IndyFabulous 500

(INDIANAPOLIS, In.) — When I was 10 years old, I got an Aurora AFX electric racing set for my birthday. I remember spending hours running my toy cars around the dual slot courses, often pretending I was behind the wheel of some jacked up Formula One racer. If it was Monday, then I was Jackie Stewart, expertly negotiating the hairpin turns of Monaco. On Wednesdays, I was Emerson Fittipaldi winning another Formula One Championship trophy. Come Friday, I was one of the Unser brothers, or maybe even A.J. Foyt on my way to a coveted checkered flag at Indy.

Fast forward fifty years and I find myself once again at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This time, however, it’s not some fantasy concocted from my years as an AFX driving legend—this time it’s for real, as an on-site correspondent for Bluegrass Sports Nation. Together with a boatload of rabid racing fans and hundreds of other sports journalists of every ilk and breed, I’m taking in all the sights and sounds of a once-in-a-lifetime bucket list experience. It’s the Indianapolis 500–exciting, smoking hot, and LOUD!

Those of you familiar with “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” know that the Indy 500 isn’t just a one-day event. In fact, the lead up to the race itself is frequently referred to as the “Month of May” because of all the painstaking preparations prior to the green flag. Pole Day, Bump Day, Carb Day, and Fast Friday all comprise a twisted conglomeration of testing, qualifying, and positioning for the 33 cars that will be eventually vying for the gigantic Borg-Warner trophy. It’s a combination of a global sporting event and a local state fair, with the pungency of burning rubber mixing pleasantly with the cooking oil aroma wafting from a perfectly crafted batch of deep fried elephant ears. Mix in the occasional dose of fetid body odor and you’ve got all the ingredients necessary for a memorable world class gathering.

The media credentialing process for this 102nd running of the Indy 500 was akin to vetting for senate confirmation. Approval required disclosing everything from your eighth-grade math scores to your current underwear size. Once approved, race officials then required you to make an in-person advance trip to their offices for the requisite photos, waivers, and officially issued race IDs. Forgive my exasperation, but a six-and-a-half hour round trip car ride to stand in a line reminiscent of the DMV just isn’t my cup of tea. Only a chance elevator encounter with David Letterman kept the day from being a total washout. The former late-night TV host turned racing team co-owner dished up his best elevator etiquette—surprisingly polite and friendly while smirking behind those gapped central incisors and that bushy white beard.

Race Day dawns early as I’m inside the gates just after 6 am. Even at this early hour, tailgating is already in full force as I make my way through a mass of RV’s, portable toilets, and revelers in various levels of undress. Photographers stationed at the famous third turn of the speedway track have been camped out in their precious slots since midnight. They’ll be no such shenanigans from this old scribe, as I make my way to my reserved seat inside the monstrous four-story, air-conditioned media center directly across from the finish line. The entire set up reminds me of Mission Control on launch day, with rows and rows of journalists huddled over their computer monitors amidst the backdrop of the picture plate glass windows overlooking the cosmos that is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The thing that immediately strikes me is the size of the complex. A two-and-a-half-mile oval is huge enough, but there’s also a modern infield road course and four holes of a neighboring golf course shoehorned into the raceway grounds. Two hundred and fifty thousand permanent grandstand seats together with room for 150,000 additional patrons in the infield makes the IMS the highest capacity sports venue in the world. Slathered in sunscreen and armed with earplugs, on the second hottest day in race history, I’m ready to take it all in.

I make my way down to the garage areas just down Gasoline Alley. It’s here that I get my first up-close glimpse of the mechanical wizardry known as Indy cars—single seat, open cockpit, open-wheeled, purpose-built beauties utilizing 2.2L V6, twin-turbocharged engines, tuned to produce a range of 550-700 horsepower, and designed to travel at speeds well over 200 mph. It’s surreal seeing them in such a dormant state, as if they’re silently and prayerfully meditating before being unleashed into battle like gladiators into the coliseum.

