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My Week at Pauley Pavilion

Pauley Pavilion

Standing in the original Pauley Pavilion jump circle and looking into the rafters is one of my favorite sports memories.

Once upon a  very long time ago, as a young sports information director at an unheard of Division 2 university outside Chicago, I got to travel with the team for their Christmas week trip to Bakersfield.

Keep in mind nobody actually goes to Bakersfield on purpose. We were going to spend as little time there as humanly possible — on the way out we even slept on the concourse at LAX to avoid another night there (we were actually probably out of money). So the first three days of the trip before taking a savage beat down at the hands of then Division 2 power Cal State-Bakersfield were spent in Los Angeles.

The trip was great — other than the beatdown — we went to Disneyland (taking with us one player who had never really been out of Chicago, so his reaction was incredible), ate at a couple of great restaurants and got to watch a taping of the Jay Leno Show (our coach’s brother was a writer for an NBC sitcom at the time). But what I have always remembered most from that trip was how we were treated at Pauley Pavilion.

With a three-day stay prior to game night, the team had to find some place to practice. Originally that had been set up with Loyola-Marymount, but less than a month before the trip they cancelled. After frantic calls to schools throughout Southern California, in stepped UCLA. Both of their teams were out of town at Holiday tournaments, so the gym was open.

Walking into Pauley (even pre-renovation) was a semi-religious experience. It was a lot like the first time I ever wandered into Rupp. A quick look at the ceiling says everything you need to know about the place you’re standing in. I remember standing in that famous jump circle in awe of where I had the good fortune to be. I got to jack up a couple of really awful shots and then made way for practice.

And while being on the floor was incredible. It was what happened after practice that has stuck with me the most. We were about to head out with our trainer and an assistant coach (managers didn’t travel. Hell, I’m not even sure we had managers at home) carrying the bags of our practice gear to try to go find a local laundromat so they’d be ready for tomorrow. Just before we left a college kid in UCLA gear came sprinting out onto the floor.

We all kind of thought we had done something wrong. Nope. He wanted the uniforms. They were going to wash them and have them out for us. We told him he didn’t need to do that. He then all but demanded the uniforms. When we rolled in the next morning, they were clean and set out for us in the locker room. It was easily the best our players had ever been treated.

That experience in 1993 — along with an odd childhood love for watching the UCLA-USC football game and the Rose Bowl — is one of the reasons I’ve never hated UCLA the way I generally hate other top teams Kentucky faces. It’s a class program, run — generally — by class people.

I talked to UCLA Associate AD Chris Carlson earlier and told him that story. He thanked me and said “whenever somebody comes to Pauley, they are our guest. It’s been that way since Coach Wooden expected it.”

It reminded me of something Tom Leach said to me when I thanked him once for how great he has always been to me. He gave the credit to Cawood Ledford saying that’s the way Cawood had been with all of them and that local media members all sort of felt like they had a responsibility to carry that forward.

Program culture matters.

It’s about 10 minutes to tipoff of the game that in my eight years of hosting Community Trust Bank Sunday Morning Sports Talk that I am most thankful to have a seat for. Hope it’s a great one between two of the absolute best program’s in the sport’s history.

The Joker Phillips and Mark Stoops Records Aren’t the Same

We were asked a question this week on Community Trust Bank Sunday Morning Sports Talk about the similarities in Joker Phillips’ and Mark Stoops’ coaching records at UK. I explained why they weren’t really the same.

Here it is…the Car Analoogy.

On Holidays and a Bigger World

Lou Holtz

Lou Holtz at the 2016 Republican National Convention (photo borrowed from The Guardian I think)

In what can’t be more than the third most ridiculous piece of political bluster in the last two days, former North Carolina State, Arkansas, Notre Dame, South Carolina and (briefly) New York Jets head football coach Lou Holtz let his views on immigration be known today at the Republican National Convention. The man who now at least a little ironically helmed a team named for Irishmen derided what he saw as an “invasion” of immigrants, saying, according to the Daily Beast, “I don’t want to become you. I don’t want to speak your language. I don’t want to celebrate your holidays. I sure as hell don’t want to cheer for your soccer team!”

Let’s forget the old man yells at clouds knock at soccer. I’ve gotten myself into enough trouble defending soccer lately. No need to head down that road again.

I’ve written in this space my thoughts about the immigration situation. I didn’t know then what the answer was. I don’t know now. I doubt that will ever change.

Still, what Holtz said troubled me. “I don’t want to celebrate your Holidays.”

I used to drive to South Bend with my uncle. Uncle Frank was a Catholic priest and he had been a Notre Dame season ticket holder since the days when season tickets were easy to come by. We cheered Holtz’s teams there together.

