Turning a passion into a profession is something most of us can only dream of pulling off even once. Isaac Humphries has managed it twice. The 26-year-old is a power forward for the Adelaide 36ers, and he’s now headlining the Adelaide Fringe with a cabaret act. He also made history in November 2022, when he told the world he was gay – becoming Australia’s first openly gay male pro basketballer, and only the second gay man to play in a professional basketball league worldwide. Humphries is doing a lot.

The combination of professional basketballer and singer-songwriter might seem unlikely, but for Humphries returning to the arts is a homecoming of sorts. When he sat down with Broadsheet, he described himself as a “performing arts kid … who was just sort of thrown into the deep end with basketball because I was really tall”.

The deep end meant moving to the US at age 15 to play high-school basketball in Indiana and then in the NCAA college league for the University of Kentucky. He declared for the NBA draft in 2017, and the next few years saw him play for the Sydney Kings, then for a team in Serbia, in lower-level US competitions and briefly in the NBA before returning to Australia, where he’s been playing in the NBL with the Adelaide 36ers and Melbourne United.

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On paper he was thriving – a professional sportsman making a triumphant return home – but privately he was struggling: terrified that if anyone found out he was gay, his career would be over. That private turmoil culminated in a suicide attempt in December 2020.

“I went through a very dark time in my life. I was playing in Adelaide, the first time around, and I was injured [so] I couldn’t play basketball, which is a release obviously for me,” Humphries says. “I spiralled into a very dark place and had to walk away from my life, had to walk away from basketball – I had to make the decision to leave and sort myself out.”

But new horizons soon opened up. “An opportunity came up to move to LA to rehab my knee, and I took it. I spent about five months … just giving into this new world that I was a part of. I lived in West Hollywood, which is a very gay area, and I sort of became who I am today. I found a manager [David McFarland] who specialises in gay athletes coming out and, although there’s not many of us, he does a fantastic job in that space. So I signed with him, and we started to curate this plan for whichever team I ended up with next in Australia – [I would] come out publicly.”

And, while playing for Melbourne United, that’s exactly what he did. Footage of him coming out to his teammates was shared widely in the media and online.

At the end of the season, Humphries re-signed with the Adelaide 36ers for 2023–24. Since then, he’s come back around to the city where he had previously been so unhappy. “I almost developed, like, a bad lens on Adelaide, just because of how much I was struggling here. But I never wavered on how much I knew I could love it,” he says. “It was exciting to me to come back and start fresh – to have a clean slate and try it again. And this time around has been awesome.” He says he’s been enjoying nights at 2KW and catching the drag shows at Marys Poppin.

When he rejoined the 36ers, Humphries set himself some goals – one of which was to stage a Fringe show. He’s checked that off the list and one-upped himself, being named co-ambassador for the Fringe as well.

His cabaret show, Issaac Humphries – Unearthed, features a mix of covers and original songs that detail “the raw and vulnerable stories and the real-life situations that I went through”.

“I think people see athletes as these people on a pedestal that never get broken … forgetting that we are people too and we go through just as much as everyone else,” he says. “The major theme of the show is the fact that I had definitely hit rock bottom. I hit a darkness that I know a lot of people experience, and it doesn’t matter if you have 10,000 people screaming your name and wearing the jersey – you feel like you’re alone in life.”

But, he adds, the show will have plenty of high points, too: “I’m not going to make people sit down for an hour and 15 minutes and just cry the whole time.”

Beyond the court and the cabaret tents of the Fringe, Humphries has another gig that he sees as critically important: being someone for queer kids to look up to. When asked what it would have meant to him as a kid to have an openly gay professional sportsperson to look up to, he says it would have been “huge”.

“I don’t think I ever would have fallen into the space of thinking I couldn’t exist that way in the basketball world. If there’s no one to really look up to, you just create your own narrative and usually it’s not very positive.”

He says he’s “very honoured and very proud” to fill that role for young people now.

If you thought Humphries might take a break once the NBL and the Fringe seasons finish, then you’ve misjudged him. “I’ve got so many goals to still check off yet!” He has plans to release more original music throughout the year, he says – “and I would love the opportunity to put my hand up for Paris Olympics. I know [there’s] a lot of great players, but I think I’m in the mix.”

Isaac Humphries – Unearthed runs from Friday March 15 to Saturday March16 at the Wonderland Spiegeltent as part of the 2024 Adelaide Fringe.

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If you or someone you know is experiencing depression or anxiety, call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14 or visit lifeline.org.au.