A Silent Sensei
Casey expounds on his respect for Mike Montgomery.
by Casey Jacobsen
When I committed to play college basketball at Stanford in 1999, I did so because I thought it was the perfect fit for me. Not only was it an amazing academic institution, their basketball program had been transformed into a respected contender for a national championship, year in and year out. Stanford also had a promising group of underclassmen to help live up to the new expectations.
All-American forward Mark Madsen was one of only two returning seniors on the team, but with talented twin centers Jason and Jarron Collins, the foundation of the team was rock solid. At the wing positions, Stanford was good but lost both starters to graduation. There were starting jobs to be won, and I felt that I was up to the task. The prospect of getting playing time right away for a good team was one of the biggest factors in committing to play for the Cardinal. Other factors including the quality of education that Stanford offered as well as remaining in my home state of California. The final factor not to be overlooked was the coach. Looking back at it now, this was a lot more important than I realized.
When I first met coach Mike Montgomery at my house in Glendora, CA in September of 1998, he looked exactly like what you think the coach at a place like Stanford would look like. He wore a nice suit and glasses, looking like he just came over fresh from giving a quantum physics lecture. He was impressive, but unassuming. In talking about Stanford University, he let the school sell itself.
Unlike Utah’s coach Rick Majerus, he wasn’t dramatic in describing my basketball career. (Majerus, who was also recruiting me, actually told me during a visit: “If you come to Utah, I guarantee you will make the NBA,” then got former Utah guard and current NBA star Andre Miller on the phone so I could talk with him.) Coach Montgomery never made any guarantees about playing time or anything else. He made sure I understood that I would have to earn everything that was given to me.
It wasn’t what I wanted to hear that night, but straightforwardness was his style. My parents were very impressed. I wasn’t that enamored with him, but I did know that the man could coach. Montgomery previously coached at Montana and took that program from obscurity to the top of the Big Sky Conference during his nine years there. Then, at Stanford, a tough university to get top recruits to because of the strict academic standards, he slowly built up that program from the Pac 10 doormat to a spot in the 1998 NCAA Final Four. His resume was as good as it gets. After our conversations at my house, I realized Stanford was the right place for me to go. I committed that night.
Once on campus, I couldn’t wait to get on the court and prove myself to Coach Montgomery. Playing big-time college basketball had been a dream since I was a little kid and I had finally arrived. I played well in preseason and had successfully asserted myself as a freshman that was ready to contribute right away. It wasn’t easy to battle older, stronger players who were used to college basketball, but I held my own. In my mind, if I could prove to coach that I could play at this level, then the rest would be easy.
As hard as I tried and as many shots that I made, I never felt like it was good enough for him. He rarely let me know how he felt about my progress and I can’t remember a time that we sat down and talked about my role on the team during my first few months on campus. This wasn’t how I thought it would be. I was 18 years old and a little immature. I thought I knew everything and I also thought I knew exactly how my college career would go. Coach Montgomery’s personality caught me by surprise.
Our team got off to a great start that season (’99-00) and by December we earned the No. 1 ranking in the country, the first in Stanford Basketball history. Although I was coming off the bench as the team’s 6th man, I was leading our team in scoring with a 14-point average and playing solid minutes in “crunch time.” Our team was getting all kinds of positive attention from the media and so was I. I’m not afraid to admit that I enjoyed the attention. I wanted to see my team ranked No. 1. I wanted to be in front of television cameras talking about how well we were doing. I loved being part of a winning team, and I also loved everything else that came with it.
Playing basketball at Stanford was all I dreamed it would be and more. We were the best team in the entire nation! Through all of this, I imagined that at some point, Coach Montgomery and I would form a real bond… maybe even a friendship. During high school, I become really close with my coach, Mike LeDuc, and I thought that relationship was normal. Why would college be any different?
As much as I hoped for that relationship, it never happened during my freshman year. Immaturely, I began to resent him. I never lost respect for him as a coach, but I did find myself angry with him for his demeanor toward me. I just didn’t understand why he would never coach me as an individual player. He left it to his assistant coaches to help develop my skills and talk with me after practice about frustrations or problems. I respected all of the assistants, but what I really wanted to hear was what Coach Montgomery thought. What did he see that I could work on? What did he want me to do in the games?
I played at Stanford for three years, and although my relationship with Coach Montgomery improved slightly during my sophomore and junior seasons, I always wanted more from him. It had nothing to do with complaints about playing time or my role in the offense. I just wanted him to coach ME, along with the team.
Before I left school early to enter the NBA Draft, things did change for the better. He was really supportive in helping me gather information from NBA scouts and general managers about my draft position. During that time, we talked a lot about my option to return to Stanford or to leave. His advice and knowledge were crucial in helping me make an informed decision that would change my life forever. Those conversations were easily the best talks I ever had with Mike Montgomery. Just as I was leaving, ironically, we were starting to bridge that personal gap between most players and coaches.
Having been away from college for more than seven years, I now have a completely different perspective on Coach Montgomery. Instead of focusing on all the things he didn’t do, I now appreciate all the things he did do for me. He was probably the best coach I’ve ever played for in regards to getting a team to understand how to win and execute a game plan. We didn’t have a great relationship, but part of that was my fault too. Most importantly, I now realize that Coach Montgomery gave me the opportunity of a lifetime: to play basketball for one of the best academic/athletic universities in the country and win.
Not only that, but he allowed me to play in a system that accentuated my strengths as a basketball player and to continue to improve every year. I don’t know if I would have made it to the NBA if it weren’t for Mike Montgomery. He had a business approach to coaching our team that I may not have agreed with all the time, but he did his job well. Not everyone can be exactly who you want them to be. I’ve never been a coach. I don’t know what that is like and until I do; I can’t criticize the way a guy chooses to run his program and coach his players.
Coach Montgomery has been a head coach longer than I have been on this Earth, and I should have allowed him to be the kind of person he is. I’m sorry for that. Again, I admit that I was immature. I have grown up since, and so has my relationship with my former coach. I played against him a few years ago in 2005 when he took the head coaching position with the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. After my team got the victory in Phoenix, we talked for about 20 minutes after the game. It was really nice to see him again, and I could tell we both matured.
Every experience helps us grow. Every season I play, I learn something new about myself. Mike Montgomery helped me grow and learn more than any other coach has in my life, even though I couldn’t see it at that time. Sometimes, the things we don’t like are the best things for us.
Coach Montgomery now roams the sideline of our former rival Cal-Berkley. It’s strange to see him in gold and blue, but what’s not strange is his results. Last year in his first season at Cal, they finished 3rd in the competitive Pac-10 Conference and made the NCAA Tournament. I expect Cal to be one of the better teams on the west coast for years to come because of him. I don’t know what kind of relationships he has with his current players, but if I could give them any advice from my own experience playing for Mike Montgomery, it would be this:
Let him be who he is. He is a great coach who will put you in a position to win games. The rest is up to you to perform. What else can you really ask from a coach?
Casey Jacobsen is a former SLAM High School First Team All-American and NCAA First Team All-American. He currently plays for Brose Baskets in Bamberg, Germany.