MEN'S BASKETBALL: Sweet Release
Former BC Forward Matt Humphrey Eyes The NBA After Trying Collegiate Journey
By Austin Tedesco
He walked out of the locker room at Philips Arena in Atlanta, headphones around his neck, heading to board the bus by himself. It was March of 2012, and Matt Humphrey had already changed out of his Boston College basketball uniform for the last time.
In the room he had just left, nine freshmen spoke of their disappointment in a 9-22 finish and the first-round victory they had just suffered at the hands of North Carolina State in the ACC Tournament. But their words were all delivered in an upbeat tone, positivity clearing its way through the heartache.
Humphrey was stopped by a reporter in the hallway on the way to the bus. The reporter asked him if he had time to talk, and Humphrey leaned his back against the wall for support, the kind of support he could never secure during the first four years of his college basketball career. He was in his own world. Slowly, he answered questions about next year, what would be his last as a college athlete. His voice came across calmly, but his body language screamed frustration.
'It's real trying,' Humphrey said of his first year on the court at BC, having sat out as a transfer the season before. 'Especially when I'm used to a certain way of doing stuff. I understand everybody's young, but we played 30 games this year, you know? We should have, toward the end of the season, tried to come together-which we did, for the most part. We got a few wins.
'It is what it is.'
Humphrey's five-year college journey, which ended last spring in Morgantown, West Va., was a constant tug-of-war-between frustration and reluctant acceptance, team goals and individuals goals, health, and injury. As Humphrey finished talking to the reporter, he took his bag and continued on his way to the bus.
No one knew it yet, but he was about to pack those bags and move again. The Chicago native had already left Oregon after his first two years in Eugene, and two more years at BC led to one last try at West Virginia.
Traveling 6,359 miles across the country and back, Humphrey's collegiate journey escaped him more than it came to an end. His story is one of bad luck, tough breaks, and friction.
One and a half years after he got on the bus in Atlanta, Humphrey is trying to make his way onto an NBA roster.
'A guy that played at three big-time Division I schools should have a chance,' Humphrey said in a phone interview this week. He's thoughtful and reflective, wishing he could've had better luck in college basketball, but there is no spite in his voice.
He has a workout scheduled with the New York Knicks' Development League affiliate next month, but to understand how a player with a smooth jumper, a pro build at 6-foot-5, strong ball-handling, solid defensive skills, and quick hands is working his way onto the Eerie BayHawks roster in late September, you have to start in Eugene.
A Chicago connection with head coach Ernie Kent led Humphrey to join the Ducks in 2008, but right when he arrived Kent was already on the hot seat. Oregon finished second to last in the Pac-10 during the 2010 regular season and then lost to Washington State in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament, all of which led to Kent's firing.
'I didn't know what to do, honestly,' Humphrey told The Boston Globe in 2011. 'It was just a lot of intangible things that I couldn't necessarily control. At the same time, I still had to protect myself and make sure I was still in a good situation.'
Humphrey had an impressive start to his career, playing in all 31 games his freshman year showing off his range from beyond the arc and his smart instincts on defense. He missed 12 games from late November to mid-January during his sophomore season recovering from injury, but he played well in the 19 games in which he appeared. When he decided to transfer after Kent was let go, plenty of schools came calling.
Humphrey's name came up when first-year BC head coach Steve Donahue was looking through a list of transfers. Donahue had briefly coached Humphrey during a few practice sessions for the USA Basketball U-18 team on which Humphrey played. Donahue thought Humphrey would be a good fit and Humphrey agreed, so he packed his bags for Boston.
'It's been really tough bouncing all around the United States, but I just thought it was the best decision at the time,' Humphrey said in the middle of the 2011-12 season at BC. 'If I was going to start fresh in a new place, BC was that place.'
He sat out the required transfer season in 2010-11, struggling at times since he didn't feel like a full member of the team. Not only could he not play in games, but he also couldn't travel or work his way into the starting squad in practice. As a bit of a saving grace, Humphrey got to act as the opposing team's best player against the first unit. An elaborate and talented scorer, Humphrey relished the role, especially going against future first-round draft pick Reggie Jackson. One day Humphrey might be Duke's Nolan Smith, the next day he could be UNC's Harrison Barnes.
'I got Reggie ready for every single game,' Humphrey said. 'We would beat the crap out of Reggie every day, because we'd really work on preparing for the next game. That's all I really had to focus on.'
The unique role gave Humphrey an avenue in which he could thrive. An all-around scorer, Humphrey doesn't have just one specialty for creating points. He can beat his man off the bounce and use angles to finish around the rim, and he also has a near perfect shooting-form, his body going up and coming down in the same fluid motion on his release. When his teammates cut to the rim, Humphrey usually finds a way to hit them in stride.
