the faith—and know that all of BBN continues to cheer you on.

If you enjoy my writing, check out my columns on a brand new website called Justthecats.com or follow me on Twitter @KYHuangs.

There’s Something About Macy

There’s Something About Macy

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – Last week, former UK basketball All-American Kyle Macy caused quite a stir. The star point guard for the 1978 NCAA national title squad appeared on an Indiana radio show and proclaimed how he now feels “unwelcome” at Wildcat practices. Macy subsequently stepped his comments back a bit by saying he should have used the word “uncomfortable” rather than “unwelcome.” Regardless—the inference was made that Coach John Calipari’s current regime is somehow putting old-timers like Macy out to pasture in lieu of the recent one and done prodigies of his own creation.

OUCH! Nothing hurts the BBN more than a Cat-on-Cat war of words between hoops icons. To make matters worse, many loyal fans subsequently took sides in the festering battle, with the vocal majority appearing to favor Coach Cal. “Macy had a good run,” they said, “But through the passage of time, people gravitate to the stars of today. That’s just the way the world works nowadays. You’re ancient history. Get over it Kyle!”

The last thing Kyle Macy would want is for a goober like me to make a mountain out of a molehill. But as a lifelong worshipper of the Kentucky Basketball program, I just can’t help myself. Our honor has been insulted.

I don’t agree with the notion that the glory of former star UK players fades with time. In fact, I believe it’s just the opposite. Kyle Macy is a Kentucky basketball legend—and a legitimate legend’s legacy continues to grow rather than shrink as the years go by. I can say that’s true for every one of the all-time greats such as Dan Issel, Jack Givens, Kenny Walker, Jamal Mashburn, etc. Heck, in my humble opinion, even the not-so-all-time greats deserve reverent awe and respect—solely because they wore the hallowed blue and white. I’ll put both Chuck Aleksinas and Chuck Verderber on my big blue pedestal any day of the week. If Chuck Hayes walks through that door right now, I’ll kneel down and wash his feet.

You want more legends? How about Bowie and Turpin, Hurt and Hord, Minniefield and Beal? Has anyone  forgotten The Unforgettables, Pitino’s Bombinos, or that 1996 juggernaut? I doubt it. They’re all fresh in our minds and more reverent with each passing decade. I don’t want to come across sounding like an old man, but fans just seemed more connected to the players and the teams back in the day.

Back in the day in 1969, every ten-year-old boy growing up in Kentucky–myself included—wanted to either be an astronaut or a UK basketball star. We all dreamed of shooting for the moon or shooting jumpers from the corner ala Larry Steele. There was no doubt in our minds that Issel, Pratt, and Casey would surely lead us to another coveted championship. We memorized everyone’s stats, painted their jersey numbers on our T-shirts, and patterned our ball-handling skills after theirs. I even tried to shoot left handed simply because Tom Parker was left handed. How many games did we play on our nerf goals, pounding Ray Mears’ hated Volunteers into an imaginary virtual submission?

As great as that time was, it wasn’t until Kyle Macy appeared on campus that Kentucky would win their first National Championship in my lifetime. Who can ever forget his floor leadership, his free-throw accuracy, his perfect hair, or his dry socks as the Cats defeated Duke for the monumental win. The Goose was definitely golden in St. Louis that night as Macy and crew capped off their “season without celebration,” sending all of BBN and the city of Lexington into a delirious fit of revelry.

Kyle Macy unwelcome? YOU GOTTA BE KIDDING ME!

Don’t get me wrong—I don’t discount the popularity of recent Wildcat stars who have gone on to the NBA. In the pantheon of UK greats, Anthony Davis could arguably have been the most impactful player ever. But if Kyle Macy isn’t welcome or comfortable anymore basking in the glow of the Kentucky Basketball program, then something stinks to high heaven. If one of the greatest stars in the greatest program with “the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball” isn’t welcomed with the sound of blaring trumpets or resounding cymbals anywhere he goes, then our claim of being the greatest fan base in America has been greatly overemphasized.

Yes—there’s something very special about Macy. And you better never forget what it is!     

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

 

 

A Little Extra Motivation

A Little Extra Motivation

By DR. JOHN HUANG, Nolan Group Media

(LEXINGTON, KY.) – As a die-hard Kentucky fan, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that most of my basketball memories are negative ones. In fact, I daresay that the most indelible ones often involve the year-end heartbreaking defeats. Dating back to the Mideast Regional loss to Jacksonville in 1970, I can tell you exactly where I was every single year that the Wildcats’ season came to an abrupt end. The Laettner shot, Bogans’ sprained ankle, and the Wisconsin shot clock violations all coalescing into a nightmarish potpourri of anger, depression, and grief.

