Isaac Humphries Is Unshackled

Isaac Humphries is unshackled

After coming out in November 2022, the Adelaide 36ers centre remains the only openly gay professional basketball player in the world. With the NBL's Champion Pride Round underway, Humphries reflects on his journey and the reasons why he’s playing the best basketball of his career.

THE DAY ISAAC HUMPHRIES had decided to come out wasn’t going to plan. The date was November 16, 2022, a day Humphries had been working towards for months. It was the day he would declare his sexuality to his teammates and the world. The day when he could finally be himself. The problem was, he’d just been T-boned by a stolen car.

“That was a wild day,” says Humphries, who’s speaking to Men’s Health today from a hotel room in Melbourne, having played the previous night on road trip that’s part of the NBL’s Champion Pride Round. “I was on my way to the training facility and I actually got hit by a stolen car and there was a machete and drugs in the front seat. My breakfast hit the windshield. It was absolutely crazy. And I thought, If the universe is trying to tell me something, it’s either don’t go and do this or life’s way too short and just be yourself and do it.”

Humphries decided it was the latter and eventually made his way to team headquarters to sit down in front of the team [then Melbourne United] and pour his heart out. “That moment had been running through my brain because I had planned it six months prior,” he says. “And obviously it builds up, builds up until the day. I had everything I wanted to say memorised. I just knew exactly what I wanted to say, and I knew that that room would receive it because they were just great people and that environment was unbelievable. I was very nervous. It was easily one of the hardest moments in my life, standing there, sharing something with people that I never thought I would share. I thought I wouldn’t be on Earth anymore before I told a room like that of what was going on with me. My voice was making inflections that it had never made before, my whole body was shaking. I had all these people looking at me and I was sharing something that was an extremely, deep-rooted secret. It was a very scary moment, but a moment I knew had to happen in order for me to keep living my life.”

Humphries, who played college ball at the esteemed University of Kentucky before completing a short stint with the Atlanta Hawks in the NBA, couldn’t anticipate the ways in which his life would change that day. He would receive support from all over the world. New fans would flock to his games and he would receive messages from people going through their own journeys who were inspired by his example.

One thing, he didn’t anticipate: he would start playing better basketball. “I feel very free,” says Humphries, who this season is averaging 15.8 points and 6.5 rebounds a game for the Adelaide 36ers. “I feel like I just don’t have this sabre-toothed tiger in the corner, at me all the time, and I can just be whatever. I feel very comfortable in myself, and I feel very comfortable on the court. I am playing the best basketball of my career, and I can’t pinpoint exactly what it is, but I think it just has to do with being so comfortable and free in life.”

With the NBL Champion Pride Round in full swing, MH sat down with Humphries to discuss the importance of representation and visibility in professional sport and his journey to becoming the man he always wanted to be.

 

 

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Men’s Health: Why is the NBL Champion Pride Round so important for the league and for representation more broadly?

Isaac Humphries: Gosh, it’s such a loaded question, isn’t it? Look, I think representation and the visibility I have found in the year or so since coming out is so important. The fact that there is a pride round, the fact of just having it and the league being willing and open to celebrate my community shows to our fans and everyone involved in basketball, not just me, the only out player right now in male basketball, but the people who live silently in the closet who are not sure of how to maybe manage it or not sure of what to do, that it is celebrated and it’s accepted and it’s okay. I know for a fact our fans from my community feel a lot more welcome to come to games.

MH: Can you just tell us a little bit about your journey since November ’22 and the day you came out?

IH: I guess when I came out, we had a little idea of how it would go, but we didn’t really know what to expect. How do you know how anything’s going to go when you’re the first one doing something? So, it was tricky to prepare for, but the year has been amazing. The opportunities and the platform it gave me all around, not just Australia, but all around the world, to voice my passion for mental health, to give me a platform to put my music out and share that side of my life has been amazing. I’ve been able to be an example for others that you can come out and it’s very positive and you don’t have to live silently in the closet.

Of course, there are a lot of negative connotations with all of this, right? Unfortunately. And I went through it myself. It’s the big question of what happens now? How does it affect my career? And I think I’m now living proof that in basketball anyway, you can do it all and you can be yourself and come out and be totally fine. I’m actually excelling right now in basketball. I’m playing better than I ever have. So it’s almost the total opposite effect of what you convince yourself will happen.

MH: Have there been any surprises?

IH: Every day’s a surprise. Every new opportunity I get is a surprise. The magnitude of what I’ve done is surprising. I knew it would affect people, but I was very surprised, and I’m often surprised still, by the messages I receive every day, from all parts of the world, who have seen my story and are suffering in silence and really, really struggling in their situation and in their environment. That surprises me and it’s just the magnitude of this ripple effect of what we’ve done. I wanted to achieve that ripple effect so that people could know my story and get a bit of inspiration from it, to feel a little bit of hope that they are not alone. But the reality is some people don’t live in a great country like Australia, and it’s tricky for people.

MH: Did Josh Cavallo’s experience [Cavallo became the only openly gay professional male footballer in the world when he came out in October, 2021] set any kind of precedent for you of how things might go or inspire you in any way?

IH: When Josh came out, I was really struggling with my own situation, so I was unable to watch the video. I couldn’t look at it because it was way too close to home. I still haven’t actually watched Josh’s video, to be honest, because it reminds me of a time in my life that I don’t really want to be reminded of. And I’ve come so far and I love what Josh has done. He’s a great advocate for our community. And we have the same manager, so we’re underneath the same umbrella. We’re in the family, so we’re always seeing what each other’s doing. But of course, I was living in Adelaide, I was going through suicidal depression, and I was really struggling and that was too close to home for me, so I couldn’t quite give it the attention it deserved.

