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.

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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.

 

 

Healthy Nation, Under God

As the old saying goes, “When you have your health, you have everything. When you do not have your health, nothing else matters at all.” In my mind, there are still some virtues in life—such as honor, nobility, and courage—more significant than a healthy heart or vital lungs, but good health is pretty darn important on everyone’s grand scale.

I thus find it hard to believe that in the United States of America—the greatest civilized nation on the face of the earth—a debate still rages about whether or not its citizens deserve basic healthcare. If we believe in supporting public education, roads and infrastructure—then why not something as important as our own health? At its core, the question is this: Is receiving medical treatment a fundamental American right, or is it still only a privilege for those lucky enough to have insurance to pay for it?

When I was in dental school back in the early eighties, just the mention of universal health care sparked outrage among my colleagues. We questioned the wisdom of government regulation in something so specialized. Selfishly, we didn’t appreciate Uncle Sam capping our earning potential, but we also knew how inherently difficult it would be to implement the dreaded single payer system. We used the same arguments that you’re hearing today—quality of care will plummet, wait times will become interminable, individual choices will all but disappear, doctors will become disgruntled, costs will skyrocket, and our economy will collapse!

Fast forward four decades and the dispute rages on. Understandably, my thoughts on the matter are bit different now than before. Through personal circumstances and shared experiences, I’ve witnessed the devastating effects of preexisting conditions on one’s ability to obtain affordable coverage. I’ve felt first-hand the frustration of having to pay exorbitant out-of-pocket costs due to the routine exclusion of vital mental health benefits. Year after year—as a small business owner—I’ve footed the bill for employee health plans while watching helplessly as benefits decline and premiums soar.

Meanwhile, out-of-touch politicians personally protect themselves and their families with their fancy, gold-plated health plans while slashing the coverage of those who need it the most. Where’s the compassion, care, and concern? Where’s the kind-heartedness and gentleness? Where’s the HUMANITY? How can anybody in their right mind campaign against basic human decency and dignity? When those on Capitol Hill vote to dismantle their own individual health plans, then I’ll listen to what they say. Until then, I want exactly what they’re having.

I’m thoroughly convinced now that basic healthcare should be a right of every single American. The Affordable Care Act in its current form has many flaws, but we must adhere to the premise that all Americans, regardless of health and preexisting conditions are entitled to a basic, life-enhancing level of medical care in this country. Settling for anything less flies in the face of our Judeo-Christian roots.

In order to keep any healthcare system financially sustainable, compromises are required, and expectations will need to be tempered. If we want the system to work, we may need to wait a bit longer for non-urgent services. So what if we have to occasionally swallow a generic pill. Those who desire upgrades can pay for them accordingly. In the meantime, fraud and abuse will need to be curbed, tort reform enacted, and individual accountability ramped up. More educational programs will need to be instituted. We simply can’t let the neglect of a vital issue like basic healthcare lead to the deception, division, and destruction of our great nation. After all, every other developed country on this planet has found a way to provide for their own. If the United States of America can put a man on the moon, surely we’ll be able to find a way to take care of people closer to home.

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me.” As a democracy tasked with putting the right people in office, we’d be wise to take heed. Our nation’s health is hanging in the balance.

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

Cock Shuttle Blues

The word fan is short for fanatic. With that being said, most fans know there are still both acceptable and unacceptable methods of expressing your fanaticism for your particular team. It’s OK to prioritize never missing a UK basketball game for nineteen straight years ala the late “super fan” Bob Wiggins. It’s also fully justifiable to get a championship 40-0 tattoo even before your team wins the championship as did Rock Wright in 2015. What isn’t acceptable, however, are egregious acts such as an Alabama fan poisoning the oak trees on Toomer’s Corner in retaliation for perceived affronts by rival Auburn fans. Kentucky fans allegedly making death threats against referee John Higgins for disputed calls he made in the North Carolina game also cross the proverbial line of decency.

I experienced my own mini version of “fandom run amok” after UK’s big victory over USC this past weekend. As a member of the media, I opted to take advantage of a post-game stadium-to-parking lot media shuttle the University of South Carolina was providing for all working members.