Despite reports to the contrary, it seems that Kentucky fans often do care more about wins and losses than the players themselves. Especially in this decade of one and done, our beloved on-court prodigies quickly move past disappointment. Not long after the final buzzer, they’re basking in the glow of massive NBA contracts and lavish lifestyles while the “average Joe fan” wallows in the pain and agony of yet another tournament loss. If only the players would stick around long enough to experience the heartache, to feel our pain—then surely they’d be extra motivated the next time around.

During the most recent media opportunity, I asked each of the four returning UK players about just that topic. To a man, they said the Auburn loss at the end of the season still grates at their collective core. It serves as a constant reminder and motivational force to propel them to greater heights. Whether that means another Final Four or a Championship trophy remains to be seen. But for a guy bent on spending the first weekend in April at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in Atlanta this upcoming Spring, their words were sweet melodies to my expectant ears and a much-needed salve for my wounded soul.

Sophomore guard Immanuel Quickley figures to garner significant minutes in the backcourt this year. He certainly hasn’t forgotten about that fateful day in Kansas City. “I probably think about it almost every day,” he confessed. “Just knowing that we were that close to getting to a Final Four. You watch it on TV, but to play in the Final Four would have been really cool. It kind of hurts that we didn’t get to do that.”

Backcourt mate Ashton Hagans agreed wholeheartedly. The Wildcats’ sophomore starting point guard appeared cool, confident, and composed—until he was asked about that season-ending defeat. “It’s actually been in the back of my head a lot,” he lamented. “It’s just one of those feelings that will never go away because you were so close. The bond that we created (last year), it was just different. Knowing that we can’t do it with the same group…it hurt. But that just adds fuel to the fire. So you just have to come in, knowing what you could have done last year—just bring it in and just leave it on the court this year.”

Sophomore forward EJ Montgomery was the last of the teammates to pull his name out of the upcoming NBA draft. Temporarily passing on the opportunity to fulfill his dream, he vividly remembers the tearful locker room after the overtime loss to Auburn, and he claims that it’s a definite factor in upping his game this year. “No one wants to go through that, (the disappointment) of times with your team,” he said. “You gotta put in work in the gym. We have some returnees that all felt that, so we’re just going to try our best to get farther.”

OK, who are we kidding? I’m not saying any of these guys returned to school solely to win another national title. Those team-oriented goals and dreams left town with the likes of Kenny Walker and Roger Harden. Granted, times were different back when they played—a bygone era when love for your school trumped even one’s individual career goals. In this day and age of players focused solely on taking their games to the next level, is it even possible that they’d be motivated by defeat?  

Perhaps junior center Nick Richards said it best. After all, he’s suffered through two crushing season-ending upsets—to Kansas State as a freshman and to Auburn as a sophomore. “Those two losses are actually just motivation for me and my game,” he readily admitted. “Just trying to motivate this team. Just to make it to that championship, just to hold up that trophy, just to be on that stage is real motivation for me. I always think about those losses every single day.”

Me too, Nick. With the exception of four years in my lifetime, every Wildcat season has ended in abject disaster. It’s virtually impossible for fans like me to forgive and forget. We’re all hoping that Championship #9 is just around the corner—and that for the returning UK players, a little extra motivation is all that’s needed to get them over the hump.

“That’s the goal for every team—to make it to the Final Four and just win the National Championship,” Nick added.

For all of BBN, we couldn’t agree more.

Dr. John Huang covers University of Kentucky sports for Nolan Group Media. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.  

The End of the Line

The End of the Line

(KANSAS CITY, Mo.) – Never mind that the Kentucky Wildcats led the nation in NCAA Tournament appearances. Forget that Kansas City had hosted the most NCAA games in tournament history. The fact the Wildcats had never played a postseason contest in the Heart of America should have signaled a warning that something was terribly amiss. Sure enough, after a 62-58 heart-stopping victory over Houston in the Sweet Sixteen, Kentucky (30-7) fell victim to a familiar SEC foe in the Elite Eight. The Auburn Tigers, behind 26 points from Jared Harper and 24 points from Bryce Brown, upset the Wildcats 77-71 in overtime, effectively ending BBN’s hopes and dreams of another Final Four run.

As the final horn sounded, the tattered remains of another promising season lay strewn across the hardwood of the downtown Sprint Center. Not sure if it was the barbeque burnt ends, the inexperienced guard play, or the free-throw shooting bugaboo, but the blue mist left the Show Me State with a bad feeling in the pit of their stomachs—pondering what went wrong as, yet again, another season of one and done prodigies prepares for future NBA riches.

