MARIETTA, Ga. — This will sound a little too perfect to be true, and EJ Montgomery’s parents know it. They won’t even get started telling the story until you nod an understanding that, really, they aren’t making this up.
Their now 6-foot-11 McDonald’s All-American son was just a baby back then. He could stand on his own, but they’d been trying like crazy to get Efrem Jr. to work up the courage to walk.
“We’d say, ‘Come to Daddy! Come to Mommy!’ ” but the boy wouldn’t budge, his mother Glenda said. He needed a stronger enticement.
Then one day she plopped down little EJ in the middle of the basketball court at Indian River State College, a junior college in Florida where she was the head coach of the women’s team for eight years, while she prepared for practice. There were several feet between her child and the only basketball in the gym — and then suddenly there weren’t.
Some of Glenda’s players started shrieking, “Coach! Look at EJ!” She wheeled around in time to witness the future 5-star recruit’s very first steps. Toward a basketball.
“He just walked right over and picked it up and started bouncing it,” his mother remembers. “It seems crazy, I know, but that’s exactly what happened. Until then, we could not get him to walk. But he wanted that ball.”
EJ Montgomery never stopped chasing the game that his family loves — both parents coached and both older sisters are professional players — and now he has followed it all the way to Lexington, Ky.
Glenda and Efrem Sr. dropped him off at the University of Kentucky on Saturday with a twinge of nervousness but also a great deal of confidence that every step since his first has led him here.
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John Calipari is fond of saying that this, all of the attention, expectation and pressure of playing for the winningest program in the history of college basketball, is not for everyone. But that and other favorite catch phrases of UK’s take-it-or-leave-it coach do not apply to EJ Montgomery.
You could argue whether he was born for this, but he certainly was born into it.
Montgomery’s parents met while playing basketball at North Carolina Central University. A 5-foot-10 freshman on the women’s team needed a ride to the grocery store and her coach suggested a 6-foot-6 fella on the men’s team who had a car.
“I thought, ‘He’s sooooo tall,’ ” Glenda remembered recently, grinning while EJ squirmed and his father cackled nearby. “It’s been on ever since.”
They quickly fell in love, even after he asked for gas money on the first date, got married and became coaches — Efrem at the high school level and helping Glenda with her team — then parents. They had daughters Brittni and Brandy, to whom basketball came just as naturally as it would EJ years later.
Brittni, 26, played at Virginia Tech and Central Florida, then professionally in Australia. Brandy, 23, ranks seventh on the all-time scoring list at Auburn, where EJ originally committed, and now plays professionally in Sweden.
Growing up, dinner conversations were about 2-3 zones, backdoor cuts and pick-and-pops. Everyone at the table knew the BLOB was a baseline out-of-bounds play, not a horror flick about alien slime. So when young EJ came along, if he wanted to get a word in, he had to learn to talk hoops.
“That’s all we do: watch basketball, talk basketball, play basketball,” he said. “Me and my sisters used to play 1-on-1 all the time and those games would get really serious. They tried to push me around, tried teach me me every day, tried to put everything they know into me. I guess you could say I just grew up in basketball.”
Today, Montgomery’s hoops IQ is so advanced, it actually hurt his Wheeler (Ga.) High School team at times, the coach said. Larry Thompson would go back and watch video of a pass from his star that sailed out of bounds and discover that it should’ve been an assist.
“He’d rebound the ball, take two dribbles to get across half court, and it was out of his hands,” the coach said. “He was seeing the floor and throwing it to where his teammates were going to be or should be instead of where they were. He was passing them open, but they didn’t even know they were open. They weren’t looking and they weren’t ready for it.
“See, EJ’s basketball mind is just a little bit above where most kids are at this point.”
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Montgomery has always been taller — 6-3 going into sixth grade, 6-8 by the ninth grade — and more talented than most of his peers of the same age. Not long after a teammate’s father bet EJ that he couldn’t score 40 points in a fourth-grade AAU game and he dropped “an easy 38,” Efrem Sr. started playing him against competition that was three years older.
Any time he was forced back down to his age group, the difference was almost comical. One YouTube video from 2012 shows a 6-foot-6 Montgomery, as a shooting guard, towering over his fellow seventh-graders at a junior All-American camp.
“I wanted to always challenge him at each level,” his dad said. “If you’re playing against stronger, bigger, better kids, you can’t help but get better. That was one of the key reasons for picking Kentucky, because we know he’ll be going up against high-level competition every day. He won’t be the only pro in that gym.”
When EJ was a 14-year-old playing up with 17-year-olds on the Adidas AAU circuit, his minutes were sometimes restricted and his role was mostly to rebound and pass. Get the ball and give it up to a teammate who is trying to catch the eye of a college recruiter, his father told him.
