Books and Pizza

Books and Pizza

Two of my favorite life activities are writing books and eating pizza. Whenever I combine the two passions, it makes for one glorious day. Occasionally, my joy overflows and I feel compelled to share. Sunday was one of those times.

It’s Palm Sunday, and I’m headed out riding—not on my ass—but in my trusty white convertible. The temperature’s not quite warm enough to cruise with the top down, but the sun is shining, and the central Kentucky countryside is resplendent in all its verdant glory.

Beside me is Kyle Macy. Yeah, THE KYLE MACY, arguably the most popular Kentucky basketball player to have ever worn the uniform. Kyle and I did a book together titled From the Rafters of Rupp, and we’re headed up the backroads of horse country to Cynthiana, Kentucky, to do a book signing.

You never know how these appearances will pan out, so I’m wound tighter than a banjo string. Kyle, however, is just Kyle—cool, calm, and as collected as ever. We arrive about twenty minutes early at our pre-arranged venue. Kyle is confident we’ll sign a million books. I’m just hoping we won’t be the only ones there.

As usual, my worries are unfounded as a nice crowd materializes. Kyle dazzles them with his wonderful gift of gab. It amazes me how surprisingly candid he is when talking about UK Basketball. It’s obvious he loves the program—but as you’ll see in the book—he’s not afraid to speak his mind either. I, on the other hand, have been guzzling the blue Kool-Aid. I know the people aren’t here to listen to me anyway, so I stick to the party line whenever I’m asked a pointed question. Kyle rolls his eyes and tells me I’ve still got a lot to learn.

The Next Chapter Bookstore (thenextchapter41031.com) is a real gem. It’s relatively new, having opened in November of 2020…and having expanded to their fabulous new location in October of last year. The three owners—Jennifer Renaker, Ashley Peak, and Sherry Judy—greet us like long-lost cousins. You can feel the love they’ve poured into this business enterprise, as they bounce around energetically making everyone feel welcome. I see my other UK basketball book, Kentucky Passion, prominently displayed on the front shelf. Yep, this place is awesome. THIS PLACE IS AWESOME, INDEED! I’ll be back for sure.

After the books are signed and everyone’s happy, Kyle and I prepare for part two of our Sunday afternoon doubleheader. We’ve been invited for some homemade pizza at the house of the King. Doug Hampton is a former basketball referee and world-famous auctioneer. He’s also a New York Pizza School graduate and is well-known for his mouth-watering pies.

Before we indulge, however, we stop off on a parcel of holy ground. This is Joe B. Hall country, and no visit to Cynthiana would be complete without a visit to his mural. It’s much bigger and grander than I had imagined. Prior to his recent passing, many considered Joe the most beloved coach in America https://huangswhinings.com/2020/02/20/the-most-beloved-coach-in-america/. Kyle played for Coach Hall on that 1978 national championship team, and he assures me that Joe B. was as classy as they come.

The Dugan’s Pizza experience was downright heavenly. To be perfectly honest, it may just be the best pizza I’ve ever had. The dough was exquisite—tantalizingly chewy on the outside with a delectably airy and fluffy middle. The sauce was orgasmic, a puree of ripened tomatoes enhanced with the perfect blend of basil and garlic. And man…that cheese…the thought of that caramelized specialty brick cheese oozing together with the stringy mozzarella and sprinkled liberally atop with parmesan has me quivering as I write. Top everything off with a thick juicy slab of bacon or some flavorful pepperoni, and let’s fight to the death for that last corner square.

Predictably, Kyle and I gorge ourselves. He has four slices. I’m five-and-done. We both then cruise back towards Lexington disgustingly fat and happy. But WAIT…Kyle has a sweet tooth. He’s not done yet. We go for broke, pull up to the nearest Dairy Queen, and order our Blizzards. Just our luck—their ice cream mixer is broken.

I’m a bit ticked off, but Kyle shrugs it off. The guy is literally one cool cat. I figured with all the accolades and adoration he’s received over the years, these types of outings would get old in a hurry. I ask him if he enjoyed the day.

“Absolutely,” he answers me. “It’s always fun meeting people and talking about UK Basketball.”

I’m no Kyle Macy, but I’ll second the motion. Life is all about relationships—nurturing existing ones and formulating brand new ones. That’s easy to do with the folks in Cynthiana. They’re some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Plus, they bought all our books and fed us the best pizza south of Brooklyn. You can see why I’m feeling truly blessed. I’m living the dream.

Kyle and I will be at it again next week. Bullitt County, here we come. Crank up those Oreo Blizzards.

Books and ice cream, anyone?

