Men's Basketball

EJ Montgomery got ‘big wake-up call’ early in UK career. He won’t need another.

EJ Montgomery: ‘I’m back on the court, I’m good.’

Freshman big man EJ Montgomery, who sat out most of Kentucky's exhibition trip to the Bahamas in August, talked in his preseason interview about the back problem that sidelined him and the hard work that goes into being a Wildcat.
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Freshman big man EJ Montgomery, who sat out most of Kentucky's exhibition trip to the Bahamas in August, talked in his preseason interview about the back problem that sidelined him and the hard work that goes into being a Wildcat.

An annual motivational tool for his sidelined players, the story of Wally Pipp is clearly one of John Calipari’s favorites.

According to baseball folklore, Pipp, the New York Yankees starting first baseman, asked for a day off due to a headache. A 21-year-old Lou Gehrig played in his place, and Pipp never got his job back.

The moral of the story, in Calipari’s words: “When you come out and you’re not playing, understand other people are moving by. That’s just how it is.”

The truth of the story is that Pipp was mired in the worst season of his career, the Yankees were slumping across the board, and New York Manager Miller Huggins inserted the promising young Gehrig into the starting lineup to shake things up.

The myth is a more powerful teaching tool than the truth, however, and Calipari often references the diverging paths of Pipp and Gehrig to young players on his perennially stacked teams.

The story certainly had an effect on EJ Montgomery, the highest-ranked recruit in Kentucky’s incoming 2018 class and a newcomer expected to have an instant impact this season.

Montgomery’s UK debut fizzled in the Bahamas, where he played 19 minutes in the opener and then sat out the final three games of the preseason trip with a back injury.

Calipari asked Montgomery what he’s asked several UK players in the past: did he know the story of Wally Pipp? He did not. Calipari explained the popular version of that tale.

“I’m not going to be Wally Pipp,” Montgomery told him flat.

The new Wildcat smiled at the thought of that conversation.

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“He explained the story to me, and as soon as he said that, I had to get back in the gym really fast. I had to get better,” Montgomery said, ending his recollection with a big laugh. “I told him, ‘I’m going to be back soon. I’m going to be good.’”

Montgomery described the back problem he experienced in the Bahamas as “something that just flared up for the first time.” He doesn’t expect there to be a second time.

When the Cats returned to Lexington, the five-star freshman was back on the court almost immediately. He didn’t come here to watch from the sidelines, after all.

“It was a big wake-up call, because these other guys are really good,” Montgomery said. “They work hard. And just to know that any moment, your spot can be taken.”

The competition Kentucky offered — and the type of player Calipari attracts — is why Montgomery wanted to be a Wildcat. His goal, like everyone on this team, is to make it to the NBA, and as the recruiting process evolved he realized the best place to make that happen would be Lexington.

During the postseason all-star circuit, Montgomery got better acquainted with players such as Immanuel Quickley and Keldon Johnson, early commitments to the Cats that he observed to be hard workers on and off the court.

“I found that out there. That these guys like to work. And that’s what I like to do, too,” Montgomery said. “And that’s the difference in the game. If you have that person, that dog, that likes to work. That’s going to get you the win. … We’re all going to compete every time we step on the court.”

In practice, Montgomery gets to go up against college basketball veteran Reid Travis and returning starters PJ Washington and Nick Richards, three experienced players that play bigger and tougher than anyone Montgomery has ever seen on a regular basis.

A 6-foot-10, 225-pound freshman, Montgomery was best known in high school as more of a finesse big offensively who excelled facing the basket and finding open teammates but could also rebound his area. He’s shown flashes of brilliance on the block, and that’s an area Calipari has been trying to get him to expand in these early practices.

He’s really skilled,” the UK coach said. “He’s better than I thought he was. He just has to get in situations where every day he has to fight. And then he slowly becomes what he has to become to be his best version.”

About this series

This is the fifth in a series of 13 stories featuring members of the 2018-19 University of Kentucky men’s basketball team. Watch for all 13 in the coming days in the Herald-Leader and on Kentucky.com.

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