In what would become the most important audition of his life as a basketball player, former Notre Dame forward Ryan Humphrey had his world turned upside down.
This week marks the next step toward the annual NBA draft with the combine at Chicago’s Wintrust Arena. It was 20 years ago next month when Humphrey was one of 64 draft prospects trying to make a name for himself. In 2002, the event was held at the Moody Bible Institute in the Old Town section of Chicago. A first-team All-Big East selected 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 a lot to prove.
Despite everything he had done in two seasons at Notre Dame, despite being a McDonald’s All-American in high school, despite his scary athleticism, Humphrey wore a proof chip the size of his native Oklahoma every time he he was walking on a basketball court. There, guys bigger than him and better than him often waited for him.
When Humphrey arrived via a yellow school bus at the Solheim Center for the first night of the five-on-five scrimmage, his mindset remained the same – go dominate.
“I just wanted to compete at a high level,” said Humphrey, 42, assistant to Notre Dame coaching staff Mike Brey since 2016. “I wanted to show that I was capable of playing at the top level. the size of the guy in front of me, I was going to compete and be a postman.
► Discuss:How about a six hour transcript?
For Humphrey, that early June night in Chicago wasn’t about scoring points or grabbing rebounds. Other guys could and would do that. The stats didn’t really matter for the 6-foot-8, 235-pound. What mattered was the effort. Hustle. Desire. If NBA decision makers could see that, regardless of his numbers, Humphrey could fight his way to the first round of the 2002 draft.
“Playing hard was a skill,” he said. “You go to these events and you see guys playing – everyone wants to shoot the ball. I just wanted to keep playing the right way.
“I wanted to be a force and make myself felt on the pitch.”
Humphrey was felt from the start of that initial scrum. He played hard. He walked the floor. He tried to block everything that came his way in defense and then tried to dunk everything on the other end. As scouts and head coaches looked on, and as Brey watched from the balcony behind a basket, Humphrey showed why he was an elite athlete the likes of which the Irish program had never seen.
Humphrey felt the NBA’s eyes on him, and he was going to do something to make them remember who he was.
“In that atmosphere, my mindset was that I was going to dive after the whistle and I was going to block shots after the whistle,” he said. “Just do something so the crowd or whoever is on the pitch feels you.”
They felt it. Then he fell.
No time to be hurt now
Humphrey was in his blocking shot, dunking the ball, dominating the playfield when he grabbed a rebound early in the second half of this scrum. Before he could complete his jump, someone tripped over his legs. For a moment, Humphrey was in the air above everyone. The next day he was falling and landing on the back of his head.
Humphrey hit Solheim center court with a thunderous thump. The game has just stopped. Everything became quiet.
“I remember being cut; I remember I hit the ground and everyone left ‘Oooooohhh,”” Humphrey said. “Everyone turned and looked, seeing someone lying on the floor, everyone stopping and (seeing) the blood. I had to get up. »
► More:Irish add former Niagara guard Marcus Hammond
Humphrey’s landing opened a gash to the back of his head which required immediate medical attention. He put a towel over the wound, then left for the trainer’s room. The cut required four stitches. But he also needed to get back on the pitch.
Everything was going too well for this chance – perhaps his only chance – to be wasted.
“When you play well, you really want to come back,” Humphrey said. “I said, ‘I can’t stay here. It’s my audition. I have to go back even if I can’t see clearly.
“It was an opportunity for every NBA team to see Ryan Humphrey.”
The concussion protocol in 2002 was still a foreign concept. No one knew or cared. Humphrey admitted that if he had been in place that night, he would have been there for the rest of that game, maybe the rest of this week.
He had the cut sealed with the stitches, then came back and quickly fired four straight shots. He picked up a few more rebounds. He played. He competed.
He 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 hits. He made nine. He was three of four from the foul line. He added four rebounds, two assists, two blocks and a steal in 23 minutes. He even made a mistake in an exhibition that lasted two extra hours.
“I’m not surprised,” Humphrey said when reminded that he fould. “In these types of settings, you want to leave everything there. It’s almost like, what can you do to separate yourself from everyone? »
Humphrey separated. His effort, his fall, his return were talked about at the Solheim Center that evening. Have you seen this 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 at home with his family in Tulsa when he fulfilled a draft dream – he became an NBA first-round pick. He was selected 19th overall by the Utah Jazz, then traded to Orlando, where he played for Rivers. Notre Dame has only had 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 that happen. Humphrey then left the Solheim Center with stitches and a headache, but also with the feeling that he might have done enough for the right people to remember his game.
“When I went out there I wanted people to say, I can’t even remember his name, but whatever his number was (Humphrey wore No. 59), this guy stood out,” he said. -he declares. “That was it – make sure you remember my number.”
The NBA remembers that. The night he was drafted, Humphrey swore his first purchase would be a Cadillac Escalade. It was the first car he ever bought/owned. He covered nearly 200,000 miles over the next 14 years. He went wherever he did. Stops in the NBA with Orlando then Memphis. Finally, an audition with Minnesota. He sat idle for months as Humphrey enjoyed his professional career with 13 different teams overseas, including stops in Argentina, Italy and Spain.
In 2013, he finally called it a career. It was time to start coaching.
►Down:It was a fun run from Notre Dame
When Brey called him back to Notre Dame in 2016, Humphrey packed up with his family and drove to South Bend in the Escalade, which his two sons had dubbed 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) it was my baby.”
In an NBA career that only lasted 48 games, Humphrey could never replicate that night’s dominance in Chicago. The way he played as a senior in college, the way he played at Solheim Center, he never showed up in the league for a myriad of reasons.
“I tried to become something that I wasn’t,” he said. “I was an off-road SUV and I should have tried to always be an off-road SUV. I tried to become a Lamborghini.
“It’s just human nature – instead of embracing who you are, you want to show that you can be a more complete player.”
Humphrey still wears the scar on the back of his head as a reminder of the night he raised it. His knees often suffer from arthritis after playing all these years as this human pogo stick. His career as a basketball player — in high school, in college, all those professional stops — feels like another lifetime.
This night in the old town feels like it happened last week.
“It’s not like it’s been 20 years,” Humphrey said. “That kind of baffles me. I was lucky to have a great career. Time flies. »
Follow South Bend Tribune columnist and NDInsider Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.