Head on over to The Next Chapter Bookstore and pick up your signed copy of #FromTheRaftersOfRupp or #KentuckyPassion. Can’t make it out? Order here https://www.acclaimpress.com/books/from-the-rafters-of-rupp-the-book/

or https://www.amazon.com/Kentucky-Passion-Wildcat-Wisdom-Inspiration/dp/1684351669

and we’ll find a way to sign it for you next time you’re in town. In the meantime, be sure to follow me on Twitter @KYHuangs.

Collision Course with Destiny

Collision Course with Destiny

Remember when your mama told you, “if you can’t say anything good about anyone, then just don’t say anything at all”? Well, I can’t say anything good about Mike Krzyzewski.

But rather than just ending this blog post right here, let me try and explain.

You see, I’m a Kentucky basketball fan. And no True Blue, dyed-in-the-wool Kentucky Wildcat basketball fan feels any affinity whatsoever for the head coach of the Duke University Blue Devils.

It’s not that we don’t think Krzyzewski is a good coach. In fact, many of us think he’s one of the best to have ever coached the college game. Nearly 1,200 wins, five national titles, and 47 years at the helm unequivocally qualifies as Hall of Fame worthy. It’s just that the guy was coaching Duke when Christian Laettner hit the infamous last-second shot in the 1992 East regional finals to end Kentucky’s “unforgettable” run. That memory alone is enough to rankle everybody with a Big Blue pulse—as it should. To further twist the knife, Krzyzewski then went on to also steal a couple more banners (2010, 2015) that should rightfully be hanging in the rafters of Rupp Arena.

Coach K announced at the very beginning of this basketball season his plans to retire at the end of the year, setting off a firestorm of victory parades and sugary farewells. Week after week, we’ve heard a plethora of platitudes from national pundits about the 75-year-old coaching icon. Listening to all their unctuous drivel, you’d think Krzyzewski could give Jesus a run for his money.

I don’t care that Mike Krzyzewski is a wonderful family man. So what if he’s charitable to his community. Big deal that almost all his coaching colleagues speak highly of him when asked. None of that matters one iota to me. His 30-game curtain call has rendered me nauseous.  

Frankly, my dear, I can’t take it anymore. I’m sick of Coach K, and I’m sick of Duke University. The entire campus reeks of elitism and arrogance—the gothic architecture surrounded by well-manicured lawns and populated by a rich, entitled student body. In my mind, they’re all just a bunch of Ivy League wannabees with an oversized alumni endowment to match. I’ve noticed that Duke graduates are quick to snicker at my UK pedigree, as if I purchased my degrees at the local diploma mill.

In a wonderful twist of irony last night, Duke’s most hated rival—the North Carolina Tar Heels—crushed the Blue Devils in Coach K’s last regular-season game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. “Rat Face,” as he’s not so affectionately referred to by the Carolina faithful, was beside himself afterwards. Oh, there was none of the grandstanding we usually see from the potty-mouth, ref-berating, holier-than-thou Krzyzewski. Instead, His Imperial Highness assured everyone fawning shamelessly over him—including a litany of former players—that Duke’s season was not yet over.

That brings me to my point. I’m afraid that UK and Coach K are on a collision course with destiny. It’s a repeat of sorts, just like in 1975 when Kentucky played UCLA for all the marbles. If you remember, Coach John Wooden announced his retirement right before that one, and the Wildcats wound up on the wrong side of the storybook narrative.

The whole basketball world dubbed Kentucky as villains that night, and everybody—including the refs—conspired against them. As a result, Wooden rode off into the sunset with Kentucky’s championship banner tucked firmly in hand. Lord, don’t let it happen again.

I don’t usually subscribe to conspiracy theories, but this coronation for Krzyzewski is too obvious to ignore. With the NCAA selection committee and the television networks working in cahoots, a Kentucky versus Duke matchup is all but assured. The only remaining question is if Krzyzewski cuts down the nets. They’ve cued up One Shining Moment—the world is ready to celebrate.

It’s high time we spoiled the party.

If you enjoy my writings as a basketball fan, check out my latest book, KENTUCKY PASSION, available in bookstores and online at https://www.amazon.com/Kentucky-Passion-Wildcat-Wisdom-Inspiration/dp/1684351669 . Follow me on Twitter @KYHuangs.

Puerto Vallarta

Puerto Vallarta

“Senor John, Your Covid-19 test is negative.”

Whew, I breathed a huge sigh of relief when my ears heard those soul-lifting words. My daughter Katie and I just happened to be hunkered down in a makeshift testing center off the lobby of our hotel in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. When we initially booked this sun-splashed sojourn south of the border, we had no clue that a guaranteed return to the good old USA would require such a nerve-wracking nasal swab and sweat. Horror stories about Yankees retained due to the ‘Rona had understandably piqued our pucker factor.