'[The scout team] was my role, and I did a pretty good job at it and definitely developed some chemistry with those guys,' he said, 'but nine of those guys left and nine new guys came in.'
After that first season, Jackson left early for the draft, and more players departed as transfers. Only Humphrey, Peter Rehnquist, Gabe Moton, Danny Rubin, and eventually John Cahill remained on the roster for 2011-12. None of the five averaged much more than four points per game, and Humphrey was coming out of a full year off.
Donahue filled the roster with nine new freshmen, and there was plenty of hype around their arrival. Humphrey said that before the season Donahue asked him to play point guard, which excited a player who had gotten used to waiting for the ball at the small forward position. He'd be able to run the show and help the younger players along.
That's not how it worked out, though.
'I wasn't expecting that to be like that,' Humphrey said of his one season playing in a BC uniform, 'but it is what it is."
Humphrey slowly saw his role on the team change as the 2011-12 season progressed. The ball-handling got passed on to freshman point guard Jordan Daniels, and more of the scoring was facilitated to guard Lonnie Jackson, forward Ryan Anderson, and center Dennis Clifford. By the time conference play started, Humphrey's main role was defense and rebounding. In order to get his shots, he'd have to start gunning when he had the chance for a decently clean look.
'Game plans change, coaching and things change,' Humphrey said during the season. 'I've got to go and find other ways to win.
'I want to get wins. Of course, I want to excel individually, but I want to win. If that means I'm scoring 30 a night and we're winning, that's cool. If I'm scoring 15 a night and we're winning, that's cool. If I'm scoring 10, that's cool.'
On some nights, though, he would have to push to even hit that double-digit mark. He averaged around 11 points per game for the Eagles, but that was a result of some impressive scoring outputs followed by either inefficient nights or outings when he would only get five or six shot attempts.
Humphrey was saying the right things, but he was still visibly frustrated. Adding to that frustration, the Eagles weren't winning. They entered ACC play with a record of 5-9, and then had a stretch of 10 losses in 11 conferences games.
At times, it appeared that on the court Humphrey wasn't getting along with his younger teammates, but he says that wasn't the case.
'They're my boys,' he said. 'Those are my boys, man. We had a great relationship, I feel like.
'Most guys that are seniors would be like, 'Oh I'm not going to be friends with these guys.' I felt like I couldn't afford to be like that on my team. All we had was freshmen. Why wouldn't I be their friend and look out for them?'
The freshmen didn't have cars, so Humphrey would give them rides if they needed to get somewhere. Over the phone, he went down the roster, asking how all of his former teammates are doing.
'Ryan Anderson is really good,' he said. 'He's really good. He's a pro to me. I think Patrick Heckmann is really good. I thought Lonnie was really good.'
He exclaimed disbelief and sadness upon hearing about Clifford's knee injury that sidelined him for much of the 2012-13 season.
'Cliff hurt his knee?' he said. 'What ... Cliff's knee is messed up? Oh my god. That kid can play basketball. Dennis Clifford can play basketball.'
His frustration didn't come from the freshmen. He thought they could play. It was the slowing down of everything for the sake of the young players that got to Humphrey.
'I didn't expect as a whole for everybody to say, 'Hey, let's kind of slow down because we're young,'' he said. 'Where I'm from it doesn't matter if you're young or old you still have to kind of put your foot to the gas.'
Looking around college basketball, Humphrey saw a lot of teams, including other ACC opponents, starting plenty of young players.
'What are we going to do?' he said. 'We're going to do what the coach says, right? We're not going to blame him. It's not his fault. It's not blame, but at the same time you kind of expect the coach to want you to be considered the same as everybody else in the conference that you're in. We're all in the ACC. The only thing different is the name on your jersey.
'We just kind of sold ourselves short a little bit, I felt like, as a whole unit, just because we were so shocked about being young and this and that. It just never really mattered, you know?'
It mattered to Donahue, though, who had a plan beyond just that one year Humphrey played and his two years of eligibility left. He was building something with the freshmen, and he always had to keep that in mind.
'There is no reason for this year to get too low about any aspect,' Donahue said after a late-November loss to Penn State. 'This is all about building. We have one class in and we're trying to get these guys as ACC-ready as we can, and we're going to build on that class every year.'
It wasn't that Donahue didn't care about winning, but he consistently reminded his team and the media that he cared a lot more about the play on the court and overall development than the end result on the scoreboard.
'They're in a state where they are kind of overwhelmed,' Donahue said after BU beat BC for the first time in 37 years. 'We all had those classes in college-three classes in, and the professor is just over your head and you don't know how you're ever going to survive the next test. That's what we're going through. There are stretches where they feel good about themselves and stretches where they're just overwhelmed.'