I knew something was a bit amiss when the golf cart shuttle driver drove right past me with a distinctly unwelcome scowl on his face. Regretfully, I never noted his name, so from here on I’ll just refer to him as Mr. Scowly-face. I caught up with Mr. Scowly-face as he stopped to pick up a couple of other media types. I asked him if he were going to the media lot, to which he abruptly replied, “Yes, but not for you.” After a brief moment of confusion, I realized he was staring directly at the UK logo plastered on my blue UK shirt. This guy was a die-hard Gamecock fan and he was mad as heck that we had just crushed his team.

I’m not a mind reader so I can’t say with absolute certainty I knew exactly what he was thinking. Maybe he was just tired, or perhaps he was having a terrible day, or maybe he just had a very warped sense of humor, but I doubt it. Mr. Scowly-face seemed dead serious about NOT giving me a lift. I promise you I didn’t do anything to provoke him. My immediate post-game smugness had long since dissipated. I was no longer fist pumping or chest thumping. There were no “Go Big Blue” or “How ‘bout them Cats” chants coming from my mouth. I was just one exhausted dude looking for the quickest way home. My only indiscretion was foregoing my customary suit and tie and wearing my casual team colors into hostile enemy territory.

As I headed on foot toward the parking lot, Mr. Scowly-face apparently changes his mind, tells me to hop on, and blasts out of the shuttle stop like Apollo 13 on liftoff. I remember immediately feeling an impending sense of doom as to how fast we were traveling—almost as if Mr. Scowly-face was on some sort of Kamikaze mission to dispose of an enemy journalist. Right before impact, I hear a “WATCH OUT” from one of my fellow riders at which time we crash head-on into another unsuspecting golf cart.

I’m immediately jolted out of my Twitter-induced reverie by the suddenness of the impact. My left knee took a bit of a hit, but otherwise all fingers and toes are accounted for. Fortunately, no one else appears seriously hurt either as Mr. Scowly-face inspects his golf cart for any potential damage. Forgive me for being a bit melodramatic, as one of my best friend’s mom was killed when her golf cart flipped over– but I’m praising God that we managed to somehow stay upright. Miraculously, his cart remains functional and Mr. Scowly-face proceeds on to our intended destination. “Well now you’ll have something exciting to write about,” are his parting words to me. Be careful what you ask for.

King Solomon once said, “Better a patient person than a warrior, a person who controls his temper than one who takes a city.” Solomon could have been talking to Mr. Scowly-face or to all sports fans in general. When the Cats lose, I’m often ready to blow a gasket. Ironically, that’s also why sports are so great. We can be passionate. We can be intense and emotional. We can get mad and vent because at the end of the day, it’s all just fun and games for us fans. It’s only when we take a crushing defeat on the field or court and confuse it with the important events in our real lives, that we end up doing stupid and hurtful things that violate the rules of common sense and decency.

I’m not mad at Mr. Scowly-face. In fact, I feel kind of sorry for him. But bad choices come with consequences. The reality is that if one of those carts did flip over, this commentary would have taken on a completely different tone. I’ve been told that the University of South Carolina is investigating this incident. Ray Tanner, the director of athletics has been informed and the department promises that it will be appropriately addressed. In the meantime, for my next shuttle ride in enemy territory, I’m going back to my neutral-colored suit and tie.

If you enjoy my writing, please visit me again at Huangswhinings.com or follow me on Twitter @KYHuangs.

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

Check out my most recent Cincinnati Bengals coverage at http://www.bluegrasssportsnation.com/category/writers/john-huang/

In Search of Rafael Nadal

Rumor has it that there have been a couple of Rafael Nadal sightings so far this week. The lone mega-superstar remaining in the men’s portion of the Western and Southern Open tournament has supposedly been spotted on one of the practice courts. Because he received a bye directly into the second round, Rafa has yet to play an official match even though it’s already Day 4 of the tournament. I’ve yet to catch a glimpse of him either on the court or in the media center. Like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster, I’m beginning to wonder if he’s even here. It’s time to go in search of Rafael Nadal.