Remember now, I was also coming off attending Super Bowl LVI in Los Angeles—a veritable international super spreader event. Combine that with travel to a country the CDC strongly advised against visiting, and you can see why I had second thoughts about going. Irresponsible? Perhaps it was. In the end, the lure of tropical eighty-five-degree weather, delectable Mexican seafood cuisine, and pristine sandy beaches proved too difficult to resist. Plus, Katie and I were both vaxxed and boosted, and—most importantly in our minds—the money we plunked down was totally non-refundable.

So, off we went—like Dumb and Dumber—for our father/daughter getaway.

Taking all that Covid angst and apprehension into account, this mid-winter respite still rated five stars in both our books. Puerto Vallarta, a beach resort city located about halfway down the west coast of Mexico, is an easy three-hour flight from Los Angeles. The city expanded to about 300,000 inhabitants in the 2020 census, but there’s an understated elegance and small-town charm you simply can’t find in other tourist meccas such as Cabo or Cancun.

There’s a boardwalk downtown—a seaside esplanade set apart from the narrow cobblestone streets, the bustling traffic, and the multitude of restaurants and shops radiating up the adjacent hillside. The cityscape has a bit of a European flair—like a poor man’s Portofino without any of the haughtiness, pretentiousness, or multi-colored buildings.

Occasionally, a whiff of cannabis penetrates the nostrils, but it’s quickly overcome with the aroma of grilled chorizo and peppers wafting from a nearby grill. Street vendors hawking sombreros and jewelry are everywhere. They politely keep their distance from me, as if somehow suspecting I’m tight with my pesos.

Closer to our hotel is the marina district—a more upscale cornucopia of shops, spas, and restaurants hungry for your tourist dollar. The walk around the waterfront harbor is spectacularly elegant, perfect for burning the extra calories from that double scoop of dessert gelato that you really should have skipped.

Remember, it’s also Valentine’s Day, so couples are everywhere, romantically strolling hand in hand along the numerous pedestrian pathways. Katie’s biggest fear is that we’ll be mistaken for one of them. She makes it known to everyone within shouting distance that I’M HER DAD—not some over-the-hill sugar daddy on a secret tryst with his floozy.

The Puerto Vallarta weather and beaches certainly didn’t disappoint either. What’s not to like about mid-eighties, perpetually sunny, with a light ocean breeze? The food was even better—seafood ceviche, squid ink paella, and the most tender steak fajitas this side of Guadalajara.

If you’re not already relaxed after my narrative thus far, I’d highly recommend a Mexican massage. This is nothing like the Thai version, where you’ve got Attila the Hun mercilessly twisting your torso. Nope, this is more the Swedish adaptation—soft, sensual, and soothing. Be sure to leave your modesty at the door. I guarantee you’ll leave with a smile on your face.

Beware of the dry-heat saunas, however. Five minutes in, I was sweating like Richard Burton in Night of the Iguana (filmed nearby). Ten minutes later, the coating on my prescription eyeglass lenses melted right before my eyes—literally. Sometimes you’ve got to live and learn. Thankfully, I brought a spare.

For the outdoor enthusiast, there are all sorts of sea excursions, four-wheeling, and ziplining adventures from which to choose. Katie and I elected to swim with the dolphins. Please don’t judge—the last thing I want to do is exploit animals. But I was a huge Flipper fan growing up, and I wanted nothing more than to pal around like Bud and Sandy.

Say what you may, the Aquaventuras Park—home of the Dolphin Discovery—has seen better days. It’s primarily a waterpark, with the usual assortment of slides, chutes, and flumes all bleached and faded by the relentless Mexican sun. Like many other tourist destinations, Covid has sucked the life out of the cash registers. There are no lines, so we hop on for a couple of quick, refreshing rides. One of the lifeguards looks like Enrique Iglesias, so Katie takes her time with an extra leisurely lap around the lazy river.

I’m here, however, to learn about dolphins. We’re paired up with Dorie—and she’s a beauty who’ll steal your heart in a second. Sleek and rubbery to the touch, Dorie’s nearly half a ton of cartilage, muscle, and pure love. There are six “Dories” here, and they all seem quite content. They dine on fish imported from Canada and they’re protected from other marine predators. In return, performing a few tricks and hobnobbing in the water with gringos like me seems like a pretty fair tradeoff.

