Karl Lindholm: He can really shoot!

JOHN HUMPHREY, CAPTAIN of the 1988 Panther men’s basketball team, puts up another two points during his prime. The leading scorer in Panther basketball history, Humphrey was just inducted into the Middlebury College Athletic Hall of Fame.

KARL LINDHOLM, LEFT, and Middlebury Athletic Director Erin Quinn flank John Humphrey after he was inducted into the college hall of fame.

The outlook was grim for the Panther five that day: We were down by 12 against Williams with only 2:12 left to play. But the hoop that so resisted Panther shots suddenly turned receptive — Middlebury’s desperate shots went in, as the Ephs clanged the foul shots that might have iced the game. 

Middlebury ace, John Humphrey, described the game’s wild ending: “We were down four with just 15 seconds to go, and I hit a bomb. Down one now. We fouled, and they missed the front end of a one-and-one.'

“There was a scramble for the ball, and I got it, and dribbled up the floor. Two guys came at me, and so I passed to my teammate Parker Ward all alone at the foul line. He hit a jumper at the buzzer to win it 83-82. We scored the last 13 points of the game!”

Pandemonium ensued: well, from the exuberant Middlebury players and their handful of fans. The Williams crowd filed disconsolately out of their new gym. “We broke their hearts,” John says now, some 30 years later.

That improbable win against Williams, perennial small college powerhouse, was the highlight of that 1988 men’s hoop season. Middlebury had upset the Ephs in Pepin earlier in the season, 80-77, for a sweep of Williams that year.

John Humphrey scored 32 points in that win, but he glories in the fact that in the biggest game of the season, he got the game-winning ... assist!

That season, Humphrey’s senior year, was a season for the ages. John averaged 28 points per game, a record that is unlikely to be challenged. For his four years, he averaged 20.5 ppg, also a school record. John scored more points in his Middlebury career (1821) than any player in the 100 year history of basketball at Middlebury.

On Saturday, Nov. 2, just a couple weeks ago, John was inducted into the Middlebury Athletics Hall of Fame, along with six other stalwart Middlebury athletes and one coach (Middlebury football coach Mickey Heinecken) in Nelson Arena before over 300 people. Members of John’s immediate family were all there, including his dad, who was celebrating his 88th birthday on that joyful night.

I was pleased to be able to introduce John at the event, though I did so with regret as well. Russ Reilly, John’s coach at Middlebury, was so looking forward to the happy duty of introducing his best player and one of his favorite people. As Midd sports fans well know, Russ died in July.

If Russ had had his way, John would have been the first athlete inducted into the Hall of Fame six years ago. I can hear Russ saying to us now, “it’s about time!” He was John’s champion from Day One, always bringing up his excellence in the classroom, his dedication and success there, as well as his brilliant performance on the basketball court. John graduated from Middlebury magna cum laude in economics (and math) and won the Hazeltine-Klevenow Trophy “for best combining ability in athletics and excellence in scholarship.”

In his induction speech, John spoke warmly about Russ as an “educator, coach, and friend,” and expressed his gratitude that “he and (his wife) Jane opened up their home to me, and other players. Russ carried an infectious positive energy that made us all realize that every day was a great day to be a Panther.”

It is often the case that a team’s high scorer is the best player on a weak team: he must carry the offensive load. And that might describe John’s situation at Middlebury ...  for his first three years. In those years, his Middlebury team only won six games in its best year.

But his senior year gives lie to that characterization. The team in ’87-’88 was good, genuinely good! He was the best player on a good team, the captain of the team, the only returning starter from the year before. He inspired his teammates to a commitment and passion for the game which reflected his own. 

That ’87-’88 team won 13 games and lost nine, playing a typically rugged Russ Reilly schedule, barely missing a post-season appearance in the ECAC tournament. Early season losses to UVM and St. Michael’s in close competitive games provided evidence they could compete. At 5 feet, 11 inches, 155 pounds, John had a deadly outside shot (the three-point shot came into college basketball his junior year) and was quick and creative enough to score at the basket.

John scored 46 and 43 points in games, still the two highest scoring single-games performances in school history. The 46-point effort came in a one-sided win in the last game of his Middlebury career. His teammates were determined that he would set a record and continually fed him the ball. His 43-point game, however, was totally legit, a tight three-point win against Union, 79-76.  John scored 25 points in the second half!

In his remarks at the Hall of Fame dinner, John discussed his post college basketball experiences while he was embarking on a successful career in finance: “For 10 years I played the best basketball of my life in highly competitive basketball leagues across New York City. My teammates included players from Cal, Stanford, Virginia, Michigan, the Ivies, and some ex-NBAers. Many were surprised I played Division III.”

He told a humorous story of playing against actor Woody Harrelson (of the hoop film “White Men Can’t Jump”) “at our VERY competitive run one Saturday morning.” Harrelson fancied himself quite a player and picked up John on defense — and was thoroughly schooled. He later exclaimed to John, “Jesus, you can really shoot!”

John may be the Hall of Famer, but it is anything but certain that he is the best athlete in his own house. His wife Sarah was a lacrosse player at Dartmouth; his daughters Nicole and Ashley play lacrosse at the highest collegiate level at North Carolina and Stanford, and Chloe, in the 9th grade, already has Division I lax powers “circling.” Son Brett, a 6th grader, has to live with this daunting legacy.

So, Russ, it’s done, and well-done. John Humphrey is in the Middlebury College Athletics Hall of Fame. It was indeed a great night to be a Panther.

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