Back in high school, Monty Montgomery used to drive by Daemen College almost every day. Cruising down Main Street in Amherst, he'd sometimes glance over at the college's modest brick facade and laugh.
"What is that place?" he'd say to himself. "I'm never going to that school."
He was a basketball star. What would he want with Daemen? As a junior, he'd led Bennett over Traditional in the Yale Cup title game, outplaying the city's two hot prospects, Jason Rowe and Damien Foster.
Those two were going to Division I. So were a bunch of other kids in the talented senior class of 1996. Ever since the Yale Cup title, people had been whispering: "Division I. You belong in D-I, too."
The problem was, he didn't fit the mold. As a 6-foot-3 forward, he was too small. It wasn't until late in his senior year, when he was named MVP of the ACE All-Star Game, that scouts understood why his high school coach, Larry Veronica, had been begging them to look at Montgomery.
He was one of those rare kids who play beyond their perceived limitations. There is no way to measure the size of their heart, the depth of their desire.
Canisius and a few other D-I schools pursued him after that. But no one could guarantee a full scholarship. Finally, at the end of May, he accepted a full ride to Daemen. He wasn't laughing now.
"Once I got the chance to walk through here, I saw there was a lot more to the school than one building," he said. "It went way beyond basketball."
Five years later, getting snubbed by the D-I schools seems like the best thing that ever happened to him. Most of the kids from that '96 class had difficult experiences in D-I. Damien Foster and Josh Sankes struggled in the Big East and transferred. Rowe flunked out his senior year. Tim Winn got suspended for punching a student. Mike McCarthy, the guy John Beilein recruited instead of him at Canisius, left the program as a sophomore.
Montgomery wound up in Division II, at the NAIA level, and has had a career most high schoolers only dream of. He's the third-leading scorer and rebounder in school history. Entering tonight's home game against Roberts Wesleyan, he leads the Warriors in scoring (18.9) and rebounding (7.6).
He is most proud of the fact that he will graduate this summer with a degree in special and elementary education. One of his classes required him to work at the Babcock Boys & Girls Club. Dealing with young kids convinced him he was cut out to be a teacher. Either that, or a coach.
"I mean, I love kids," Montgomery said. "I love dealing with kids and having them look up to me."
"I think he'd be a good coach," Daemen coach Don Silveri said. "He's a smart player. We've talked about him helping out here if he decides to stick around. I think he can definitely coach at the high school level."
Montgomery is like a player-coach already. He helps Silveri with strategy and on recruiting trips, where he recites the virtues of Daemen as a place where you can get a solid education and a strong hoop experience. And maybe a scholarship.
"Kids don't realize," Montgomery said. "They think Division I is the only way they can get a scholarship. I also tell them, 'You can't slack off in class. You've got Coach Silveri on you. You've got your professors and your teammates on you, making sure you're eligible all four years.' "
Montgomery almost didn't make it all four years. After his junior year, he grew homesick for his family in Las Vegas. His father, Lawrence, is retired from the Air Force. His mother, Annette, is a second cousin of the late tennis legend Arthur Ashe, and helps run his foundation.
Soon after moving away, though, he became homesick for Daemen. He was constantly surfing the Internet for the Warriors' scores. So after the season, he called Silveri and asked if he could come back.
Monday night, I saw Montgomery play for the first time in five years. He had the same fundamental elegance, playing bigger than his size, fighting for position near the basket and drifting out to hit jumpers. He had 32 points on 11-for-15 shooting in a 76-71 win over Hilbert.
"I don't care if I was starting for a Division I team and had a couple more inches," Montgomery said. "I wouldn't trade (being here) for anything."