But did you know some dolphins can live over fifty years? That’s a long time to be corralled in a small pen with no hope of escape. After forty-five minutes, I’ve had enough. I wash off all my guilt and shame with a quick shower before high tailing it out of there. How about some photos (at an outrageous $80 a pop) to document your experience? Thanks, but no thanks.

Four days in paradise passes quickly. On our final morning by the pool, I watch as a family frolics happily by the water. I can’t help but think of our prior travels together as family—Katie, Kanisa, and myself—the three of us together on some wild harebrained adventure without a care in the world. Now, sadly, it’s just Katie and me.

It’s bittersweet traveling alone with my daughter. On one hand, I treasure this time together and wouldn’t trade it for all the tea in China. On the other hand, there’s an unspoken sense of blame and remorse for always leaving Mom at home—well taken care of with food and protected from predators, but still trapped in her own corral of depression, psychosis, and mental illness with no hope of escape.

I’ve grudgingly learned over this past decade, however, that life must go on. You have to take the good with the bad. Soldier on, regardless of circumstances. You never know what the future will hold. Ironically, because of the bad, I find myself really savoring the good. I believe it was King Solomon who said, “When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider this: God has made the one as well as the other.”

King Solomon was much smarter than me.

By the way, as I passed through passport control and customs on the return to the States, the border agent never asked for my Covid test results. All that dread and uneasiness amounted to nothing after all. How often does our fear of the future ruin our enjoyment of the precious present? If I’m honest with myself, it’s happened way too often in my lifetime. I promise to do better.

My final connecting flight into Lexington was late, arriving just before one o’clock am. At that bewitching hour, there are no Ubers or Lyfts available, and a taxi was going to take an hour and a half. I thought about calling my brother, but he needed the sleep, and I figured I could use the exercise. So, I walked the two miles back home. If you saw a dark figure wheeling a carry-on suitcase along Man O’ War boulevard early Friday morning humming La Bamba, that was me.

You gotta love life. You gotta love Lexington. It’s good to be home.

If you enjoy my writing, you can follow me on Twitter @KYHuangs. Also check out my latest book KENTUCKY PASSION at https://www.amazon.com/Kentucky-Passion-Wildcat-Wisdom-Inspiration/dp/1684351669

Weekend at Tourneys

Weekend at Tourneys

Okay, the SEC/Big East Challenge isn’t technically a “tourney,” but I needed a clever title to lead off this blog post. I’m hoping you get the movie reference as I bask in the heartland of America this weekend between the sports doubleheader of my dreams.

You see, I’m officially credentialed for the AFC Championship game on Sunday in Arrowhead Stadium between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Kansas City Chiefs. However, I cruised into town a day earlier just so I could slide over to historic Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday to watch my Wildcats spank the Jayhawks in what was supposed to be college basketball’s game of the year.

The buildup for this one had been huge, with ESPN’s College GameDay crew salivating in anticipation of a titanic tussle between the top two blueblood programs. The Jayhawk fans were also jacked. Their team had won four of the last five against the Wildcats, and they fully expected to be feasting on Kentucky fried chicken before the final horn sounded.

Haha, by now you know the ending: Kentucky 80, Kansas 62, in a game totally dominated by the Wildcats from beginning to end—a brutal beatdown for the ages. Forgive me if I gloat.

Mind you, today’s win was extra special because it took place in Allen Fieldhouse. I’ve never been to “The Phog” before. It’s on my Mount Rushmore of iconic basketball venues (together with Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion, and—of course—Kentucky’s Rupp Arena). By most everyone’s standard, it’s a bucket-list destination.

To begin the Allen Fieldhouse experience, you walk into the hallowed halls of what looks like an airplane hangar. Immediately, you’re thrust into the distant past through a collage of exhibits and display cases. Trophies, personal mementos, and championship paraphernalia dating back to what seems like the beginning of time bombard your senses. The original rules of basketball are etched on the northwest annex of the building. You feel as if you’re standing on holy ground.

For this is where college basketball started. It’s like the “big bang” of big-time hoops with the ghosts of James Naismith, Phog Allen, and Adolph Rupp still roaming the various nooks and crannies. “Pay heed, all who enter: Beware of ‘The Phog,’” says the sign over the tunnel leading into the arena. Placards listing every single player who ever wore the Kansas uniform line an entire concourse wall. There’s definitely a sense of reverence and tradition you don’t get walking into Rupp Arena—or anyplace else for that matter. Lambeau Field perhaps? Maybe Fenway or Wrigley? Wimbledon?