Speaking of gladiators, Indy car drivers all appear larger than life—regal, majestic, and dignified—as if sitting in the cockpit of these supercharged rockets automatically endows them with a sense of superhero strength, stamina, and good looks. In reality, they’re just mere mortals, susceptible to the purposefully unspoken possibilities of injury and death as they’re hurtling around the track at such ungodly speeds. Fourteen drivers have been killed in the actual race, the last being Swede Savage in 1973, who ran over a patch of oil that caused him to hit the inside wall in turn four, which shot him to the outside wall where he crashed again.

I’m fortunate to meet up with my friend Del Duduit, Zach Veach’s youth basketball coach, whose connection to the 23-year-old Verizon Indy Car driver gave us all a special rooting interest for his Andretti Autosport team. As we wander around, it’s like a Who’s Who of racing, a virtual racing legends hall of fame with the anticipation of surprising encounters lurking around every pit bay corner. I’m introduced to George Del Canto, the owner of the Kingdom Racing team. George is a true man after God’s own heart. He gave up a lucrative career in finance and now uses his platform on the racing circuit to spread the Gospel of Christ.

As the massive crowd continues to filter in together with the oppressive heat and humidity, I catch a quick glimpse of Sage Karam, a cocky-looking 23-year-old whose fastest post-qualifying speeds makes him a legitimate contender. I don’t know—maybe I dreamed it—but I thought I also saw Danica Patrick, who’s competing in her eighth and final Indy, surrounded by an impenetrable crowd of security and neck straining well-wishers. And of course, Roger Penske and his Team Penske, with their 16 Indianapolis 500 victories and the litany of big-name drivers driving for the Captain himself. Gary Bettenhausen, Mark Donohue, Bobby Unser, Rick Mears, Mario Andretti, Tom Sneva, Danny Sullivan, Danny Ongais, and Al Unser—all names from the past transporting me back to those fun times around the little toy track in our basement back home.

When Jim Cornelison belts out his version of Gomer Pyle’s “Back Home Again in Indiana,” I can barely contain my emotion and excitement. Following the ear-splitting fly by, the green flag mercifully drops and I’m revved up higher than a souped-up racing tachometer. It’s goosebumps galore as the crescendo cheers of more than 300,000 racing fans vie greedily with the incessant engine roars zooming rhythmically before my very nose.

For the record, the winner of the 102nd running of the Indianapolis 500 today was 37-year-old Australian native Will Power of Team Penske–the one driver who zoomed around the track just a little bit faster than everyone else. Power started in the 3rd position and led 59 of the 200 race laps. Afterwards, he celebrated with the customary swig of winner’s circle milk–the innocence of the simple tradition belying the intricacies of his hard-earned, long-awaited, first-time victory.

“It was the last box to tick to be considered as a very successful driver,” Power said, referring to the win today. “I still have plenty of time left to win more 500s and championships and races…It’s what I needed so badly and wanted so badly and it came true. Anyone here knows how that would feel if you want something so much and it comes through to you through hard work and determination.”

As for me, it wasn’t the race results that captivated my fancy today. It’s seldom the results. For me, it’s always about the experience of the moment. In that respect, the Indianapolis 500 certainly did not disappoint. I’ll be honest–the sheer size, pageantry, and celebrity of the venue took me a little by surprise. The dizzying speed of the cars set me a bit on edge and the massiveness of the crowd became a tad bit intimidating. But that’s exactly why it’s the spectacle that it is. A bucket list item for sure—with plenty of drama, intrigue, and pomp for everyone lucky enough to attend.

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

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Jumping Off The Cliff

Dear Cliff Hagan Stadium,

Goodbyes are always difficult, but your final farewell seems especially sorrowful. After nearly half a century of UK Baseball thrills, chills, and spills, you’re being patronizingly jilted for a sleeker and shinier home venue right up the hill. You’re older than your more famous cousins, Rupp Arena and Commonwealth Stadium, with undoubtedly as many indelible memories—but like many other citizens of BBN, I feel like I barely knew you. Playing third fiddle to basketball and football, tucked away in campus purgatory, and forever compared to your fellow SEC brethren can saddle even the grandest and most regal of baseball complexes with their own complex of shameful inferiority.

