Long after the last confetti streamer had fallen to the floor and the echoes of the crowd’s deafening roar had stopped ringing in his ears, Lee Humphrey felt an odd sense of emptiness.
It didn’t happen right away, mind you. After all, April 3, 2006, was the greatest night of his basketball existence. That night, at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, Humphrey and his University of Florida teammates polished off UCLA with ease in the NCAA championship, 73-57. Humphrey himself had enjoyed a great game and a monster tournament, setting records and winning awards along the way.
National headlines trumpeted the news of Florida’s first-ever men’s basketball title after a 33-6 season: “Champions!” (St. Petersburg Times), “Chompions” (Basketball Times), “National Chomps!” (Sporting News) and “Gator Ball” (Sports Illustrated), among many others.
Humphrey got his due, too—and rightfully so. The 6-foot-2 guard lit up the Bruins and other tournament opponents with dead-on marksmanship from downtown. A half-page color photo of him launching a three-pointer over the futilely utstretched arm of UCLA’s Darren Collison in Sports Illustrated’s April 10 cover story perfectly portrayed the kind of tournament Humphrey enjoyed. He had reached college basketball’s zenith.
But a few days later, upon the team’s return to Gainesville, Fla., Humphrey felt strangely unfulfilled, like a mountain climber who crests Kilimanjaro, only to survey the unending landscape before him and mutter, “I was expecting a little more.”
“After it was over, it wasn’t the same as I thought it might be,” Humphrey said.
“Winning the championship and fulfilling our goal wasn’t completely satisfying, and that’s one of the coolest things I experienced with the championship.”
Wait a minute. Rewind…Huh? To think, a college basketball star discovering that fame at the top is ephemeral—and actually basking in its transience. Leave it to a guy like Humphrey to relish such a revelation.
And he is. It’s the message he’s been spreading ever since.
Opie didn’t grow up in Mayberry, N.C. He grew up in Maryville, Tenn.
Fictional Mayberry, real-life Maryville—it’s all the same to Florida Head Coach Billy Donovan, a native New Yorker with a type-A personality who was perplexed at first by Humphrey’s wholesome demeanor and disarming virtue. The squeaky-clean southern boy seemed too good to be true. So Donovan gave him the nickname “Opie,” after Ron Howard’s cuddly character on “The Andy Griffith Show.”
“Opie, Gomer Pyle—he’s just like those guys,” Florida Associate Head Coach Donnie Jones said. “He’s good-hearted, he’s got a big spirit, and he always wants to please. He’s like someone you’d want to baby-sit your kids.”
Aside from his basketball skills and charming personality, Humphrey, now a senior, is also a great student. Last year, the applied physiology and kinesiology major earned second team Academic All-American honors from ESPN the Magazine and was named the Southeastern Conference Men’s Basketball
Scholar Athlete of the Year.
“He’s everyone’s All-American kid,” said Don Mauldin, FCA’s area director in North- Central Florida. “He’s just clean-cut, humble, honest, hard-working and smart. You’re just not going to find a better kid.”
Humphrey is without pretension—a soft-spoken basketball star with a goofy laugh who often rides a bike on campus instead of driving. That is, until last January during the middle of SEC play, when he hit a curb and went flying over the handlebars, suffering a separated shoulder and missing a game. Donovan quickly nixed in-season bicycling.
“I think I was under the biking speed limit,” Humphrey said sheepishly. “It was close.”
That’s about the worst thing Humphrey has done at Florida. Well, that and the morning he overslept and missed a team breakfast this season for the first time in his career. Strength and Conditioning Coach Matt Herring, who keeps a headcount at such meetings, had become so accustomed to Humphrey’s unfailing attendance that he didn’t notice his absence. But when Humphrey later approached Herring to admit his absence and ask what his punishment would be, Herring jumped at the chance.
“This is the only time I’m going to be able to make you run,” Herring told him with a smile. Herring gave Humphrey the normal options: 50 flights on the StairMaster machine at 6 a.m., or 100 flights in the afternoon.
“In typical Lee Humphrey fashion, he wanted everyone to know he got in trouble because the guys are always giving him a hard time since he’s so straight-laced,” Herring said. “He was asking everybody: ‘What should I do?’ He won’t admit to it, but he was glad to be just one of the boys. It’s kind of a bad-boy badge of honor. That’s as bad as ‘Hump’ gets.”
Humphrey’s amicability traces its roots to Maryville, a distant suburb of Knoxville, Tenn., that retains a cozy feel with quaint features like a drive-in movie theater. Life was good in Maryville. During summers, Humphrey would head over to the local rec center and play pick-up games with 40-year-old men on their lunch breaks.
“Then, I’d go to the lake with my dad and sister and water ski all day long, and then come back and play basketball at night,” he said.
Humphrey’s parents, Tony and Machaela, raised their children in a strict Christian home. At age 13, Humphrey accepted Christ during a youth retreat in North Carolina.
But his spiritual growth didn’t really shift gears until college, where he no longer enjoyed a bubble of childhood protection. FCA was a natural fit for an eager Christian looking to become a spiritual warrior.
“College has been great because I think I’ve grown more now than I ever did in high school,” Humphrey said. “Being away from your family, you can go one way or the other, and I felt like I wanted to be committed. FCA has been great for me.”
