Derby Sober

Derby Sober

(LOUISVILLE, Ky.) – Truth be told, the Kentucky Derby really isn’t about the horse race. What really captures one’s imagination is the spectacle of the entire Derby Day experience. Oh sure, history will note that Country House won the 145th annual “Run for the Roses” after Maximum Security was disqualified for interference. But the real memories of the first Saturday in May always fall back to the pageantry, the traditions, and the pomp and ceremony taking place in and around the race itself.

“It’s a great moment,” said winning jockey Flavien Prat. “It’s a dream come true…it’s amazing. I mean, there’s no race like the Kentucky Derby. And I was hoping to ride it, ride the Derby, and to win it.”

Few venues in the sporting world dare to rival the iconic twin spires of Churchill Downs. The ivy at Wrigley Field, Notre Dame’s Touchdown Jesus, or the Green Monster at Fenway you say? Those are decent choices, but they usually conjure up images of specific teams or season-long events. You show anyone a picture of those quintessential Churchill steeples, however, and all thoughts zoom directly to the Kentucky Derby. For one specific day out of the year, the entire sporting world focuses on our little corner of the Bluegrass State—our ultimate claim to fame. For you see, it’s not the regal, four-legged, three-year-old thoroughbreds that make for the most exciting two minutes in sports—but rather the bourbon, the burgoo, and the big hats that end up capturing our fanciful imaginations.

I grew up in the Commonwealth, but this is only my second official Kentucky Derby—my first as a credentialed media member. Like your first dog, your first car, or your first wife, it’ll forever be hard to top the sentimentality of that initial experience.

https://huangswhinings.com/2016/04/21/kentucky-fried-derby

But being part of the press corps this time around definitely has its advantages. As a scribe for Sports View America, I’m getting in for free.

According to StubHub, the Derby’s not cheap. A general admission ticket for a spot in the infield usually runs you eighty bucks—an option I wouldn’t recommend, unless you’re someone under thirty with a bon-a-fide death wish. Want to upgrade? A decent seat in the grandstand will likely set you back three to four hundred dollars. If you really want to waste your money, try Millionaires Row—where for a cool six grand, you’ll likely rub elbows with celebrities like Tom Brady, Jennifer Lawrence, or one of the Kardashians.

Speaking of celebrities, the Derby’s really just a glorified fashion show. Both sexes dressed to the nines—or tens for that matter. Seersucker suits, oversized fascinators, and hideous hats grace the walkways. It’s at events like the Derby when you suddenly realize that one man’s fashion is another man’s clown suit. Regardless of perspective, you can dress like a bum if you’re a member of the media. No need to spring for outlandish suspenders or Gucci shoes. Faded jeans, a flannel shirt, and that prized credentialed lanyard hanging around your neck will get you up close and personal to the horseflesh at hand.

Parking, food, and accessible toilets are additional media perks for me this year. Unlike before, I’m not paying thirty bucks for a two-mile hike to the track with porta potty privileges along the way. Instead, I’ve got a reserved spot in the media lot, just a short jaunt to the hallowed front gates. Once inside, I’m treated to quite the spread at the Derby day media buffet. Meats, salads, and desserts all laid out for you to grab and go. No alcohol, though. If you want a sip of that $15 mint julep, you’re on your own. Which begs the question: Can you really enjoy the Kentucky Derby if you’re completely sober? I’m about to find out.

Everyone at this Derby appears just a tad bit tipsy. It’s one big party—and who doesn’t enjoy being the life of the party? Even so, there are two lines of inebriation you simply can’t cross. Don’t get sick, and don’t get naked. Abstaining from liquid courage, I wisely avoided both—leaving the cookie tossing and wardrobe malfunctions to those far less inhibited.

You’d think bad weather would have discouraged some of the crowds today. That wasn’t the case as 150,729 filed in despite the chilly and messy rain. It made for some long and soggy lines at the betting windows—and even longer ones for the food kiosks and bathrooms. Often times, just walking around became a challenge. The pungency of the spilled liquor, grilled meats, body odor, damp air, and ubiquitous cigar smoke became noticeably more unpleasant as the day wore on. Looking around, trash piled up everywhere. The only thing messier was the postrace traffic—horrifically long shuttle waits, Uber lines, and jumbled backups tripling the usual time needed to get home.

Can you enjoy the Derby while sober? If you don’t like crowds, gambling, long lines, drunk people, sick people, loud people, bad traffic, bad weather, bad smells, bad internet, and bad steward rulings, then the answer is a resounding “NO!” But not all events in life are meant to be pleasant. It’s the unique experiences that we so often covet, and many aspects of the Kentucky Derby remain distinguishingly unique. The pre-Derby singing of My Old Kentucky Home is still one of the most sentimental and memorable experiences in all of sports.