And yet, you persevered. With your 3,000 sun-splashed seats and iconic center field Cliff, you’ve gallantly stood your ground. Hundreds of wins, thousands of hits, and multiple coaching regimes are now all part of your lasting legacy. Over the years, names such as Doug Flynn, Jeff Abbott, Collin Cowgill, and A.J. Reed have become forever etched in your prominent lore. Just the other day, I shed a tear or two listening to legendary Coach Keith Madison wax nostalgically about Jim Leopold’s spectacular center field catch, Bill Sandry’s four homerun game, and the time his team swept number one ranked LSU—all within the confines of your stadium walls. Through it all, you’ve been the home to hundreds of players who have worked their tails off practicing on your hallowed grounds on their way to prestigious academic degrees, spectacular athletic careers, and lucrative professional contracts.

I still don’t understand why the powers that be have planned for your untimely demise. In my mind, you’re still good for another fifty years. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with your playing turf, scoreboards, or your left field bleachers. OK, your elevator is a bit slow, finding a parking spot can be brutal, and the press box perpetually smells of fried food, but your mortgage is paid and your plumbing still works. That’s more than can be said of most of us of similar age.

Rumor has it that you’re being unceremoniously put out to pasture in lieu of a spanking new tennis facility. Seems like such a cruel ending for having poured out so many thrilling moments and memories. Forty-nine million dollars lavished on the girl next door while a fraction of that amount could have given you a makeover of your dreams. Such is life in keeping up with the Joneses in the collegiate sports world. I’ll never understand it. Seems like such a waste.

Hopefully in the end, you’ll provide us with one final shining moment—perhaps an unlikely victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. As a fulfilling coronation to fifty years of faithful service, I’d love to order up a walk off series winning homerun. Whatever happens, as you march off this weekend to join all the other baseball stadiums in the sky, it’s only fitting that a grateful Big Blue Nation bids you a resounding adieu.

Thank You. Goodbye Cliff. We barely knew you.

John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Media Group. 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 and other professional sports coverage at http://www.bluegrasssportsnation.com/category/writers/john-huang

Big Blue 4(0) Miler

Unlike Mitch Barnhart, I have no death wish. We’re both on the sunset side of our fifties, but unlike the University of Kentucky’s director of athletics, I’m not jumping out of perfectly good airplanes or scaling the heights of Mt. Kilimanjaro. I do, however, periodically participate in something many consider just as torturous—I like to run. I’ll tolerate all sorts of blisters, shin splints, and the occasional bout with plantar fasciitis just so that I can choke down that entire pepperoni pizza and a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream guilt free. So when the opportunity came for me to participate in the inaugural Go Big Blue 4 Miler race, I eagerly plunked down my $30, laced up my sneakers, and showed up early on a blustery, overcast Saturday morning ready to see how fast and far my aging flat feet could still take me.

This isn’t just any ordinary, run-of-the-mill road race. Sponsored in part by Kroger, this unique run/walk event winds its way through seven different University of Kentucky south campus sporting venues. For die-hard, lifelong UK fans, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to actually be on the field of play—to retrace the footsteps of your Wildcat heroes, as you tread the same exact turf they did during all their glory years.

My race strategy is to start slow and ease back, but that’s easier said than done for this distinctive event. You see, I’m nowhere near my running prime, but I’m still prideful enough to want to show all these young whippersnappers a thing or two. I haven’t forgotten what it feels like to be sprinting so hard that your body goes anaerobic as you bust a lung and pull a hamstring. Sure, these young guns in their spandex suits can run six-minute miles now, but show up when you’re sixty and let’s see what you’ve got. Plus, they don’t know that I’ll be running for the old Blue and White–scoring touchdowns, hitting dingers, and winning gold in my wildest Big Blue fantasies.