Humphrey was destined to play basketball. His dad was a youth league coach, and the family installed a paved basketball court in the backyard. With the hoop nestled in the right corner of the court, Humphrey quickly learned to drive to his left.
Rodney Nelson, Humphrey’s coach at Maryville High and the co-founder of a city youth league, got his first glimpse of this special talent when Humphrey was in third grade. Nelson marveled at the boy’s precocious talents.
“The thing I’ll always remember is his ability to dribble the ball and dribble at a fast speed,” Nelson said.
Humphrey flourished in high school, leading the Rebels to 106 wins, three district titles and one region championship in four varsity years. While winning Tennessee’s Class AAA Mr. Basketball title as a senior in 2002-03 and All-State honors twice, he also set school records in career points, steals and three-pointers, as well as three-pointers in a season.
“He was an all-around unselfish, team-oriented guy,” Nelson said. “He was a situation scorer. Some games, he’d come out smoking, and some games, he’d pick his spots. There were points in games where we’d need something, and it seemed like Lee would step up and take his shots.”
Three-pointers are Humphrey’s specialty. He pumps them out like Detroit does cars, never moreso than now at Florida. Entering this year, he was a career 45.5-percent field goal shooter, with 43.7-percent accuracy from three-point range.
Even as a freshman, Humphrey was lights-out from downtown. That season, he shot nearly 44 percent from beyond the arc—a dazzling mark for a first-year player—and thrived on clutch shots. His buzzer-beating 17-footer from the baseline vaulted Florida past Alabama in the SEC tournament quarterfinals, kick-starting the Gators’ run to the SEC final that year.
Humphrey’s shooting success stems from a continual pursuit of mechanical precision on his jump shots. In high school, he would head to a local gym after finishing practice and homework to work on his shooting and ball-handling skills—four or five nights a week, an hour at a time.
“It’s no secret: Great shooters are not born; they are developed,” Jones said. “He
has an unbelievable work ethic on the court. He puts his work in.”
The whole country witnessed Humphrey’s incredible range last year, when
nearly 80 percent of his season point total came from beyond the arc. For the season, he set a Florida record with 113 three-pointers.
When the Gators reached the NCAA tournament, Humphrey caught fire, averaging 12.8 points in six games and hitting a school-record 22 tournament three-pointers.
He torched last year’s Cinderella team, George Mason, for six three-pointers
and 19 total points in the semifinals. And against UCLA in the final, he broke the
game open in the second half with two quick bombs and finished with 15 points. For his efforts, he earned Final Four All-Tournament honors.
“My shot felt about as good as it did the whole year,” said Humphrey, who averaged 10.9 points a game on the season. “It just happened at the right time.”
The Game, Glory and God
Humphrey has translated his immense success into great spiritual gain. As the FCA president at Florida, he leads Bible studies for athletes on Sunday nights.
“He never misses FCA events,” Mauldin said.
Given the events of last April, Humphrey is also a hot commodity in the community. Shortly after winning the national championship, he spoke to 300-400 students at a high school rally about true biblical greatness. Mauldin has taken him to a variety of local churches and schools to share his testimony.
“I want people to see that Lee hasn’t changed at all in four years,” Mauldin said.
Humphrey has carried the message of Christ across international borders as well. Two summers ago, he and a group of SEC players traveled to China with Sports Reach, a ministry that uses a variety of athletic teams to preach the gospel in and outside the United States.
Last summer, he traveled with Sports Reach to Brazil, where he said 18 players accepted Christ. When Humphrey speaks, he often opens the Word to
Philippians 3:7 (NIV), where Paul says: “But whatever was to my profit, I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.”
This might be one of the most remarkable aspects of the Lee Humphrey story. After reaching the summit of his sport, he put that achievement into perspective and decided to use it as a witnessing tool rather than a self-exalting pedestal.
“I don’t think Lee could ever think like that,” Mauldin said. “His whole thing is,
he’s nothing without God. He has never thought of himself as great. Coach [Donovan] gave him an opportunity, and he’s thankful for it. There’s no chance of him getting a bighead.”
Through early February, Humphrey had helped this year’s Gators to a 20-2 record and a No. 1 national ranking by averaging 10.9 points per game with a team-leading 61 three-pointers. Beyond this year, his basketball future is uncertain. Making the NBA “would be a dream come true,” Humphrey said, but it’s not something he is fretting about.
“We’ll see how this year goes, and if it works out, great,” he said. “I want to pursue basketball if the opportunity is there, whether it’s the NBA or Europe.”
For now, though, Humphrey is blooming where he has been planted. Last year’s
championship run and all the surrounding attention was, most likely, unlike anything he’ll experience again in basketball. But, as he will gladly attest, winning in the Christian life is far more important than winning on the hardwood.
“It’s nice to be recognized, and I take it as a compliment,” he said. “But in the grand scheme of things, it’s not going to matter. I know Jesus, and how I serve Him and how I act toward others is more important. It’s important to work hard in basketball—basketball can bring glory to God—but it’s not the most important thing to focus on. I want to focus on my relationship with Christ.”
For more on Lee Humphrey, visit the Gators’ web site: www.gatorzone.com.
Photos courtesy of The University of Florida