When I asked winning trainer Bill Mott what the most memorable aspect of his Kentucky Derby experience was, here’s what he told me. “You know what I enjoy the most is just training the horses. I mean, that’s what I live for—get up in the morning, come out and see the horses…I woke up this morning and said “Oh (bleep), this is here. It’s finally here…When you finally reach a point when the training goes well, it’s actually very memorable. That part of it means the most to me.”

“…walking into that circle at Churchill Downs, it’s a pretty special event,” Mott continued. “Why do it the easy way, you know what I mean?”

Having just covered my first Kentucky Derby and seeing history being made, I know exactly what he means.

Dr. John Huang is lead writer for Sports View America. This column was featured in the Apr/May print edition of Sports View America Publications. If you enjoy his writing, you can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

Advertisements

I Pledge Allegiance

I Pledge Allegiance

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.” As an elementary school kid growing up in America in the 1960s, I recited those words a million times. Every morning, like clockwork—right after the opening bell and right before roll call—our entire classroom would stand at attention, facing the flag with hands over hearts, and solemnly affirm our fealty to the Stars and Stripes.

I guess I’m a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to the American flag and National Anthem. Call me idealistic, but I always thought they universally stood for such revered values as patriotism, loyalty, and freedom. They were symbols to be honored and respected—an homage to the democratic liberties inherent as a citizen living in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Recent events, however, have taught me that not all Americans feel that way about the flag. The visible strife began in 2016, when quarterback Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers began kneeling in protest during the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner. Over the next couple of years, his protest gained momentum as other NFL players joined him in solidarity. As recently as last week, the movement spread to a segment of the Ole Miss basketball team as they kneeled during the playing of the National Anthem prior to the tipoff of their game against Georgia.

So, what exactly were these players protesting? In Kaepernick’s case, it was allegedly a demonstration against racial injustice, social oppression, and police brutality, specifically towards people of color. The Ole Miss players were speaking out directly in opposition of a pro-Confederate rally being held simultaneously on campus as their game was being played. Surprisingly to me, all those kneeling apparently viewed the flag and anthem as representative of a country that allows such abominations to continue unabated. In their eyes, they felt obligated to speak out directly against an oppressive regime. Not only did they feel that protesting during the anthem was the right thing to do, they also knew it would draw unmatched visibility and attention to their plight.

Social injustice and oppression are extremely noble causes for which to protest. Inequality based on skin color and unmitigated hate need to be systematically wiped off the face of the earth. With that being said, I’m still not quite sure I understand why protesters continually choose to express their outrage against the backdrop of the American flag.

Regardless of what they feel the flag and anthem represents to themselves, surely they realize what it represents to the rest of America. When protesting a righteous cause, why go out of your way to tick off those who still believe in duty, honor, and country? Why alienate those who still regard the flag and anthem as symbols for which to fight and die for? I know the protesters have claimed that their actions are not meant in any way to be disrespectful to the military. Still, I know many are offended and will be needlessly distracted from the issue at hand.

As a United States Armed Forces Veteran, I was recently asked if I felt like those kneeling during the Anthem were “slapping me in the face.” No, I’m not offended, but just continually puzzled by their actions due to the reasons stated above.

To me, the United States of America has always symbolized two things: land of opportunity and freedom of expression. Regarding the former, I’ve been fortuitously blessed. As first-generation Chinese immigrants, our family moved to the States in 1963 with little attached to our name. Through a relentless pursuit of education and an unwavering work ethic, we fulfilled the proverbial American dream and became productive citizens of this great country.

Regarding the latter—freedom of expression—it’s a beautiful thing that Americans take too often for granted. The kneeling protesters are free to do as they please. I certainly don’t agree with the manner in which they’re promoting their message, but I’ll agree to defend with my life their right to choose. As a matter of fact, I already did when I pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.

Dr. John Huang is a retired orthodontist. He currently works as sports columnist for Nolan Media Group and Sports View America. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

Bringing It!

I’ve always loved sports. The love affair began in the late-seventies when I was only eight years old. Back then, there was a TV show called Wide World of Sports. Some of you may even remember it. It was an iconic weekly sports anthology program that aired on the ABC network. It didn’t take long before host Jim McKay’s epic lead in on those memorable Saturday afternoon broadcasts became permanently ingrained in my youthful, sports-obsessed brain. “Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport…the thrill of victory…and the agony of defeat…the human drama of athletic competition.”

Yep, my brain loved sports, but my body wouldn’t cooperate. Whether tossing a football or a frisbee, playing baseball or badminton, skating or swimming—I tried my hand at everything. The reality was that I just wasn’t very good at any of it. As much as I longed to be an All-Pro wide receiver in the NFL someday, prudence took over, and I became a dentist instead. Through all the subsequent years of drilling, filling, and billing, I never lost my hunger for the human drama of athletic competition.