As we gather together in the parking lot of Kroger Field for the start of the race, I’m surrounded by about 500 other bleary-eyed competitors. I glance around and see the usual assortment of muscle bound dudes in tank tops and hot chicks in running tights that invariably gather at these Saturday morning events. Supposedly Mitch is here also, together with Ryan Lemond and a few other luminaries who look as if they’ve had one donut too many. My adrenaline spikes as I prepare to kick their tails while sporting my newly customized Anthony Davis UK checkerboard jersey.

It’s a stampede out of the starting chute as everyone jockeys for position. I begin the race in a semi sprint as the massive pack circles around the perimeter of the stadium. As we cruise onto the Football Training Facility practice field, I know we’re all going way too fast, as if we’re somehow being chased by linebacker Josh Allen while Coach Stoops looks on mockingly.

It’s not a good sign as my lungs are already burning in mile number one as we head uphill under the towering silhouette of the newly rising baseball complex. The $49 million price tag of this Taj Mahal palace is enough to inspire me onward as I picture myself comfortably lodged on press row next year, snacking on gourmet nachos and popcorn while watching Coach Mingione work his magic.

The Bell Soccer Complex is next. This field is a lot bigger than I thought it would be and there’s a heck of a lot of running to do. It dawns on me why I never played soccer. In my mind, I hear Coach Carry and Coach Cedergren egging me on, but I’m already sucking wind as I mercifully exit the stadium.

Next up is John Cropp Stadium. I’m pretty familiar with this softball venue and immediately begin to get my second wind. I pass a nine-year-old track star prodigy and a John Candy lookalike as if they’re standing still. All of a sudden, I’m Bailey Vick, effortlessly chasing down a fly ball on the outfield warning track. I’m a legend in my own mind as scores of fans gather on the newly constructed outfield berm, cheering me on.

Entering Cliff Hagan Stadium, I’m more than half way home and a wave of nostalgia hits me squarely in the jaw. It’s UK Baseball’s last season here at the Cliff and I want to make sure I give it a good sendoff. I immediately pick up the pace and start gaining ground on the group in front. Giving Coach Madison a well-deserved salute, I’m suddenly transformed into Troy Squires, rounding the bases after my grand slam homerun propelled me into UK Baseball’s exclusive 100-hit club.

As I enter the track and field complex, my feet suddenly gain even more traction on the blue synthetic running surface. I’m—you guessed it—Sydney McLaughlin setting another world record as the Chariots of Fire theme reverberates in my imaginary headphones. Yep, I’m feeling it. These are the moments you live for—those fleeting seconds where running becomes effortless, and everything seems right with the world.

Heading out of mile three, I’m abruptly jolted out of my reverie by the piercing screams of the UK Women’s basketball team. They’ve gotten up early to lend their enthusiastic support. “He’s one of those media guys,” I hear one of them say as I pass by, obviously surprised that this old Chinese guy with a ponytail still has a functioning motor.

And then, just like that…I immediately hit the wall. Coming back through Cooper Drive, it’s a wind tunnel as my feet feel like they’re stuck in concrete. Four miles feels like forty and I’m praying for the racing gods to put me out of my misery. As I enter Kroger Field, I make one final push for the finish line. I channel Lynn Bowden, imagining myself returning a kickoff a hundred yards to beat Tennessee. Tom Leach’s call blares through the speakers as my 15 seconds of fame flashes across the video jumbotron. Touchdown Kentucky!

There you have it. Four miles in 31:36. Good enough for 36th place overall and 4th in my old man age group. Pass the ibuprofen, please. Donut anyone?

John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Media Group and Bluegrass Sports Nation. 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 and other professional sports coverage at http://www.bluegrasssportsnation.com/category/writers/john-huang

 

 

Keeneland Anyone?

“Hey John, are you heading to Keeneland?” I’ve been asked that question numerous times over the past five decades. After years of hemming and hawing, it’s time to finally come clean.