There’s also no pretense with this place. It’s old and decrepit—and it doesn’t care. Forget about keeping up with the Joneses. Built in 1955, the building remains perfect just as it is, comfortable in its own antiquated, creaking skin. It’s hard to believe it seats only a couple of thousand less than a massive Rupp Arena. The stands are compact, the bleachers vertical in scope, with nary an extra inch of extra space for proper ingress or egress.

It’s also hot today—nearly unbearably hot. With outside temperatures approaching sixty, inside it’s ninety degrees and humid. It’s a breeding ground for Covid I’m sure. But unlike Rupp Arena, at least ninety percent of the patrons don masks.

And it is loud in here. From what I’ve been told, it’s consistently loud—not just when the Wildcats come calling. It’s a piercing type of loud too, whereas Rupp is more of a roar. I’ve heard it louder in Rupp (Minniefield to Bowie half-court alley-oop and dunk, Unforgettables beating Shaq, Tayshaun’s five threes). But to be fair, it’s hard being vocal when your team’s getting slaughtered. However, I will concede that when the 17,000 or so on hand started swaying to the singing of the KU alma mater and then morphed into the “Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk” chant, goosebumps broke out on everyone, including myself.  

Today is also the first time in six years that I’m watching the Kentucky team play as a fan—with absolutely no media obligations. It’s liberating for sure to be able to cheer openly, loudly, and freely again with no repercussions whatsoever from the press box police. I’m even boldly brandishing the blue, shedding any specter of objectivity or impartiality that team media allegedly bears.

To be honest, I’ve missed this feeling more than I thought I ever would. I forgot what it’s like to feel your heart race or the angst rising in your gut right before tipoff. As the game begins, you’re straining as never before with every single misfire, contorting your body as if willing the shot to go in or grabbing that next rebound yourself. When things go well, you’re high-fiving others and yelling “Go Big Blue” at the top of your lungs.

My seat purchased from StubHub isn’t bad at all. It set me back a couple hundred, but it’s better than my usual media seat at Rupp. Of course, I’m surrounded by Kansas fans. A mom and daughter are seated next to me on one side. They’ve got their faces painted and are loaded for bear. On the other side of me are two old curmudgeons who apparently have been following the Jayhawks for decades.

By the time the final horn sounds, the mom and daughter are deathly quiet, their painted faces dripping with frowns. The two curmudgeons are lamenting about what Bill Self did wrong and how Calipari outcoached him. I’m all smiles.  

As a fan, there’s nothing more exhilarating than charging onto an enemy’s homecourt and taking their hearts. To do it in an environment considered by many to be the best in all of college basketball makes this a memory I’ll forever cherish.

If the Bengals win their game against the Chiefs today, perhaps I’ll retire permanently from this media gig. It’s much more fun being just a fan.

If you enjoy my writings as a basketball fan, check out my latest book, KENTUCKY PASSION, available in bookstores and online at https://www.amazon.com/Kentucky-Passion-Wildcat-Wisdom-Inspiration/dp/1684351669 . Follow me on Twitter @KYHuangs.

The Prince Turns Six

The Prince Turns Six

For my sixth birthday, my parents gave me a new pair of tennis shoes. These were nothing like the latest Air Jordans you can buy online nowadays for over $300 a pop. But rather, these were your friendly K-Mart specials retailing for the fabulously low price of $4.95.

You see, Mama and Baba just weren’t much into frivolous gift-giving when it came to birthday presents for their children. Don’t get me wrong, they’d sacrifice the world to pay for practical things like our college educations or a down payment on our house. But if I asked for something like a fanciful trip to the beach, they’d probably just laugh in my face. I knew better than to even ask.

So, when my brother and his wife said they were taking their son, Gabriel, out to Disneyland in California to celebrate his sixth birthday, I couldn’t help but cringe. I asked Michael and Michelle if I could come along. I realized that I’d become more and more like my mom and dad—a royal Scrooge when it came to acknowledging milestones in life and significant rites of passage. That shackled me more than I cared to admit, and this trip with Gabriel was going to be my ticket to freedom.

For those who don’t know him, let me tell you a bit about my nephew. The kid’s predictably precocious and smart as a whip. He’s the sole male descendant on this side of our family tree. I was there when he was born and appropriately appointed him at the time as the “emissary of the Huang family jewels.”

I was part joking and part serious. Gabriel doesn’t quite grasp it yet, but our expectations for him are through the roof. As someone who’s getting ready to be put out to pasture, I’m already rolling all my unfulfilled hopes and discarded dreams into the opportunities still lying ahead of him. That’s a heavy burden for anybody to bear—and it’s certainly not fair to Gabriel. In his six short years on earth, he’s already brought our family enough smiles, hugs, and joy to last two or three lifetimes.

