Montgomery ready for NBA challenge

Updated: September 24, 2004, 3:16 PM ET
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

Mike Montgomery stood back behind a row of GMs, scouts and player personnel directors and watched the meaningless game unfolding at the Moody Bible Institute at the Chicago pre-draft camp in early June.

Mike Montgomery
Associated Press/Jeff ChiuMike Montgomery knows wins will be harder to come by in the NBA.
He didn't get too involved in the chit-chat or spreading rumors about picks and other such nonsense.

He just observed.

He's been doing a fair amount of canvassing his new landscape for the past four months. Within two weeks, he'll finally be ready to do what he was hired for: coach the Golden State Warriors when practice begins Oct. 5.

"I'm a little out of my comfort zone, and I don't know what to expect,'' Montgomery told ESPN.com this week. "Everything is new here. The first time I blow the whistle and stop practice, what's the reaction? I don't know. I know it will be better than what people think. There is a negative impression about NBA players that I don't see. Everybody looks at me like I'm going to jump into a den of lions. That's not the case.

"But the big difference is that you can schedule 10 wins, a third of your games, in college to win. You can't control that here. Every game is going to be really hard to win. You have much more control in college. If we're down (at Stanford), then you schedule down and guarantee a win.''

Montgomery's decision to leave the comfort of Stanford for the wasteland of NBA coaches on non-playoff teams was one of the most curious decisions by an established coach in recent memory. This was different than Leonard Hamilton leaving Miami for the Washington Wizards, Lon Kruger bolting Illinois for the Atlanta Hawks, John Calipari leaving UMass for the New Jersey Nets and even Rick Pitino leaving Kentucky for the Boston Celtics.

Pitino had already been with the New York Knicks and he was leaving for the Celtics, a franchise that at the time was still revered as one of the most prestigious in the league. The Celtics were ready to give him control over major decisions. That's not the case for Montgomery with the Warriors.

The thought that Montgomery would leave Stanford after 18 years, a Final Four appearance in '98, a dozen NCAA bids, four Pac-10 titles, four No. 1 rankings, a remarkable 30-2 record in 2003-04, including 26-straight wins to open the season, is still hard to fathom.

Montgomery was as much an institution at Stanford as Jim Calhoun is at Connecticut, Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, Lute Olson at Arizona and Mike Krzyzewski at Duke.

But something had to push Montgomery toward another challenge. Something had to drive him away from Stanford, where he was on top of the college basketball world heading toward a Hall of Fame career (the new College Basketball Hall of Fame is being built in Kansas City, so he could still make a strong case in due time).

"Some times you have to just re-pot yourself,'' Montgomery said. "Frankly, I don't think what I did in college or at Stanford goes away. That's done and this is something different.''

Montgomery wasn't running away from the trend of players leaving early for the NBA. He lost Josh Childress off last season's team before he made his decision to join him in the NBA. He had previously seen Casey Jacobsen and Curtis Borchardt bolt early for the NBA, too.

Losing Montgomery to the NBA isn't a statement that the college game is sinking. Sure, Montgomery was sick of the way recruiting had gone more toward dealing with the summer coach than the high school coach. But that wasn't as much an issue for Stanford recruits.

"At Stanford, I had the luxury of not having to deal with those issues,'' Montgomery said. "There are so many outside influences that it makes it harder to communicate what you should be selling in college basketball. Because, let's face it, one of the reasons to go to college is to go to class and get the college experience. I was discouraged as to who had the kid's interest, but I was totally happy at Stanford.

"I had the best possible scenario. I was at a position in the college game where I had leadership responsibilities and felt like people listened to me if I had something to say. But you were going to retire at some point, 65 or 75. I don't think there is any perfect time to say stop now. You're always going to have good kids, and it's going to be tough to leave. That was clearly the case at Stanford.''

Montgomery had even more of an easy choice considering he didn't have to move. He is keeping his home in Menlo Park, south of San Francisco, but has leased a condo in nearby Alameda, close to the Warriors' practice facility, the arena and the Oakland Airport, to cut down on a commute.

And the Warriors actually did offer some hope. Golden State finished above Phoenix and the L.A. Clippers in the Pacific Division under Eric Musselman. The Warriors are still in the West, meaning it's increasingly harder each year to get one of the eight playoff spots. But Montgomery does see hope with the addition of veteran point guard Derek Fisher and veteran forward Dale Davis to go along with fellow vets Cliff Robinson, Adonal Foyle and Calbert Cheaney.