For those of you not familiar with this beautiful part of horse country, Keeneland represents everything that is true and noble and right and pure about the bluegrass region. Every April and October, this renowned thoroughbred racecourse welcomes thousands of visitors to its semi-annual meets with a healthy dose of southern hospitality. A national historic landmark, its timeless beauty in an idyllic setting provides for a tantalizing glimpse of heaven on earth.

I’ll confess, I’ve only been to Keeneland a handful of times in my lifetime. My first foray into the hallowed grounds happened when I was ten years old. I tagged along with a friend’s family and we promptly won $22 on a $2 wager on horse #2 in the #2 race of the day. In glorious celebration, we took that winning ticket and splurged on chopped steak dinners at the now defunct Mr. Jim’s Steakhouse on Nicholasville Road later that evening.

Fast forward a decade and I’m in dental school. On Wednesday afternoons, the student clinics were closed and many of my classmates spent that time soaking up the Keeneland sunshine. While I sequestered myself in the dental school laboratory setting denture teeth in wax, they waxed eloquently about exacta wins, bourbon shots, and encounters with fast horses and beautiful women. I vowed that if I ever became a real dentist, I’d spend all my Wednesday afternoons making up for lost time.

Upon finishing my military service, I moved back to Lexington and took my mother-in-law to Keeneland. She’s opposed to large crowds, gambling, traffic, rich people, drunk people, and all forms of animal cruelty so I didn’t think she would enjoy it. To my surprise, she loved it. To this day, the image of Grandma Jenny with my daughter, Katie—perched delicately on her shoulders—dressed to the nines, cheering on their favorites past the finish line, still never fails to bring a broad, joyful smile to my all too brooding lips.

About ten years ago, a good buddy of mine from Georgia came up for a visit and I invited him to Keeneland. He’s kind of a highfalutin big wig with a nose for the finer things in life, and he equated Keeneland with the Masters golf tournament at Augusta National. Now that he mentioned it, I can certainly see the similarity. The graceful elegance, the grand tradition, the regal hospitality, the “je ne sais quoi” of top venues in their respective industries. I’ve witnessed first-hand the beauty of Santa Anita Racetrack in Southern California. Keeneland takes a back seat to no none.

The Keeneland Track Kitchen also has no rival when it comes to sunrise breakfasts. Bacon, eggs, and, hash brown potatoes never tasted so good as on a cool crisp fall morning right as the horses are finishing their early morning workouts. On a related note, I’ve also been to Keeneland many times for my own personal workouts–but participating in the annual Thanksgiving 5K runs held on the racecourse grounds, picnicking with the pops, or attending boring seminars and endless business lunches probably shouldn’t really count when adding up all my true Keeneland experiences.

So that’s it. You’re probably surprised. Even more so when you discover that I only live a stone’s throw away from the track itself. I’ve missed out on all those pari-mutuel winners, derby prep races, Phoenix Room buffets, and On-The-Hill tailgating experiences on the bucket list of native Kentuckians and Saudi sheiks alike. My brother, Michael, has spent more afternoons at Keeneland than you can shake a stick at. He’s even become famous for taking those colorful, jaw-dropping prints of all the racing action.

But not me. As you can see, I’ve rarely made an appearance and I’m trying to figure out why. Perhaps I’m just too darn anti-social. Maybe I don’t like the thought of losing my hard-earned money on the whims of temperamental four-legged hacks. It could be that I’d just prefer to walk my dog. Or it’s possible that I’m just too ignorant, or stupid, or, lazy, or ugly to take advantage of a unique opportunity to enjoy myself and have the time of my life with people I like being with. You tell me. Opening day at Keeneland begins now.  Anyone else want to join me?

