Racism Revisited

Racism Revisited

A couple of recent events got me thinking about the sensitive issue of race.

The first occurred on Christmas Day when I watched “Reggie Warford: Fight of His Life.” Although the inspirational documentary zeroed in on Reggie’s current life-threatening health issues, much of the story chronicled his early battles with racism. As the first African American basketball player to graduate from the University of Kentucky in 1976, Reggie endured the many slings and arrows as “the loneliest athlete in America.”

The second event occurred just a couple of days ago with the passing of Houston Hogg. Hogg, who played football at the University of Kentucky from 1967-70, together with his African American teammates, broke the Southeastern Conference color barrier—thus paving the way for thousands of other athletes to follow.

Both Reggie and Houston were pioneers of integration, forever changing the landscape of sports in America. Because UK Basketball and Football have been such a big part of my life, I’m indebtedly grateful for their courage and sacrifice in making UK Athletics what it is today. I can’t imagine what it was like for either Reggie or Houston as they navigated through the prejudices and turmoil of the 60s and 70s. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I never really knew their stories or felt their pain.

There aren’t many issues in the world more divisive than ones involving race. It’s always been that way—at least in my lifetime. Growing up in the sixties, the battles over civil rights, school segregation, and affirmative action dominated the news headlines. In the nineties, the OJ Simpson saga had the entire nation polarized, as well as mesmerized. Even today, the specter of black versus white lies deceptively camouflaged, springing to life disguised as arguments involving police brutality and the appropriateness of kneeling during the national anthem.

In my personal experience, there are two segments of American society where outright racism lies comparatively dormant—the military and sports. Having served in the armed forces, I’ve seen people of every color work cohesively to support the mission at hand. In my role as a sportswriter, I’ve also seen the undeniable bond between teammates, regardless of their race or ethnicity.

But even in those realms, one would be extremely naïve to believe that prejudice is totally non-existent. The reality is that racism remains everywhere, often rearing its ugly head when you least expect it, forcing you to repeatedly re-examine the undeniable truth in our own Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.”

Within our own beloved Big Blue Nation, Kentucky Basketball fans pride themselves on being one big unified family. Yet one of the most divisive issues among the rabid fan base is still whether Adolph Rupp was a racist. The Baron of the Bluegrass, the man in the brown suit, the winningest coach of the program with the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball still gets eviscerated every time the race question gets brought up.

Why didn’t he recruit African American players—especially those in-state athletes so close to home? Why didn’t he cultivate a relationship with Dunbar High School’s late great African American coach S.T. Roach? What about Rupp’s allegedly overt racist halftime rant as recounted by Frank DeFord of Sports Illustrated?

For the many that have written about and pointed an accusatory finger at Coach Rupp, just as many have come to his defense. There’s a vocal majority—including many of his former players—who swear the stories implying bigotry and prejudice were either distorted or taken completely out of context. Ardent Wildcat fans cringe at the very thought of always being portrayed as the villain in the notebook of revisionist history.

Understandably, the truth remains clouded. Adolph Rupp was a product of those turbulent times. Stereotypes, societal prejudices, and even the law of the land screamed “inequality.” People spoke, thought, and reasoned differently than they do today. How else can you explain “separate but equal”, the use of blackface, and smart and experienced broadcasters such as Howard Cosell making egregious racial on-air slurs? That doesn’t necessarily absolve people of blame, but it does give you a reason for understanding why they acted as they did.

At the risk of contracting foot-in-mouth disease, I’ll readily admit I have no earthly idea what it’s like to be African American—just like most of you have no idea what it’s like to be Asian. I can tell you several instances in my life where I faced outright derision and discrimination. There were also numerous times well-meaning acquaintances made what they thought were innocent or funny quips regarding my heritage that I deemed insensitive and hurtful. My point being that we just don’t know what it’s like until we’ve walked a mile in someone else’s shoes.

I’d like to think that I don’t harbor any prejudices toward anyone. The reality, however, is that we all are influenced by the stereotypes of the era in which we grew up, lived, and breathed. How you thought, spoke, and acted in the 60s, 70s, or 80s was different than how you live, speak, and act today. What’s really important is what’s in your heart.

Muhammad Ali once said, “A man who views the world at fifty the same as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life.”

Was Adolph Rupp a racist? I think the more appropriate question is “would Adolph Rupp be a racist in today’s day and age?”