So, after a lucrative career as an orthodontist, I’ve retired to the not-so-lucrative world of sports writing. You might say it’s a homecoming of sorts—combining my passion for writing with my love of the game. Thus far in my new career, I’ve already found myself in some ridiculously improbable situations. From the awesomeness of sitting courtside with Dickie V at the SEC Basketball tournament to the utter misery of the losing locker rooms after an NCAA Final Four, from interviewing NFL superstars at the peak of their profession to chatting with minor league dreamers just looking to eke out a decent living, from press conferences with Nick Saban and Mike Krzyzewski to being stared down by Marvin Lewis after another Bengals debacle, from the Greatest Spectacle in Racing of the Indy 500 to the Greatest Two Minutes in Sports at the Kentucky Derby—I’m soaking it all in as I literally live out my dream.

Being able to go behind the ropes—for free, no less—gives one not just a sense of privilege, but of a sacred responsibility to report back to those on the other side of the curtain. Access to these events and the athletes who participate in them instills a sense of intimacy between the reporter and the reported that’s hard to describe. Watching Rafa Nadal tipping his limo driver after a hard-fought tennis match or walking with Chip McDaniel’s parents as their son makes the cut in his professional golfing debut is poignantly surreal. Roy Williams crying, Rick Pitino lying, or John Calipari sighing peels back the often-fragile outer veneers of these larger-than-life personalities. We quickly learn that there’s always a human-interest story buried somewhere within every whitewashed tomb. Through it all, hopefully we’ll all eagerly agree that sports are much, much more than the scores or the stats posted at the end of a long-forgotten box score.

You’ll certainly be getting all those scores and stats, but through my stories, you’ll be getting something much more valuable. You see, I’m going to be taking you along for the ride—giving you a perspective couched in a half century of love and respect for the game. As a recent guest on a podcast with the legendary Kentucky sports guru Oscar Combs, it dawned on me that you can’t fake either history or experience as a sports fan. I’ve got both on my side, and I’m planning on sharing it with you in my musings and writings.

In this inaugural Sports View America print edition, I want to introduce you to a couple of talented writers who’ll be chiming in regularly with their unique viewpoints of the sporting world. Together, with the rest of our ever-growing staff, we’ll do our best to bring you intriguing stories full of original content and creativity. Check out Jeff Pendleton’s feature story this month on the whimsical nature of the ‘ABA’ or his thoughts on the iconic home of the Kentucky Basketball Wildcats—Rupp Arena. If you’re an auto racing fan, you’ll delight in Grant Sorrell’s detailed analysis of this year’s upcoming NASCAR events.

Whether Super Bowl or Citrus Bowl, World Series or Wimbledon, The Masters or Monday Night Football, I’ll be there “bringing it” for Sports View America—giving you a front row seat at every athletic venue, as well as diving into the heart, mind, and soul of the competitors within them. You’ll hear the roar of the crowd, feel the swish of the net, and taste every morsel of that tailgate brisket along the way. In the end, I guarantee—whether bird’s-eye view or bullseye through the heart—you’ll feel first-hand the hauntingly familiar thrill of victory and the brutally torturous agony of defeat. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do. For everyone taking the time to read, thanks so much for hopping on board.

Dr. John Huang is the lead writer for Sports View America. This blog posting appeared in the inaugural edition of the outlet’s print publication. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

Check out his most recent UK Sports coverage at http://www.themanchesterenterprise.com/category/uk-live-breathe-blue/

Eating Scripture

When I was eight years old, my older sister Mary gave me a New Testament Bible for my birthday. I’d be lying if I told you I loved it. Heck, I was a kid—I would have much preferred a football for that matter. I’d also be lying if I told you I read that “Good News for Modern Man” Bible cover to cover. Nope—I tossed it away, together with all my worn-down number two pencils, comic books, jettisoned paper clips, and other “worthless” paraphernalia discarded in my moldy desk drawer.

Even as a teenager, I never got around to reading that Bible. I had added to my collection by then, “borrowing” a copy here or there from a random hotel room nightstand. Oh sure, I’d read an occasional passage—courtesy of the Gideons—but usually only as a last-minute assignment for my Sunday School class so I wouldn’t be totally embarrassed when called upon. Truth be told, I hated everything about Sunday School and church—having to get up early, slipping on polyester pants, and sitting in uncomfortable pews listening to a sermon I neither understood or even wanted to hear in the first place. I still get sleepy just thinking about it.

Reading Scripture was the last thing on my mind during college and dental school. After all, there were parties to attend and sports to watch, periodic tables to memorize and exams to pass. I didn’t have time to waste reading something so remotely abstract, or equally difficult to understand, or so downright boring. The Book of Leviticus? You gotta be kidding me!

