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'Helicopter' flies round the world

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Posted: Saturday, June 20, 2015 11:45 pm

MOREHEAD CITY — John Humphrey moved from Beaufort to Morehead City when he was in middle school.

Basketball would take him much farther.

Following stops at Oak Hill Academy, Louisburg College and Middle Tennessee State, he spent six years traveling across the country and the globe with the  streetball and entertaining AND1 Mixtape Tour and has spent the past 12 years playing professionally in Japan.

“Twelve years,” Humphrey marveled. “It went by fast. I can tell it’s been that long, though, especially when I see these younger guys come through. They’re 20 years old. I’m about to turn 35.”

Known as “Helicopter” for his high-flying ways – he had a reported 45-inch vertical leap in his prime – the former West Carteret standout has forged a long and productive career, thanks to unlimited athleticism and a unyielding work ethic.

The 6-1, 210-pound guard is the all-time leading scorer and all-time leader in steals in BJ (Basketball Japan) League history.

“The greatest compliment I’ve ever received from coaches is that I’m one of the hardest workers they’ve ever had,” he said. “I’m most proud of that. I believe it’s not my leaping ability, it’s not my talent, but it’s the work I’ve put in.”

His belief in hard work as a barometer for success has Humphrey wanting to pass along that philosophy to the next generation. He’s in the process of scheduling a basketball event at West on Friday and Saturday, Aug. 7-8.

The “Commit 2 Achieve” Crystal Coast Showdown camp will feature Humphrey’s longtime coach, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, the father of NBA superstar Kobe Bryant, as well as AND1 tour standouts Dennis “Spyda” Chism, Randy “White Chocolate” Gill, Jamar “The Pharmacist” Davis, Guy “Frequent Flyer” Dupuy, Brandon “Werm” LaCue and former New Bern High School and Wake Forest standout Antwan “8th Wonder” Scott.

“I want to give back to the community,” Humphrey said. “I would like to do something for the kids. I’ve had a lot of people tell me they want to support me. It’s been nice. I thought I would have to reintroduce myself, figured people had forgot me. I’ve been gone for so long. Hopefully I can pull this off, and hopefully it snowballs and gets bigger and bigger every year.”

Humphrey plans on donating a portion of the camp’s proceeds to Special Olympics. Not long after the event, he will return to Japan for his 13th season playing overseas.

“I said I was going to retire, but I think I’m going to play two or three more years,” he said. “My body feels great.”

That Humphrey’s body is still going strong just three months shy of his 35th birthday is  remarkable considering his workload during his mid-20s. For six years, he hardly took any time off, combining the AND1 Mixtape Tour with his 52-game schedule in Japan.

“From the age of 22 to 28, I was playing year-round,” he said. “I would get home from Japan in May, then in June start AND1. I would get off tour, then have maybe two weeks off before starting training camp in Japan in August. I’ve got a lot of miles on me.”

He chalks up his durability to hard work and clean living.

“In high school, I never went to parties,” he said. “I never went out. I was in the gym 24-7. I’ve never drunk a day in my life, never smoked, so I’ve always taken care of my body, and now it’s taking care of me.”

Humphrey is one the BJ League’s enduring stars and one of the most popular players in league history.

The four-time scoring champion (2006, 2007, 2013 and 2014) averaged a career-high 27.2 points three years ago with the Saitama Broncos.

He averaged 23.9 points two seasons ago in his last year with the Broncos. Former East Carteret, James Madison and Harlem Globetrotters standout Tracy Williams coached Humphrey in Saitama.

“I knew the GM of the team, and he said he wanted a motivational coach,” Humphrey said. “I told him, ‘I know just the guy.’”

Last season, he averaged career lows in points (15) and minutes played (22) in his first season with Rizing Fukuoka where he again played under Bryant.

“That was a different role for me,” he said. “Jelly is a players coach, and he told me I’m getting older, and I don’t need to play so many minutes. He told me I can play my regular minutes for a few seasons, or play half my usual minutes until I’m 40. It was an adjustment. I’m used to carrying the load.”

He began his career in Japan playing four seasons with the Tokyo Apache.

Humphrey spent the previous two seasons playing for the ABA’s Las Vegas Rattlers in 2003 and the Boston Frenzy in 2004. Before leaving the Frenzy, he was leading the ABA in scoring and won the league dunk contest.

A phone call from Bryant, who coached him both years in the ABA, led him to Japan where the BJ League began play in the fall of 2005 with six teams.

“He said they were starting a pro league over there, and he said we should go,” Humphrey said. “I told him wherever he goes, I go. He’s like my dad. We’ve been together a lot. He’s hard on me, more than anybody else, really.”

He acclimated quickly to Japan, leading the BJ League in scoring his first two years, scoring 23.2 points in 2006 and 25.9 in 2007, and leading the Apache to back-to-back league runner-up finishes in 2008 and 2009.

He also found a smooth transition with the language barrier, thanks to all the English spoken in Tokyo. Humphrey reported he was as likely to hear two people on the street speaking his native tongue as he was Japanese.

