John Talk Thai

(Bangkok, Thailand) –When Kentucky Men’s Basketball coach John Calipari recently told media that we “don’t know sh@#,” he was only partially right. For you see, I do know “sh@#” because I’ve had the trots ever since I landed in Bangkok. I understand it’s mostly my fault, though. The food is fantastic here and I just can’t help gorging myself. The problem is that the Thais like their food laced with chilies that could choke a Chinaman, so my bowels are more exhausted than Shai Alexander.

There’s food everywhere in Bangkok. From high-end eateries to run-down food stalls, you can find anything your palate desires 24 hours a day. I’ve already gulped down oysters as big as my fist, prawns the size of lobsters, and all sorts of slippery, slimy, fruit and veggie type things that wouldn’t make the cut in America. Street food is outrageously cheap, but like anything else in life, you pay your money and take your chances. The smells emanating from these food kiosks can be somewhat overwhelming. I don’t want to sound like the ugly American, but on the list of smelliest cities, Bangkok would rank near the top. It stinks here! The combination of fried grease and exotic spices mixing together with diesel fuel and auto exhaust is ever present and distinctly pungent. It’s similar to the Cats’ second half meltdown against South Carolina–not necessarily nauseating at first, but bothersome and irritating nonetheless.

What is nauseating is Bangkok traffic. I’ve driven in LA and it’s much worse here. Gridlock everywhere for hours at a time. It’s not chaotic like Cairo, nor brutal like Beijing. It’s actually quite orderly as Thai drivers are surprisingly courteous, there’s virtually no horn honking, and zero apparent road rage. It’s just that crawling along at two kilometers an hour on an eight-lane highway makes me want to gouge my eyes out and shove bamboo shivers up my fingernails. Patience is said to be a Fruit of the Spirit. It’s something I’m sorely lacking when it comes to sitting in Bangkok traffic.

Getting in my morning runs here in Bangkok has been a bit of a challenge also. In addition to the usual uneven pavements, potholes, and overhanging tree limbs encountered along urban sidewalks, you also have to dodge the omnipresent food stalls, motorcycle swarms, and the occasional strolling Buddhist monk—all while breathing in the suffocating auto exhaust. Kind of defeats the purpose of attempted aerobic exercise if you ask me. I also miss my dog on my runs. Every dog I’ve seen in Thailand appears lethargic and listless, beaten up by life and waiting to be featured on the next bootlegged Chinese restaurant menu.

Outside of Bangkok, it’s much more pleasant. My sojourns along the beaches of Hua Hin provided me ample opportunities to relax and recharge. Imagine waking up to glorious 80-degree temperatures and a fabulous sunrise, with someone to bring you a tropical drink or to trim your neglected toenails at every beck and call. Check your modesty at the door if you choose to get the herbal body scrub and exfoliate treatment. You’re getting EVERY part of your body scrubbed and exfoliated.

And now, a word about Thai massages—they are grossly overrated. First of all, they hurt. You know you’re in trouble when you pay for the session behind the curtain. Having the Thai version of Attila the Hun slapping my calves with impunity, poking wooden rods up my insoles and making my vertebrate pop like firecrackers on the Fourth of July just wasn’t my cup of tea. At one point he performed a move on me worthy of any WWF escape maneuver—probably classified as chiropractic malpractice in the States, but here it’s just comic amusement at the poor foreigner’s expense. You’ve been warned.

And finally, nobody with obvious Kentucky ties has yet approached me on this trip. I’ve been sporting the BLUE every single day trying to attract fellow citizens of BBN for some engaging conversation. So far, no takers. The cute couple with matching Lebron jerseys and the Thai dude shooting hoops in Kyrie Irving gear were oblivious to my braggadocio about reppin the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball. Now after the Cats’ crushing loss to the Gators, I’m just looking for someone to commiserate with in the worst way.

Sigh! Such is life in this part of the world, where no one cares but me. Go Cats!

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

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Something to Smile About

(Chang Mai, Thailand) – I fought the cold and the cold won. After weeks of battling sub-freezing temperatures, weather advisories, and storm warnings back in my old Kentucky home, I stepped off Korean Air Flight 7917 at Bangkok International Airport and immediately surrendered myself to the sultry sunshine and tropical humidity bathing my pasty winter skin. I’m jet-lagged beyond comprehension by my 32-hour flight from Hell, but still manage an ear-to-ear grin thinking about the sand, sun, and surf that surely awaits me in this exotic Thai kingdom.

