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.

Heart of Big Blue Nation

Heart of Big Blue Nation

Hey Everyone, I want to announce the launch of a brand spanking new project that’s soon to take flight. It’s a creative idea that’s been bouncing around in my brother Michael’s head for the past couple of years. You’ve probably heard of Michael. He’s the photographer for Kentucky Sports Radio and goes by the moniker Dr. Mike. According to his wife Michelle, Michael’s the greatest photographer who’s ever lived. He’s no Ansel Adams in my book, but I’ll have to admit he’s pretty good at what he does.

You see, Michael, Michelle, and I have all been long-term, die-hard Kentucky fans ever since we can remember. We all still have nightmares about the Laettner shot, we all think Coach Cal should have won at least two more championships, and we all agree that following UK sports may be the highlight of our very lives.Huangs

In other words, we’re no different than most of you. The one major distinction is that despite having had full-time medical and dental careers, the Huang brothers somehow lucked their way onto press row as bona fide UK media members.

Here’s the plan for the aforementioned project. As fans, Michael, Michelle, and I know the pride and joy of being a part of the greatest fan base in all of sports. Sure, we’re as passionate as anyone else about winning ballgames, but deep down inside, we’ve always sensed that citizenship within the BBN is about much more than that. There’s a special bond that Wildcat fans have to their program and a connection to one another that you just can’t find anywhere else. We’ve observed that first-hand as objective media members. Our goal now is to try and find out exactly why that is.

Since this project is about you—the Kentucky True Blue fan—we need your help. Over the next few months, the three of us will be compiling a series of photos and stories about your love affair with the BBN. Michael will have his camera, I’ll have my pen, and together with Michelle, we’ll be seeking out the most passionate, the most poignant, and the most powerful stories you have to tell.

Your narrative can include something as simple as your first memories as a Wildcat fan, or the reason you act so crazy after a loss, or how you got tongue-tied meeting that famous UK player. All we ask is that it be interesting, entertaining, and emotion-evoking. The more unique, the funnier, the more thought-provoking, the more tear-jerking—the better.

Our hope is that the end result will be something akin to https://www.humansofnewyork.com, but obviously with a decidedly Kentucky flavor. In other words, we want to capture your Big Blue Hearts.

So, when you see us at the different venues in the upcoming weeks, flag us down. Tell us your story in your own words and pose for that picture that’ll ultimately make you famous. If you make the cut, we’ll put you on our website https://heartofbbn.com/. If your story’s really compelling, you’ll make it into the book.

Either way, we’ll be sharing your love, your fandom, and your heart for BBN with the rest of the world. It’s a venture that’s long overdue. Now, Go Big Blue!

If you want to be a part of this project, contact Heartofbbn@gmail.com. Be sure to follow me on Twitter @KYHuangs for updates.

A Good Man Down

A Good Man Down

For most of us, involvement in sports is a pleasant distraction. Cheering on our favorite teams and rooting for our heroes cushions the slings and arrows of everyday life. Who doesn’t look forward to Saturdays in the fall—those sacred times of respite from that dead-end job or nagging spouse?

Occasionally, however, the pain and hardship of the real and sporting worlds collide. When athletes suffer debilitating injuries, it suddenly dawns on us how real and vulnerable they are. They battle with many of the same emotions and worries that we deal with. The big difference is that they’ve potentially lost their livelihood, and their battles are frequently fought on the public stage.

It seems like every year, the UK Football team has had to deal with a debilitating preseason injury. This year, it was safety DaVonte Robinson with a quad injury. Last year, it was offensive lineman Landon Young with a torn ACL.

“If you play this sport, it’s going to happen to you at some point or another if you play long enough,” said head coach Mark Stoops. “So it’s very hard because those guys put a lot of work in. They put a lot of work in for a lot of years for only so many opportunities.”

Debilitating injuries are bad enough, but it’s the ravaging illnesses that really get my goat—that make me question my worldview of life as defined by my Christian faith. You look at the cancers that coach John Schlarman and linebacker Josh Paschal are dealing with—and you just can’t help asking “WHY?”

Now we have the situation with UK golfer Cullan Brown. Just two short months ago, Cullan was on top of the world. As a newly minted freshman on the Wildcat Golf team, he made the cut in his first professional tournament at the Barbasol Championship. His engaging personality and infectious grin were contagious. He made everybody around him feel good. His interviews were already becoming legendary. He had game too. I couldn’t wait to cover the exploits of this burgeoning superstar from Eddyville.

All that changed this week when we heard the scary diagnosis. Cullen has osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer that can be deadly. It was discovered in his left leg, but apparently was found early enough that his doctors feel it is “fully treatable and beatable.” That’s certainly good news–but with cancer, you just never know.

If anyone can beat this thing, it’ll be Cullan. But he can’t do it alone. He and his family covet your prayers. They also welcome your donations to help with medical expenses at

https://www.gofundme.com/f/birdies-for-brownie?utm_source=customer&utm_medium=copy_link&utm_campaign=p_cp+share-sheet

What do you say to someone like Cullan or Josh who’s facing such immense challenges entering the prime of their life?

“We support them, that’s for sure,” said Coach Stoops. “We support them and encourage them and go sit with them and talk with them, but there’s not, I don’t think there’s anything, any one thing you could say to somebody to make them feel a lot better.”

Hey Cullan, keep the faith—and know that all of BBN continues to cheer you on.

If you enjoy my writing, check out my columns on a brand new website called Justthecats.com or follow me on Twitter @KYHuangs.