I saw Holtz speak at a Catholic men’s conference once. He spoke of faith and family and responsibility. It was compelling. It was also all apparently garbage.

“I don’t want to celebrate your holidays.”

We celebrate “foreign” holidays all the time of course. Again, more than a little ironically the Irish-themed St. Patrick’s Day holiday. There’s Cinco de Mayo, a more or less Mexican holiday that gives us “real” Americans an excuse to drink margaritas and hammer down chips and salsa. There are others. There are different ethnic variations on the Christmas season. My German family celebrated St. Nicholas Day, for example.

“I don’t want to celebrate your holidays.”

I have been disappointed by sports figures before. I’ve been sad for them too. I’m more of the latter for Holtz.

“I don’t want to celebrate your Holidays.”

This Christmas, something unusual happened. Our neighbors brought us a Christmas gift. That part wasn’t strange in and of itself. Thousands of neighbors give thousands of neighbors Christmas presents across the country every year. My neighbors, though, are Muslims.

“I don’t want to celebrate your holidays.”

The mother of the family next door rang our doorbell. The smile on her face was enormous. Her and her youngest son handed us a wrapped box that turned out to be cookies. She smiled. Her son smiled. I smiled…until I closed the door. Then I cried.

A simple box of cookies was one of the most perfect Christmas gifts my family had ever received. It was given with nothing other than joy and in the true spirit of the holiday – not their holiday. My holiday.

“I don’t want to celebrate their holidays.”

When Ramadan began this year, I kept track – for the first time in my life. Whenever we saw each other we talked of their holiday. How difficult it is for them – not eating from sunup to sundown during the longest days of the year. I kept checking to see how far we were from the Eid – the end of Ramadan, the breaking of the fast. I asked a friend who lives in the middle east what an appropriate gift was – sweets, it turned out. I made sure I found something that didn’t violate their food restrictions. Chocolate cake works if you ever find yourself in that situation. I grabbed a chocolate cake (I don’t bake), and at sundown my older son and I took it to their house. Their family – the whole extended family — was there, everyone dressed up, everyone smiling and celebrating and exchanging gifts. There were colored lights everywhere. Holtz would be interested to know that aside from a missing evergreen it looked a fair amount like Christmas. We gave them the cake. I smiled. They smiled. They acted as if we had given them the greatest Eid gift ever, their own box of cookies. It was one of the greatest holiday experiences of my life – not my holiday. Their holiday.

I grew up in a wonderful place. Edgewood, Ky., was – and still is – the ideal setting to grow up in. But I also grew up in a very small world. Nearly everyone was exactly like me. Until college I was fundamentally afraid of nearly everyone from the middle east.

As time has gone by, I haven’t forgotten how wonderful a place Edgewood and the people in it are and I haven’t forgotten the lessons I learned there. At the same time, I have allowed my world to get bigger. I have learned to welcome people into my life who look, live, love and worship differently than I do. It has made me no less American. It has made me far happier.

Lou Holtz may not want to celebrate “their” holidays. But I sure as hell do. He has no idea what he’s missing, in so many ways.

Not Sure Where to Put This – Two Debate Thoughts

Jon Kasich

Ohio Governor John Kasich had the audacity to say we maybe shouldn’t be jerks to each other. What kind of monster is he?”

Like however many million Americans, I watched last night’s Presidential (it should be noted that’s a political distinction, not a descriptor of the participants’ demeanor) Debate with a fair amount of shock and horror. It quickly became — almost literally — the first d–k-measuring contest in presidential politics history. Lincoln-Douglas it was not and likely will never be again.

The fact that the exercise turned into a crude, vile shoutfest is a simple reflection of one candidate’s participation in the process this year. Of course that candidate is Donald Trump. He has sunk the election process into the worst possible high school student government election — filled with little more than shouts and personal insults. Unfortunately other candidates — especially Marco Rubio — have followed suit. In fact, it was Rubio who started the “size matters” campaign conversation with what is likely a first of its kind d–k joke at a campaign appearance.

I detest Trump. I think he’s dangerous in a way no other candidate in my lifetime has been. A country that elects Donald Trump President gets exactly what it deserves. Follow me on Twitter for daily reflections on Trump and Trump supporters. That said, we get to official Debate Thought 1. Shockingly, maybe accidentally, near the end of the debate Trump made a reasonable, coherent and honestly important point.

Campaign-long Trump foil Megyn Kelly tried to trap Trump in a standard debate gotcha moment. The question went something like, “Mr. Trump, you used to believe this. Now you say you believe the opposite. Which is it.”