If Thailand is the “Land of Smiles,” then Shai Gilgeous-Alexander should feel right at home here. “That kid smiles,” said Coach John Calipari when asked about his freshman point guard earlier this season. “I don’t know if it’s a Canadian thing. I don’t know what it is. But every Canadian that I’ve coached has fun and smiles and doesn’t feel the weight of the world on them.”

Calipari has reason himself to smile after Kentucky’s hard-fought 74-67 victory over the Vanderbilt Commodores. The aforementioned smiling Gilgeous-Alexander led the Wildcats with 22 points and six assists in 39 minutes of intense action, the third time in the last six games he’s scored 20 or more points. Kentucky shot 53.5% from the field while holding Vandy to 38.2% for the afternoon. With the win, the Cats improve to 14-3 overall and 4-1 in conference play.

Forgive me if my coverage of this game appears somewhat untimely and a bit mechanical. There’s a twelve hour time difference between Memorial Gymnasium in Nashville and the city of Chang Mai in the northern part of Thailand where I’m currently visiting. So, I was up early on what was a Sunday morning searching for a Starbucks with enough bandwidth to watch the game on my computer tablet. You’ve probably already guessed that college basketball isn’t a top priority of viewers in Southeast Asia and not coincidentally, this effort to watch my Wildcats was met with limited success. In fact, I may be the only component of the Big Blue mist trying to penetrate into this remote outpost at the foothills of the Himalaya mountain range.

Since arriving four days earlier, I’ve donned my UK gear hoping to draw out other displaced Wildcat fans in this country of Buddhist temples, floating markets, and pad thai noodles. So far, I’m not doing very well–batting zero if truth be told. Rather than being viewed as a respected ambassador of the Big Blue Nation, I’m sneered at as if I’m the village idiot—a simpleton clothed entirely in Blue with a fried chicken franchise stitched across my chest. To the untrained Western eye, I may look slightly Thai, but the minute I open my mouth, there’s no doubt in the native’s minds that I’m not from their neck of the woods. Nevertheless, I’m on a mission to make converts out of the ignorant masses, with “Calipari” soon to be a well-known and awe-inspiring household moniker.

Next up for the Wildcats is another tough road encounter against the South Carolina Gamecocks, followed by the colossal ESPN Gameday tilt at Rupp against the Florida Gators. I’m not sure where I’ll be then or whether I’ll procure any video access. But I want this to be clear to everyone back home–whether I’m watching Muay Thai Boxing in Bangkok, or drinking mai tais on a secluded beach—I’ll be tuned in somehow. Perhaps it’ll just be me alone on another early Sunday morning, 9000 miles from Lexington, with the familiar banter of Tom Leach and Mike Pratt on iheart radio playing soothingly in the background.

I’ll leave you with this for now. My 26-year old daughter Katie flew over from Los Angeles to meet us here on this grand adventure. As we were stalled in traffic watching the ever-present tuk-tuks weaving in and around us, she asked me, “Dad, can you take me on one of those?” For a brief second, my mind flashed back 15 years, longingly lamenting how all that precious time had fleetingly flown by. It dawned on me that just like basketball, travel’s not solely about wins and losses. It’s not about the number of destinations reached, or peaks climbed, or refrigerator magnets accumulated. But rather it’s about the experiences gathered and emotions garnered with strangers and loved ones along the way. “It’s a process,” as Coach Cal has been apt to say when referencing this particular Kentucky team. On this particular personal journey of ours, I couldn’t agree more. Stay tuned.

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

You Can’t Get There from Here

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – The Kentucky Basketball team’s performance during the first half of this regular season reads like the proverbial roller coaster. The Wildcats started off with an early season stumble to perennial powerhouse Kansas. Then John Calipari’s squad ran off a string of less-than-spectacular victories over a bevy of Popcorn States. A hard-fought victory at Rupp over a solid Virginia Tech team suddenly sent the team trending upward. Then a pre-Christmas trip to New Orleans and a disappointing loss to UCLA brought everything crashing back down to earth. A surprising 29-point blowout win over a Pitino-less Louisville team sent spirits skyrocketing again. Now a couple of muddled efforts into the conference portion of the schedule and everyone is wondering where indeed this team is headed. With Kentucky’s performance being all over the map, I’ve decided to spice things up and do a little traveling of my own.

