‘Helicopter’ flies in for reunion with Bryant in Fukuoka

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Veteran scoring standout John “Helicopter” Humphrey arrived in Fukuoka on Monday to join the bj-league’s Rizing Fukuoka, a league source told The Japan Times.

The four-time bj-league season scoring champion (2005-06, 2006-07, 2012-13 and 2013-14) will reunite with Fukuoka coach Joe Bryant, his former Tokyo Apache bench boss (2005-09) and nine-time All-Star guard Cohey Aoki, another of the now-defunct Apache’s iconic players.

The 34-year-old Humphrey, a Middle Tennessee State product, is one the bj-league’s enduring stars and one of the most popular players in league history.

The Rizing Fukuoka, meanwhile, are seeking to resurrect their season and make a push for the playoffs, “where anything can happen,” Bryant told The Japan Times after his first game as the Fukuoka coach on Jan. 17. The Rizing won that game, edging the visiting Shimane Susanoo Magic 72-70, but have dropped their past three games.

Fukuoka (7-23) is in last place in the 10-team Western Conference, but the playoff picture is far from set. Twenty-two regular-season games remain on schedule for the bottom five teams in the West: Bambitious Nara (10-20), Shimane (10-20), Oita HeatDevils (10-20), Takamatsu Five Arrows (9-21) and the Rizing. (Eight squads from each conference qualify for the postseason this season in an expanded playoff format, so the Rizing are mathematically just three games back as the All-Star break begins.)

The Rizing finished as the championship runnerup in the 2012-13 season, falling to the Yokohama B-Corsairs in the title game. The nucleus of that team no longer exists, and the organization has undergone a number of leadership changes since then, including the departure of head coaches Atsushi Kanazawa, Mack Tuck, Kimitoshi Sano and James Duncan.

Through Sunday, Josh Peppers, an established star in the 22-team circuit, leads Fukuoka in scoring (20.9 points per game). Center Kirk Van Slyke, an Arkansas State alum, and forward Greg Logins, a Canisius product, are second and third in scoring at 12.3 ppg and 9.8, respectively. Aoki, who has missed the Rizing’s past four games with a calf injury, is averaging 9.5 ppg.

Above all, Humphrey is known for putting points on the board. He led the Saitama Broncos with 23.9 ppg last season, and after his third season with the perennial struggling club, he parted ways with the franchise, which went 5-47.

In 2012-13, Humphrey took home his third bj-league scoring title and averaged a career-best 27.2 ppg.

Before the bj-league began play in the fall of 2005 with six teams, Humphrey and Bryant, NBA superstar Kobe’s father and an Italian League star in his playing days, established a mentor-pupil relationship. Bryant coached Helicopter in the relaunched American Basketball Association, first with the Las Vegas Rattlers (2003-04) and then with the Boston Frenzy the next season.

Over the years, both men have spoken many times about their mutual respect for each other and the rock-solid rapport they share on and off the court.

What Humphrey has repeatedly done on the court resonates with the bj-league’s fans. Hustling to make a steal or a block or leaping in the lane to score on a layup or dunk and get a hard-earned free throw are all plays that he delivered again and again throughout the first decade of the upstart circuit’s existence.

During his four seasons with the Apache and three with the Broncos, Humphrey’s fan base grew and grew, and he’s always recognized and embraced his role as an entertainer.

“Basketball is not (just) a game to me,” he told The Japan Times in December 2006. “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.”

In a memorable stretch in late November and early December 2006, Humphrey had a 38-point game against the Toyama Grouses followed by back-to-back 40-point performances against Oita.

A few days after that second 40-point outing, Humphrey told The Japan Times, “I’ve always been a scorer.

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

At that same Apache practice, Bryant provided insight that he repeated in similar remarks he made over the years.

“You need points,” Bryant told The Japan Times. “You need that one player to be able to get you those kind of numbers.”

Humphrey, of course, is capable of doing more than just scoring.

Case in point: On Dec. 10, 2011, he had 52 points, including 24-for-24 at the free-throw line, 11 rebounds, four steals and two blocks in a Saitama win over the Shinshu Brave Warriors.

The rebuilding Rizing add a player with a well-documented history of impressive scoring totals — he averaged 18.4 ppg or more in each of his seven bj-league seasons — and will need that additional offensive punch to make a run for the playoffs.

Fukuoka has qualified for the playoffs in each of its previous seven seasons.

Humphrey, meanwhile, relaunches his career after a short stint with Iraqi League team Nift Al-Janoub during the 2014-15 preseason. He trained with the club in Egypt, but left before the season began in October.

The Rizing open the second half of their season on Feb. 7 against the visiting Osaka Evessa.