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Champions Classic Memories: My 36 Hours in New York City

By Dr. John Huang

“If you’re going to the 9/11 Memorial, I’d be honored if you find my friend and take a picture.”—Alan Cutler

I was thinking about those words as I stared out my airplane window at the daunting Manhattan skyline. What must it have been like for those hijacked passengers on those ill-fated 9/11 flights? How terrifying could it be for all those innocent people working in the World Trade Center that morning when the planes hit, and the towers came down?

One of the 2,996 lives tragically lost that day was that of Kenneth W. Van Auken, a college roommate and close friend of Alan Cutler who worked for the financial firm of Cantor Fitzgerald. I’ve gotten to know Alan pretty well over the past year. I know how much Kenny’s death affected him. I wanted to honor Alan’s request in the worst way during my short time here in the city.

New York here I come

The city is none other than New York City—the Big Apple. I’m here primarily for the Champions Classic. It’s the tip-off to the college basketball season featuring #1-ranked Michigan State versus #2-ranked Kentucky. I’ve never attended a Kentucky game at Madison Square Garden, so I wanted to make sure I checked that off my bucket list.

The trip started early enough on Tuesday morning with a non-stop Delta flight from Lexington arriving at LaGuardia at just before 8 am. My return flight isn’t until the next evening, so that gives me a full thirty-six hours to gorge myself on ethnic food, attend the game, and experience the city as much as time will allow.

Uber rates are ridiculous

They say the best way to really get to know a city is through its public transportation system—so I plunk down some change for a Metro card, giving me access to all the bus and rail lines during my stay. It’s just as well because I’m way too cheap to pay $60 for a single uber ride into the city. Plus, I’m traveling by myself with just a single overnight on the itinerary, so I don’t have any luggage to weigh me down. It actually feels extremely liberating.

New Yorkers have a reputation of being a bit introverted, neurotic, and strange. If that’s true, then I should fit right in. We all kind of just keep to ourselves on the subway ride in. Everybody is content to either stare off into space or gaze mesmerizingly at their cellphone screens. We’re packed in here like sardines. It smells like sardines too—a slightly noxious aroma of body odor, kimchi, and stale urine wafting through our E-line train car.

Public transportation is the only way to go…well, it’s the cheapest way to go.

Chinatown brings out the worst in me

New York is not only the city that never sleeps, it’s the city that never stops eating. There’s every kind of food imaginable, located everywhere throughout the city, available anytime you want it. I’ve had an insatiable craving for Chinese dumplings, so I hightail it down to Chinatown for the best of the best. I can’t help myself and stop for a bowl of noodle soup as an appetizer—the unmistakable exotic flavors of the spicy broth blending perfectly with the minced pork, fish balls, and baby bok choy. We’re just getting started, bro!

Nice appetizer. What’s for dinner?

There’s something about dumplings that bring out the worst in me. I just can’t get enough of them. Steamed, boiled, or pan-fried—I love them all. There are two hole-in-wall, four-star-rated establishments recommended by my Yelp App located within a block of each other. I try them both out—overindulging myself to the tune of 32 dumplings over the course of the next sixty-five minutes. Sometimes I even surprise myself.

You’d think I’d be stuffed by now, but that’s not the case. New York is known for its pizza, and I don’t discriminate between ethnic foods. I pick up a slice of Rose’s famous Penn Station cheese pizza on the way back uptown. It’s cheap, filling, and deliciously diet killing.

The world’s most famous arena

A packed house and a national television audience looks on as Kentucky takes on Michigan State at Madison Square Garden.

Finally I’m pleasantly satisfied, and it’s off to the game. You all know what happened—a glorious evening at the world’s most famous arena as Kentucky pulls off the upset of top-ranked Michigan State. It’s Tyrese Maxey’s coming out party—the Wildcats’ freshman guard scoring a record 26 points in his official collegiate debut. BBN floods out of Madison Square Garden well after midnight, their moods quite different than after the woodshed beating they suffered last year at the hands of Duke. What a difference a year makes.

9/11 Memorial

After a fitful night’s sleep at the flea-bag Hotel Pennsylvania, I’m ready to complete the third and final leg of my mission. The 911 Memorial and Museum is an extremely well-done, poignant, and reverent tribute to the lives lost due to the catastrophic events of that beautifully clear and crisp Tuesday morning. We all remember exactly where we were when we heard that America was being attacked. The museum painstakingly brings all those memories crashing back down on us.

It’s bittersweet. On one hand I want so much to acknowledge the courage and bravery of the individuals involved–especially the first responders. On the other hand, it’s just too painful to re-experience all the events all over again. Those chilling last phone messages left by the victims were way more than I could handle.

The memorial fountains occupy the approximate footprints of where the original towers stood. It’s a resurrection of sorts, representing the resolve of the city to rebuild, but never forget.

The centerpiece of the memorial is a masterful design—two huge fountain wells approximating the footprint of the original North and South Towers. To me, the water continuously cascading down the vertical walls are symbolic of the endless tears of family and friends left behind. The void in the center can never be filled. The bronze parapets surrounding the fountains is engraved with the names of the victims. It’s sobering walking around reading them off. I make it three-quarters of the way around when I finally see the name I’m searching for.

Kenneth W. Van Auken died on September 11, 2001—but his spirit lives on. It lives on in the lives of his wife and children. It certainly also lives on in his dear and wonderful friends. I never knew Kenny, but through Alan and my 36 hours in New York, I’ll always be connected to his legacy. If you happen to be reading this, you undoubtedly will be too.     

Dr. John Huang
Dr. John Huang is a retired orthodontist and military veteran. As a lifelong Wildcat fan, a fledgling author, and an occasional guest host of Just the Cats Radio, he's now living out his dream as a UK Sports columnist. Dr. Huang also covers professional sports on a regional level. You can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs or contact him If you enjoy his writing, you can also read more at

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