I’ve heard it said that with modern commercial aviation, you’re now only two consecutive airline flights away from anywhere in the world. Whoever made up that saying has obviously never been to Southeast Asia. Because that’s where I’m headed–to Thailand specifically–and I’m totally convinced that no matter how hard you try, you simply can’t get there from Lexington, Kentucky.

You see, I’ve made this trip several times before. In the past, I’ve flown east over Europe, west over the Pacific, and even supposedly the shortest route over Alaska and Siberia. Every single time, the trip has been INTERMINABLE. There’s nothing like the deflation of traveling for sixteen hours to Narita Airport in Tokyo, only to realize that a seven-hour flight to Bangkok still awaits your already dehydrated and jet-lagged body. Remember also that this isn’t Coach Cal sacked out on a Sleep Outfitters mattress in his private Lear jet. This is John Huang flying basic economy on some low budget airline out of Korea.

So why am I doing this you ask—especially smack dab in the middle of basketball season? The answer is simple. My wife is from Thailand and this is a long-overdue trip for her to visit her family back home. Those of you who have been following along on my blog know that Kanisa has dealt with some serious health problems for the past several years. She also lost her mom recently, so this is a trip full of recovery, redemption, and closure for her. Sure, I’ll miss some games in Rupp Arena but the trade-off is that I get my beloved bride of 32 years back again. Plus, I’ll still be covering the Wildcats—only now it’ll probably be from some back-alley dive bar in Bangkok. I guarantee it’ll provide a totally different perspective from the standard write-ups you’ll see from your scribes sitting courtside.

The route for this trip includes the short hop from Lexington to Detroit in the standard puddle jumper before the transcontinental flight to Seoul. I consider myself a pretty seasoned flyer, having made numerous trips to China, Taiwan, Australia, and New Zealand in years past. I won’t think twice about flying out to California to meet my daughter for lunch and I’ve racked up enough frequent flyer miles to go to Mars and back. Still, I get a bit nervous when sitting in those metal tubes, especially on long international flights. The thought of a crying baby, the threat of deep vein thrombosis, or a wayward Kim Jong-Un missile is always a bit unsettling. But throw in a little turbulence, some bad airline food, and the seatmate with B.O. and you can certainly understand my edginess.

I should be 40,000 feet over Siberia when Kentucky tips off against Texas A&M next Tuesday night. I’m wondering if I’ll be able to dial up ESPN on my tablet, or if WI-FI will even be working and available on my flight. If not, I guess I’ll just have to wait to check my Twitter feed during my five-hour layover in Seoul before the final leg of my journey to nowhere. Should I happen to drop off the grid temporarily—no worries– just keep checking back and I’ll eventually resurface.

Trust me, I’m not abandoning the Wildcats. With the rejuvenated SEC, it’ll be one of the more challenging conference gauntlets in recent history. I hope you’ll stay tuned for my perspective from the other side of the globe—just a mere 8,853 miles from my usual seat on press row. Like I said, this should be interesting.

John Huang is a retired orthodontist and avid Kentucky Wildcat fan. He works as a columnist for Nolan Group Media and Bluegrass Sports Nation. Be sure to follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs for the latest in his travel adventures.

 

Missing Rick Pitino

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – What a difference a year makes. This time last year, immediately after Louisville upended Kentucky 73-70 in their annual Armageddon basketball showdown, Rick Pitino was toasting himself in his palatial YUM Center media room, basking in a rare conquest over his arch nemesis, John Calipari. Pitino was nearly giddy with ecstasy, admitting to reporters how great this win felt after being dominated so long by the blue-clad mongrel hordes from seventy miles up the Interstate. Although it took Quentin Snider’s game-of-his-life to pull the Cardinals through, this was supposedly a season defining victory that would propel the Cards on to another championship banner, and Pitino to sainthood status within the River City.