With 15 Grand Slam trophies and 10 French Open titles, the 31-year old Spaniard will also, at tournament’s end, assume the mantle of the #1 player in the world. If not for Roger Federer, Nadal could arguably be considered the greatest ever in the history of the game. But Roger’s not here, so everyone’s focus is on Nadal. Every fan wants an autograph, every media outlet wants an interview, and every opponent wants a piece of his flowing scalp. Throw in the local paparazzi and you can see why Nadal would seek witness protection. You won’t see him casually strolling the tournament grounds, eating nachos, or playing video games in the player’s lounge. I bet he’s holed up in some private mansion up on the banks of the Ohio, sipping a red sangria while listening to some mellow Mallorcan melodies.

Nadal’s allegedly playing Richard Gasquet on Center Court this evening, so I’ve rearranged my whole schedule to witness this apparition. As match time approaches, Rafa’s adoring fans pack the stadium in anticipation of another expected coronation. Sure enough, as the buzz of the crowd intensifies to a soaring crescendo, Rafael Nadal struts in royally—tanned and toned– as king of this particular court. He’s real, he’s here, and he’s ready for battle.

Not so fast, my friend. During warmups, the skies open up and Nadal quickly disappears back into the stadium tunnel to escape the unwelcomed rain delay. Did I really see him briefly out on the court, or was that just a figment of my overeager imagination? To me, he’s like a ghost—a Spanish speaking specter disguised in colorful Nike gear.

After the rain showers have dissipated and the court has dried, Nadal emerges a second-time ready to play. Say what you may, the guy’s a symbol of purposeful persistence. He attacks every ball as if it’s match point at Wimbledon. They’ll be no gimmes for Gasquet this evening, as Nadal pounds every forehand while chasing down every errant shot. You would think at his age, he’d want to concede a few points here and there just for the sake of energy conservation. Instead, he’s going full throttle in heat and humidity, trying to win every point and beat you into submission. You have to love that passion, drive, and determination. In two quick sets, Nadal bids adieu to the Frenchman who really never had a chance.

After the match, Nadal addresses the Center Court crowd and signs a few obligatory autographs on the way out of the stadium. He’s completely enveloped by his security team, protected like El Chapo against a vindictive cartel. Forget about a selfie with the man of the hour. They’ll be no post-match interview either. Nadal is out of here as surreptitiously as he came in, his big burly security detail running interference for him like a well-tuned offensive line. For all I know, they’re off to Jeff Ruby’s for the late-night $72 ribeye specials.

The sad part about all this sequestration is that Rafa purportedly is a really nice guy. He’s someone you wouldn’t mind playing a round of golf and downing a few beers with—or maybe having in your fantasy football league. He always appears friendly, cordial, and accommodating in public. How ironic that Rafa and Roger—two major tennis icons—also happen to be two of the most affable and congenial people in the sport.

But wait a minute! Despite the midnight hour, an announcement comes over the media center intercom that Nadal has agreed to make a few post-match comments after all. I rush down to the interview room to hopefully catch a glimpse of this champion up close. He fields the first few queries which are all about the match tonight and the upcoming US Open. That’s fine, but I want to know his thoughts much further into the future. When he furtively glances my way, I ask him if the success Federer is having at age 36 influences his thinking on how long he’ll be able to continue playing at such an elite level.

“No,” he answers definitively. “I do my way, and Roger did his way, no? Everybody is different. For me, personally, I always say the same. I’m going to keep playing until what I am doing makes me happy. I am a very lucky person that I can choose when I want to stop, so that’s the real thing.”

After an awkward pause, he seems compelled to further expound. “If I am happy doing what I am doing, and especially if I am healthy, I continue, I keep going, because I love this sport,” he continues. “I love the competition, and I still feeling the passion for what I am doing, no? When I arrive the days I lose one of these things, I gonna do nothing.” Now that’s a man after my own heart.

As the session concludes, I follow Rafa out of the player’s exit as he loads his racquet bags into a tournament SUV. I want to say something meaningful to him but nothing comes to mind. We’re just two dudes looking to head home after a long day at the office. As I walk back to my car through the dimly lit parking lot, I glance back and see Rafa personally tipping the valet. Something about that simple act just makes me want to smile.