From there Trump went two directions. The first was to simply say he got more information and changed his mind. He followed that by asking something to the effect of if I believe something and decide I was wrong, what I am supposed to do, continue being wrong forever?” In the school of modern political activity, where orthodoxy is king and seemingly never existent consistency is demanded, this was a shocking moment. And an important one. That it came from Trump sort of stopped me in my tracks.

The second came when Ted Cruz hammered Trump for talking about compromising. Trump’s response was actually pretty solid. He pointed out that sometimes you have to compromise to get anything accomplished. This is anathema to modern Republican thought, where compromising is to be avoided at all cost and must be punished. This wasn’t always so. Republicans love to hail Ronald Reagan. Reagan never once had a Republican House of Representatives. One of the things that made Reagan and then-Speaker Tip O’Neill so great was that the two of them could work out their differences and settle on something that worked well enough for both sides. This is also known as getting things done. It shouldn’t be compromise Republican voters get upset about. It should be folding and getting nothing in return.

All that said, I still think Trump is an idiot and a danger to the country and can’t see a single decent reason to vote for him. That he made two coherent points in that sea of nonsense is either miraculous or an accident.

The second thought centers around John Kasich. I thought Kasich won the debate despite more limited time to talk than the other three. He sounded like a grown up surrounded by screaming teenagers. He made reasonable, coherent points and went the full two hours without embarrassing himself. You wouldn’t think that would be an accomplishment at a Presidential debate, but apparently it is. Twice he was asked specific policy questions and responded with specific way that he solved those exact problems as Governor of Ohio. Despite all of this the Twittersphere largely yawned…or worse.

After the debate, I stumbled upon this tweet:

This is from a former Congressman and current radio host. In less than 140 characters it tells you exactly what is wrong with the Republican party today.

John Kasich is a budget balancing, union disrupting, unapologetically Pro-Life candidate. In the debate he made clear that he believes that marriage should be between a man and a woman. He even indicated a preference that bakers and photographers and the like who don’t want to participate in gay marriages should have a little legal protection. The only difference between his position and Walsh’s — I presume — is that Kasich had the audacity to add the idea that even if that’s what you believe, maybe you shouldn’t treat people who don’t believe the same thing as you like crap. How dare he?

Kasich’s position is incredibly similar to one that I have espoused numerous times when guest hosing Leland Conway’s show on NewsRadio 630 in Lexington. It goes something like this: “Don’t be jerks to each other.” If that makes Kasich a liberal, then I guess I am too. If that makes Kasich unfit to be a Republican, maybe we both need a better option.

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A Dad Casts a Vote for Junior…The Red

For 11 seasons Ken Griffey, Jr. was the most exciting player in baseball...and not a Red.

For 11 seasons Ken Griffey, Jr. was the most exciting player in baseball…and not a Red.

Ken Griffey, Jr., became a Hall of Famer today. Because baseball writers are pompous jackwagons, he didn’t become the first unanimous player ever elected to the Hall.

In his prime, Griffey was one of the greatest players I’ve ever seen. He was actually the “five-tool” player that former Cincinnati Reds general manager Jim Bowden (aka “he who shall not be named,” aaka “Mr. Leather Pants”) eventually tried to convince Reds fans that players like Adam Dunn Willy Mo Pena were.

A Cincinnati native and the son of a Reds legend, Griffey was exciting, charismatic, a perennial All-Star…and a Seattle Mariner.

Then, somehow it happened. Mr. Leather Pants traded two guys we Reds fans didn’t care about (Jake Meyer and Antonio Perez), center fielder of the present and future Mike Cameron and a pitcher we all called Brett Bombko to Seattle for our native son. Junior, like his father before him was a Red. He was going to break Babe Ruth’s home run record in the Reds’ new stadium. He was going to patrol center field for years to come. And the Reds – coming off a 1999 that saw them in a one-game Wild Card playoff with the Mets – were going to be a World Series contender for the foreseeable future.

Instead, the Reds struggled in 2000, finishing 10 games out – although Junior’s numbers weren’t awful. In 2001 the injuries began. And they never seemed to stop. Instead of producing highlights and leading the Reds to glory, Griffey spent most of his time in Cincinnati on the bench collecting fan vitriol. He became “the reason” the Reds weren’t competing for titles. I’ve seen at least one person use his time in Cincinnati as a reason why he shouldn’t have been on every Hall of Fame ballot.

Oddly, it’s Junior’s time in Cincinnati that I will remember him most fondly for.

