When James Montgomery III walked into the conference room before practice Oct. 17, he was prepared to sit through an ordinary team meeting.
What happened, though, was something he never expected.
Montgomery, a senior guard who was a walk-on for the last two seasons, was awarded an athletic scholarship by head coach Chris Collins. The scene was taped by Northwestern Athletics, and the video went viral, garnering just fewer than a million views on YouTube and being featured on SportsCenter.
“I was shocked,” he said. “They told me like a month before that I probably wasn't going to get it, so I had put it completely out of my mind.”
The Los Angeles native has taken an uncommon journey to securing a scholarship. Despite generating interest from Division I schools and receiving an offer from Division II UC San Diego, Montgomery enrolled at Northwestern, emphasizing the school’s great academics and its distance from home as factors. He also believed he had a chance to walk onto the team.
However, when he tried out his freshman year, he did not make the squad.
“It was devastating when I didn't make it, just because I worked so hard over summer,” he said, “but eventually I kind of got over it, and was able to focus on school and hang out with my friends and stuff. And it was good because it kind of showed me how much I love basketball and how much it means to me.”
To stay near the sport, Montgomery served as a practice player on the women’s team. Practicing in the college system helped him transition into the aggressive Division I atmosphere and “ease the angst from not competing at a high level.” He also got more experience playing in the post.
“I went in there with the mindset that I would have to go easy and not be as physical,” he said. “But they're a lot more physical than I thought they would be, and they're really skilled.”
The second time he tried out, Montgomery made the team. Despite only playing 30 minutes in 11 games his first year on the team, the then-sophomore was happy achieving his first goal of successfully walking on. He knew he wasn't going to get immediate playing time, but he was just happy to be on the team, so he did whatever was asked of him. Most of the time, that meant playing defense on the more experienced players.
In his junior year, Montgomery developed his role on the team and saw more playing time. He played 94 minutes in 23 games and made his first collegiate field goal. Although he didn’t play as much as he had wanted to, he still thinks that the game time experience will help him going into his senior year.
And if he keeps up his work ethic, Montgomery could see more playing time in his final season. By giving Montgomery a scholarship, Coach Collins stressed to the team the importance of hard work and commitment.
“It's something he earned through his work habits and his dedication and his commitment,” Collins said. “It's also a great statement for our program and for our guys. If you do those things, you will be rewarded.”
Redshirt junior guard JerShon Cobb was the first to run up and give Montgomery a hug in that team meeting. As one of Montgomery's closest friends, Cobb believes in his teammate’s abilities.
“I'm just proud of him,” Cobb said. “He fought, and he deserved the scholarship, and he got it.”
That video was a huge moment for Montgomery, but now that he's had his interviews and gotten his attention, his focus is on the team. That's how it needs to be with the regular season starting Saturday.
Whether he plays more or not, though, Montgomery couldn’t be more excited for his senior season, and he believes that he won’t be the only one surprised by the Northwestern basketball team this year.
“I feel like not a lot of people think a lot about us in the preseason, so I think it'll be a great opportunity just to shock people.”