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Montgomery fights on after cancer scare
Back before he was gray around the temples, before he built Stanford into a national basketball power and probably long before he acquired his old-school sensibilities, Mike Montgomery never met a subject he couldn’t coat in sarcasm.
“We didn’t have a lot of parties around the house,” Montgomery said of the five weeks between his initial doctor’s visit and the surgery. “It’s scary."Kirby Lee
And so, after he revealed recently that he’d undergone surgery to remove a cancerous growth on his bladder, Montgomery mused about the ways he might take advantage of the NCAA’s decision to allow coaches unlimited use of social media.
“We’ll have daily updates,” Montgomery said. “Mike peed today! He feels great!”
Montgomery laughed often on Friday at the Pac-12 basketball media day, if for no other reason than because he could. Entering his fourth season at California, Montgomery said he was not just happy to return to work last week after surgery and a subsequent biopsy revealed there was no cancer in his system.
He was also lucky.
“We didn’t have a lot of parties around the house,” Montgomery said of the five weeks between his initial visit to the doctor and the surgery. “It’s scary. It’s scary. Anybody who’s been through it: You go from being relatively on top of your game, to being in charge of everything to no longer being in charge. And it could have gone the other way. I’m extremely fortunate that it went the way it did.”
Montgomery said his doctor told him if the routine exam, in which he was checked for diverticulitis (inflammation of the colon), had been done three months ago, nothing would have turned up. If it had taken place six months from now, there’s nothing that could be done.
“So the timing couldn’t have been better,” Montgomery said. “If you’ve got an ache or pain, get checked.”
As this latest basketball season prepares to tip off, it does so with a number of coaches publicly coping with illness. St. John’s coach Steve Lavin underwent surgery for prostate cancer, Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy announced he has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and Tennessee women’s coach Pat Summitt revealed this summer she is in the early stages of dementia.
Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak, who played for Montgomery at Montana in the mid-'80s, said he was flipping through a local newspaper on his flight to Los Angeles and noticed that the obituaries are dotted with people close enough to his age to give him pause.
“Some of it is simple math,” Krystkowiak said. “You can’t be immortal and live forever. It just happens to be coaches that we know. You know, it always helps to self reflect a little bit and see how fortunate you were. I’m sure it’s going to be perceived as bonus days for Mike.”
Montgomery, 64, returned to work last week and on Thursday spent six hours at school, some of it watching practice. He flew to Los Angeles, walking with a slight limp through Pac-12 media day but otherwise looking fine. He has lost some weight and strength, but he said doctors have not placed any limitations on him. Montgomery plans to be on the sideline Nov. 11 when the Bears, ranked 24th in The Associated Press preseason poll, open the season at home against UC Irvine.
Montgomery could not help but wisecrack about how his players could not possibly be happy to see him back on the court. But Jorge Gutierrez, the Bears’ senior guard and leader who accompanied Montgomery to media day, said the coach revealed a new side of himself when he informed his players of his condition last week at a team meeting.
“Now, we feel more connected,” Gutierrez said. “We didn’t have much of a connection outside of basketball (before). He opened up a little more, so that helps us relate to him more.”
Cancer is no stranger to Montgomery. His parents — father Jack was Long Beach State’s first athletic director and played football at UCLA with Jackie Robinson — died of the disease. And Mike's wife, Sarah, was diagnosed with breast cancer in the late ‘90s. (She is fine now, he said.) But Montgomery shakes his head at the suggestion those experiences have somehow prepared him to cope with his circumstances.
“I don’t know about that,” Montgomery said. “It’s pretty personal when it’s you.”
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Montgomery is a well-known name, but even in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he has coached the two major college teams and the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, he is not a well-known figure. He has always preferred to let his teams — who are routinely fundamentally sound and have finished with a losing conference record once in 21 Pac-10 seasons — speak for him. And yet, as long as the topic is not himself, Montgomery is uncommonly frank with reporters and firm in his opinions.
On the subject of the recent proposal by NCAA president Mark Emmert to pay college athletes, Montgomery observed how booming TV revenues have not only changed athletes' views of their place, but coaches', too.
“With high salaries, there are a lot of young coaches that want to get into coaching because they see the Armani suits,” Montgomery said. “They don’t want to coach because they want to coach. They want to coach because of all the perks.”
Such disdain does not always make him popular amongst his peers, some of whom consider him smug. When Southern California coach Kevin O’Neill, in welcoming Montgomery back, quipped, “I actually like him, too — and he’s hard to like,” there was at least a kernel of truth there.
In recent weeks, Cal had issued three statements, saying Montgomery would be away from the team, that he had undergone surgery and that he would be returning to coach. But there was no word of why until Friday.
Montgomery said he wanted to deliver the news Friday, get the subject out of the way and be able to move on. He said later he is not opposed to discussing the matter, but he'd prefer it be in a substantive manner.
“If I thought I could do any good, as a general rule, talking about how this came about — here’s what you need to do — I’ve got no problem with that,” Montgomery said. “But I just don’t want it to be an ongoing deal that becomes more curiosity than it is something of any kind of value. If there’s anything I can do to help as a result of this, I’d be happy to do so. But it’s the ongoing questions. I’ve always resented a little bit, the idea of a courageous fight. So if I died of cancer, I didn’t put up a courageous fight? That’s not fair. It’s a scary disease that you really don’t understand how you get it. There’s nothing you can do.”
So it is easy to understand the relief that came Oct. 24 when Montgomery was informed no cancer had been found in his lymph nodes or anywhere else — that feeling helpless did not give way to hopelessness.
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