John Huang is thoroughly enjoying life as a retired orthodontist. He currently works as a columnist for Nolan Media Group and Bluegrass Sports Nation. 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 and other professional sports coverage at http://www.bluegrasssportsnation.com/category/writers/john-huang

 

Wildcats, Mildcats, and Childcats

(BOISE, Idaho.) — A friend of mine from Boise described his hometown as the most desolate place on the face of the earth. It turns out that he was somewhat over embellishing, as I thought the snowcapped mountains provided for a gorgeously scenic backdrop to the bustling downtown vibe. But the reality is that Boise (pronounced Boy-see, not Boy-zee) IS a bit out of the way and difficult to get to. After three zigzagging flights across the country with a couple of harrowing connections in between, I finally found myself in the capital city of the potato state, following my beloved Wildcats through their improbable date with destiny.

Kentucky’s path through Boise was complex and fortuitous. In the first game on Thursday, it was Davidson versus Goliath as the 12th seeded Atlantic-10 Conference tournament champion Wildcats gave the 5th seeded and big-name SEC Champion Wildcats a run for their money. Davidson players, fueled by the proverbial chip on their shoulder playing against future NBA talent and a raucous “home” crowd, hit 11-33 three-pointers to nearly send Kentucky packing even before the tournament began. Kentucky, meanwhile, went 0-6 from behind the arc, ending their 30-year, 1047 consecutive game three-pointers made streak. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander saved the day with a 19-point, 8-rebound, and 7-assist performance as Kentucky narrowly prevailed 78-73. Kevin Knox led the team in scoring with 25 points on 8-16 shooting from the floor and 9-11 at the foul line.

Up next for Kentucky was a supposed date with the 4th-seeded Pac-12 Champion, Arizona Wildcats. Surprisingly, though, Coach Sean Miller’s team–fresh off FBI allegations regarding payments to star players–folded again like a cheap suit. So instead of the marquee, made-for-TV matchup with the talented mildcats from Tucson, substitute the Buffalo Bulls with their bombastic head coach—Nate Oats. Verbal sparring notwithstanding, when faced with the adversity of bright post-season lights on the big tournament stage, Kentucky’s Kiddie Cats rose to the occasion with a hugely inspiring 95-75 win. Gilgeous-Alexander and Hamidou Diallo played hero in this one, leading the team with 27 and 22 points respectively.

Let’s give John Calipari credit. He did everything he could to give this team a fighting chance—taking on the mantle of coach, mentor, and psychiatrist this season until he was blue in the face. From bringing in renowned sports psychologist Bob Rotella, to his shameless public encouragement of struggling superstars, to his assurance that he wasn’t cracking despite record setting losing streaks, Coach Cal poked, prodded, and pushed his childcats to reach for their full potential. I confessed to Cal that I had my doubts during the losing streak in February. “You doubted me?” he countered. “Why did you tell me? I didn’t know. Now I look at you different.”

In the end, Calipari’s Sigmund Freud impersonation overcame his team’s youth and inconsistency. “This team, the youngest, most inexperienced team I’ve ever attempted to coach and at times the maturity level is—there’s something to be desired there at times,” he lamented right as post-season play began. “I’ve tried to build the whole season towards this, talk about the NCAA tournament all season, but I really don’t know. I have no idea what will happen.”

What happened was Kentucky moves on to the Sweet Sixteen next week, sending all of BBN scurrying to book hotel rooms in Catlanta. The anticipated influx of the Blue Mist together with Virginia’s shocking tournament exit has cleared the way for another improbable Wildcat march to the Alamo. Plus, the Cats are peaking at just the right time—playing their best basketball when it counts the most. “You never know with a young group like this, they’re playing as good as they have all year,” Cal grudgingly admitted. “But they could go out this next game and be freshmen.”

Leaving Taco Bell Arena, I felt the usual sense of exhilaration reserved for fans of teams left in the Big Dance—the immediate relief of surviving and advancing, the wanton excitement of another Final Four run, and the joyful anticipation of perhaps another National Championship. There’s still a long way to go, but I like our chances. We’ve got the X-factor in Coach Cal. Shame on me for ever doubting.

John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Media Group. 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

Phooey, St. Looey!

