Alex Montgomery didn’t need to reach the WNBA to teach some of these drills.
She told her players to line up across the baseline. It was for a drill she has performed thousands of times in her own playing career.
“Everybody knows what a sprint is, right?” she asked.
Their answers were inaudible. Montgomery cupped her hand around her ear and leaned the side of her head in their direction for a more understandable response.
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“Yes, coach,” they yelled.
Then she blew her whistle.
“Sprint, sprint, sprint, sprint — this is not a jog,” she shouted.
This kind of drill, Montgomery said, is the secret to her own success.
Montgomery became the coach of the Steilacoom High School girls basketball team this year. She’s in her own offseason, preparing for her seventh year in the WNBA and third with the San Antonio Stars.
When I got into the league, I didn’t really have a mid-range shot. They just knew me as a 3-point shooter, and I didn’t attack the basket. But hard work — I just kept working day in and day out. That’s who I am, and that’s how I’ve got here.
San Antonio Stars guard Alex Montgomery
The 2017 WNBA season begins in May, two months after the high school girls basketball season concludes.
“Hard work beats talent — I don’t care how talented you are,” Montgomery said. “I kept working hard.
“When I got into the league, I didn’t really have a mid-range shot. They just knew me as a 3-point shooter, and I didn’t attack the basket. But hard work — I just kept working day in and day out. That’s who I am, and that’s how I’ve got here.”
But persuading 14-18 year olds that suicide sprints are worth it has been another challenge.
“Stop, stop, stop — on the line,” she yelled. “On the line. Let’s go — suicide.”
Steilacoom lost its first five games of the season.
It’s a school that last reached the state tournament in 2005, and before that it last reached state in 1993.
Montgomery was back in Tacoma watching her cousin play in a men’s league basketball game when Eric Overgaard, Steilacoom’s girls coach last year, approached her about taking over his position. He was leaving to become the boys coach at Stadium.
Montgomery spent her past offseasons playing overseas — in France, Brazil and Israel — but didn’t this year so she could be closer to her mother, who has been sick, she said.
She also wanted to be able to watch her younger siblings. Her younger brother, Antonio, is a senior playing for Graham-Kapowsin, and sister, Kondalia, is a junior playing at Lincoln, where Alex graduated from.
“I was like, ‘I can definitely take the job,’ ” Montgomery told Overgaard. “And he was like, ‘For real?’
“I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘No — for real, for real?” And I was like, ‘Yes! For real. I’ll do it.’ ”
She blew her whistle, stopping a team scrimmage against some boys players.
“Stop,” Montgomery shouted. “How is he wide open? Why? Why? Why?
“Because you’re not talking.”
Montgomery says the game has changed since she was in high school.
The 6-foot-1 guard is one of the greatest basketball players to ever come out of Tacoma. She was The News Tribune’s co-All-Area player of the year in 2007 alongside Kentwood’s Courtney Vandersloot, who now plays for the Chicago Sky.
Montgomery averaged 22.3 points, 18.8 rebounds, eight assists and 6.4 blocks per game. She had seven quadruple-doubles and even a rare quintuple-double in a win over Central Kitsap, finishing with 27 points, 22 rebounds, 10 assists, 10 blocks and 10 steals.
I was really nervous for tryouts. So nervous. I was like, ‘Don’t mess this up, you’re playing in front of a WNBA player.’ But then the more and more we’ve gotten to know her and be around her, she’s not so scary.
Steilacoom junior guard Leah Clardy
She got a scholarship to Georgia Tech and later was the 10th overall pick in the 2011 WNBA draft by the New York Liberty (Vandersloot was selected third in that year’s draft).
“I was really hyped up,” Steilacoom senior Kaylah Robinson said of learning Montgomery would be her next coach. “Because I was like, ‘We got someone who knows how to get us to where we want to go.’ ”
Leah Clardy, a junior guard, said she had seen Montgomery around Tacoma and watched her play on TV once. And she’s attended a few Seattle Storm games.