I had grown up on the Big Red Machine Reds teams of the ‘70s. I could recite their everyday lineup at 3-years-old. Until I turned 11 or so I had wanted to be Johnny Bench when I grew up. I had a Bench T-shirt jersey. Reds baseball dominated my every thought all summer. It was the thing I loved most in the world.

Stadium Walk

On our way to the final game at Riverfront Stadium (NEVER Cinergy Field).

In 2000, my older son turned 3-years-old, and Griffey eventually became his Johnny Bench. I’m not exactly certain what sent him down that path, but I’m sure he was nudged. Whatever started it, Griffey became his obsession. He had a Junior jersey T-shirt we would occasionally have to peel off of him to wash. He would wake up every morning and ask me what Junior had done the night before. We’d go over the numbers, and when we picked him up from day care his teachers would tell us about how our son had regaled them with tales of Junior’s triumphs or struggles.

The Reds became our first shared love. Like baseball has for decades, and as I’d guess Bench and the Big Red Machine did for me and my dad, Junior in a Reds uniform connected generations. Junior’s injuries were heartbreaking for me beyond being a fan. Not only did they rob baseball fans of years of one of the game’s brightest stars and Reds fans of dreamed of titles, but they took away mine and my son’s morning ritual.

My son and I still love the Reds. We’ve cheered and mumbled about teams since then. We texted each other lyrics from Reds Hooded Sweatshirt after wins in 2012. But no player ever captured his imagination the way Junior did. He inspired in my son a love of the sport that kept him playing for as long as he possibly could.

There’s no doubt that on the field the Junior era in Cincinnati failed to live up to our lofty hopes. When the trade was announced, I planned to celebrate records and playoff runs for years to come. None of those things materialized. But that trade did give me more than I ever imagined it could, something I never thought of when it happened and something I wouldn’t trade for any number of playoff games. And if that was all there was, Junior would have gotten my Hall of Fame vote.

Congratulations, Kid.

It’s the Vaught That Counts

Me and Larry Vaught

Larry and I at a tailgate before the changes at Commonwelath…and before I started running again.

First, that headline only exists because I think Community Trust Bank Sunday Morning Sports Talk producer/co-host Curtis Burch will appreciate its punniness.

I’ve been travelling and trying to get my bearings now that I’m home from Holiday travel, but I didn’t want the day to go by without throwing in my two cents on the retirement-ish transition of Sunday Morning Sports Talk co-host — and friend — Larry Vaught.

Seven-plus years ago, I walked into a radio studio at WLAP to host my first radio program since college and really my first talk radio program in…well, ever. I would be teamed with Kyle Macy and Larry Vaught. I was a nobody whom no one had ever heard of. On the other hand, Macy was a UK legend and one of my childhood idols and Vaught was one of the most respected members of the UK media corps.

While I’m not sure what either thought of me being there, I was legitimately concerned that I would accidentally do something stupid enough to ruin both of their reputations. I was equally concerned that they would both hate me. If they do, they’ve both hidden it well.

While Macy moved on from the show a while ago, Vaught still gets dialed in with us every Sunday. His sources are incredible and the rapport he develops with athletes and their families continues to amaze me. When you hear a recruit or a former athlete on our show, it’s a safe bet that Larry set that appearance up. His consistent scheduling of UK football and basketball commits, or possible commits, or their coaches or in some cases their parents is one of the reasons our show has become so popular.

It’s been an absolute honor to work with him on the show all these years. It’s a bigger honor to call him a friend. Larry got me hooked back into running again, and it’s been great to go down to Danville and Stanford to join him for races. He was far kinder to me than he needed to be as I found my way as a radio host and he’s continued to be far kinder to me than he’s needed to be ever since.

I hate that Larry’s time at the Advocate-Messenger has come to an end. Larry is a fixture in Danville and the surrounding communities. If you ever doubt that, head to any event of substance down there with him. Everybody knows him and everybody wants to say hello. He’s been a trusted part of people’s lives there for more than four decades. And I don’t think that will end.

Sunday Morning Sports Talk crew

The current Sunday Morning Sports Talk crew: Larry, Anthony White, me and Curtis Burch.

In our years on Sunday Morning Sports Talk, Larry has been the worst vacationer I have ever known. He has called in from literally everywhere he has ever gone, from Pigeon Forge to Italy. He has continued to file columns, blog posts and everything else on every vacation he’s ever taken. I fully expect him to be equally lousy at “retirement.” He’s already started a syndicated column and has expanded some of his radio reach beyond our show, and once things get worked out with vaughtsviews.com, his work will continue there.

I saw somebody ask on-line today if Larry will still be on with us on Sundays. I sort of expect Larry will still be on Sunday Morning Sports Talk long after I’m gone. As long as I’m on the show, I hope he remains as well.