For Wildcat fans everywhere, the finality of season’s end always feels like a cataclysmic collision of catastrophic proportions. From the Bahamas hype, to Ashton’s emergence, to the Rocky Top massacre at Rupp, we’ve all been treated to a tantalizing season of thrills and chills—heightened by the prospect of a nerve-wracking, blood pressure-spiking postseason run. The perfect storybook ending this year should’ve involved a potential redemption game with Duke, culminating in that elusive Championship Number Nine.

Could’ve, should’ve, would’ve. Instead we have this. Tears flowing freely in the locker room afterwards, once again, as college careers are cut short—ironically not because the players weren’t good enough to survive and advance, but because they were too good to stay another year and make another legitimate run at the championship.

Ten years ago, John Calipari arrived on campus with a brand-new philosophy. “One and Done” they called it. Recruit the very best elite high school players to Kentucky and punch everybody else in the mouth. At first it worked great—Final Fours and National Titles became the standard. But after a decade, other teams have caught on. Duke has passed them by.

To win championships with new players every year is difficult—especially with what some claim is sub elite talent. I’ll take my chances with a Zion Williamson, John Wall, or Anthony Davis, but it’s a different story with a Keldon Johnson or Tyler Herro. Coach Cal acknowledges it as such. “When you’re changing teams like this, it keeps you curious,” he said. “We’re doing things with this team that we’ve never done with any other team because we had to.”

So, the question that BBN needs answered is this: Is this good enough? Are Kentucky fans willing to settle for being “in the hunt” every year, even if it means consistently missing out on Final Fours and Championships? Does the joy of the journey outweigh the disappointment at the end of the rainbow? Does the means justify the end?

I’m not sure. After all, we’re Kentucky—proud owner of the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball. We take a back seat to no one—not Duke, not North Carolina, not Gonzaga, not Virginia. The most passionate fan base in America, they call us. We’re the Big Blue Nation and Kentucky Basketball never stops!

Hmmm? With that being said, I think this IS good enough. Kentucky Basketball is every bit as much about the fans as it is about championships. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll all gladly acknowledge that winning championships is often quite random. I’d rather be lucky than good.

“I don’t look at this as life or death,” said Coach Cal, when I asked him how he handles the pressure of having the collective hopes of the entire Big Blue Nation resting on his shoulders every single year. “Because if you look at this as life or death, you die a lot.”

If you’re someone who dies every year when the season ends, those are indeed wise words.

But someone even wiser than Coach Cal also once said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” For many of us, Kentucky Basketball is a treasure—often a life saving distraction in the midst of a life full of pain and grief and suffering. When it’s GAMEDAY, we all end up with a smile on our face and a skip in our step. Sure, it’s far better whenever Kentucky wins. But it’s not really the end of the line when they lose. It’s just a temporary respite until next year’s journey. Big Blue Madness can’t come soon enough!

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

Maci, Maci, Maci!

Maci, Maci, Maci!

Kentucky’s 72-57 loss to NC State in the 2019 NCAA Tournament Round of 32 signaled the end of another hard-fought basketball campaign. It’s always sad to see the season end. It’s even sadder to see the conclusion of another great college basketball career. Maci Morris will go down in Kentucky Women’s Basketball history as one of the most popular players to ever wear the Blue and White. It was an honor and a privilege to cover her exploits on the court these past few years.

Back in 2017, I wrote my very first feature article for Nolan Group Media. I couldn’t have asked for a better subject. Thanks Maci, for helping me out. And thanks also, from a grateful Big Blue Nation, for all the wonderful memories. Can’t wait to share in all your future successes.

Maci, Maci, Maci! —By Dr. John Huang

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – Like a vigilant sentinel standing guard over the county line, the roadside highway sign off US 25E in Southeastern Kentucky proudly proclaims “Bell County, Home of Macy Morris, Miss KY Basketball 2015.” Although her name is misspelled, the sentiment remains unmistakable. As a key player for the University of Kentucky Wildcats Women’s Basketball team, the hometown hoops heroine from Pineville carries with her the hopes, the dreams, and the pride of her tight-knit mountain community.

I caught up with Maci shortly after Kentucky’s big road win at Auburn, where she knocked down some huge shots, scored a big game clinching basket, and tallied a career high 9 rebounds. Although we had never met formally, she was gracious enough to speak openly with me about a variety of extended topics. As you might expect, I didn’t encounter the iciness of a cold-blooded 3-point assassin, but rather was overwhelmed by the genuine warmth and affection of someone speaking so fondly from the heart about her family and friends back home.

