March 1, 2002
by Ken Kleppel
When senior captain Ryan Humphrey steps onto center stage at the Joyce Center, the decibel level in the arena is sure to rise.
A swat of an opponent’s jumper or power slam from a teammate’s dish can ignite the capacity crowd into a frenzy.
But behind each move, and symbolically etched on the surface of his leather sneakers, lies a sense of faith and family that ignites Humphrey.
“Two things that have been constant on my shoes are my mom’s initials and Romans 8:28,” says Humphrey.
“Then I add a little spice to it every time.”
Today, etched on his shoes is a personal command to “Never Forget.”
While in reference to a narrow three-point defeat at Rutgers, Humphrey thinks of the passage in terms of the bigger picture.
“Never forget that we lost this game, but never forget where you come from,” says Humphrey. Humphrey refuses to forget his roots.
A former McDonald’s and Parade All-American from Tulsa, Okla., Humphrey traveled across the Turner Turnpike to Norman where he promptly earned all-Big 12 honors in two seasons with the Sooners.
But he brought along to Notre Dame something more important than 54 career starts and a trophy room’s worth of individual honors. On that car drive from the Great Plains to the Golden Dome sat twin sister Robyn, who simultaneously transferred with Ryan.
“She’s been my best friend, biggest supporter and biggest critic all at the same time,” says Humphrey of Robyn, who graduated in May with a degree in psychology.
“She’s helped me get through the tough times. She’s been there for the good times. Right now, we’re just rolling and having fun.”
“Robyn and Ryan have a strong relationship,” says senior captain David Graves.
“She’s sacrificed a lot for him. She’s spread her wings a little bit coming here. She’s changed a lot in just the two years I’ve known them. It’s been a good move for Ryan basketball-wise, and both Ryan and Robyn personally.”
Humphrey’s transfer proved much more than just a good move for Notre Dame basketball.
The addition of Humphrey added a dimension of play that drew immediate comparisons to that of former Irish forward LaPhonso Ellis, but one that would wait until the 2000 opening tip-off before it could debut in an Irish jersey.
But Humphrey re-discovered another dimension of himself, as well.
“Never take anything for granted,” says Humphrey.
“Things can happen that you really don’t expect to happen. The year I transferred, it was tough because something that I tried to pride myself in was basketball and it was taken away. I had to learn who I was. My faith grew during the tough times like that.”
Robyn Humphrey agrees.
“My family is well-rooted spiritually,” says Robyn.
“Our parents instilled in us that all we have comes from God. Ryan is really devoted to and grounded in his spirituality.”
While a sense of faith and family drive Humphrey away from the court, a sense of humor drives Humphrey on the court. He seems to thrive upon a carefree, “catch-me-if-you-can” style of play.
And his play is not the only thing that provides talk around the water cooler.
“Some people say I’m a trash-talker, and other people think I just love the game,” says Humphrey.
“I just go out there and am myself. I feel like I’m at my best when I’m talking, having fun and enjoying myself because it’s a game. When I’m out there on the basketball court, it is kind of like my release from everyday life.”
“He has a great sense of humor,” says Irish head coach Mike Brey.
“He’s at his best when he’s smiling on the court and enjoying it. If he gets uptight or frustrated, he’s not as productive. That’s easy to say and hard to do when you’re a senior and your days are numbered. You want to have a good year, and you want to play past college basketball, but I think he’s kept a real fresh attitude about enjoying it when he goes on the floor.”
Notre Dame’s 116-111 quadruple-overtime win at Georgetown provides the most stirring example of such spirit – a contest in which Humphrey scored 23 points and recorded 14 rebounds in 54 minutes, including playing the final 25 minutes with four fouls to outlast Hoya counterparts Mike Sweetney and Wesley Wilson.
The go-to-guy in the four-overtime marathon, Humphrey made several key baskets while, at the same time, flashing his giant smile and relaxed demeanor down the stretch.
But no smile seemed as bright as the one given to Brey as the two embraced alongside the Notre Dame bench with just seconds remaining in the final overtime.
“He’s the same Ryan all the time on and off the court,” says senior captain Harold Swanagan.
“He sets everybody at ease. If we’re down by five with three minutes to go, he’s cracking jokes instead of trying to concentrate totally on the game because he knows that if we are calm, loose and ready to play, it will be easier for us to come back. He sets it up like that for us all the time.”
“My attitude in the lockerroom is that there is a time and place for everything,” says Humphrey.
“There is a time and place to be having fun and joking around. But then there is a time and place to be physical and go to war.”
Then, over the course of the past two seasons, a glance at the box score gives Humphrey the distinction as its commander-in-chief.
A third-team all-BIG EAST selection as a junior, Humphrey averaged over 14 points and nine rebounds per game as the team’s second-leading scorer and rebounder. He started all 29 contests in 2000-01, missing only the Rutgers tilt (Feb. 14) due to an ankle sprain suffered in the final minutes at West Virginia (Feb. 11). Humphrey scored his 1,000th career point against Connecticut (Feb. 26) and notched his 700th career rebound against Mississippi (March 18) in the NCAA Midwest Regional. His 79 blocked shots ranked as the second-highest, single-season total in school history.
