Dec. 9, 2006


Apache’s Humphrey flying high in second season in Tokyo


Published in The Japan Times

John Humphrey possesses the bj-league’s best nickname.

The man affectionately known as “Helicopter” also owns a dazzling offensive game. Simply put, Humphrey is a scoring machine.

He led the bj-league in points per game a year ago (23.2). But the Tokyo Apache star has also elevated his game this season, scoring a league-best 31.2 ppg.

Humphrey is in the midst of a torrid stretch. He posted back-to-back 40-point games last weekend against the Oita HeatDevils. He had 38 in Tokyo’s win over the Toyama Grouses on Nov. 26.

And, boy, you can’t blame him if he’s tired.

Humphrey played 40 minutes in the game against Toyama and had an off-game from 3-point range, hitting 2 of 10 3-pointers, but made 7 of 12 on 2-point attempts and a jaw-dropping 18-for-18 from the charity stripe.

In the next two games, he went to the free-throw line with regularity and combined to take 83 more shots (including foul shots), helping the Apache complete their first 10 games with a 6-4 record. Let’s review. In the past three games, Humphrey had 118 points and took 123 shots.

That’s a season’s worth of offense for some seldom-used backups.

For Humphrey, it represents a job well done.

“You need points,” Apache coach Joe Bryant said Thursday at practice.

“You need that one player to be able to get you those kind of numbers.”

“I’ve always been a scorer,” Humphrey tells me, “but whatever it takes for my team to win (is my motto).

“If I score 50, or if I’ve got to score five and get 15 rebounds, whatever it takes for my team to win, that’s what I am going to do or try to do.”

Humphrey, a former Middle Tennessee State standout who has been a steady defensive presence for the Apache with 7.4 rebounds a game and several big-time blocked shots this season, came to Japan to play for Bryant, his former American Basketball Association coach, first in Las Vegas and then in Boston.

(As a Boston Frenzy player, Humphrey had a 65-point game.)

So if you want a time-tested answer about Helicopter’s playing ability, Bryant is the one to talk to.

“I really think he’s the best player in the league. . . . and also really what’s in his heart — his drive to win, his drive to be successful (is important),” the coach says.

“He feels that he’s never going to miss the shot and you like that as a coach. You need a player like that. I don’t know if you want to call it edgy. Sometimes we use the term cocky, but you want that player to be a little cocky.

“You want him to be able to accept being the hero or the goat. Now everybody can be the hero, but can you be the goat? That’s what makes him so dangerous.”

Growing up in North Carolina, the 26-year-old Humphrey heard all about then-freshman guard Michael Jordan’s high-arcing jumper in the final minute of the 1982 NCAA Championship Game against Georgetown, the title-clinching shot for Dean Smith’s Tar Heels.

Then he watched the NBA legend win game after game and six championships by sticking to his never-be-afraid-to-be-the-man persona.

“I always wanted to be that guy in the last second and the ball is in my hands,” Humphrey says bluntly.

But the muscular, 188-cm Humphrey, whom Bryant describes as a bowling ball when he’s attacking the defense, doesn’t just creep up on you as the final seconds tick off the clock. He commands attention for 40 minutes when he’s running, dribbling, jumping, shooting and dunking.

What’s Humphrey’s top offensive move?

“Going left, one or two dribbles and then just pulling up for a mid-range jumper,” Bryant says. “But he’s really capable of doing anything. He can go left, he can go right.”

He can go wherever there’s a game, but loyalty to his coach and teammates has always been No. 1 for Helicopter. “We had times in Vegas where (in) the ABA we weren’t getting paid,” Bryant says. “There were a couple of times in Boston where the guy ran out of money but we continued to play.

“John said, ‘Coach, if you stay, I’ll stay.’ And so we built that relationship. It wasn’t about money. It was about the love of the game. . . . He stayed and that showed me a lot about John as a person and the love of the game.”

Humphrey adds, “Basketball is not (just) a game to me. It’s something I love to do and I have a lot of passion for this. God gave me a lot of talent, so I am using it to the best of my ability right now.”

So how did he get the fantastic nickname Helicopter?

“I got it my senior year in high school,” Humphrey says. “A guy named Bob Gibbons (a high school hoops guru) back in the States, he ranks a lot of high school players and he saw me in a dunk contest at the ACC-SEC All-Star Game.

“My teammate at the time, Steve Blake, gave me and alley-oop and I caught it and did a 360 and dunked it.

“He called me ‘The Helicopter Assault Apache.’ It’s crazy because actually Apache was in there, so maybe I was destined to play for the Apache.”

Humphrey laughs. I laugh.

“That’s one of the names that really stuck,” continues Humphrey, who is called Humph, Copter, John and, of course, John-san by his Japanese teammates.

“In the heat of the moment with the adrenaline flowing, it connected,” Helicopter remembers. “We got it down. It felt real good. The crowd went wild, my teammates got pumped up, so it was something that felt great.”

He didn’t know it at the time, but that play proved to be his meal ticket to a basketball career. He has been a popular AND1 player for four seasons now, too.