“Shout outs to all my friends and family and supporters,” Maci said.  “I appreciate you guys more than you know and just thank you for always lifting me up and supporting me throughout my high school and college career. I love everybody back home. Everyone always treated me great.”

The 6’0 All-State guard from Bell County achieved her rise to stardom through both family genetics and a strong individual work ethic. Maci (who was named after UK great Kyle Macy and wears his uniform number 4) explained to me, “I was basically born into basketball. When I was born, my dad was coaching at Hazard, so I was always around the gym. My parents were both athletes. My dad played basketball and baseball and went to college for that. And my mom went to play college basketball as well.” Not only were both her parents star athletes, many other members of her extended family were also heavily into sports. “Both my uncles went to college for baseball and my Papaw and his brother went to college as well for baseball,” Maci added. “My dad’s sister, she went to college for basketball. So, it’s just like a real big athletic family. I have a lot of cousins who went to college for sports as well.”

With athletic ability running rampant in the family, Maci naturally gravitated to sports. As a little girl, she loved being a baseball pitcher. But boys usually played baseball while girls played softball and the thought of pitching underhanded just didn’t appeal to her. Although she ran a little bit of track in high school, everyone knew that basketball would eventually be her calling.

Maci’s high school career was chocked full of accomplishments and accolades. I know—I looked it up and she was great, averaging over 25 points and nearly 8 rebounds while leading her team to a 29-3 record her senior season. “I say all the time how I miss how fun high school ball was,” Maci reminisced. “My best friends were on my basketball team so getting to play with them all the time was great. My senior year was a blast because we went to State and that was the first time a team from Bell County had ever gone to State and won their region. I just really enjoyed it and tried to give it my all my senior year because I knew that coming to college, basketball was going to be a whole different story.”

The awards banquet for her Miss Kentucky Basketball honor provided for a few awkward moments when Coach Joe B. Hall kept referring to her as “Marci” during the presentation ceremonies. When I asked her why in the world she didn’t correct him, Maci gave the perfect answer. “Joe B. Hall is a legend,” she said. “So, I just let him keep going. Everybody thought it was so funny. I had a lot of friends who were there and to this day, they joke around with me and even now call me ‘Marci.’ We all get a big kick out of it.”

When it came time to choose a college, the decision came rather naturally. “When you’re born in Kentucky, you’re basically either a Kentucky or Louisville fan and I was brought up to be a Kentucky fan,” Maci proclaimed proudly. “Coach Mitchell was the main coach who recruited me, so I got to build a relationship with him. I always came up to games because I lived just two and a half hours from here.”

As expected, Maci contributed immediately to the Wildcats in her first college season.  As a freshman, she started all 33 games, averaged eight-and-a-half points per game, and was named to the SEC All-Freshman team. Although success appeared to come easily, there was a lot of hard work behind all the spot-up jumpers and three-point swishes. “I worked hard last year,” she pointed out to me. “My dad told me, ’this is going to be a whole different ballgame. You’re going to get out there and you’re going to have to work as hard as you can. You’ve got to be the hardest worker on the floor.’ I just tried to do that. One of my coaches from last year, he really helped out with that. He would talk to me and just push me to be my best every day.” That hard work paid off as Maci and her teammates experienced the thrill of home crowds as the Wildcats advanced through the Lexington Regional in post-season play.

The speed and pace of the college game is usually the biggest difference for players making the adjustment from high school, and things were no different that first year—even for a talented Miss Kentucky Basketball. “At first it was just like a big difference because I was just so weakly prepared to play on the defensive end” Maci admitted. “The coaches have done a terrific job preparing me and helping me build on my footwork and my speed. Also, our strength and conditioning coach worked with me and the team a lot this summer on our quickness. That’s helped me a lot and having a year underneath me gave me more confidence just being able to know what to expect.”

The diminutive sophomore, who her teammates playfully call “string bean,” also knows that she needs to get stronger. “I have to be more aggressive when I go down low because I’m not as strong as Evelyn (Akhator) and (Makayla) Epps so I have to be more physical and aggressive and play maybe a little bit dirtier,” she jokingly added.

Just like with other normal students, simple adjustments to everyday college life could easily become daunting endeavors for Maci. For student-athletes especially, these adjustments become even more magnified. Class schedules and practice demands frequently turn ordinary daily tasks into creative challenges. “A big thing for me when I was back home was that my mom or my dad always fixed food for me,” Maci expounded. “So here it’s a little different because I live in a dorm. We have a kitchen in our dorm but it’s hard to go out and buy food because of our schedule and to be able to store it in our room. We don’t have a large refrigerator. We just have a mini-fridge. And just eating habits were different and just being able to handle our own time (was difficult).”