Almost exactly one year later, as the Wildcats and Cardinals prepare for another hard-fought Battle of the Bluegrass, times have definitely changed. Pitino now finds himself engaged in an ugly lawsuit with his former employer, having been abruptly fired from his dream job for conduct unbecoming of a leader of young men. Marital infidelity, strippers in Minardi Hall, and bribes to shoe companies have banished traitor Rick hundreds of miles away from the state upon which he so pompously preyed. Meanwhile, Coach Cal prepares to light up another victory cigar, once again rekindling the domination of his Wildcats over their petulant little brother.

I’ll be completely honest, though, I already miss Rick Pitino. I miss his demonic scowl, the spittle flying from his lips, and his deathly pale countenance as he prances along the Rupp Arena sidelines. I miss him and his custom Armani suits, the brazenly red tie, and his perfectly dyed hair yelling animatedly at his minions while condescendingly berating the men in striped shirts. After another devastating loss, there’s something gratifying about watching his obligatory post-game handshake with Calipari—envy, resentment, and bitterness oozing out from every one of his jealous pores. In fact, I miss all the vitriol, venom, and vindictiveness suddenly absent from one of the best rivalries in college basketball. Because without Rick as the villain, you simply can’t hate Louisville anymore.

You can’t hate interim U of L head coach David Padgett either. At this point in the season, he might as well be Scott Padgett. I’m sure he’s a decent coach, but he’s no crypt keeper. He hasn’t snobbishly mocked Kentucky fans while flipping off an entire BBN on his way out of Rupp. He hasn’t showered his team with outlandish hyperbole while simultaneously dissing the city of Lexington, its working-class citizens, and its entire restaurant scene. He hasn’t come close to mimicking his predecessor by sweating through a gaudy white suit or squeezing into a skin-tight shirt and making a bon-a-fide mockery of himself. Bravo Pitino he’s not.

Let’s all face it–a victory over the Cardinals just won’t be the same without Rick. It won’t be as satisfying because it just won’t be as personal. In past years, when the Wildcats won, it was more or less a vindicating coronation—a validation that good still can triumph over evil. This year, a win will still be nice, it just won’t be totally fulfilling. It’ll be more like an appetizer in preparation for your football cousin’s main course later in the day down in Nashville.

After the disappointing performance in their loss to UCLA though, a Kentucky victory over Louisville suddenly takes on added significance. Coach Cal warned everyone in his post-game presser that, if his team plays like they did against the Bruins, the Wildcats could possibly lose their next four or five in a row. If that does indeed happen, then we’re talking about a marginal team destined for the NCAA bubble. Now’s the time to right the ship, build up some confidence, and go on a nice little mid-year run. It all begins this Friday at Rupp with a big victory over the Louisville Cardinals. It’s just a dad-gum shame that Rick Pitino won’t be there to experience the pain.

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

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 coverage at http://www.bluegrasssportsnation.com/category/writers/john-huang

The World According to Mitch

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) — Mitch Barnhart remains a man of mystery. When he took on the athletics director position at the University of Kentucky back in 2002, few thought he would stay the course. With no previous ties to the Bluegrass State and previous stints at Tennessee and Oregon State already on his impressive resume, I thought UK would be just a short stepping stone on his way to future AD stardom. I pictured Mitch to be a glad handing, back slapping, baby kissing politician enamored with his position of power—kind of like his namesake in the United States Senate. Instead, he’s been just the opposite—humble, disarming, and a bit on the shy side. A couple of years earlier, I spent a few weeks with Mitch in Bible Study Fellowship. After one semester, I determined it was a bit too structured for my liking and subsequently dropped out. Mitch has faithfully persevered. That should tell you something about his character (and mine too).

Recently, I caught up with Mitch at one of his rare appearances chatting directly with media. Despite his low-key mannerisms and soft-spoken speaking style, his time in front of the microphones still always provides for some pretty good theater. This proved to be especially true this year as Kentucky managed a 10th place finish—its highest ever– in the 2017 Director’s Cup standings. (The Director’s Cup measures competitive success for all Division-I schools.) Kentucky finished second to only Florida in the SEC with 21 of 22 of UK’s varsity sports adding points to the tally.

Other athletic programs argue that the ultimate measure of success is determined solely by the number of victories on the playing field. This “win at all costs” mentality results frequently in hiring coaches with questionable morals and obvious character flaws (You know who I’m talking about). By contrast, Mitch has worked hard to instill in his athletic programs a culture of servant leadership personified by all his coaching hires. Some of you remember Mitch himself personally drying off seats after a UK Baseball rain delay. That image captures the essence of what Mitch Barnhart represents to many of the students, faculty, alumni, and fans of the University of Kentucky.

