In the eight years Kenny Walker and Wes Strader spent co-hosting a syndicated radio call-in show after University of Kentucky men’s basketball and football games, the ex-UK basketball star came up with a nickname for the unlikely duo.
“I started calling us ‘The New Millennium Odd Couple,’” Walker recalled Friday. “That really was what we were.”
No one in Lexington was more affected by the death last Tuesday of Strader, 79, the longtime radio play-by-play voice of the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, than Walker.
In an emotional Facebook post, Walker, 53, wrote of Strader: “Wes was not only my co-host, he was a great friend, a great mentor and a father figure.”
The circumstances that brought together a Bowling Green radio personality and the second all-time leading scorer (2,080 points) in UK men’s hoops history as talk show co-hosts from 2000 through 2008 were almost as unlikely as the friendship that ensued.
From 1964 through 2000, Strader was radio play-by-play man for WKU men’s basketball and football. But after Strader’s 36th year as “Voice of the Hilltoppers” in 1999-2000, WKU made a business decision that abruptly ended his run.
Western chose to go with a larger media company than Strader’s as its radio rights holder. It meant more stations carrying Western games and more revenue available to the university from advertising sales.
However, it also meant Strader, who had given his life to WKU sports, was unceremoniously bumped aside. Says Walker: “Everybody knows that was a very disappointing time for Wes.”
Rather than stew over hard feelings from the parting, Strader — a University of Kentucky graduate — concluded the best plan was to just move on.
He bid for and won the rights to carry UK games on the Bowling Green radio station he then owned. Strader then launched a postgame call-in show that he syndicated around the state to follow the network coverage of Kentucky Wildcats football and men’s basketball games.
David Jaggers, a mutual friend in Bowling Green of both Strader and Walker, suggested the announcer bring on board the ex-UK star as co-host.
“Wes was proposing that we travel together to most of the games, and I was kind of like ‘I don’t know,’” Walker recalls. “I was reluctant because I really didn’t know him, and there was a big age difference. But, thankfully, I said yes.
Traveling the South to UK football and men’s basketball games, the white son of a Kentucky dairy farmer who had become a successful businessman and a black former NBA slam dunk champion from rural Georgia clicked in a manner neither expected.
“Wes kind of treated me like his son,” Walker said. “When you travel like we did, you talk about a lot of things.”
In their time following UK, Walker and Strader had some epic experiences. Once, after a Kentucky basketball game at Florida, they got caught in a thick, soupy fog after leaving the arena.
After they made it to the interstate, a truck hauling oranges spilled its load all over the road. “There were oranges everywhere,” Walker says.
With their radio show literally minutes from starting, the two were stuck in fog and oranges on an interstate and tension was mounting.
Finally, they saw a sliver of light and drove toward it.
That’s how “Cats Talk” came to be broadcast from the parking lot of a Waffle House amid a Florida “fog out.”
“Wes had this little radio transmitter box and he hooked his cellphone up to it and we were good to go,” Walker says.
In 2008, the travels and good times for Walker and Strader ended.
To the credit of both WKU and Strader, the ill feelings from their parting were put aside and Western brought the broadcaster back in the fold as the host of pregame and postgame radio call-in shows before and after the Hilltoppers played.
At the time he was mulling whether to return to WKU, Strader said “the hardest part for me in deciding to go back (to Western) is not being with Kenny anymore.”
When you stop working together, it tends to create distance in a job-based relationship.
“I hadn’t spoken as much with Wes these last few years and I really regret that,” Walker said Friday. “I didn’t realize his health had deteriorated as much as it had, and by the time I found out, he was in hospice care and it was too late.”
Looking back on his time as part of “The New Millennium Odd Couple” traveling to Kentucky Wildcats games with Strader, Walker says it is among the periods of his life he cherishes most.
“Other than Joe B. Hall,” Walker says of his former UK coach, “no one in Kentucky has meant more to me as a friend, mentor, really a father figure, than Wes.”