Thank you, Larry, for sticking with a radio show with a nobody as a host, for being a huge part of making a success of a lifelong dream of mine and for your friendship. I wish you all the best in your “retirement,” no matter what form it takes or no matter how bad you are at actually being retired. Talk to you on Sunday.

Fear, Friendship and Few Answers

Syrian Refugees head into Kurdistan

Syrian Refugees head into Kurdistan

This has nothing to do with sports. So, “stick to sports” guy, this is a great time to go away…also to reevaluate your life.

I rarely if ever write about major international issues, primarily because I never feel smart enough to come up with a coherent thought about them, but also because I’m pretty sure they can’t be solved anyway. However, the attack in Paris, the resulting discussion/name calling concerning the Syrian refugee situation and even the recent campus unrest news have produced a swirl of thoughts and memories too long for Twitter or even Facebook. I don’t feel like starting a separate blog that I will eventually ignore for non-sports pieces (I only have time to ignore one blog, I guess), so here this one will sit.

It took me a while to wrap my head around a personal philosophy about the Syrian refugee issue in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, but things were clarified for me a little with a simple pre-meeting prayer this week. This is what I posted on Facebook the next morning:

The other day I said I didn’t have an answer to the Syrian refugee issue, and maybe I still don’t, but I have found my position on it.

I’m not the world’s most religious man, but yesterday at my Knights of Columbus meeting, Fr. Dan opened the meeting with a prayer that tied Christianity and courage and it finally became clear to me. The only truly Christian response is to accept anyone seeking refuge. We’re called to risk ourselves in love for our fellow man. When it comes right down to it, isn’t that how the whole thing got started?

That said, the nativity=refugees meme is still stupid.

Carry on.

But there’s more to it than just an appeal to the deeply flawed, marginal Christian in me. With every new attack, every new war, every new discussion of the Middle East and the people who live or come from there, there is a college memory that sticks with me. There is always what happened to Isa.

I have had, at best, a troubled personal view of the Middle East since I was four years old. The first thing I remember being truly afraid of was a scary man with a gun in his hand and a stocking on his head (and in a related childhood misunderstanding, gorillas). He was Palestinian and for about 16 years he and others in his line of work were all knew about Palestinians. Then I met Isa.

In the only sports related part of this story, I met Isa through soccer. My fraternity team played a team of Middle Eastern students and I was, honestly, nervous about it. As happens in soccer games sometimes, he and a guy on our team reached the ball at the same time as they both tried to swing through their kicks, Isa screamed and crumpled. I expected a fight that never came. His teammates checked on him and comforted our guy who was worried about the injury. The next day in the cafeteria I saw one of Isa’s teammates and asked about him, only to find he had torn his ACL.

The next time I saw Isa on campus I made it a point to say hello and wish him well. We talked for a while and struck up a friendship. Eventually we talked about where he was from, the things that happened there, my fear and why he left. He left for the reasons so many are leaving their homes now. He hated the violence, didn’t want to be a part of the violence and wanted to get to somewhere where he could lead a better, peaceful life. It was one of the most transformational friendships of my life.

It was among the first times a world I didn’t understand as well as I thought I did was opened to me in a new way. It replaced 16 years of fear with a face and sense of humanity that thankfully has stuck with me.

When the first Gulf War started, the student newspaper at Northern Kentucky University The Northerner  ran a section with students’ thoughts on what was happening. Isa was one of the students quoted. He said simply that he felt badly for the Iraqi people. That was it. There was nothing about America being wrong or Saddam Hussein being a great man. It was simply a man who had come from a place filled violence and suffering concerned for people who were about to be plunged into another one. The results were similar to a lot of what we see now.

There were calls on campus for him to be punished. And of course there were death threats. He holed himself up in his dorm room afraid to leave. I don’t know what happened after that. I believe he left school. I know I never saw or was able to speak to him again.

I live next to a Palestinian family now. I think the world of them. The father and his wife are great, and they have wonderful children. One day this past spring they celebrated their daughter’s wedding at their house. It was the first Muslim wedding celebration I had ever seen. It was – like other wedding celebrations – beautiful, filled with song and dancing and joy. I wonder if I would have seen any of that if a guy in college hadn’t torn his ACL.

There are a lot of difficult questions to answer in the world right now. I understand the fear associated with so many of them. I’ve known it almost all of my life. But I do hope that we manage to find our humanity beyond that fear. There are people who will see people coming to America from Syria or Iraq or anywhere else in the Middle East and see danger, and there is a certain legitimacy to that. I still see it too, but I also will always see Isa.