When Life Happens, The NBA D-League Keeps Dreams Going

Ryan Humphrey
Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty Images

by Stuart Winchester, D-League.com Never give up.

Not when you go from first-round pick to cut from the team. Not when your leg makes a mysterious pop and it looks like your playing days are done. Not when everyone tells you it’s over and you should just stay home.

Never.

For Ryan Humphrey, never is a way of life.

His life was a dream. Drafted 19th out of Notre Dame in 2002, he played for Orlando and Memphis over the next three years. It’s where anyone who had dreamed of playing ball since they’d dreamed of anything would want to be.

But then, as dreams so often do, his took a drastic, unexpected twist. The last one cut from the Timberwolves camp, he made the rounds in Europe – Spain, Italy, Cyprus – and then, “pop.” He felt something go out in his leg.

Pop.

Just like that, his quad tendon was torn, and he was back in Chicago. But Humphrey isn’t the type to focus on the negative. He was close to his doctors, living with his fiancée and their newborn son. He rehabbed and played ball with the lunchtime crowd of lawyers and doctors.

And then, one day, “pop” again.

He’d torn the same tendon again. That, he learned, is very rare. Humphrey’s doctor invited him to his home one evening after the MRI. He knew that meant bad news. Good news comes over the phone; bad news comes in person. He was right. Humphrey’s doctor told him he could retire or undergo surgery.

Humphrey could have walked away right there. He had a degree from Notre Dame. He’d made a lot of money in the NBA and overseas. He had a ton of connections. He could retire and live a good life.

But he was young yet. He still had the fire, the passion. He knew others, like the Detroit Pistons’ Antonio McDyess, had recovered from worse.

So he had the surgery. He did the rigorous physical therapy, relocated to his hometown of Tulsa, continued to practice with the lunchtime crowd, and practiced with the University of Tulsa men’s basketball team. His family and his faith carried him through. “How you look at life after you have kids is totally different,” Humphrey said. “My son took my mind off the surgery. Instead of having a pity party, I just played with him. He doesn’t care if I ever play basketball again.”

But Humphrey wanted to play again, badly. He thought about going to play in Turkey, but ultimately told his agent that he didn’t want to uproot his family. Still, he was a competitor, and he wanted to get back on the court. The NBA D-League’s Tulsa 66ers were right around the corner. So at age 29, he’s back. Back on the court, back up against some of the best competition in the world. Back to the adrenaline. Back to the game he loves. Back to the brotherhood. “I love the camaraderie; love just being in the locker room,” Humphrey said.

But it’s being on the court that really gets him going. After all, he wasn’t supposed to be back here. He wasn’t supposed to have that injury and that surgery and then be in a position to be back in the NBA. But Humphrey doesn’t really care about what he isn’t supposed to be doing. “It feels so much better to prove people wrong than to prove them right,” he said. And he’s proving them wrong by averaging 12.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 1.8 assists through Jan. 7.

“He works really hard,” said 66ers team President Jim Brylewski. “He’s been putting up numbers and you can see him getting healthier every single day. The progress has been great for him and for us.”

Still, Humphrey knows this is going to take time. “I’m not as explosive as I was. I show glimpses, but I’m not there yet. I told myself the first few games not to be too hard on myself. Just try to get better each game.”

So far he has been. Humphrey said his timing is getting better. His mind is still focused, still there, even if his body is catching up.

Like so many NBA D-League vets, the guys who have been to the NBA and all over the world to chase the dream, he feels an obligation to set an example for the younger guys. Plus Humphrey is a family man, and there are certain things that he doesn’t need anymore.

“A lot of guys think that being a pro is just what you do on the court, but it’s off the court as well. Now I have a family, and there are certain things I don’t want to expose them to. If you do the right things, then good things will happen to you, but you have to stay away from the different temptations, manage your money.”

Maybe there’s no better place to make a comeback than in your hometown, in front of your family and friends. He’s back to where he first became a McDonald’s All-American, close to where he played his first college ball at the University of Oklahoma. The biggest challenge day to day is handling all the ticket requests. “I’m the only guy from Tulsa, so the other players are real lenient with giving me tickets,” Humphrey said.

“It’s great to have a guy of his caliber with local ties. Ryan is a great presence down low, but he’s a great influence in the locker room as well, especially for the younger guys,” said Brylewski. “We have made a concerted effort to get good, clean guys with good reputations, and he exemplifies that.”

“He’s a low-maintenance, high-character guy,” said Oklahoma City Thunder Manager of Minor League Operations Brandon Barnett, echoing and summarizing what everyone else says about Humphrey.

In an interview with Humphrey in the lobby of the Provo Marriot the day the 66ers flew in from a stop in Reno for the NBA D-League Showcase, he displayed that intangible thing called character to a remarkable degree. Poised, confident, steady, he’s a commanding presence even when seated in a chair. It is hard to doubt that he will find a way to make the NBA happen again.

It’s been nearly two years since the surgery. Everyone told Humphrey that it would take two years to heal. So with another baby on the way and who knows what else ahead, he can only plow onward. “I don’t feel like the final chapter is done,” he said. “Anybody that’s been through something knows that you go through obstacles to achieve your goals. If you love it enough, you don’t give up.”

Don’t ever give up.

Read The First Three Editions Of A Day In The Life:

A Day In The Life Volume One: Sioux Falls Skyforce Owners
A Day In The Life Volume Two: Kevin Carroll
A Day In The Life Volume Three: Make Way For Brent Petway