When you see the word “spoiled” in the dictionary, however, you’ll see Gabriel’s picture as part of the definition. His mom calls him “The Prince,” if that tells you anything. Whenever there’s a new toy that’s the latest and greatest craze, there’ll be two of them in Gabriel’s playroom by Tuesday. There were times that he had so many toy cars strewn across the family room floor that I was sure my ninety-year-old father would undoubtedly slip and fall to his death. Whether stuffed animals, air rifles, or model rockets to the moon, nothing was too expensive, too outlandish, or too good for The Prince.

Not even a Disneyland trip—a blow-out-the-budget foray that would have his grandparents rolling over in their graves. This journey of extravagance was my best chance of vicariously experiencing everything that I had missed out on in my youth of parental-denial. For once, I’d finally see how the other half lives—squandering my life savings with nary a thought for tomorrow.

As if Disney itself wasn’t enough, we’re scheduled for a Pre-Disney day at the neighboring Knott’s Berry Farm in Anaheim. Bubbling with anticipation, The Prince is up early with his royal entourage trailing in his wake—Mom and Dad, Uncle John, Cousin Katie, Aunt Mary and Uncle Robin—all ready to indulge and coddle.

Here’s my beef with Knotts Berry Farm. For a place that started out as a roadside berry stand, it has way too many thrill coasters for a six-year-old prodigy. Gabriel won’t ride many of them, and neither will I. The Prince pines instead for the rigged arcade games, and he predictably melts down when his daddy can’t bring home the hardware. Fifty bucks for park admission and the kid’s whining about missing out on a fifty-cent CLAW toy. Jesus, help us!

The next day, it’s more of the same at Disneyland—only it’s Gabriel’s daddy who’s doing most of the sulking. Missing out on the 7 a.m. virtual queue for the Rise of the Resistance ride sends Michael—a Star Wars fanatic—into the throws of depression. He walks around the park with an unrelenting frowny face as he misses out on the noontime virtual queue also. It seems our best laid plans have been unceremoniously hijacked.

The Prince, however, seems totally unfazed. He’s happy as a Jedi cruising Galaxy’s Edge. And why wouldn’t he be? His dad just dropped $150 watching him build a droid. He’s munching on $10 corn dogs and sporting a new $24 hat. An overpriced character meal with Goofy at the Disneyland Hotel is also lurking in the wings.

But you know what? As his late Grandpa would often say, “Gabriel is a good boy.” Despite the apparent over-indulgence, I find myself marveling at the kid, nonetheless. He waits patiently in interminable lines for rides, walks over ten miles crisscrossing the park without a single complaint, and keeps us all entertained with his never-ending commentary and wit. Most importantly, he makes everyone around him happy. And it is his birthday after all.

Even the Disney gods relent. Miraculously, we get a last-minute call-up for the Rise of the Resistance, and we hightail it over to board with our group. As I look over at Gabriel wondrously eyeing the Death Star, I can’t help but see my child-like self in him. Fifty years ago, I walked these exact same streets of Disney. I remember those magical moments with my family like they happened yesterday. I treasure those memories more than life itself. I’m hoping that Gabriel will treasure his time with me in the very same way.

His mom was right. There’s nothing too good for The Prince. I love you, Gabriel. May the force be with you.

Dr. John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Group Media and editor-in-chief of JustTheCats.com. His two newest books, KENTUCKY PASSION and FROM THE RAFTERS OF RUPP, are now available online and wherever fine books are sold. If you enjoy his writing, you can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

It’s Time To Stop The Stigma!

It’s Time To Stop The Stigma!

I’m all ears at a round table discussion with Naomi Osaka at the 2019 Western and Southern Open (Photo Credit W&S Open)

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) — There’s an illness lurking among us that’s just as debilitating and deadly as the Coronavirus. Unlike Covid-19 and all its variants, however, this ailment has been around since the dawn of time. Unfortunately, we’ve been hesitant to even acknowledge that it exists. We’ve buried it, blocked it out, and barricaded it behind closed doors in hopes that it’ll just go away.

Until now, that is.

With Simone Biles exiting the team competition in the Tokyo Olympics in order to “protect her mind,” perhaps the importance of mental health awareness will finally get the attention it rightly deserves. After all, if one of the greatest Olympic athletes of all time—on arguably the biggest stage in sports—admits to needing some emotional help, then maybe the rest of the world will finally start listening.

Biles isn’t alone. Earlier this year, four-time tennis Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French Open over a standoff about her refusal to speak with media during press conferences. The Japanese American tennis icon admitted that she suffered from long bouts of depression and tried to explain how she was struggling in coping with all the stresses of stardom.