Still, to Humphrey, it didn't make sense.
'It's like, 'Let's win, Coach,'' he said. 'I'm not trying to wait around and see if these guys are gonna be-yeah, I don't have time for that.'
And that's where the glaring struggle always came for Humphrey. He's been motivated by NBA dreams, but balancing those dreams with team goals was nearly impossible at all three of his collegiate stops. As a young player at Oregon he didn't get to be the guy. At BC, the team didn't want him to be the guy.
'I just did my job, you know?' he said. 'I just did what I was supposed to do and I just expected from doing that and from sitting out and from transferring-people don't understand how hard it is-I just expected to get a little bit more freedom and leeway to do what I needed to do to get myself to the next level in the year that I actually get to play.'
So, is Humphrey to blame for thinking about himself and not solely about the team? Was he supposed to ignore his dream and put on a smile while doing all of the dirty work? How are you supposed to balance a future and a present fighting directly against each other?
Humphrey couldn't, so he left.
'I learned a lot of stuff from coach Donahue and being in Boston,' he said, 'but I just wish it would've helped me a lot more.
'I really felt like everything was great, but then it turned out like it did. It is what it is. I made my decision to go a different place for a reason.'
Humphrey graduated from BC after the season ended, which meant he was eligible to transfer and then play for another school right away. He still worked out with the BC players in the spring during the transfer process, reinforcing that there was no bad blood. Donahue also gave Humphrey his blessing when the transfer was announced.
'Matt has been great these two years,' Donahue said. 'I think the most important thing he did was he wanted to come here and get a degree and he's done a terrific job and he got his degree. I think he and his family looked at this situation and thought-he wants to be a professional basketball player and he wants that to really be his focus now after he had his degree.
'He thinks that there may be a better spot to go produce and find out a place that can help him reach that goal. When anybody comes in here my first issue with all these guys is the team first, but this time of year I've got to find out what everyone's thinking, what they want, what's best, and I support it. That's what he wants to do and we are 100 percent behind him.'
Bad luck struck again when Humphrey arrived at West Virginia. Although he began the year as a starter, he aggravated a shoulder injury and spent the rest of the year trying to recover. Rather than redshirt, he decided to hurry himself back and produce as much as he could.
'Sit out another year, take a redshirt, sixth-year senior...,' he said, going through his options, '...yeah, I'm okay. I can make it work.'
Humphrey worked his way back into the starting lineup before the year ended, but the Mountaineers finished the season at 13-19. After five years of college basketball, Humphrey never got a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament, and he also never got the chance lead a team his way.
'I just feel like I never got my real chance in college basketball to be that guy on the team,' he said. 'To be that guy between the coach and the player that, hey, let's be real, you're the best player on the team, and there are some things on the team I'm going to need you to do for the team, and for me. For us to win, you've got to play at this level all the time, regardless of what goes on in the game. And I never got that chance in college basketball, I felt like, even when I was supposed to-i.e. Boston College. But it is what it is."
Despite the bumpy road, things might finally be coming together for Humphrey. He's three credits away from earning a sports management graduate degree from West Virginia. After he completes one final project by December, he'll be done. And he has this workout with the BayHawks. Humphrey said Eerie's head coach, Gene Cross, specifically asked him to show up.
'If the head coach asks you to come, I'm going to show up,' he said. 'He ain't telling me to come for no reason.
'[It's] probably just the best bet for me to reach my dreams a lot quicker to go this route. If they like you, they like you, there's not going to be a dispute about it.'
Humphrey signed with the wrong agent when the 2013 West Virginia season ended. He was pressured to sign an overseas deal, and the agent pushed another player in the NBA Draft. Now, he thinks he's found a group he can trust now with Worldwide Career Management after firing the old agent.
The draft came and went without Humphrey. He never even put his name in. He decided to focus on letting his shoulder recover for the whole month of June, something he never got the opportunity to do, and now it's back at 100 percent.
Humphrey says he's a sure thing for the D-League, and that he hopes this opportunity with the BayHawks gives him a chance to impress Knicks assistant GM Allan Houston.
'Just hoping to get signed, man,' he said. 'That would be great.'
Humphrey is still chasing his dream, and this fall Donahue and his squad will chase the dream of the big dance with a crew of now experienced players.
Rather than watching as a proud alumnus, Humphrey is an afterthought for a team with postseason aspirations, resigned to asking a reporter for updates on the Eagles.
'I graduated from Boston College,' he said, starting to chuckle slightly. 'I'm going to be an Eagle forever, I guess, right?'
Humphrey may not have a college to call home, but if a pro city can replace Eugene, Boston, or Morgantown, then that will all be forgotten.