He can't wait to coach Eduardo Najera, acquired in a trade with Dallas. Najera is Montgomery's type of guy -- a hard-working, dive-on-the-floor, Mark Madsen-like player. He expects younger players like Mike Dunleavy Jr., Jason Richardson, Speedy Claxton and Troy Murphy to "step up and improve.'' There will likely be pressure for last season's first-round pick, Mickael Pietrus, to be a player, too. But he's taking the Stanford-freshman approach to this year's top pick -- Andris Biedrins. That means Biedrins won't see much time as he spends his "freshman/rookie" season working on getting stronger and understanding the nuances of the American/NBA game.

Montgomery won't play Biedrins until he's ready, something the coach did to freshmen at Stanford. He wanted to keep Brian Cardinal, but the Warriors couldn't match the money Memphis offered.

I'm not looking back. There are a lot of things I've got to learn. The biggest difference is the pace. Five days after we start practicing, we play a game. That's going to be a real interesting deal.
Mike Montgomery
"We have to develop an attitude that you're going to win, find a way to win,'' Montgomery said. "We have to make defense a priority and take each possession personally. We shouldn't concede anything. We did that at Stanford and I'd love to see that here.

"We've got to stress unselfish play. But the difference here is that contracts are involved and other people could have influence on how they view minutes, touches and shots. We're trying to emphasize that winning will take care of that. It's not going to be easy, but if we share the ball, and there is a willingness to respect teammates, and you play your position, then we'll be OK. We've got to do things the right way, and we'll see where that gets us.''

The mantra that worked at Stanford will be a tough act to mimic with the Warriors. And Montgomery knows that he has the added pressure of being the flag bearer for college coaches who might want to try the NBA.

"It's important for me to hang in there a bit,'' Montgomery said. "This is a players' league. If we can win a few more games and do some things that are attractive then that will help other guys. I'm sure people who look at me say, 'jeez, why would he leave?' and think I'm crazy. Stanford was so good and we had gotten the program to the point that it was a great situation.''

"It's the most stable job in the country,'' said Tony Fuller, an assistant coach under Montgomery and new coach Trent Johnson. "We get really good guys, we've won and we've graduated. No one has transferred out and the only ones who have left went (to the NBA).''

Montgomery left the Cardinal as strong as ever. Johnson would really have to suffer a coaching meltdown to bring the program down this season. He coached Nevada to the Sweet 16. He has better talent at Stanford, leaving no excuse if the Cardinal isn't a threat to the Pac-10 top two and an NCAA team again.

Point guard Chris Hernandez is one of the best in the country at his position and a natural leader. Nick Robinson might be one of the most versatile players, spending time at all five spots a year ago. Forwards Matt Haryasz and Rob Little form one of the most experienced and potentially productive frontcourts in the West.

The only questions are the fifth starter and the order off the bench. The likely fifth starter is shooting guard Dan Grunfeld, with sophomore Fred Washington and freshman Tim Morris pushing for minutes at that spot, too. Junior Jason Haas is a solid role player who can back up Hernandez. The rest of the depth is young, but Stanford has a way of finding role players who don't whine about their minutes.

If this team reaches its potential, then the Cardinal will be a pest to Arizona and Washington in the Pac-10 and be in the NCAAs yet again. Recruiting hasn't suffered, either, with the Cardinal nabbing point guard Mitch Johnson out of Seattle O'Dea High, small forward Lawrence Hill out of Glendale, Ariz., and point guard Anthony Goode out of Corona, Calif.

Montgomery's legacy at Stanford is intact. The work on his Warriors' career begins. Montgomery was used to taking Sundays off to rest and regroup. He won't get that once the NBA season starts. It might be hard to divorce himself from Stanford, considering he's still living close to school. He might be curious to check out the new Maples Pavilion digs when it's opened this fall. But he has plenty to do in Oakland to ensure his pro career is as respected as the one he just concluded in college.

"I'm not looking back,'' Montgomery said. "There are a lot of things I've got to learn. The biggest difference is the pace. Five days after we start practicing, we play a game. That's going to be a real interesting deal. You could be up 10 with two or three minutes left and still lose with timeouts, the 24-second clock. You've really got to manage those last two or three minutes. In college, you're up 10 and you can sit there and put it on autopilot. The wins are going to be a lot harder to come by.''

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His Weekly Word on college basketball is updated Fridays throughout the year.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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