I’d like to think not, but no one knows for sure what was in the Baron’s heart. What we do know is that racism and discrimination, in any way, shape, or form, is WRONG—and runs counter to the biblical truths instilled in us by our Creator.

If you’ve ever harbored feelings of superiority or arrogance because of the color of your own skin, there’s only one solution for you. SIMPLY BE BETTER! Go out of your way to view the world from the other person’s perspective. Be forever thankful for the sacrifices made by people like Reggie Warford and Houston Hogg who blazed those perilous trails.

Most importantly, examine your own heart. Extend grace to someone who has wronged you. Deliver mercy to those who have suffered.

And finally, if needed, ask God for forgiveness…and while you’re at it, please say a prayer for Reggie, Houston, and all their families.

If you enjoy my writing, please drop me a note at KYHuangs@aol.com, or follow me on Twitter @KYHuangs.

Compassionate Cal

Compassionate Cal

Is Kentucky’s head basketball coach really going soft?

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – When God was dishing out compassion, it seemed like he skipped over college basketball coaches. Just tune in nowadays to any game broadcast, and you’ll know exactly what I mean. You’ll be treated to the spectacle of grown men—who otherwise are highly respected pillars in their communities—ranting and raving at young men less than half their age, as if somehow demon possessed. Nowhere else in society, except in athletic competition, can you experience such unmitigated lunacy.

That’s not exactly the case with Fairleigh Dickinson’s head basketball coach Greg Herenda. His team was thrashed by Kentucky 83-52 Saturday afternoon at Rupp Arena, but you didn’t see Herenda spewing expletives at the refs or throwing tantrums on the sidelines. You didn’t see him endlessly yelling at his assistants or berating his players during timeouts. You most likely saw him inspiring his players with verbal encouragement and supporting them with compassionate hugs.

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In a telephone conversation with Jerry Tipton of the Lexington Herald-Leader, the 58-year-old Herenda explained how a life-threatening illness less than two years earlier changed his entire coaching perspective and demeanor.

Herenda was attending the 2018 Final Four in San Antonio when he was rushed to the hospital after he collapsed while walking on the River Walk. The doctors discovered two blood clots in his leg. Afterwards, he remembers having a 104.5-degree fever and his leg being swollen to three times its normal size. He was diagnosed with May-Thurner syndrome—a blood vessel disorder—and was hospitalized for a week in intensive care. During his recovery, Herenda was initially confined to a wheelchair before eventually graduating to a walker, and then a cane.

Herenda told Tipton that this experience made him rethink how coaches usually deal with players—and that a typical coaching personality is likened to a drill sergeant with bunions.

“I think it makes you stop and think,” Herenda said. “I’ve kind of slowed down a little bit…I think ‘perspective’ is the word. I think I have things in better perspective. When I was a young coach, it was non-stop. And it was every play and coaching every play and refereeing every call.”

Hmm, that ‘coaching every play’ mentality seems very familiar to many of us. Kentucky fans see it all the time with John Calipari’s demonstrative behavior on the sidelines. Herenda and Calipari go back a ways—in fact, all the way back to their coaching days three decades earlier at the famed Five-Star basketball camps.

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“It’s funny, it hasn’t changed that much,” Herenda answered pensively, when I asked him how Calipari’s coaching style had morphed over the years. “John Calipari was born to coach…I can’t believe he’s 60. He’s got energy, and he flies all over the world, and he does so many good things for people.”

Not one to leave any stone unturned, I asked Coach Cal directly about how he thinks his compassion toward his players has evolved over the past few decades.

“So, early in your career, you’re in a dogfight,” said BBN’s beloved hall of fame coach. “Everything is a struggle. Everything is a fight to survive…When I get together with the UMASS guys, like, I apologize. I know what I was like…So when they see me coach in practice now, they say, ‘You got soft.’”

Here’s what it comes down to. Behaving like a lunatic is readily accepted in today’s sports culture. Those John Wooden days of watching passively from your bench are long gone. Any coach worth his contract has to show the world he’s passionately into the game. The crazier the histrionics, the better your chances of getting noticed on SportsCenter.

But here’s the rub. Despite the bulging eyes and flying spittle, the players you’re coaching have to know that you truly care about them as people. If that’s the case, you can flail your arms, scream, and make a complete idiot of yourself…and they’ll still be willing to run through a brick wall for you. The minute that compassion ends, however, you’re dead to them and the rest of the world as well.

