The Eye Of The Storm


by Brendan Bowers

Lee Humphrey helped Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer and the rest of his Florida teammates cut down the nets in celebration of their second consecutive National Championship in 2007. This past February, the same 6-2 shooting guard from Maryville, TN, who holds the record for most three-pointers made in NCAA Tournament history, was walking home from basketball practice in Kiev, Ukraine. 

As a professional baller overseas, Humphrey had spent time in Greece, Germany and France before signing with BC Kyiv in the Ukrainian Super League this season. On February 14, he helped lead Kyiv to a 97-91 victory over SK Cherkasy to remain in pursuit of a playoff berth. 

Four days later, Humphrey was walking back to his apartment after a morning practice just as the Ukrainian Revolution erupted in violence. lee_humphrey_bc_kiev

“When everything got really bad, on February 18, we had practice that morning,” Humphrey told SLAM. “Stuff had just started happening while we were at practice. When we walked back from practice, our apartments were close, but we had to walk through all the protestors who were walking toward Independence Square.” 

The ensuing violence that day at Independence Square in Kiev left 25 dead and 241 hospitalized according to the Ukrainian Health Ministry. Over the next few days, the standoff between Ukrainian citizens who wanted a European-style democracy, and a government that opposed it, accounted for roughly 100 deaths and thousands more injured.

“I was walking back with my teammates, Dominique Coleman and Mike Davis,” Humphrey recalled. “It looked like we were walking away from a college football game, and the crowd for that game was walking toward us. Except this crowd had bats, rocks, gas masks, shields, shin guards, all kinds of things.” 

Humphrey, Davis and Coleman were the three Americans on BC Kyiv’s roster this year, a team located in Kiev, Ukraine. Davis and Coleman each averaged double figures during their college careers at Illinois and Colorado, respectively, before turning pro.  

“For the next few days after that, the team told us to stay in our apartments and not to go anywhere.” 

Prior to the violence on February 18, Humphrey and his wife, Chelsea, had made Kiev home during the season. Chelsea worked as an English teacher in town near the Parliament building. Lee was averaging 13 points and 4 assists for a competitive team that was exceeding expectations. Six thousand miles away from the University of Florida, things were going well for the Humphreys. 

“I had never been that far in Eastern Europe prior signing with Kyiv,” Humphrey said. “So I had no idea about Ukraine or Kiev, but we enjoyed it when we got there. We lived right in the heart of the capital. We were a 10-minute walk from Independence Square, where all the big protests eventually went on. My wife actually used to run in the park that overlooked Independence Square, right where the Parliament building is.”

Humphrey had spent the summer in Gainesville working out at his alma mater before leaving for Kiev. He played pick-up games with members of the Gator squad that just advanced to the Final Four with a win over Dayton. He’d sign with BC Kyiv in late August, before he and his wife moved to Ukraine in early September.   

“We would walk to Independence Square all the time at first. On the weekends, they would close the roads that lead to the Square. There would be all kinds of people out, bikes on the street, walkers everywhere, street vendors with ice cream, these Ukrainian hot dog things, it was really nice.” 

As the political climate began to change, however, Humphrey and his American teammates were advised to move about the city with caution.

“There was actually one other small incident that happened a month or so before the 18th,” Humphrey explained. “There was some violence where people were beat up. The Ukrainian guys on the team told us after that, don’t really go to Independence Square anymore. Watch where you’re walking. Those parts of the city could be dangerous. They’re probably not dangerous, but you never know, one person could do something.”

Before that incident in January, the Humphrey’s had embraced the cultural experience in the city—just as they had at other stops throughout Lee’s career.

“My wife met some friends from the school where she taught in Kiev. So we would go out for coffee or meet them or something, and they would keep us informed a little bit with what was going on. They talked about the agreements that could have been signed with the EU to kind of open up some trade and so forth. And we thought the president was going to sign these agreements, supposedly. But once he didn’t sign them, that’s when the protests started.” 

The protests at Independence Square were peaceful demonstrations initially, not turning violent until much later in the season. 

“For the first few months we were there, it was really peaceful,” he said. “We would even walk through the protests at times just to see what was going on. We never really felt threatened at first. There were families down there, kids and stuff. But the dynamics really changed as the season progressed.”  

Despite those changing dynamics, Humphrey continued to produce on the court. He averaged 15 points and 3 assists during the months of January and February, specifically. He also scored a season-high 31 during that stretch to help earn a 96-93 win over MBC Mykolaiv.  He had made it a personal goal to elevate his focus and confidence no matter what was happening around him, and it showed on the floor. 

“When the protests really intensified, it made me think about the freedoms we have in the US. And the Ukrainians, the people who were protesting, they really felt like their freedoms were being taken away and they really wanted to fight for that. You could see how important it was to them. Seeing that made me think about my career and really be grateful for all the things I’d been able to experience. And I just played to try to take advantage of my opportunity, give it everything I had while I was there. 