But in saying that, of course, when I decided to do this, Josh is the only person we could look to for an example of what to do, what not to do, how it will go, how it won’t go, because there was no one else to really look at. Josh does a great job. He’s very vocal about his advocacy, he’s very passionate about his advocacy and we need people like that.

MH: Are there times when you would prefer the media focus was on your game rather than your status as an openly gay athlete? Or are you happy to take on that role and all that comes with it, alongside your on-court aspirations?

IH: I don’t think you do something like this if you’re not happy to be okay to be labelled that or have that be the forefront of your storyline. And I’m proud of that to be the forefront of my storyline. But to be fair, I’ve actually really loved how a lot of people have not constantly made that the story. It’s how I’ve been playing, it’s what I’ve done in the game. I quite often think to myself, ‘Oh, the gay athlete thing hasn’t been mentioned for months now’. And that’s great because it is normalising what we’re doing here. I’m just an athlete who happens to be gay.

 

 

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MH: Do you believe or hope that another professional player will come out soon?

IH: I hope so. I still remain the only openly gay male player in the world at a top tier, and I thought by now maybe there would be someone else come forward. It’s a very global sport. But it’s a very personal decision. Everyone has their own timeline. Everyone has their own situations. It might not be the right environment. They might not be in the right head space. It takes a lot of work to get into a head space where you’re confident enough and feel ready to say something like that in a very male dominant sport. I hope to see more people, because like I said, this is all about normalising being a gay athlete. But the truth is, and something I’ve had to learn over the year and a bit that I’ve been doing this, is it’s a slow burn. Change takes time. Everyone’s timeline is different. So I would love to see it, but it’s okay if they’re not ready.

MH: Can you tell us about your singing career? Is that part of being your whole self?

IH: Yeah, music’s been a part of my life forever, long before basketball. Basketball came along and it just went to really high level really quickly, so I had to put music behind me a little bit. But there came a point where I realised I can’t do one without the other, because I just love both so much and I felt like I was missing something in my life. And as I grew up and figured out ways to balance both, it definitely became a release, somewhere I could go and just not feel judgment from anyone because it was such a personal thing. And for a long time it was just me and my piano at home, but then when I started performing and really performing for crowds of people, it’s like that adrenaline rush that you get as an athlete, playing in front of tens of thousands of people. I was just craving that feeling, probably as a distraction from what was going on in my head.

Now, since coming out, I’m headlining Adelaide Fringe in March, and I’m very excited for that. And I have been working very hard on my show. It’s a very personal show. I was in rehearsal the other day and realised I’m singing better than I ever have, I’m performing better than I ever have. I’m playing basketball better than I ever have. What’s happening? And I just realised that I don’t care about how I look or how I present or anything anymore. I’m very open about who I am, and if I look too gay or whatever, I’m a gay man. So what? For so long I’ve been hiding. I’ve been almost holding myself back in many aspects of my life. But now I don’t care. I’m so free.

MH: As you say, you are having a great season on the court. Do you feel like the shackles are off and that has helped your game blossom?

IH: Yeah, I just wrote a song the other week about shackles. That line is in it. That’s exactly how I feel. My perspective on things has changed a lot and I’m very focused on basketball. I’m very driven, and right now, basketball is very just … I don’t want to say emotionless, but I’m just like missed bucket, made bucket, massive play. I’m just locked in and I think that’s just come with this focus on different areas of my life and compartmentalisation of everything going on.

MH: What are your future goals on the court? Would you like another shot at the NBA?

IH: Of course I would. I had a very brief stint in the NBA and I would love to get back there, but there’s so many things to achieve before I can get to that point. And yes, long-term goals are important and they drive you, but I’m very much about what’s happening day to day and more short-term right now. Because there is so much happening in my life, it’s really hard to look too far ahead. I have big goals and dreams, but I think the little stepping stones are what gets you there first. So at the moment, I have six games left [in the season]. I want to play the best I can for those six games. Then I have to do a really good job at being an ambassador for the Fringe Festival and killing my show and then have a great off-season. I would love to have the opportunity to be a part of the Boomers’ squad, and I think I can bring something to that team, and I think I’m playing well enough to warrant that. But again, that’s totally out of my hands. I just need to play the best I can.

MH: You said when you came out that you hoped the exposure that you get will help people. Has that been the most fulfilling part of your journey?

IH: Yes, I’d say so. I have been very lucky to have magazine covers and red carpets and endorsement deals and amazing brands and clothes, and that’s awesome. But the true work that makes me feel like it was all worth it and very fulfilled is the work I’ve done with men’s mental health, specifically with RUOK Day. And I feel very, very honoured and very privileged to be a part of those conversations and a part of organisations like that that are really making differences and helping. When I did this, I wanted to make sure it was a pillar of mine to make sure I was not neglecting the platform I was given. Every day I come back to, How is this going to help?

 

 

Related:

Josh Cavallo on why he had decided the time had come to show his true colours

How to achieve NBA-level mental fitness

 

 

Ben Jhoty

By Ben Jhoty

Ben Jhoty, Men’s Health’s Head of Content, attempts to honour the brand’s health-conscious, aspirational ethos on weekdays while living marginally larger on weekends. A new father, when he’s not rocking an infant to sleep, he tries to get to the gym, shoot hoops and binge on streaming shows.

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