“These kids need me in a different way than kids in the past,” Calipari continued. “They need more individual meetings. They need to know, yes, I do love you, even though I’m hard on you.”

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With John Calipari, his ‘players first’ slogan isn’t necessarily his mantra for getting superstars into the NBA (although it is a pretty effective recruiting pitch). It’s really his philosophy on treating his players right. Personally, I’d prefer not to hear him use such salty language on the court, but if that’s what it takes to get these 18-year-old basketball prodigies to respond positively, then who am I to judge?

In the dental profession, we had a saying that was fairly universal. “Patients don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” That pearl of wisdom can easily be transferred to basketball coaches and their players. Evidently, both Greg Herenda and John Calipari have—in their own different ways—taken it directly to heart.

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This column appeared in the December 11, 2019 print editions of Nolan Group Media Publications.

There’s Something About Macy

There’s Something About Macy

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – Last week, former UK basketball All-American Kyle Macy caused quite a stir. The star point guard for the 1978 NCAA national title squad appeared on an Indiana radio show and proclaimed how he now feels “unwelcome” at Wildcat practices. Macy subsequently stepped his comments back a bit by saying he should have used the word “uncomfortable” rather than “unwelcome.” Regardless—the inference was made that Coach John Calipari’s current regime is somehow putting old-timers like Macy out to pasture in lieu of the recent one and done prodigies of his own creation.

OUCH! Nothing hurts the BBN more than a Cat-on-Cat war of words between hoops icons. To make matters worse, many loyal fans subsequently took sides in the festering battle, with the vocal majority appearing to favor Coach Cal. “Macy had a good run,” they said, “But through the passage of time, people gravitate to the stars of today. That’s just the way the world works nowadays. You’re ancient history. Get over it Kyle!”

The last thing Kyle Macy would want is for a goober like me to make a mountain out of a molehill. But as a lifelong worshipper of the Kentucky Basketball program, I just can’t help myself. Our honor has been insulted.

I don’t agree with the notion that the glory of former star UK players fades with time. In fact, I believe it’s just the opposite. Kyle Macy is a Kentucky basketball legend—and a legitimate legend’s legacy continues to grow rather than shrink as the years go by. I can say that’s true for every one of the all-time greats such as Dan Issel, Jack Givens, Kenny Walker, Jamal Mashburn, etc. Heck, in my humble opinion, even the not-so-all-time greats deserve reverent awe and respect—solely because they wore the hallowed blue and white. I’ll put both Chuck Aleksinas and Chuck Verderber on my big blue pedestal any day of the week. If Chuck Hayes walks through that door right now, I’ll kneel down and wash his feet.

You want more legends? How about Bowie and Turpin, Hurt and Hord, Minniefield and Beal? Has anyone  forgotten The Unforgettables, Pitino’s Bombinos, or that 1996 juggernaut? I doubt it. They’re all fresh in our minds and more reverent with each passing decade. I don’t want to come across sounding like an old man, but fans just seemed more connected to the players and the teams back in the day.

Back in the day in 1969, every ten-year-old boy growing up in Kentucky–myself included—wanted to either be an astronaut or a UK basketball star. We all dreamed of shooting for the moon or shooting jumpers from the corner ala Larry Steele. There was no doubt in our minds that Issel, Pratt, and Casey would surely lead us to another coveted championship. We memorized everyone’s stats, painted their jersey numbers on our T-shirts, and patterned our ball-handling skills after theirs. I even tried to shoot left handed simply because Tom Parker was left handed. How many games did we play on our nerf goals, pounding Ray Mears’ hated Volunteers into an imaginary virtual submission?

As great as that time was, it wasn’t until Kyle Macy appeared on campus that Kentucky would win their first National Championship in my lifetime. Who can ever forget his floor leadership, his free-throw accuracy, his perfect hair, or his dry socks as the Cats defeated Duke for the monumental win. The Goose was definitely golden in St. Louis that night as Macy and crew capped off their “season without celebration,” sending all of BBN and the city of Lexington into a delirious fit of revelry.

Kyle Macy unwelcome? YOU GOTTA BE KIDDING ME!

Don’t get me wrong—I don’t discount the popularity of recent Wildcat stars who have gone on to the NBA. In the pantheon of UK greats, Anthony Davis could arguably have been the most impactful player ever. But if Kyle Macy isn’t welcome or comfortable anymore basking in the glow of the Kentucky Basketball program, then something stinks to high heaven. If one of the greatest stars in the greatest program with “the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball” isn’t welcomed with the sound of blaring trumpets or resounding cymbals anywhere he goes, then our claim of being the greatest fan base in America has been greatly overemphasized.