(ST. LOUIS, Mo) – The airplane, the internet, and the Southeastern Conference Basketball Tournament are arguably three of the greatest inventions in the history of humankind. Nothing beats the speed of jet travel, the convenience of home shopping, and the excitement of BBN invading an unsuspecting post-season venue. Surprisingly, Kentucky men’s basketball head coach John Calipari still stubbornly refuses to acknowledge one of these three brilliant cultural innovations. We all know Coach Cal is completely dependent on his private jet to check on his recruiting pipeline, and I’m sure he frequently googles his favorite Italian restaurants to fill his ever-expanding waistline. So why in the world is Coach Cal so slow to accept the obvious advantages to his Wildcats playing in conference post-season primetime?

“You know I can’t stand tournaments anyway,” Calipari said with his usual frowny face. “I’m not a big proponent of playing three or four games in a row at the end of the year. We already have a league champ. What are we doing this for? So that’s me. But our fans at Kentucky love this tournament. They love it. So, we go in and try to play as well as we can for our fans. But the only thing we’ll use this weekend for is to prepare us for the next weekend. That’s it. I’m not a big conference tournament guy. I never have been. I never was at Mass. I never was at Memphis. The next tournament is the real one.”

Hmmm? Maybe after his recent march through St. Looey, Coach Cal may consider changing his mind. His Kentucky team took advantage of a great opportunity to work on some glaring deficiencies, garner some remaining quality wins, and reestablish themselves on top of the SEC food chain—all while giving their adoring and well-deserving fans a chance to party, gloat, and blow their hard-earned vacation dollars underneath the Gateway Arch. In my mind, the SEC tournament is a win-win for Big Blue players and fans alike. Why Cal continues to denigrate something that is obviously beneficial and here to stay is a bit baffling. His outward negativity could have easily rubbed off on his impressionable young talent. But that’s just me.

The results, however, speak for themselves. Fortunately, Kentucky blew past a tired Georgia team 62-49 in the quarterfinals, blitzed by a resurgent Alabama team 86-63 with a three-point semifinal barrage, and took a hard-fought, well-contested 77-72 revenge victory in the finals on a Tennessee team –that had defeated them twice in the regular season–to win their 31st conference tournament trophy. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was the tournament MVP, with Wenyen Gabriel, and Kevin Knox also selected for the All-Tournament Team.

For their efforts, the Wildcats were rewarded by the NCAA selection committee with an all expenses paid trip to Boise, Idaho as the 5th seed in the South Region. They’ll face Davidson in the first round. Kentucky was projected by many at the end of the regular season to already be a five seed, so someone please explain to me how winning the tournament championship of arguably the toughest conference in America could reap absolutely no benefit whatsoever.

“We’ll also use this tournament to see if we can improve our seed—which it never does,” Calipari had said presciently prior to the tournament. From that aspect, Coach was absolutely correct. However, in every other aspect, he was dead wrong. Kentucky improved significantly in their three-game stint in St. Looey. The Wildcats gained some much-needed confidence and momentum and subsequently set the stage in the only way they could for another improbable NCAA tournament run. This youngest of all Cal’s teams used the tournament to mature and hopefully, come of age. In addition, every single Cat fan, including myself, who made it to Scottrade Center also swears they had a fabulous time. Co-hosting radio, schmoozing with colleagues, and having my 15 seconds of fame behind the ESPN cameras–all while watching the team win another conference crown–is an experience I’ll forever cherish.

Here’s what I kept thinking on my eight-hour drive back from St. Looey through a blinding blizzard. If Kentucky makes it deep into this year’s March Madness bracket, they can thank the SEC tournament. Coach Cal will never admit it, BUT HE WAS WRONG regarding his negative tournament attitude. Phooey on him! He owes St. Looey an apology and a big debt of gratitude.