It wasn’t until I entered the Army that I really developed an interest in God’s Word. They say there are no atheists in foxholes. Well, there’s also nothing like being bored out of your mind while stationed overseas with no access to TV channels or the internet. In fact, back then there was NO internet. With limited resources at the post library, I finally got around to reading that Bible.

Boy, did I read it. I dived right in. Old Testament, New Testament—got through all 66 books in about 6 months. Along the way, I discovered something I thought was pretty neat. That Bible I had read wasn’t just a random collection of weird narratives, exotic poetry, and wise sayings—rather it was a beautifully crafted story—God’s personal story directed at me. It was a story chock full of intriguing plots, seriously flawed characters, and symbolic settings—often as titillating as any best-selling Sydney Sheldon novel. I was suddenly hooked, and I couldn’t let go.

The years since then have been a bit of a roller coaster ride. There’ve been seasons where I’ve been extremely disciplined and faithful in my reading and study. There have also been occasional periods of drought. Not just drought—but serious doubt about the truth and veracity of what I was reading. The eternal questions of why good people suffer, of the proliferation of evil, or the ever-present tension between truth and grace was simply too hard for me to reconcile between my earning a living, raising a family, and my relentless pursuit of idols. Could this tattered, leather bound manuscript really be the inerrant, divinely inspired Word of God? My mind said “no,” but my heart said, “maybe.”

So what’s happened since then? Have I finally seen the light, or have I gone the way of heretics past? I’m afraid you’ll have to wait to find out. Here’s a hint though—you see, I’m going to be leading an upcoming class where we’ll be talking about the Good Book. The name of the class will be called Eating Scripture—the premise being that we need to be as hungry for God’s Word as we are for a good bone-in rib-eye steak. Like my dog devouring his kibble, we need to develop a passion for gobbling up Scripture.

As a prerequisite, we’ll explore what the Bible is all about and how it came to be. We’ll touch on some of its recurrent themes and how best and if we should apply them to our personal lives. We’ll build upon each other’s experiences and—hopefully after our time together—we’ll all be a bit more knowledgeable and well-informed about Scripture in general. But most importantly, my hope and prayer is that through these sessions, you’ll develop a love, passion and HUNGER for reading God’s Word—that same passion that God has so divinely and preveniently placed on my heart.

I guess my secret’s out. I can’t wait to share more of it with you. Won’t you please join me?

Dr. John Huang is a former orthodontist, enjoying his time in retirement writing about sports and about other various and sundry aspects of life. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs. He doesn’t really read Sydney Sheldon novels.

His “Eating Scripture” class will begin on Wednesday, January 16, 2019 at 6:30 pm in Fellowship Hall, Centenary United Methodist Church, 2800 Tates Creek Road, Lexington, KY 40502. It will run for seven consecutive Wednesdays through February 27. Everyone is welcome and encouraged to attend at their own risk. For more information, please visit Centenarylex.com for more details about Wednesday Night activities.

Check out John’s most recent UK Sports coverage at http://www.themanchesterenterprise.com/category/uk-live-breathe-blue/

Check out his most recent Cincinnati Bengals and other professional sports coverage at http://www.bluegrasssportsnation.com/category/writers/john-huang

It Could Happen to Anyone

“GOOD MORNING BIG BLUE NATION!” That’s the greeting reverberating across the airwaves of Louisville Talk Radio every weekday morning at precisely 8:06 am. The booming voice and unmistakable laugh belong to Michael Bennett, host of the increasingly popular talk show, Just the Tip, spotlighting University of Kentucky sports.

Gregarious by nature, Michael wants to be everybody’s best friend. He describes himself as “happy go lucky,” and everybody who has met the former UK Baseball pitcher turned orthopedic neuro-spinal sales distributor turned radio talk show host, would be quick to agree. His jocular and jesting on-air banter with show producer and co-host Shannon “The Dude” Grigsby never fails to bring a big smile to anybody tuning in. Honestly, I don’t know anybody around who doesn’t love “jolly” Michael Bennett.

Appearances can be deceiving, and Michael Bennett—like 16 million other adults in the U.S.—struggles with the deep, dark side of a debilitating illness known as depression. Michael’s demon is just a small part of the larger spectrum of mental illness disorders, which affects nearly 44 million adults in this country. That’s one in five people—burdened and battered by a health condition which—even in 2018—remains so ridiculously stigmatized that many are fearful to admit they have it.

“This is something I didn’t want to admit to my family,” Michael recently acknowledged to me. “My wife knew about it, but my boys didn’t know about it. My dad didn’t know about it. I’m very close to my sister, and she didn’t know about it. To be able to say something about it to someone like you was a reopening—a rebirth.”

Michael Bennett and I have two things in common. The first is our love for University of Kentucky sports. We initially met at a football press conference at the beginning of the 2017 season, which triggered a series of serendipitous events and conversations that ultimately resulted in the unveiling of this very personal story.