Yes—there’s something very special about Macy. And you better never forget what it is!     

Dr. 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.

 

 

A Little Extra Motivation

A Little Extra Motivation

By DR. JOHN HUANG, Nolan Group Media

(LEXINGTON, KY.) – As a die-hard Kentucky fan, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that most of my basketball memories are negative ones. In fact, I daresay that the most indelible ones often involve the year-end heartbreaking defeats. Dating back to the Mideast Regional loss to Jacksonville in 1970, I can tell you exactly where I was every single year that the Wildcats’ season came to an abrupt end. The Laettner shot, Bogans’ sprained ankle, and the Wisconsin shot clock violations all coalescing into a nightmarish potpourri of anger, depression, and grief.

Despite reports to the contrary, it seems that Kentucky fans often do care more about wins and losses than the players themselves. Especially in this decade of one and done, our beloved on-court prodigies quickly move past disappointment. Not long after the final buzzer, they’re basking in the glow of massive NBA contracts and lavish lifestyles while the “average Joe fan” wallows in the pain and agony of yet another tournament loss. If only the players would stick around long enough to experience the heartache, to feel our pain—then surely they’d be extra motivated the next time around.

During the most recent media opportunity, I asked each of the four returning UK players about just that topic. To a man, they said the Auburn loss at the end of the season still grates at their collective core. It serves as a constant reminder and motivational force to propel them to greater heights. Whether that means another Final Four or a Championship trophy remains to be seen. But for a guy bent on spending the first weekend in April at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in Atlanta this upcoming Spring, their words were sweet melodies to my expectant ears and a much-needed salve for my wounded soul.

Sophomore guard Immanuel Quickley figures to garner significant minutes in the backcourt this year. He certainly hasn’t forgotten about that fateful day in Kansas City. “I probably think about it almost every day,” he confessed. “Just knowing that we were that close to getting to a Final Four. You watch it on TV, but to play in the Final Four would have been really cool. It kind of hurts that we didn’t get to do that.”

Backcourt mate Ashton Hagans agreed wholeheartedly. The Wildcats’ sophomore starting point guard appeared cool, confident, and composed—until he was asked about that season-ending defeat. “It’s actually been in the back of my head a lot,” he lamented. “It’s just one of those feelings that will never go away because you were so close. The bond that we created (last year), it was just different. Knowing that we can’t do it with the same group…it hurt. But that just adds fuel to the fire. So you just have to come in, knowing what you could have done last year—just bring it in and just leave it on the court this year.”

Sophomore forward EJ Montgomery was the last of the teammates to pull his name out of the upcoming NBA draft. Temporarily passing on the opportunity to fulfill his dream, he vividly remembers the tearful locker room after the overtime loss to Auburn, and he claims that it’s a definite factor in upping his game this year. “No one wants to go through that, (the disappointment) of times with your team,” he said. “You gotta put in work in the gym. We have some returnees that all felt that, so we’re just going to try our best to get farther.”

OK, who are we kidding? I’m not saying any of these guys returned to school solely to win another national title. Those team-oriented goals and dreams left town with the likes of Kenny Walker and Roger Harden. Granted, times were different back when they played—a bygone era when love for your school trumped even one’s individual career goals. In this day and age of players focused solely on taking their games to the next level, is it even possible that they’d be motivated by defeat?  

Perhaps junior center Nick Richards said it best. After all, he’s suffered through two crushing season-ending upsets—to Kansas State as a freshman and to Auburn as a sophomore. “Those two losses are actually just motivation for me and my game,” he readily admitted. “Just trying to motivate this team. Just to make it to that championship, just to hold up that trophy, just to be on that stage is real motivation for me. I always think about those losses every single day.”

Me too, Nick. With the exception of four years in my lifetime, every Wildcat season has ended in abject disaster. It’s virtually impossible for fans like me to forgive and forget. We’re all hoping that Championship #9 is just around the corner—and that for the returning UK players, a little extra motivation is all that’s needed to get them over the hump.

“That’s the goal for every team—to make it to the Final Four and just win the National Championship,” Nick added.

For all of BBN, we couldn’t agree more.

Dr. John Huang covers University of Kentucky sports for Nolan Group Media. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.