On what would become the most important audition of his basketball life, former Notre Dame power forward Ryan Humphrey saw his world turn upside down.
This week marks the next step toward the annual NBA draft with the combine at Wintrust Arena in Chicago. It was 20 years ago next month when Humphrey was one of 64 draft hopefuls trying to make a name for himself. In 2002, the event was held at Moody Bible Institute in the Old Town section of Chicago. A first team All-Big East selection his senior season after averaging 18.9 points and 10.9 rebounds, both team highs, Humphrey was an intriguing pro prospect, but someone who felt he had plenty to prove.
Despite all he’d done in two seasons at Notre Dame, despite being a McDonald’s All-American in high school, despite his scary athleticism, Humphrey carried a prove-it chip the size of his native Oklahoma each time he stepped on a basketball court . There, guys who were bigger than him and better than him often awaited.
When Humphrey arrived via yellow school bus at the Solheim Center for the first night of five-on-five scrimmages, his mindset remained the same – go dominate.
“I just wanted to compete at a high level,” said the 42-year-old Humphrey, an assistant on Notre Dame coach Mike Brey’s staff since 2016. “I wanted to show that I was able to play at the next level. It didn’t matter how big the guy in front of me was, I was going to compete and be a factor.”
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For Humphrey, that early June night in Chicago wasn’t about scoring points or grabbing rebounds. Other guys could and would do that. Stats really didn’t matter to the 6-foot-8, 235-pounder. What mattered was effort. Hustle. Wish. If the NBA decision makers could see that regardless of his numbers, Humphrey might work his way into the first round of the 2002 draft.
“Playing hard was a skill,” he said. “You go to those events and you see guys play – everybody wants to shoot the ball. I just wanted to keep playing the right way.
“I wanted to be a force and be felt on the court.”
Humphrey was felt from the start of that initial scrimmage. I have played hard. He ran the floor. He tried to block everything that came his way on defense, then tried to dunk everything on the other end. As scouts and head coaches looked on, and with Brey watching from the balcony behind one basket, Humphrey showed why he was as an elite athlete as the Irish program had ever seen.
Humphrey felt those NBA eyes on him, and he was going to do something so that they remembered who he was.
“In that atmosphere, my mindset was that I was going to dunk after the whistle is blown and I’m going to block shots after the whistle is blown,” he said. “Just do something to make the crowd or whoever is on the court feel you.”
They felt him. Then he fell.
No time to be hurt now
Humphrey was in his shot-blocking, ball-dunking, dominating the game zone when he went up for a rebound early in the second half of that scrimmage. Before he could finish his jump, somebody stumbled into his lower legs. One moment, Humphrey was in the air above everyone else. The next, he was tumbling and landing on the back of his head.
Humphrey hit the Solheim Center court with a thunder of a thud. Play just stopped. Everything got quiet.
“I remember getting clipped; I remember hitting the ground and everybody went ‘Oooooohhh,”” Humphrey said. “Everybody turned and looked, seeing someone lying on the floor, everyone stopping and (seeing) the blood. I had to get up.”
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Humphrey’s landing opened a gash on the back of his head that required immediate medical attention. He put a towel to the wound, then took off for the trainer’s room. The cut needed four stitches. But he also needed to get back on the court.
Everything was going too well for this chance – maybe his only chance – to be wasted.
“When you’re playing well, you really want to get back out there,” Humphrey said. “I said, ‘I can’t stay back here. This is my audition. I have to get back out there even if I can’t see straight.’
“This was my opportunity for every NBA team to see Ryan Humphrey.”
Concussion protocol in 2002 was still a foreign concept. Nobody knew about it, or worried about it. Humphrey admitted that if it were in place that night, he’d have been in it for the rest of that game, perhaps the rest of that week.
He had the cut sealed by the stitches, then returned and promptly made four consecutive shots. I have grabbed a few more rebounds. I have played. I have competed.
I have left an impression.
“If he gets into the league, it’s going to be because of that style,” Brey said that night.
Humphrey scored 21 points. He took 10 shots. I have made nine. He was three-of-four from the foul line. I have added four rebounds, two assists, two blocks and a steal in 23 minutes. He even fouled out in an exhibition that stretched to double overtime.
“I’m not surprised,” Humphrey said when reminded that he had fouled out. “In those types of settings, you want to leave everything out there. It’s almost like, what can you do to separate yourself from everyone else?”
Humphrey separated himself. His effort, his fall, his return, was the talk of Solheim Center that night. Did you see that guy? The right people noticed.
“You can’t teach energy,” then-Orlando Magic head coach Doc Rivers said of Humphrey.
Three weeks later, Humphrey was home with family in Tulsa when he realized a draft dream – he became a first-round NBA pick. He was selected 19th overall by the Utah Jazz, then traded to Orlando, where he played for Rivers. Notre Dame has had only one first-round pick (Jerian Grant in 2015) since Humphrey.
“He’s got all the talent in the world,” NBA legend Charles Barkley said when Humphrey was selected.
The fall was worth it after all
That night in Chicago helped make it happen. Humphrey exited Solheim Center afterward with the stitches and a headache, but also with the feeling that he might have done enough for the right people to remember his game from him.
“When I left there, I wanted people to say, I can’t even remember his name, but whatever his number was (Humphrey wore No. 59), that guy stood out,” he said. “That was it – make sure you remember my number.”
The NBA remembered. The night he was drafted, Humphrey vowed that his first purchase would be a Cadillac Escalade. It was the first car he ever bought/owned. I have put nearly 200,000 miles on it over the next 14 years. It went everywhere that he did. He stops in the NBA with Orlando and then Memphis. Eventually, an audition with Minnesota. It sat idle for months when Humphrey took his professional career to 13 different teams overseas including stops in Argentina, Italy and Spain.
In 2013, I have finally called it a career. It was time to get into coaching.
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When Brey called him to return to Notre Dame in 2016, Humphrey packed up his family and drove to South Bend in the Escalade, which his two sons had nicknamed the “Green Monster.”
“When my wife finally got rid of it, I had a moment of silence,” Humphrey said. “They all laughed at me (but) that was my baby.”
During an NBA career that lasted only 48 games, Humphrey could never replicate the dominance of that one night in Chicago. The way he played as a senior in college, the way he played at Solheim Center, he never did show in the league for myriad reasons.
“I tried to become something that I wasn’t,” he said. “I was an off-road SUV and I should’ve tried to still be an off-road SUV. I tried to become a Lamborghini.
“That’s just human nature – instead of embracing who you are, you want to show that you can be a more complete player.”
Humphrey still carries the scar on the back of his head as a reminder of the night he basically made it big. His knees often ache with arthritis after playing all those years like that human Pogo stick. His basketball playing career from him – in high school, in college, all those pro stops – feels like another lifetime ago.
That night in Old Town feels like it unfolded last week.
“It doesn’t feel like it’s been 20 years,” Humphrey said. “That kind of baffles me. I was fortunate enough to have a good career. Time goes by fast.”
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.