The second commonality in our lives is that we’ve both been faced with the immense challenges of dealing with depression—Michael, directly as a victim—and me, through the suffering of my spouse (https://huangswhinings.com/2017/04/11/in-sickness-and-in-health) and another close personal friend.

As we’re sitting here and talking on a beautiful late-summer afternoon, looking down from the bleachers onto Kroger Field, I still can’t believe that someone so outwardly jovial could be depressed. And yet, I can fully believe it because depression is as sneaky as an onside kick in the gut. It lulls you into a state of denial, stiff-arms you into apathy or acceptance, and shames you to where you feel vulnerably exposed.

“I noticed depression coming in after my mom passed away,” Michael relayed to me as his voice began cracking. “I lost her 18 years ago, and I still get teary-eyed talking about her. I’m very close with my family. I’m especially close with my mom and dad. That’s when it hit. When my mom passed away, I disappeared for about four or five years.”

Disappearing meant being exhausted and tired all the time. It meant wanting to sleep all the time. It meant being numb day in and day out. Michael described it like being handcuffed to a wheelchair and not being able to do anything about it. It was debilitating. When friends asked if he wanted to talk, that just drove him further into seclusion. The saddest part of all was missing a lot of what went on in his children’s lives during those formative years.

“Looking back, I didn’t know anything was wrong at the time,” Michael admitted. “I just knew I didn’t want to be around anybody. I didn’t know anything about depression. I wasn’t even aware that I suffered and struggled with any sort of anxiety. The people that knew me knew that something wasn’t right. My wife knew it especially. I didn’t want to be around anybody.”

Michael’s wife, Patricia, is a real gem. People such as she—spouses turned caregivers, who must live with the daily emotional turmoil of watching their loved ones spiral into such depths of despair—deserve sainthood status. Balancing a career while raising a family isn’t easy. Doing it alone, while dealing with the flux and uncertainty of Michael’s depression, would drive many to the brink.

“I don’t know how someone like you or my wife overcomes living with a severely depressed spouse,” Michael said. “I’ve told her numerous times in the past, ‘Why do you stay with me?’ I don’t get it. I would have been long gone. I credit her a lot for getting us where we are. If it weren’t for my wife, my family, my boys…when I finally admitted it to them—they kind of understand now what I’m going through. They helped me out quite a bit.”

Depressive disorders have wrecked many a marriage, with the spouse bearing the brunt of the illness’s vicious attack. On the worst of days, you tell yourself that this is not what you signed up for—that you deserve to have a happy life with a spouse who is “normal.” Just seeing other couples out for a simple evening together triggers painful thoughts of what once was or could have been.

“Marriage is a promise, through sickness and in health,” Patricia clarified. “Everyone in the family who is affected by mental illness gets to a crossroads. And you stand at that crossroads, and you must make a decision that you’re going to go down one side or the other. It would have been so easy to just walk away from Michael. But then you realize all the people that would be undone by that.”

Patricia’s ever-present faith and tenacious character would not let her simply walk away. She continually lived on pins and needles, not knowing whether the next twenty-four hours would be good or bad, depending on how Michael was feeling that day. Not knowing how his illness would play out over the long haul also ratcheted up anxiety levels within her own mind. “I literally had to take it one step at a time,” she recalled. “I tried to take each day as a gift. I tried to find something good about every day. Sometimes I had to work really hard to find it. I took the boys to baseball games, was involved with the kids in school, and volunteered all the time. Looking back, that was my salvation—to get a chance to be around other caring adults and to see our kids flourish. That was the happiness that got me through.”

Finally, a breaking point came. Something woke Michael up. “Some people may roll their eyes,” Michael hesitantly confessed. “But it was the power of God, the power of my church, and the power of prayer. I firmly believe it was the power of my faith.” Michael Bennett can tell you exactly where he was the day he decided to go see a therapist. He knows the exact time. When he made that phone call, he immediately felt like a fifty-thousand-pound burden had been lifted off of him.

“This was about twelve to thirteen years ago,” he continued. “I credit a lady who was a good friend of mine. Her son and my son were very close friends. She started talking to me about how I was suffering from depression just as she had. Here was someone I trusted who had suffered just as I was suffering. She gave me the name and number of her personal therapist. That did it for me.”

Michael went through the usual series of prescribed counseling sessions. For the first year, he would just go in and sit and not say anything. He wondered what in the world he was doing there. Then, his natural frugalness kicked in. He started worrying that he was wasting money by just sitting there like a zombie during these sessions. He told himself, “Don’t waste money—talk.” Initially, his counselor would just ask him questions and wait him out for answers. She didn’t force Michael to talk. She said she was there to help him whenever he wanted her help.