“My motivation is to always try to get better. It feels so much better to prove people wrong. I just love the game and I feel that God has given me a lot of athletic ability. At one point I want to have my skill level match my athleticism.”
If it is within Humphrey’s ability, then it is sure to happen. Before and after every practice, sometimes for hours, Humphrey works on his game on the practice floor of the Joyce Center’s Pit.
“Hard work pays off. I always try to be one of the first guys here and one of the last ones to leave. I like to shoot and I like to get better. I’m a firm believer that you practice like you play.”
Humphrey may have saved his best for last in 2001-02. The team leader in points and rebounds, with 18.8 points and 10.4 rebounds per game, Humphrey provides arguably the BIG EAST’s most dominating front-court presence. He leads the conference in total rebounds, ranks fourth in blocked shots, and fifth in field goal percentage.
“I try to do whatever is needed. In games when scoring is needed, I try to score. When I need to get a lot of rebounds for us to win, then that’s what I do. I make the extra pass when I have to. I feel that when I get double-teamed, it gets my guy a shot because I know they can knock shots down.”
And if there is a category for a player most valuable to underclassmen,then Humphrey leads that one as well.
“He may be having his biggest year in the area of leadership,” says Brey.
“One of the reasons Chris Thomas, Jordan Cornette, Torrian Jones and Tom Timmermans are playing so well is because Ryan nurtured that in the lockerroom, off the court and at team meals. That’s exhausting to play the way he plays and to do what he does off the court. He is thinking about everything for our basketball team and I really respect that.”
Cornette, a freshman forward, notes the influence.
“Not only is he a teammate of mine, but he’s also a teacher. He teaches me how to defend other college post guys in practice. I have to guard him everyday in practice, so basically he’ll put a move on me, and he’ll score on me and then he’ll go back and tell me how to defend it. It just improves my game, every day, day in and day out. He knows how much of an influence he can have on his teammates.”
Humphrey returns the compliment.
“He’s grown up a lot,” says Humphrey of Cornette.
“Truthfully, he’s shocked more people than Chris Thomas. Chris received a lot of publicity and he’s lived up to it. But with Jordan, he was kind of a mystery at first. All he’s done is come out, perform and improve. During the stretch when Harold went out, we didn’t miss a beat because Jordan stepped up and made big plays.”
Humphrey is the difference maker for Thomas as well.
“He’s humbled me a lot,” says Thomas.
“He came from the same situation I did as a McDonald’s All-American. I’ve seen him at his lowest and he’s seen me at my lowest. He’s befriended me at times when others doubted the team. He’s been my mentor the whole year. He’s just been the rock of our team.”
Together, Thomas and Humphrey have helped spark the Irish offensive effort throughout the season.
“Chris is a talented player and I like playing with him,” says Humphrey.
“We talk to each other before the games. I call him out and he calls me out. We both challenge each other and when two good players challenge each other, you don’t want to let the other person down.”
“When he is talking and communicating with teammates, his play certainly steps up to another level and nobody can stop him,” responds Thomas.
“We know every game he is going to do something spectacular and something we’ve never seen before to get the crowd going, to get us going. Without those kinds of plays, we would be a totally different team.”
Serving as the energy guy comes natural for Humphrey.
“I’m kind of like the ‘excitement’. I try to be exciting with dunks, blocked shots, smiling, talking and just being charismatic,” says Humphrey.
“I try to do what comes natural to me. If it’s not natural and I don’t feel like it is part of something that helps the team win, I won’t do it.”
The cameras may flash and the concourse bleachers may rumble, but at the heart of a colorful style of play beats a football player’s mentality.
The recipient of Oklahoma’s 1997 Jim Thorpe Award recognizing the state’s top amateur athlete, Humphrey earned Parade All-America honors as a tight end at Tulsa’s Booker T. Washington High School, as well as scholarship offers to play Division I football. Like the award’s namesake, Humphrey’s raw athletic ability allows the versatile player success on all fields of play.
“[My background in] football has helped me a lot with the physicalness of basketball, the ability to get in there and get in the mix of things. I wouldn’t consider myself a dirty player, but I feel like I am a scrappy player. I go in there and I stick my head in where I have to. I am not afraid of contact.”
On the brink of a repeat trip to the NCAA Tournament, such an attitude leaves an indelible mark on the program.
“He just brings that confidence and swagger to a team that every good team needs,” says sophomore guard Chris Markwood.
“All teams need one person they could look to and, as they’re looking at him, their confidence goes up in themselves. For us, it is Ryan.”
Robyn recognizes the influence as well.
“He just has a fun attitude, almost playful, and that’s what attracts people to him. He is like a magnet. Everybody wants to be around him.”
“I enjoy life. I enjoy everything I do,” says Humphrey.
“And I have fun doing it.” And we’ve had fun watching it.