On the 18th, however, Humphrey, Davis and Coleman were eventually forced to deal with the new realities they couldn’t have ever anticipated when they first touched down in Ukraine.

“When we got back from practice that morning, Dominique, Mike and I were talking about the situation and it was just unbelievable to us,” Humphrey said. “For the most part, everything was peaceful in Kiev. We never dreamed it would’ve come to what happened. We thought that the protestors would carry on peacefully. There wasn’t really an end in sight, but we never thought from what we’d seen that violence like that would have broken out. But it did.”

Despite their apartment’s close proximity to Independence Square, Humphrey and his teammates remained safe in the days that followed. But that didn’t stop their families from constantly worrying about their well-being.

“It’s difficult for the news to capture the feeling of an entire city,” Humphrey said. “Kiev has probably 4-5 million people who live there. Independence Square is maybe 3-4 blocks of the entire city. We lived a 10-minute walk away, less than a mile to where all the violence was. But if you sat down in our apartment, you wouldn’t ever know what was going on. Sometimes you could hear the fireworks, or the Molotov cocktails every once in a while off in the distance, but you would never have really known the extent of what was happening from our apartment.”

BC Kyiv canceled practice the next day. Humphrey and his teammates remained in their apartments—safely removed from the violence down the road at Independence Square—plotting their next move. 

“In our minds, we didn’t know if we were going to change teams or finish out the season in Kiev. I was kind of preparing to finish the season there. But there was just so much going on.”

Meanwhile, Chelsea’s school had already postponed classes indefinitely. 

“She stopped a little sooner than the 18th. The protests affected her and her school a little more than our team. We were a five-minute walk from her school. But the students were coming from all over the city, and they used the Metro stop that came out from Independence Square. So every time there was a protest with thousands and thousands of people, they’d have to cancel class. Prior to the 18th, her school had been canceled for about a week based on the increased intensity of the protests.”

Humphrey’s agent began looking for another job immediately. He also spoke with the team about securing his release from the contract he signed in August. 

“My agent got the okay to look for other jobs, and he eventually found this one in Hungary. The team was very accommodating in Kiev. A lot of the teams were affected by the conflict. I think, on their end, financially, it benefited a lot of teams to let their imports go. So I signed a release agreement with them as soon as I found a job in Hungary. The move happened pretty fast from there.”

Leading up to that job offer in Hungary, however, Humphrey had strongly considering the possibility of finishing out the year in Ukraine. 

“My wife and I talked about the decision to leave constantly. Part of us thought that maybe we had already made it through the worst days. We were there when the president stepped down and left Kiev. It looked like things were probably going to improve after that. So we thought, maybe it’s a good idea to stay and finish out the season. But our parents and family back home, seeing everything they did on the news, they were really happy when we left. Seeing all the fires and snipers walking around that they showed on TV, they were obviously very worried about us.”  

Lee and Chelsea spent that final week assuring their friends and family back home that they were indeed safe. Eventually, they left for Hungary on February 25th.

“It happened quick,” Humphrey said of leaving Kiev a week after the violence in Independence Square began. “I signed a contract, and the next day we flew out to Hungary at 6:30 am. I didn’t know I was going to sign a contract that day, so we packed up as fast as we could and left in the morning.”

BC Kyiv allowed Humphrey, Davis and Coleman out of their deals and granted them the right to find work elsewhere. Davis left a few days before Humphrey and Coleman would leave a couple days later.  

It was from his new apartment in Hungary that Humphrey and I spoke on the phone, reflecting on just how far the game of basketball had taken him in recent months.    

“My wife and I, we’ve grown to enjoy traveling during my career. We like to experience different cultures. We’ve made some good friends, had great teammates, and you develop a connection with those people and places wherever you go. We have great memories from all the places we’ve been, including Ukraine. We’re just hoping for peace and praying for everyone affected by the violence.” 

For the rest of this season, Humphrey is now a member of Alba Fehérvár in Hungary. His goals, as a player, are the same as they’ve always been—doing whatever he can to help his team win. 

“This team has done well this year,” Humphrey said of his new squad. “And I’m just trying to get integrated into the team, trying to learn the offense and help them win anyway that I can, as quickly as possible. We have six regular season games left until the postseason begins.”

As the Florida team he worked out with just prior to leaving for Ukraine advanced to the Final Four, I asked Humphrey how he’d compare those guys to his group from 2007.

“When I was there this summer, they all worked really hard. And all the players seemed really close. Which is how we were. I remember Casey Prather telling me that he wanted to play us. He said that his team could beat our team,” he added with a laugh. “I told him I wasn’t sure about that, but I really liked that he wanted to play us. I liked that he wanted to compare his team to ours. I’m glad that he thinks like that and has that kind of confidence in his teammates. Because that’s how our team was—tight-knit, always trying to prove we were better than people thought we were.”

It’s that same confidence and competitive spirit that’s helped Humphrey continue to succeed in the game of basketball and life ever since his days with Billy Donovan concluded. No matter where he’s been, or what’s been going on around him.