Even before Biles and Osaka, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps talked openly about his battles with anxiety and depression. After retiring from active competition, the most decorated athlete in the history of the Summer Games—winner of twenty-eight medals across five Olympics—has since become a huge mental health advocate. And yet, despite the tireless efforts of his foundation to trumpet the cause, nobody seems to have truly gotten his message either.

“We’re human beings,” Phelps poignantly stated the other night when asked about the circumstances surrounding Biles. “Nobody is perfect. It’s okay not to be okay. It’s okay to go through ups and downs and emotional rollercoasters.”

A little closer to home, Kentucky basketball head coach John Calipari also addressed the fragile emotional state of his team earlier this summer. The pandemic, together with the unspeakably tragic deaths of not one but two of their teammates, had Coach Cal on heightened alert regarding his players’ mental health.

“I’m not an expert on why it would be rising,” Calipari answered, when asked about the skyrocketing incidence of depression and anxiety among young people. “This pandemic rocked everybody…We had players last year meeting with some psychologists. We did…It’s overwhelming…We just went through Ben [Jordan] passing away, and then Terrence [Clarke]. You throw that onto the plate of these kids. And that’s why I was doing as many individuals [workout sessions] as I could do. At the end of the day, I’m not a—quote—professional. Sometimes that needs to be involved in this.”

Hang on. Before you say this issue is only about spoiled athletes going soft, you better think again. Depression, anxiety, and mental health disorders are ubiquitous—whether we’re famous celebrities or just “ordinary Joes” trying to do the best we can. It doesn’t matter whether we’re at the top of our game or struggling to make ends meet. These conditions are insidious, they’re pervasive, always prowling around looking to devour you when you least expect it.

I know. My wife has battled severe depression over the past decade. https://huangswhinings.com/2017/04/11/in-sickness-and-in-health/ Two of my best friends have been afflicted by it, to the point of debilitation. https://huangswhinings.com/2018/10/24/it-could-happen-to-anyone/ At its worst, dealing with mood swings and psychotic rants has been a living hell for everyone involved. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. Even during periods of recovery, the dark clouds of worry and despair never fully go away.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), about 16.2 million people in the United States will have at least one major depressive episode in a given year. That translates to a lifetime prevalence of major depressive disorders of 16.9 percent among adults. That’s more than one in six of us. Not only that, but the biggest cause of disability in the worldwide workforce also happens to be depression related. We’re not talking about calling in sick due to a bad back, the flu, or the far-reaching effects of hypertension or diabetes. Nope—we’re talking mental health issues, period.

“The biggest thing is, we all need to ask for help when we go through those [difficult] times,” Phelps emphasized. “It was hard for me to ask for help.”

And therein lies the danger from all of these mood disorders. It’s hard to ask for help. Because of that reluctance to reach out, those afflicted are often at high risk of suicide. Tragically, fifteen percent of those individuals living with recurrent depressive disorder will subsequently die by suicide. That’s way too many. In fact, it’s heartbreakingly unacceptable. Why the heck are people so reluctant to seek help when needed?

One word, pure and simple: STIGMA! Unlike other common physical illnesses—such as high blood pressure or diabetes—mental health disorders are buried in bias. They aren’t your typical “casserole illnesses.” In other words, when you’re recovering from a broken leg, or an emergency appendectomy, or even cancer chemotherapy, friends, neighbors, and coworkers are quick to stop by with a casserole to comfort you.

Not so with mood disorders. There’s a stigma attached—some sort of guilt, embarrassment, or shame—as if you’re walking around with a big scarlet letter painted on your forehead. No one knows what to say or do about it. No one wants to admit that they’re suffering from it. All they know is that others who haven’t experienced it are understandably clueless. It’s not a condition that you can just easily “snap out of.”

So, what can we do to help? The most important thing we can do is to STOP THE STIGMA! Mood disorders such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, borderline personality disorder, and all the various other co-occurring mental health conditions are not radically different than normal physical ailments of the body such as hypertension or diabetes. The only major distinction is that these disorders affect the person’s brain rather than their pancreas.

The sad reality is that many of our friends and loved ones suffer needlessly (and often silently) from these relentless brain diseases. During those instances, compassion and empathy are key. It’s up to us to first acknowledge their illness and then encourage them—as Coach Cal said—to seek professional help as needed.

For many, recovery may signal a long and arduous road ahead. All too often, however, people never even begin the journey. Counseling and therapy are excellent starting points. Medications—although not foolproof—can frequently work wonders. Later on, through continued public advocacy through organizations like NAMI, we can hopefully move towards getting everybody the proper help that they so desperately need.