When I asked him if he’s surprised at how much has been made of that now iconic moment, Mitch predictably heaped all the praise on his subordinates. “That’s indicative of our department,” he said. “I love our people. There were a lot of people out there (drying off seats) that night. I love the heart of our Kentucky staff. It’s who our people are, and we’ve tried to be intentional about hiring those kinds of people. I think we’re very fortunate. I’m just one of them. I don’t look at myself any differently than anybody else. I’m glad that we could help. I think that’s what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to show up and help out.”

For the newly appointed chair of SEC Athletics Directors, it’s obvious that it’s NOT just about wins on the field that matter. He’s genuinely dialed in to the guiding principles of character, integrity, education, stewardship, and competitiveness that have become part of his creed. That’s why his hires are always high character servant leaders. That’s why a Nick Mingione ends up coaching baseball and a Rachel Lawson ends up coaching softball at the University of Kentucky. Granted, the Billy Gillispie and Joker Phillips boo-boos were not his finest hour. But Mitch recovered nicely with his subsequent hires. Plus, everyone deserves a couple of mulligans in the course of a long and distinguished career. Be assured that as long as Mitch is around, BBN won’t ever have to worry about being disgraced both on the field or in the classroom. I’d be shocked if a sordid stripper scandal or a bogus African Studies curriculum festered under his watch.

Despite his successes, not everyone’s a Mitch Barnhart fan. For the life of me, I can’t quite figure out why a segment of BBN still feels compelled to cast aspersions his way. Maybe it’s because Mitch frequently appears awkward and aloof in public. Maybe it’s because hard core basketball and football purists think he places too much emphasis on the so called “minor” sports. Maybe his long-term critics still harbor residual bitterness as they stumble upon their stash of “Ditch Mitch and Rich” bumper stickers. Perhaps everyone feels he caters a bit too much to the deep pocketed donors while ignoring the needs of the average fan. Or perhaps disgruntled fans are just plain frustrated because they feel that UK football isn’t really any better than it was when Mitch first came on board.

I know it’s difficult to compare eras–but practically speaking–Mitch Barnhart has done more as athletics director than any of his predecessors at the University of Kentucky. In addition to the Director’s Cup achievement, he’s raised enough cash to build new stadiums and pay his coaches handsomely (some would say exorbitantly)—while simultaneously caring enough about each one of his student athletes to recognize all of them by name. Academically, UK athletes have tied or broken the school record for graduation rate every year since the NCAA began charting that statistic in 2005. UK Athletics has also been scandal free during that period. In this day and age, that speaks volumes about Mitch in his role as AD. Love him or hate him–in my opinion—he’s the most accomplished director of athletics in my fifty years following UK Sports. Help me out here please. In this world according to Mitch, tell me why he’s not getting more love.

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

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 coverage at http://www.bluegrasssportsnation.com/category/writers/john-huang/

Sign of the Apocalypse

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – What in the world is going on with attendance at Rupp Arena? Cast your eyes up to the rafters and you’ll see rows and rows of blatantly empty bleachers. Downstairs in the lower levels, pockets of premium seats also appear visibly vacant. When the hallowed student eRUPPtion Zone looks embarrassingly anemic night after night, you know the basketball world has tilted off its axis. Bringing in stand-ins because students don’t show, or throwing in the Louisville game as part of a promotional ticket package? You gotta be kidding me!

Trust me, I’ve heard all the explanations for the downturn. Bad opponents, bad economy, bad timing, and bad weather combining with busy schedules, high def TVs, high ticket prices, and one-and-done fatigue to create a perfect storm of apathy, disinterest, and scalper panic within the BBN. I don’t believe any of it, but regardless of the reasons–just tell me it ain’t so. Indifference to my Wildcats is like a kick to the groin, a sure sign of the apocalypse and the collapse of our tradition as we know it.