“I was really nervous for tryouts,” Clardy said. “So nervous. I was like, ‘Don’t mess this up, you’re playing in front of a WNBA player.’ But then the more and more we’ve gotten to know her and be around her, she’s not so scary.”
But most didn’t know who she was — other than the school announcing over its intercom that WNBA player Alex Montgomery would be its girls basketball coach. She was hired Nov. 9 — less than a week before the first practice of the season.
“After the first practice, many of them came back and said they Googled me,” Montgomery said. “They were like, ‘Oh, Coach, I YouTubed you and I saw your half-court shot (she made at the halftime buzzer against the Washington Mystics). That was so amazing.”
They weren’t practicing half-court shots on Thursday.
They practiced layups — how to step off the correct foot and go up with the correct hand.
“Down, step, up, down, step, up,” Montgomery repeated during a layup drill.
Montgomery said she didn’t imagine she’d need to teach some of the most basic concepts of the game as much as she has. Or that not everyone would exude the same passion for the game that she seemed to inherently possess.
I feel like basketball has changed a lot. It’s like the girls don’t want to work as hard. They want to be working hard one practice and then taking it easy the next. Or ‘We won the game, so let’s take it easy.’ And I’m like, ‘No, you got to grind. You got to grind.’
But it hasn’t shaken her. She said she’d probably like to focus on coaching after she finishes her own playing career.
“I feel like basketball has changed a lot,” Montgomery said. “It’s like the girls don’t want to work as hard. They want to be working hard one practice and then taking it easy the next. Or ‘We won the game, so let’s take it easy.’ And I’m like, ‘No, you got to grind. You got to grind.’
“I’m trying to teach them stuff, but you can only teach players so much before they got to want to do it on their own.”
She remembers her older sister, Jasmine, and her former Lincoln coach, Kevin Strozier, pushing her to her limit, constantly yelling and motivating her.
“Every single time a player scored on me, I got mad,” Montgomery said. “Coach Strozier was always hard on us. But with them, I always have to be positive. Because if they turn the ball over, they put their heads down and it’s like they don’t want to play anymore instead of getting mad and getting hungry.”
She hopes to be an example. She shows her players the weight-room workouts she does while preparing for the season and hopes they can take that into their own preparation.
“And I think just being a female, and coaching females — I know where they are coming from and I can mentor them and be a counselor to them,” Montgomery said.
“If they can see my life through my season and what I go through day in and day out, their vision would be totally different. They’d see, ‘That’s why she pushes us so hard.’ Because I know they can handle it. I know that we’re better than being blown out by 40.”
She got up from her seat.
“Sprint,” she yelled to her players. “Get back, get back, get back!”
She’s starting to see improvement. Steilacoom has won two of its past three games to improve to 2-6.
“When my shot wasn’t on, I was my own biggest critic, and then I wouldn’t get back and play defense,” Montgomery said. “But now I see that on their faces and I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s how I was. That is so crazy.’
“I really enjoy it. I’m teaching them every day and they are actually getting it and grasping the concepts. It’s just about continuing to push them. It’s not going to all happen overnight or in a moment. It’s going to take time.”
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677
ALEX MONTGOMERY FILE
High school: Lincoln
▪ Averaged 22.3 points, 18.8 rebounds, eight assists and 6.4 blocks per game her senior year (2006-07). Had quintuple-double (27 points, 22 rebounds, 10 assists, 10 blocks and 10 steals) in win over Central Kitsap. Earned TNT co-All-Area player of the year (alongside Kentwood’s Courtney Vandersloot).
College: Georgia Tech
▪ Averaged 14.1 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game during her senior season. Became 23rd player in Georgia Tech history to score over 1,000 career points (1,078).
WNBA experience: 6 seasons (four with the New York Liberty, two with the San Antonio Stars)
▪ Was 10th overall pick in 2011 WNBA draft by the New York Liberty. Has played in 162 games, averaging 4.2 points, 3.2 rebounds per game. Has appeared in four playoff games.