Slowly but surely, the counselor started suggesting more things, and Michael started opening up. She suggested going to a psychiatrist who could prescribe medication. Michael agreed, and the medication immediately helped. He was on medication for five or six years. He tried to discontinue the pills for a time but found out he needed to go back on them just a few months later. That happens a lot in depression treatment. There’s a lot of trial and error, a lot of ups and downs, and a lot of recurring frustrations when dealing with unmapped areas of the human mind.

Successful treatment of depression requires a team-oriented approach. If not a village, at least an outpost or two. Michael has had two fantastic therapists. He thinks his endocrinologist walks on water. It took a while, but he thinks he’s also found the psychiatrist who fits him the best—someone with more of a holistic treatment approach. “Medication can be quite helpful, but why not supplement it with other methods as well?” he pointed out. “Just because you’re dealing with a mental illness, doesn’t mean you neglect the other physical aspects of your overall health.”

So why open up now about all of this? Why share his story when he knows the stigma associated with telling it could possibly alter the way people choose to interact with him, or worse—sabotage his career? Two recent encounters shaped his decision.

The first one was with Cameron Mills, the former UK Basketball star and current radio media personality. Earlier this spring, Cameron appeared on Michael’s show as an impromptu guest.

“For a while I’ve thought about talking about my daily struggles on the air,” Michael explained. “For some reason, Cameron and I just kind of clicked. This happened to be the day that Anthony Bourdain, the famous chef, committed suicide. I was going to bring it up as one of my topics, and Cameron beat me to the punch. Cameron told me that it was something we don’t talk enough about, and he confessed that he himself had struggled with opioids while trying to recover from a back injury. When he admitted that on the air. I’m like ‘wow, this is the perfect time.’ I told him right then that I struggle with anxiety and depression—anxiety all my life and depression for the last 18 years. Then we kind of both looked at each other and said, ‘OK we need to talk about this.’ So that day we didn’t hardly talk about sports at all. That was a breaking point for me. Wow, I really admitted it. I admitted it on air…I admitted something that’s very private. And now I’m learning that it can’t be private. So many people are out there struggling that maybe as you said—and it hit me hard when you said it—we can do some good. I thank Cameron Mills for that.”

The second encounter involved overcoming the shame and embarrassment of admitting his struggles directly with people at work. Understand that Michael and Shannon, his co-host, have become really good friends through the show. “I’m leaving the studio after doing the show one day, and I told Shannon that you wanted to talk to me,” Michael said. “I confessed to Shannon that I suffered from anxiety and depression, and that you wanted to interview me about it. Please understand that I was hesitant to tell anybody at work about this because of how it may affect my job. I know in the past that depression has cost me parts of my career.”

Shannon—as he is apt to do a lot—said something that resonated with Michael. He said there may actually be a lot of sympathizers out there, and that getting the story out might just help a lot more of those people who are struggling. “Shannon’s a smart guy,” Michael continued. “He thought this could serve as a turning point for me if I shared it in the right way. He recommended that I do it. He said, ‘Michael, you’ve been successful in life. You’ve made money. It’s hard to believe someone of your stature—you have a beautiful home, you have a beautiful family—could be depressed. How is that? People need to know.”

To many of his listeners, Michael Bennett does appear to have it all. “I’ll tell you right now, I could give it all away if I could to be with my mom again,” he sadly acknowledged.

Commonwealth Stadium holds some incredible memories for Michael Bennett. He points to the corner where he and his family have sat for the past thirty-five years. He tells me he frequently comes here to relax more than anywhere else on campus. It’s a beautiful day, and we’re sitting in this incredible football stadium…and yet there are days where Michael would rather be sitting in his bedroom at home doing nothing. Sometimes, it still takes everything he has just to go outside. That’s the part of depression and mental illness people still can’t understand. It’s brutal, it’s sad, and it really could happen to anyone.

Although things are better now for Michael, depression never completely disappears. It’s always lurking, relentless, ruthless and sneaky, prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. Michael still struggles whenever his boys, now both in college, go back to school. “I have struggled with thoughts of suicide,” Michael sheepishly confessed. “That may be a little too much for you there, but I have. I haven’t gone out and sought to do it. I’ve gone through programs within Baptist Hospital in Louisville that have helped me out quite a bit. But I still get depressed. I still go through periods of anxiety—like when it’s 3:30 in the afternoon and I have to prepare for tomorrow’s show.”

So, what’s up next for Michael Bennett? He’s excited for what the future holds. A lot has transpired in the last eighteen months alone. Last spring, Michael was sitting at the Hooters on Johns Pass, in Madeira Beach, Florida—five minutes from his family home. He’d been in medical sales his entire professional career, and he’d been thinking of what else he could do for the rest of his life. For twenty-five years, he’d been rather successful, calling on orthopedic and neural surgeons, and selling spinal implants. Then depression kicked in, he stopped working, his company wasn’t happy, and he lost his job.