For now, do your part to stop the stigma. Let’s all become mental health advocates. Show compassion. Be empathetic. Make a difference. Help a friend. Save a life.

Dr. John Huang is a retired orthodontist, military veteran, author, and editor-in-chief of www.JustTheCats.com. He currently teaches the NAMI Family-to-Family course to family members with a loved one suffering from mental illness. If you enjoy his writing, you can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

Press Box Humor is No Joking Matter

Press Box Humor is No Joking Matter

It’s kind of scary when you think about it. In this ever-colliding world of social media and political correctness, we’re all just one mis-uttered word away from crashing and burning. Just ask Thom Brennaman.

By now, everyone has heard the replay of the Cincinnati Reds broadcaster using a homophobic slur during his call of the Reds versus Kansas City Royals game last week. The fact that Brennaman didn’t know the mic was hot doesn’t really matter. Nor does the fact that he issued an apology shortly thereafter. The damage was done. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. As far as his career with the Reds is concerned, most people I’ve talked to think he’s toast.

But should society be so quick to judge? What about forgiveness? In my new gig working with people in the broadcasting profession, I’ve learned that everyone brandishing that microphone is nowadays acutely aware of slipping up and saying something stupid, vulgar, or offensive—spewing out an on-air comment so galling that it costs them their career.

I’m not here to defend Thom, but there is a culture among media people that’s similar to a locker room. I’ve felt it personally in the press box. Everyone, including myself, wants to belong—to be accepted as one of the boys. As you know, for an announcing team to “click,” there has to be a natural camaraderie between the participants in the broadcast booth. It’s why we all tune in to Tom Leach and Jeff Piecoro calling the Kentucky games. They’ve developed that in-studio comfort level that Dick Gabriel of Big Blue Insider explained to me the other night on his show. It’s the same comfort level banter between Michael Bennett and Shannon the Dude that makes our Just the Cats hour so entertaining.

“What comes on in broadcast booths during commercial breaks is at times like a locker room,” confirmed Alan Cutler, my soon-to-be published co-author, and the former long-time host of the Cincinnati Bengals Radio Network. “Sometimes it’s very funny. And sometimes there are things said that shouldn’t be said. I’ve never heard anything like what Thom said, but I’ve heard plenty of things that NEVER could be broadcast.”

Regardless, Thom should have known better. His actions were wrong and what he said was not funny and deeply offensive. He probably got a bit too comfortable in his exalted status as Reds radio kingpin and thought he was above the law. He suddenly forgot that it’s now 2020 and not 1984. Times have changed, and multiple segments of American society remain ready to pounce at the slightest provocation. As Governor Andy has scolded us all ad nauseum during the pandemic, “You cant’ be doing that.”

So what do we make of all of this? Thom says that he’s a man of faith. So am I, and so are many of you who are reading this. Should we forgive him? The Bible tells us “forgive, and you will be forgiven.” But more importantly, it also challenges us to do better. “Let us not love with words or speech but with action and in truth,” said the Apostle John. Action and truth is the only way we can bring proper healing to this divisive mess of a country we’re in.

In his on-air apology, Thom claims that’s not who he is. Well, then show us—not with mere empty spoken words, but with sincere heartfelt action. Because we don’t really know what’s in his heart, Thom needs to do something radically productive to make a difference. He can apologize all he wants to his bosses and his fans, but he has to first reach out and embrace the LGBTQ community in some unprecedented way. He has to act in a manner which earns their forgiveness and demonstrates his repentance before a righteous God. After all, if you don’t show love to others, then you’re not a true Christ follower.

Thom has a ton of equity in the professional bank. He’s worked as a successful broadcaster for Fox Sports for nearly two decades. He has a strong family pedigree and a personal reputation to match. If he can now just humble himself to act in a fashion that earns him kudos directly from the community he has disparaged, it’ll be a heck of a lot easier for everyone else watching on the sidelines to forgive him also. If sincere, it’ll also go a long way toward personal redemption and restoring his professional life.

It’s his move. I’m hopeful he can do it. We should all be cheering him on.

Thanks to Pastor Randy Maynard for always keeping me accountable walking my talk, and for reminding me constantly of the powerful reach of a sports related platform. If you enjoy my writing, you can read more at JustTheCats.com, NolanGroupMedia.com, or follow me on Twitter @KYHuangs.

Damn You, Coronavirus!

Damn You, Coronavirus!

(photo credit Bluegrass Sports Nation)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And a Little Child Shall Lead Them

And a Little Child Shall Lead Them

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

 

Immanuel Quickley prepares faith-driven Wildcat team for postseason success

By Dr. John Huang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m ready. Are you?

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