For love of the game

by | Feb 1, 2019 | Features

Walking into the Pottsville Middle School gym, I’m flooded with nostalgia. As a visiting player during my pee-wee basketball years, at least one Saturday every season I would walk in to that gym ready to leave everything on the court. And we’d usually get drubbed. Now the gym is filled with rambunctious fifth graders shooting and dribbling as they wait for practice to start. They look like… well, like kids from my perspective as a high school senior. It’s hard for me to remember being that small. I spot a tall, lean man in sweatpants and a baseball cap wading through the ball-bouncing youngsters.
At 44-years of age, Monty Peters has been involved in Apache basketball — as a player or a pee wee coach — for more than three decades. From the time he picked up that first basketball, hoops was always a borderline obsession. “I’d play outside in the rain, in the cold,” Monty says. “I put a board down on the mud hole in front of the goal so I could still shoot.”
Of course Monty’s family supported his athletic endeavors. His dad even coached Monty’s peewee teams. From there Monty moved onto junior high and high school Apache teams, a solid player, until he graduated in 1992. Shortly after his graduation, he was asked to help a younger player. And in that mentoring Monty found a sense of satisfaction very similar to what he felt during his playing days. The next step was teaching kids just beginning to play basketball as a pee wee coach himself. Through his dedication to the game, and most importantly to the kids, Monty has earned a reputation as one of the most caring, passionate, and effective coaches in the River Valley.
Monty’s goal as a coach is to build confidence. “I always say when you call a timeout when you’re down, if they leave the huddle and their shoulders are still tensed up then it didn’t do any good,” Monty says. “I always want their shoulders to relax and for them to smile when they go back on the court.” Monty encourages and looks to empower the players. When I asked people to describe Monty, the first thing they told me was that he was never rough on the kids. In fact, one group of girls that he coached asked him to yell at them more. “I didn’t know if I could do it,” Monty says. “But I did and they responded to that.”
Monty starts with a third grade team, the youngest grouping in pee wee, and stays with them through fifth and sixth grade. He wants to get to know the kids, and he wants them to be comfortable with his coaching style. That’s not something easily accomplished over one relatively short pee wee basketball season. “I want to take them all the way to sixth grade,” Monty says, “so that way they know me and they don’t have to learn something new.”
This is Monty’s second year coaching his current group, although, really it’s two groups — both the boys and the girls teams. Using a somewhat unconventional method, he started practicing the teams together and it has some benefits. “It’s made the girls a lot tougher,” Monty says.
It’s also fostered a sense of community on the team — every player helps their teammates because they know that ultimately it makes the teams stronger.  During my basketball years there always seemed to be some sort of drama on the team, and practicing with the boys would have been counterproductive. But here it was just about learning and enjoying the game. Monty’s coaching style seems to be the antidote to drama.
At this practice some of the kids are having trouble with a new play. Monty never raises his voice. He simply stops the play and walks the kids through it until they get it right. I see players with drive, focus and discipline having fun. Monty believes that these components are the most important when kids are learning the game.
In 2006, Monty carried his first peewee group to sixth grade. It was the same year that current Pottsville senior high boys coach Shane Thurman was hired. Monty thought those sixth grade boys were a special group and told the new coach to expect good things in the coming years. “I said ‘I’m glad you’re here. I’ve got something for you, and I think you’re gonna be able to do something with them,’” says Monty. “I thought all along that this would be a state championship group.” And Monty was right. “That group there, that was the first year they won the state championship,” says Monty. “Coach Thurman always thanked me for what I was doing and included me. That made me want to do this more.”
Monty often works with individual players on the senior high team as kind of a basketball tutor. If a player feels like they need some extra practice and guidance, they text Monty and head to the gym. It even goes so far as Monty coaching from the stands at games. One player Monty works with on the girls senior high team had trouble with her shooting form. “When she shoots she doesn’t dip the ball enough,” Monty says. “Now in a game I can just holler ‘dip’ and she knows what I mean. I think it’s kind of funny they actually ask me to say stuff during the game.”
Monty expanded his mentoring and began coaching a travel basketball team in 2005. The team was made up of kids from his peewee teams and players from other schools around the area. “They meshed because they played against each other for four years,” Monty says. Still, Monty had concerns about the chemistry. “I didn’t think it would go as good as it did but it did.” Spending a summer together was a learning and bonding experience for both Monty and the players and it led to enduring relationships. “When they played high school ball, I got to watch them play against each other, and the whole time they’re sitting there smiling at each other,” Monty says.
The sense of unity and joy for the game carried over to the stands. Monty noticed that if a player from that travel team scored, even parents from the other school would cheer. “I’d look up and see the parents from the other team, and they’re clapping for them, and it was the same way with ours,” Monty says. “It was like we didn’t really care who won. We just enjoyed watching them play.” One player from Wonderview who had played on Monty’s travel team made it to the state championship. Monty, of course, was there to watch her play. “She brought the trophy and we got a picture together,” Monty says. “I thought that was pretty cool, that she thought that much and brought it to me.” He went on to coach the player’s little siblings as well. “So I had all three of them, and it’s like a family deal now,” Monty says. “They’ll still give me a text every once in while.”
He might be a nice guy and a relatively quiet coach, but Monty still has a fire in his belly. Sometimes, though rarely, it flares at the officials. “In pee wee ball I’ve never had a technical all these years,” Monty says. “They’ve warned me, and I get on them, but I never have gotten a technical.” Summer league basketball has been a different story. “Summer ball… I’ve been T’d up probably two or three times every summer,” Monty says. “If it’s one sided, and my girls or guys are getting hurt, I’m supposed to protect them. They’re mine whenever they’re on the court.” Sometimes he gets a little hot with the players, but he’s quick to let them know he cares about them. “If you get on them, you have to come back and support them,” Monty says. And sometimes that flame becomes a burning desire to get back on the court as a player. As the Pottsville band revs up the crowd with tribal drums, Monty says his competitive spirit heats up with every thump. “When they go to beat the drum, I mean, I could go out and play.”
In his 27th year as a mentor and leader of young athletes — maybe one of the most under-appreciated jobs in any community — a lot of his time is spent in school gymnasiums, and he has career goals as a basketball coach. “I’d love to coach in a state championship game and win it,” Monty says. But coaching pee wee and summer league basketball is a volunteer position. Outside of the occasional free hot dog and Coke at the ballgames, the chance to share his love for the game is the only reward. I ask Monty how he makes a living, what’s his real job, and and he rattles off a short list of occupations he’s had: driving trucks, installing phone and intercom systems, cutting and selling hay, and owning cattle. “That’s about it,” Monty says. “Basketball takes up a lot of time.

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