Out of the blue, Michael decided he wanted to host a radio show. Three months later, he’s in contact with people like Mike Pratt setting the wheels in motion. Kyle Macy then signs on for a stint as co-host, and the show is off and running. Next thing you know, he’s got Shannon “The Dude” for his producer and sidekick, as fans tune in and ratings take flight.

“That’s my dream coming true—being able to be a part of a university that I love—that’s near and dear to my heart,” Michael gushed. “Helping it out as much as I can. Promoting this university and the good people surrounding this university. That’s a dream come true.”

For anyone affected by the ravages of depressive disorders, that’s music to our ears. Godspeed, “jolly” Michael Bennett. May your road to recovery be filled with many more carefree days, bowl wins, and national championships.

Dr. John Huang is a retired orthodontist and a volunteer teacher for NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). He currently serves as a sports columnist for Nolan Media Group. If you enjoy his writing, you can reach him at www.huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

If you, or someone you know, is suffering from depression and mental illness, please don’t hesitate to seek immediate help. Don’t know where to start? Check out your local NAMI chapter https://www.nami.org/ for resources and contacts.

I Love My Team

Although we didn’t hear him say it directly, John Calipari apparently still loves his team. During the most recent Kentucky Basketball Media Day, the UK head man repeatedly professed his adoration for his talented squad of young superstars. Just as he did with John Wall, Anthony Davis, Willie Cauley-Stein, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Tyler Ulis, Coach Cal waxed eloquently about the merits of this year’s Wildcats—hereby officially sending fan expectations soaring into the Big Blue stratosphere.

“When you don’t have to coach effort,” Cal said. “When you don’t have to coach the enthusiasm, the passion you have to play with. When you don’t have to coach a competitive spirit…I don’t have to coach that with this team. So now you know what you’re coaching? Basketball. So now you coach basketball. And I love coaching basketball.”

Before you start making reservations for the Final Four in Minneapolis, realize that Cal’s teams haven’t always matched up to the preseason hype. The 2013 NIT team—with the unfortunate injury to Nerlins Noel—obviously fell short of True Blue expectations. Other Calipari teams–such as his most recent one featuring Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander—simply ended up lacking the star power needed to make a significant run. The point being that star-studded recruiting classes don’t automatically translate into national championship juggernauts right out of the gate.

Don’t worry, though—I’m not pooping on this year’s parade. This mix of mega-talented recruits and critical returning lettermen appear to be on par with Coach Cal’s best Kentucky team to date—the 2015 thirty-eight and one group that fell just a couple of games short of perfection. Why is this current team potentially as good as that one? Let me count the ways.

First of all, the return of PJ Washington is HUGE. The 6’8”, 228-lb power forward declared for the 2018 NBA draft, but decided to come back to school not only to improve his draft stock (and free throw shooting), but with the hopes of winning a national championship. After leading the team in rebounding and averaging double figures in scoring last year, PJ gives the Cats the bona fide, experienced leader they so desperately need. Together with a new and improved, rim-protecting Nick Richards, Kentucky’s inside presence suddenly moves from liability to strength.

Adding to that presence, graduate transfer Reid Travis joins the party. Talk about a fortunate get. The First Team All-Conference selection averaged 19.5 points and 8.7 rebounds last year playing for Stanford in the highly competitive Pac-12. Not only is Reid an experienced and skilled low-post player, but he’s also one of the most articulate interviews I’ve ever encountered. His pre and postgame eloquence will be worth five points alone. I’ll look forward to some verbal sparring with him in the season to come.

Shooting has always been one of Team Calipari’s bugaboos. Cal’s first Kentucky team, the 2010 squad, was arguably his best. But they couldn’t throw it in the ocean and ultimately fell victim to West Virginia in the regional finals. You might say that outside of Doron Lamb and Devin Booker (for about a month), Calipari really hasn’t had the benefit of any dead-eye shooters.

All that promises to change this year. Word has it that Jemarl Baker Jr., if he ever gets a clean bill of health, will be as accurate a knock-down shooter as anyone who has previously worn the blue and white. Tyler Herro, who’s sure to be a fan favorite, and returning sophomore guard Quade Green, have also both shown that they can consistently tickle the three-point twine. Gone are the days of opponents cheating down low, daring Wildcat bricklayers to chuck up air balls.

So far, so good you say? I haven’t even mentioned the most explosive portion of Kentucky’s arsenal. Incoming freshman Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley, EJ Montgomery, and Keldon Johnson are all multi-talented five-stars that can run, jump, pass, and shoot. Of the four, Johnson comes in with most hype, but all of them may be talented enough to enter the pantheon of John Calipari’s growing list of one and dones.