Greatness in tennis is like pornography in general. I can’t really define it exactly, but I know it when I see it. I think I witnessed it tonight. I came to this tournament in search of Rafael Nadal. What I found was greatness personified.

John Huang is a guest columnist for Bluegrass Sports Nation. If you enjoyed this column, please check out the following links to his previous blogs in this tennis series.

#1 Tennis Anyone? https://huangswhinings.com/2017/08/13/tennis-anyone

#2 Tennis Fantasyland http://www.bluegrasssportsnation.com/tennis-fantasyland/

#3 Tennis is Served http://www.bluegrasssportsnation.com/tennis-is-served/

 

 

Tennis Anyone?

Tennis in the United States is currently on life support. The lack of American star power at the top of the men’s rankings has relegated the once popular sport to the entertainment cellar. The Yankee goodwill garnered by past champions such as John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi, and Pete Sampras has grudgingly given way to the European dominance of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray. Unless a Sam Querry, Jack Sock, or John Isner breaks out and wins an upcoming Major tournament, the resurrection of American tennis will unfortunately remain as hopeless as my backhand.

It hasn’t always been this way. Back in the 80’s, tennis was HUGE—not only as a spectator but as a participation sport. Believe it or not, people actually bought racquets, took lessons, joined clubs, and played on public courts. The adult tennis league at Shillito Park was rife with wannabe tennis buffs striving to capture the coveted T-shirts for winning their respective divisions. My hard-fought championship in the 4.0 singles league (inexplicably, everybody played up rather than sandbagging in those days) remains a highlight of my less than stellar foray into the world of cut throat athletic competition.

What I lack in physical talent, though, I usually overcompensate with dogged perseverance. That’s why I’m on my way to the Western and Southern Open Tennis Tournament in Cincinnati to provide you the best coverage money can buy. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been to this event as a spectator a couple of times before—once as my teenage daughter went gaga over heartthrob Roger Federer and once when I went gaga over fellow Asian Michael Chang. But this time I’m not going as a paying customer–I’m going behind the scenes as a full-fledged media member. It’s also your lucky day, because you’re coming with me to get all the journalistic scoop.

The Lindner Family Tennis Center is not actually located in Cincinnati. It’s in Mason, Ohio, right under the shadows of the roller coasters at Kings Island Amusement Park. Driving onto the massive parking lot, you get the feeling of a big-time tennis event complete with small town hospitality. Many of the big names in tennis are here, not only because the tournament serves as a warm up to the US Open in New York, but also because of the aforementioned friendliness. Prima donnas like to be coddled and if there’s one thing I’ve gleaned over the years, it’s that tennis stars are the penultimate prima donnas.

Seven-time champion Roger Federer and 2013 winner Rafael Nadal are the two top seeds this year on the men’s side of the tournament draw. On the women’s side, defending champion Karolina Pliskova–who recently held the WTA’s No. 1 ranking–headlines an entry list that also includes three previously ranked No. 1 players: Angelique Kerber, Caroline Wozniacki, and Venus Williams. I’m bummed I won’t get to see Serena Williams play as she’s expecting her first child later this month. My contention is that she’s one of the greatest athletes of all time. Even while pregnant, she’s still good enough to dispatch ninety percent of her healthy competitors.

Media members also like to be coddled, so I’m anxious to see whether tennis hospitality also extends to the press corps. Will I be dining on shrimp cocktail between matches like Roger? Is there limousine service available to shuttle me from court to court a la Rafa? How about a masseuse during rain delays as per Venus? What are professional tennis players like off the court and away from the cameras? What really goes on at post match press conferences and within the confines of the mysterious “players only” lounge? Join me, on special assignment for Bluegrass Sports Nation, as we dive into the world of international tennis intrigue. Whether fact or fiction, jocks or jerks, etiquette or etouffee, I’ll be searching for the best experiences to hopefully, bring the sport of TENNIS back from the dead.

John Huang is a guest columnist for Bluegrass Sports Nation. If you enjoyed this column, be sure to check out the rest of the tennis series. 

#2 Tennis Fantasyland http://breathittonline.com/blog/index.php/2017/08/14/tennis-fantasyland/

#3 Tennis is Served http://breathittonline.com/blog/index.php/2017/08/16/tennis-is-served/