For fans growing up before the new millennium, you know exactly what I’m talking about. A UK seat for a basketball game has always been more valuable than family, faith, or food. Like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, it was a golden ticket to status, happiness, and Wildcat enlightenment. As a starry eyed eight-year-old, I remember listening to legendary announcer Cawood Ledford on my transistor radio, dreaming of the day I could see the live, on-court action with my very own eyes. The few times I was given tickets to exhibition games left me sleepless the night before with burgeoning anticipation.

As a UK student, I always participated faithfully in the ticket lotteries, overjoyed whenever my number was finally called. It was an unspoken responsibility to rise early on a Sunday morning for the treasured chance to sit down low in basketball heaven. I saw my share of highlights from the front rows of the student section, but even as a lottery loser, I still made it a priority to attend every single game. In fact, I witnessed the infamous Dirk Minniefield to Sam Bowie half court alley-oop pass and dunk against LSU from my seat in the rafter nosebleeds. To miss a game—any game—due to something as frivolous as studying for a final exam was pure heresy in my mind.

As a die-hard fan after graduation, I lost my mind one year and purchased season tickets four rows from the floor from a friendly neighborhood ticket broker. The two seats cost me more than my entire yearly budget, but to me it was worth the sacrifice. Despite the scorn of the blue haired, big donors seated around me, I always arrived early, stayed late, yelled at the refs, and stood up whenever I wanted. Memories of watching–from floor level–Rick Pitino’s beatdown during his return to Rupp, Tayshaun hitting those five threes against North Carolina, and Ashley’s pit stains up close and personal still sends me into a state of nostalgic ecstasy.

Due to my current media gig, I gave up my usual seats in the end zone of Rupp a couple of years ago. I’ll be the first to admit, the separation hasn’t been easy. Experiences in Rupp are like incremental rites of passage, watershed moments that define who you are and where you’ve been. John Wall’s first game heroics against Miami of Ohio and Anthony Davis’ game saving block against North Carolina are remembered as vividly as your wedding day or the birth of your first child. It’s precisely memories such as those that leave me perplexed and befuddled as to why people have quit coming.

“We’re number one in the country in attendance, we’re just not as high as we’ve been,” said Coach Cal when I asked him to give me his take on all the empty seats. “That’s kind of like when we win by 16 and you people are mad we don’t win by 25. We’re number one in attendance. And there are games I don’t feel like coming to, so I get it.”

You see, that’s the problem. I’m not sure Cal or the university administration fully gets it. Everyone knows that what sets Kentucky Basketball apart from Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, or UCLA is the passion of the fans. Whether it’s the Unforgettables, or Team Turmoil, or a Billy G. train wreck, BBN’s identity has always been wrapped up in their massive and undying fan following. Long-time fans like me show up and attend games, regardless of circumstances, or whether the team soars or stinks.

Calipari and others pooh-pooh the declining Rupp attendance as simply a sign of the times. I think it signals the beginning of something a bit more ominous. If not the apocalypse, then perhaps the beginning of a subtle citizen’s revolt, a barely perceptible undercurrent of discontent about the direction the program is headed and the way the “average Joe” fans are treated–dismissively cast aside for the sake of the almighty dollar. You’ve already seen it happen in football. Could our sacred basketball program be next?

Call me old fashioned, but I never thought I’d see the day when Kentucky Basketball couldn’t fill Rupp Arena. Is it a sign of the times or a sign of the apocalypse? We’ll know better after the next three games.

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

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 coverage at http://www.bluegrasssportsnation.com/category/writers/john-huang/

 

A Wildcat Salute to Veterans

Saturday is Veterans Day, a public holiday honoring all those who have served in the United States Armed Forces. It’s a special day for me, a first-generation immigrant, army veteran, and Wildcat fan living out the American Dream in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.

As a kid growing up in the Sixties, my first memories of the US Military were during the Vietnam War. I vividly remember my dad and I sitting in front of our black and white Zenith, watching all the shaky images and endless newsfeeds of rice paddies, helicopters, and body counts. What was even more abhorrent, though, were the stories of Vietnam vets returning home to shameful receptions and disgraceful homecomings. My eight-year-old brain just couldn’t comprehend how you could be treated like crap while dying for your country.

How times have changed in the last fifty years. Rather than being spat upon, Armed Forces Veterans are now brazenly revered for their service. We’re recognized as heroes at nearly all sporting events, church services, and while walking through airports. As an army veteran, I can get tickets to ballgames, a haircut on the house, or a free meal at Golden Corral if I wish.