“It’s not your time yet,” Efrem Sr. would say, “but it’s coming.”
That deferential mentality — and his early years playing on the perimeter — turned Montgomery into a gifted passer for someone who ended up as the top-ranked power forward in the 2018 recruiting class. He can really shoot it for a guy his size, too, and jokes with friends that he is a member of BGN: Big Guard Nation.
Some of those skills were hidden away until Montgomery reached a point where he couldn’t play up anymore and there was no choice but to start picking on kids his own age.
“Now,” Efrem Sr. tells him these days, “it’s your turn.”
As a senior at Wheeler last season, EJ averaged 26 points, 14 rebounds, 5 blocks and 4 assists in leading his team to the Georgia state quarterfinals, where he lost a showdown with the nation’s No. 1 point guard and a future Kentucky teammate, Ashton Hagans. By the time their battle was over, Hagans knew he wanted to play with that guy.
Or the guy, as Calipari put it in his unusual recruiting pitch to Montgomery. Famous for telling 5-star prospects that if they come with him, they won’t be the focal point and they’d better be ready to share the spotlight — and if that’s a deal-breaker, don’t waste his time — Calipari instead told Montgomery, “You’re not a want; you’re a need.”
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Knowing that NBA star Anthony Davis is his hero, Calipari told Montgomery he could see similarities in their skills. When Duke, once the favorite to land him, signed three of the nation’s top five players and four McDonald’s All-Americans, Calipari told Montgomery there wasn’t anyone on Kentucky’s 2018-19 roster like him.
The Wildcats weren’t looking for just another face in the crowd, their Hall of Fame coach said, they needed a difference-maker.
“It struck me,” Montgomery remembers, “because I’ve heard about how he recruited and maybe I thought that was how he was going to come at me. But he didn’t. It was a different approach, and it stuck with me.”
Because now that his time has arrived, Montgomery kind of likes the idea of carrying a team. He admits to some concern that he might’ve gotten lost in the shuffle at Duke, where it is reasonable to wonder whether one basketball will be enough for incoming freshman sensations R.J. Barrett, Cameron Reddish and Zion Williamson.
But that doesn’t mean Kentucky will need to widen its doors to accommodate Montgomery’s head.
“He’s just one of about 2,400 students here, and he only stands out because he’s a lot taller than all the others,” Montgomery’s high school coach said. “He doesn’t make himself stand out. He has no ego, has no entourage. Students interact with him just like they would a kid who plays in the band. Teachers love him; they stop me to say he’s the model citizen. It says something about his upbringing that he is one of the most humble 5-star kids you’ll ever meet.
“Social media is a monster. Kids get so much pub and recognition for the smallest of things: a dunk in an AAU game and now they’ve got 20,000 Instagram or Twitter followers. EJ has all that, but you would never know it. If he had a big game and we lost, the numbers meant nothing; he’d have tears in his eyes. He always wanted to know, ‘Coach, what else can I do to help us win?’ ”
Both his parents smile when they hear this assessment of their son. Glenda laughs, taking a little credit because of her relentless postgame critiques. If he scored 40 points, she wondered why not 45. If he grabbed 20 rebounds, she pointed out that it didn’t beat his sister’s record.
“She always reminds me that I can do more,” EJ said, “and it keeps me working harder. I don’t like people who walk around all cocky — I don’t want people to look at me like that — so just stay humble and stay focused and good things will happen.”
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When Calipari broke character and admitted how much Kentucky needs him, Montgomery didn’t take that as a license to show up this week like the big man on campus. He took it as a challenge to get himself ready to shoulder a serious responsibility.
“What Cal said was huge,” Efrem Sr. said. “It shows how much he sees in EJ, what he thinks he can become. So now EJ knows he’s got to go out there and perform. They said they can push him to the next level, and they’ve got a track record to prove that, but it’s up to you to follow the plan.”
Thompson, his high school coach, said Montgomery lifted weights and ran sprints every day this spring. He hired a personal trainer to put him through basketball drills most nights. When SEC Country visited him in Marietta in late May, on the eve of his graduation, he and Hagans were in the gym together working out well after 10 p.m.
— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_SEC) May 23, 2018
By the time they finished, both looked like they’d just jumped into a swimming pool with their clothes on. They tugged at their shorts, chugged water and sucked wind. Montgomery wobbled out to half court for a photo with Hagans, about as steady on his feet as the first time he walked toward a basketball.
Those initial steps came naturally. These next steps will come at a cost.
“Man,” he said to his father, as if the full weight of it was just now hitting him, “Cal is expecting a lot of me, huh?”
Efrem Sr. nodded. Efrem Jr. paused.
“I’m willing,” said the son, straightening his shoulders, “to take that on.”