Not everything came easily, however.

“The prices over there, I had to learn those, and that took time,” he said. “Japan is expensive. The dollar used to be awful over there. It’s worth more now.”

A high-scoring, high-flying dazzling style has led to rewarding contracts for Humphrey in Japan. Whether hustling to make a steal or a block or leaping in the lane to score on a layup or dunk, he delivered again and again.

His fan base continued to grow, and he’s always recognized and embraced his role as an entertainer, thanks to his AND1 days.

And for a guy who transferred out of state after his high school junior season, being away from home has never been that big of a deal, except when it comes to his daughter, Deanna Butler. The 16-year-old lives in Fayetteville.

“It used to be tough when we didn’t have cell phones and didn’t have Skype,” he said. “It was difficult, but it’s much easier being away now.”

Humphrey’s daughter was born when he was at Oak Hill, causing him to pick a college close to her.

He averaged 24.6 points and 5.3 rebounds at Louisburg, earning All-American honors while leading the National Junior College Athletic Association ranks in scoring. He also led Louisburg to its first-ever appearance in the NJCAA National Tournament.

Humphrey matriculated to Middle Tennesee State where he averaged 7.3 points and 2.1 rebounds as a junior and 9.0 points and 4.8 rebounds as a senior. He finished second in the NCAA slam-dunk contest as a senior, and that helped him secure a national reputation as a spectacular dunker.

He was originally referred to as “Helicopter” by high school hoops guru Bob Gibbons after winning the ACC vs. SEC All-Star dunk contest as a high school senior.

Then AND1 Mix Tape Tour MC Duke Tango brought the name back after Humphrey finished several incredible dunks during the Raleigh tour game in 2003 where he was discovered by AND1 at what is now the PNC Arena.

Fans and players alike were so impressed by his ability to sky above the rim, as well as his raw talent, that he was invited on the road to be a part of the contest to search for the next street ball legend.

Humphrey advanced to the final three contestants of the ESPN TV show “Street Ball: The AND1 Mix Tape Tour,” and although he was not selected as the winner in late August, he was still invited to join the squad for a five-city European tour in September.

European fans were stunned as Humphrey’s amazing moves made him a crowd favorite in Paris, Barcelona, London, Milan and Frankfurt. His unbelievable dunking abilities made him all the rage overseas and an undeniable fit to sign on as an official member of the tour for 2004.

“I did what I always did, so I didn’t have to change my game at all,” he said. “I was shooting threes and throwing down dunks in college, so on tour, I just shot threes and dunked. The rest is history. I was with them for six years, and I still make cameo appearances.”

Humphrey reported that the building blocks for a successful college, AND1 and professional career in Japan were first built at Oak Hill.

He averaged 16.3 points, 4.9 rebounds, 3.4 steals and 2.6 blocks a game during his junior year at West in 1998 and was named the News-Times Player of the Year. He then transferred to  the national prep school powerhouse in Mouth of Wilson, Va., and discovered what hard work truly entailed.

“I was ready to leave when practice started,” he said. “Those are the hardest practices I’ve ever been through to this day. They were brutal. The practices were harder than the games, there was so much talent there. Every day, I was matched up with a big-time D-I guy. It was so tough.”

In his first season at the school that has now won nine national championships and produced 25 NBA draft picks and 28 McDonald’s All-Americans, the team featured Steve Blake, Ron Slay, Travis Watson and Cliff Hawkins.

Blake led Maryland to a Final Four in 2001 and a national championship the following year. He became the first ACC player to compile 1,000 points, 800 assists, 400 rebounds and 200 steals. He finished fifth in NCAA all-time career assists with 972 and has since carved out a 12-year career in the NBA.

Slay went on to win SEC Player of the Year in his senior season at Tennessee, Watson was All-ACC at Virginia, and Hawkins went on to have a fine career at Kentucky.

Going up against that talent on a regular basis had Humphrey thinking he had made a mistake.

“Those early days at Oak Hill were the worst time in my life,” he said. “At West, I’m the man. I can do anything I want on the court. At Oak Hill, people are just as fast as me, just as quick as me and can handle the ball better than me. I called my dad and told him I was coming home. He hung up the phone. I called back. He told me not to call him with that stuff. He told me to figure it out.”

Humphrey worked on his ballhandling and joined his teammates in helping Oak Hill to a 31-0 record and a national championship in 1999. The squad went 30-2 the following year and finished second in the country. He averaged 11.1 points and 4.1 rebounds in his time there.

He played for legendary coach Steve Smith at Oak Hill, and when his playing days are over, Humphrey would like to coach high school ball as well, coming full circle back to where it all began.

“Ultimately, I would like to come back home and coach at West,” he said. “I didn’t play in middle school, I always played rec ball, and that started at West. I’ll always want to be around the game, I love it. I want to coach kids. And what better place to do it than where I started playing ball. It would be a dream job to end where I started.”

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