It gets even better. All those guys take pride in their defense—being able to hassle you endlessly to the point of despair. “Ashton is a pit bull, a mauler on the ball,” Calipari gushed. “You can play he and Immanuel together. Tyler’s better than I thought he was. I thought Keldon would be better than Tyler defensively, but I’m not sure of that. And our big guys can guard guards, so we can switch everything, we can scramble around, we can still press. There’s a lot of stuff we’re going to be able to do.”

One final point to get you salivating. Everyone knows how important team chemistry is. Elite and talented superstar teams with infighting and jealousies seldom taste success. Initial reports indicate that this year’s team is feasting on brotherhood. Calipari’s servant leadership lessons have already taken hold. Throw in their on-the-court jump start with the Bahamas exhibitions, and you’ve got the makings of one of the most exciting and fun-to-watch UK teams ever assembled. A legitimate run towards Championship Number Nine should be anticipated and expected.

Will it happen? It’s still a bit too early to tell. But from what I’ve seen and heard so far, they’ve got as good of a chance as anyone. With a couple of favorable breaks, Minneapolis in April seems like a distinct possibility.

“Well, if this team becomes empowered and it becomes their team, then this becomes scary,” Cal warned. Come to think of it, you might just want to make those hotel reservations after all.

Dr. John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Media Group, Bluegrass Sports Nation, and Sports View America. He’s currently working with former LEX18 Sportscaster Alan Cutler on his new book. If you enjoy his writing, you can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

Check out his most recent UK Sports coverage at http://www.themanchesterenterprise.com/category/uk-live-breathe-blue/

Check out his most recent Cincinnati Bengals and other professional sports coverage at http://www.bluegrasssportsnation.com/category/writers/john-huang

When Retired Worlds Collide

I’ve been a retired orthodontist now for nearly three years. During that time, I’ve moved from creating beautiful smiles in people’s mouths to—hopefully—creating even more smiles with my passion for writing. My two worlds are not mutually exclusive, so it’s not surprising that occasionally someone I know occupies a spot in both sectors.

Everyone in central Kentucky knows Alan Cutler. Most of you know that, like me, Alan recently retired from the working world. Although outwardly we appear different as night and day, there’s one big part of our lives that we do share in common—our connection to Kentucky and the sporting events which have defined our beloved state. It’s only natural, then, that we join forces to tell our story. When our retired worlds collide, it certainly has the makings for a darn good book.

My first memory of Alan Cutler was seeing him on a local Lexington newscast. Even then, he appeared larger than life to me. His cartoonish Groucho Marx mustache and his brash reporting style screamed stardom from the very beginning. I knew right then that Alan was a master of his craft—a talented sports personality with an uncanny gift for relating to people. Plus, he seemed to be a fantastic storyteller, a vital coup de grace for the making of a book people would flock to read.

Many years later, I had my first personal encounter with Alan when I put braces on his son. For a year and half, I got to see the personal side of the guy that I had previously only known as that dude inside my TV screen. Looking past the theatrics of his outward celebrity mask, I saw instead a caring, compassionate, and concerned parent that only wanted what was best for his son. It was at that point that I knew his life story would definitely make for an interesting read.

“You should write a book,” I casually mentioned to Alan during my first year on the UK media beat. “And I’ll be glad to help you put it together.” He brushed me off immediately with his usual bravado and machismo. In his direct and emphatic style, he implied that no one would be interested. Plus, in my own insecure world, I thought that he felt my opinions had no credibility. I believed that, in Alan’s mind, I was a rich retired orthodontist, conducting bad interviews and writing impertinent columns.

Over the next year, I persisted in badgering Alan to start putting his thoughts together for the book. Imagine my surprise, then, when he finally agreed to do it. Don’t get me wrong, he still had his doubts about the number of interested readers, but I’m glad I finally convinced him that he owed it to the people of Kentucky, to all of BBN, and to all his adoring fans and faithful followers to chronicle his over forty years of dedicated sports coverage.

As devoted retirees, Alan and I want not only to put something together that we’ll both be proud of—but also something that will resonate with YOU, the reader. Sure, we’ll include well-known stories such as his infamous chasing down of Billy Gillispie, but we also want to share some never-before-told tales that’ll leave you surprised, stunned, and perhaps even shocked. I guarantee you’ll bust a gut laughing at many of them. You may even shed a tear or two. But through it all, you’ll finally get that much awaited glimpse of the wacky world according to Alan.

I’ve learned over the years that projects like this take a ton of time and effort. Sometimes they pan out and sometimes they fizzle. In order to have any chance of success, I want to hear from all of you. Over the next several months, I need you to tell me your best Alan Cutler stories. They don’t necessarily have to be funny, or important, or memorable, or even clean for that matter. They just have to be genuine and real. They have to be Alan. Just don’t be surprised if you suddenly see them in print.

John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Media Group. You can reach him by email at KYHuangs@aol.com or on Twitter @KYHuangs. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at http://www.huangswhinings.com.