It’s been a while since West Valley boys basketball coach Jay Humphrey’s father, Hall of Fame high school basketball coach Denny Humphrey, would help out with practices at West Valley.
Fading health has a way of doing that.
Understandably, the players who make up the Eagles varsity this year never really got to know the father-son combination. When the elder Humphrey died Oct. 2 after a lengthy illness, they were at a loss on how to react.
“I think kids have a hard time with things like this, with knowing how to react,” Jay Humphrey said. “Some of them sent me text messages of condolence.”
When it comes to his father’s former players, there was a comforting outpouring of remembrance and condolence.
“Oh, I heard from some of the guys who played for him back at Lacrosse!” Jay said, a big smile crossing his face. “Some of those guys are in their 60s now, too. And there were a lot of guys who played for him at Cheney. And a lot of them came to the remembrance we had here in this gym. They filled it up.”
Denny Humphrey was a humble man, but you would never know he was one of the most successful high school basketball coaches in the state by talking to him. He would never, ever bring the subject up, and he would be a little embarrassed by it if someone else mentioned it.
But 554 wins in 34 seasons was the third-best total in the state when he retired in 2002, and two years later he was inducted into the Washington State Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame.
Denny Humphrey played his high school basketball at Reardan and the hard-nosed game played in the old Bi-County League was his foundation. His long career started with early stops as a three-sport coach and occasional bus driver at Class B schools Lacrosse and Ritzville, with a stopover in Chewelah.
He is best remembered as one of the area’s basketball elder statesmen during a 22-year stay at Cheney, where he made the Blackhawks a powerhouse in the Frontier and Great Northern Leagues – forging a long rivalry with West Valley. League titles frequently came down to a battle between the two schools.
Jay played for his dad, as did his younger brother, Rhett. While he will entertain you with stories about what it’s like to play for your dad, it came as no surprise when Jay followed in his father’s footsteps and became a teacher and coach.
He won a share of the Greater Spokane League title in 1992 during his five years as head coach at North Central. In six seasons at University, he guided the Titans to the Eastern Regional tournament in 1997.
Father and son faced off on the hard court a number of times over the years, but perhaps the most memorable moments they shared together were when Jay would introduce his dad to his new varsity squad.
“The thing that was so obvious about the two of them was the love they had for each other,” said Jamie Nilles, who coached West Valley before becoming the school’s athletic director. “Denny was just so happy being around and watching Jay. And vice versa. They were always there for each other.”
For area coaches, especially new coaches coming into a league with Cheney, the Blackhawks were always a coaching benchmark. If you could beat them, you were going to be okay.
“As a young coach you want to go to as many clinics as you could,” Nilles said. “But if you could just go hang around and listen to Denny you could really pick up some knowledge.”
The Eagles are putting the wealth of knowledge their coach has learned to good use this season.
Jay Humphrey was a bit apprehensive about the start of the 2019-20 season before Monday’s practice got underway. It all seemed about a week too early for his tastes.
“Any other year we’d have another week of practice and would be starting out the season with a jamboree on Saturday,” he said. “Instead we’re opening up Tuesday.”
After a couple of seasons with a wealth of experience, this year’s Eagles are young and the coach is looking for them to learn on the fly.
“I think I got spoiled a little,” he said. “The last couple of years I could walk in and say to them, ‘Go run UCLA,’ and they would run it perfectly. They knew our playbook backward and forward. This year we’re still learning.”
This year’s team will be led by senior Jace Peterson, who has taken his game up a notch.
“I have four seniors this year, and two of them may not see all that much playing time,” Humphrey said. “I was honest with them about it, and I am proud of them that they wanted to be a part of what we’re doing.
“Jace has raised his energy level so far. Before it would be up and down from day to day. This year he’s maintaining a high level every day. I’m looking forward to seeing him compete at that level, and I hope we can keep him healthy.”