I’m proud of my service, but like many others who signed up, I didn’t do it for the accolades. I didn’t get commissioned, either, because I wanted to jump out of planes, eat MREs, or kill Communists. I signed up because it was the right thing to do for me at the time. As a recent dental school graduate, I needed to gain experience, save money, and see the world. The fact that I might have to die for my country while serving was just a minor inconvenience in my youthful idealistic mindset. Honestly, I never really thought much about the sacrifice required.

As it turned out—during my decade of service–rather than shooting my M-16, I ended up shooting Novocain. Instead of defusing bombs, I restored bombed-out molars. In lieu of drilling with staff sergeants, I drilled on full bird colonels (ouch!). Through Grenada, Panama, and the first Gulf War, I never got deployed to the front lines of battle, but I knew others who did that didn’t make it back. With time to reflect, I’m prouder than ever now to have served my country using my specialized skills.

Having survived and advanced into my current life in sports media, I was ecstatic upon hearing that the University of Kentucky would be honoring veterans during the Lexington Week of Valor. To see and hear the coaches and players of my alma mater paying homage to all who have so valiantly defended our freedoms somehow resonated deeply within both the soldier and the sports junkie in me.

“The freedoms that we all enjoy are because people are willing to put their life on the line for all of us,” said UK Men’s Basketball coach John Calipari. “You can’t ever take that lightly. Now we have Americans around the globe trying to protect us here at home in what they’re doing. (That’s something) for my team and for all of us to really recognize.” After a moment of somber reflection, he added, “Yeah, this is a special time, especially now with all that’s going on around the world.”

“We feel so blessed to play in Memorial Coliseum,” said UK Women’s Basketball coach Matthew Mitchell. “So many Kentuckians have paid the ultimate sacrifice, so we can live in America and have the freedom that we have that so many people around the globe don’t have. We are so thankful for the people who have made that sacrifice and are out there right now sacrificing and protecting us and keeping us safe. I have utmost respect for our military and our veterans.”

The thing I love most about sports is the passion it generates within me. It’s embarrassing to admit how euphoric I get after the Wildcats win and how dejected I am after they lose. Despite my passion, I also know that victories or defeats simply aren’t important in the overall world scheme. What is important is life, liberty, and national security—a monumental task delegated to the brave men and women of the United States Military. For many of them, sports is an outlet, a diversion, and an oasis from the real-world reality of Kim Jong-un, disaster relief, and terrorist threats. It’s a much-needed distraction from the isolation, stress, and danger of always residing in harm’s way. I can’t tell you how many times just perusing through my tattered month-old issues of The Cats’ Pause–reading about my beloved Wildcats—brought a smile to my face during the endless lonely winters while stationed abroad. I’m honored to be able to repay the favor.

For me, sports and service are forever intertwined. I asked former Kentucky quarterback-turned-football guru Freddie Maggard for some of his Veterans Day thoughts. After all, he lived the sport that I only dreamed about playing. He waxes eloquently about the extraordinary bond between his football and military experiences.

“Much like looking your teammates in the eyes in a huddle, in the military the man or woman to your left or right must be as valuable to you as the next breath you take. The term “having your back” takes on a whole new meaning. The term Battle Buddy is taught to soldiers in Basic Combat Training. I’m blessed to have Battle Buddies for life. That’s what it’s all about; selflessly serving your fellow teammates or soldiers… I’m proud to be a Kentuckian. I’m more proud to be a veteran much like my dad was. Fortunately, I get to spend most days with my hero as my wife is nearing in on 20 years of service and has accomplished a great deal in her career as a Warrant Officer. She is the epitome of a professional and adheres to the Army leadership values: Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage. God Bless America.”

HOOAH! On behalf of Freddie, Coach Cal, Coach Mitchell, the University of Kentucky Wildcats, and a grateful Big Blue Nation, we hereby salute all United States Military Veterans past and present. Whether you actually played the game or you’re just a fan at heart, we’re cheering you on. Thank you for your service. Happy Veterans Day. This one’s on me.

John Huang is a retired orthodontist currently covering University of Kentucky Sports for Nolan Group Media. He served ten years on active duty in the United States Army Dental Corps attaining the rank of Major. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

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

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