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

Resiliency

(KRABI, Thailand) – If there’s one key attribute still in question for a successful run by this Kentucky basketball team, it has to be their resiliency. After demoralizing back-to-back losses to Missouri and Tennessee, BBN is wondering whether John Calipari’s crew can somehow regain that bit of an edge—that toughness and bounce back ability—desperately required to steal some remaining conference games and salvage the rest of the season. Coach Cal claims the ceiling remains as high as ever for this team. We’ve had glimpses of their raw talent along the way, but these kiddie Cats have been beaten, battered, and bruised in the arduous learning process. Can they recover and pull it all together in time to make that deep run into the NCAA tournament? I don’t know. It depends on one thing—their resiliency.

Resiliency definitely applies to the people of Phi Phi Island. This tropical paradise located in the Andaman Sea off the southern coast of Thailand was wiped off the map by the Tsunami of 2004. On December 26, at 9:45 am local time, a massive 15-foot tidal wave swept over the island, killing nearly 2000 inhabitants, and decimating the entire island infrastructure. I was on Phi Phi exactly one year before the Tsunami hit. Now, nearly fifteen years later, I’ve returned to check out what has changed since then.

Amazingly, everything has been rebuilt and looks exactly the same as I remembered it. There are the same cluster of food stalls, the same open-air shops, the same tourist agencies hocking long boat rides to Monkey Island, the same restaurants selling Thai seafood delicacies at unbelievably reasonable prices, and the same resort hotels offering five-star comforts for fifty bucks a night (breakfast included). It’s a testament to the resiliency of the Thai people and their unending quest for the tourist dollar. I guess if you rebuild Shangri-La, the people will come.

And come they do. On this random weekend in February, I’m surrounded by hordes of vacationing tourists from all different continents looking for some fun and sun in this mecca known for its natural beauty by day and manufactured debauchery by night. I’m simultaneously awed and perplexed by the contrast. The rich turquoise water surrounding the towering limestone karsts makes for idyllic cinematic backdrops perfect for Hollywood. In fact, Leonardo DiCaprio’s movie, The Beach, was filmed here back in 2000. Unfortunately, on this day, Maya Beach bears no resemblance to the one on the silver screen as I’m packed shoulder-to-shoulder with more Chinese visitors than in Tiananmen Square.

At nighttime, the bars are hopping—sunburned Scandinavians looking to cap off the perfect day of scuba diving with a nightcap of Singha and karaoke. The world-famous Reggae Bar even has a regulation Muay Thai Boxing ring where drunken revelers can volunteer to punch each other’s lights out for a free round of Mae Khong whiskey. Being neither a drunk or a reveler, I politely and wisely pass on this one as an inebriated, overweight English bloke gets his face pounded like a puff of Beef Wellington pastry.

Meanwhile Slinky’s on the beach offers free buckets of booze for “naked boys and topless girls.” I’m still not sure I understand the premise as the crowd cheers on the Aussie frat boy doing the limbo to ear-splitting electronic dance music with his glorious manhood on full display for the world to see.

What I do understand is resilience. It’s not just the toughness required for a basketball team in turmoil or the indomitable spirit of native peoples rebuilding their island livelihood. No, it’s more about everyday persistence—being able to take a punch and just trying to hang on when fate sends you reeling. It’s about keeping the faith and clinging onto that morsel of hope when it’d be so much easier to just simply walk away. It’s about pressing on with life after you’ve gotten a bad diagnosis or lost a loved one to tragedy. Resilience is about the persistence required to fight through a bad relationship, financial ruin, drug addiction, or mental illness. It’s about Jimmy V saying, “don’t give up—don’t ever give up.”

As I walk hand in hand on the beach with my lovely bride watching another jaw-dropping Indian Ocean sunset, I’m reminded once again that resiliency is hard, but it definitely has its rewards. I’m cherishing this time together because who knows if and when we’ll be able to experience it again. But at least for one glorious month in a land half way around the globe, I got a fleeting glimpse of the other side of heartache. I pray that you’ll experience it too. Whether cheering for the Wildcats or for something else nearer and dearer to your heart, here’s to resiliency and the bounty it can bring. Thanks for letting me share. I hope you enjoyed the ride.

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/