Maci claims that becoming better organized is one of her immediate goals. With all her travel to away games, practice schedules, and tutoring sessions, she works hard to better manage her time. She playfully recounted the story of the time she walked all the way across campus to get in her car only to realize that she had forgotten the keys. “Yeah, my cousin came up and we were going to the football game and I have to park my car at like a side street where one of my friends live. So we had to walk all the way and I got over there, and I couldn’t find my keys and I was like ‘Oh my gosh.’ He had already forgotten his jacket, so we had to like go up to our room and like walk all the way back to the car. And once I forgot my keys, we had to walk all the way back to the dorm again, get the keys and get back to my car.”

The summer after her freshman year was fraught with potential turmoil as Maci witnessed half of her former teammates transfer to other schools for a variety of different reasons. Maci and her remaining teammates persevered, strengthening their resolve and commitment to each other in the process. As her sophomore season began, the team got off to an inconsistent start and struggled to develop the confidence and unit cohesion needed for success. After a heartbreaking loss to Arizona State in Rupp Arena, in which she scored a career-high 29 points, Maci appeared on the post-game interview podium with the biggest frowny face you could imagine. When I asked Maci why she was so inconsolable after such a great individual performance, she responded as the consummate team player she is. “I could care less about how much I score,” she said. “As long as my team wins, that’s really all that matters. People were bringing up that I had a great game, but it obviously wasn’t good enough because we lost. Like I said, I’d rather win than score.”

You can obviously tell that being a team player comes naturally to Maci. I’ve noticed how she always speaks so deferentially and respectfully to seniors Epps and Akhator. She and fellow sophomore guard Taylor Murray also have become great friends off the court. Those types of genuine player relationships can’t help but lead to improved team chemistry and future success.

Midway through the conference season, the team seems to have found its groove. When I asked Maci for her thoughts regarding the abrupt turnaround, she said, “I think our loss at Texas A&M just woke us up a little bit. We had to start having fun again. We kind of lost just enjoying the game. After the loss to Texas A&M, we had a talk before practice and we all got together and just told each other we had to play for each other. We have to go out there and give it everything we had and just have fun with it. So, in practice we just worked so hard and just went hard every rep and just put everything there out on the line and it carried over to the next game and then the next game after that, so it just really worked out for us.”

As our session wound down, I decided I’d broach a topic with Maci that other athletes don’t necessarily feel comfortable discussing. Not only was she comfortable discussing her faith, but she appeared more than willing to share her thoughts. “God just gives me this sense of peace,” she said pensively. “I’ve been working on my relationship with Him a lot—especially this year. My New Year’s resolution was to read my Bible every day and to spend time with Him. Already I can see a change within myself–how I treat others and how I look at my day with more positivity. Even when things aren’t going my way, I always look to Him. I trust in Him because I know He’s going to take care of it.” After a momentary pause, she added, “He just always gives me peace.”

If you check out her Twitter page @Maci4Mo, you’ll find Philippians 4:13 as part of the heading. “I can do all things through Christ, who gives me strength.” It’s amazing how someone so young and gifted in her craft could already have developed such a surprisingly mature and joyful spiritual attitude.

As she departed for her tutoring session, I gave Maci a chance to show off another one of her many off the court talents. During a previous post-game interview session, Maci had jokingly hinted to reporters that she was one of the better singers on the team. When I gave her a chance today to demonstrate her vocal prowess, she politely declined. “I’m good,” she said. And that was the end of that.

Instead, she did throw me a final bone by revealing something Big Blue Nation has been dying to know. What goes into the game time decision regarding her hair? How does she determine when to stick with the head band or when to break out those stylish braids? Well it turns out that just like in many other areas of her life, she’s wisely just following her mom’s sage advice. “My mom actually got on to me and that’s why I wore the braids the other day in our last game because she was like ‘you keep fooling with your hair. You need to braid it, so you quit fooling with it in the games. You don’t realize it but that’s all you do is play with your hair.’ So I said ‘OK, I’ll braid it.’”

As I walked back to my car with keys in hand, I realized that there’s not much about Maci Morris for anyone to dislike. She’s a small-town Kentucky athlete pursuing her love of sport at the state university. She’s surrounded by a gaggle of loyal friends and unconditionally supported by her loving family. She’s an exemplary teammate on a team made up of exemplary teammates. Her faith is an example and inspiration to many. She has a fun sense of humor, (a purported) nice singing voice, and great hair. She’s also pretty darn good at basketball. And most importantly, she has nice teeth and a beautiful smile. It doesn’t get much sweeter than that.

Dr. John Huang is a retired orthodontist who covers UK sports for Nolan Group Media. He can be reached at www.huangswhinings.com. Follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.