'You Can't Give In': Monty Williams On Life After Tragedy
- The death of Monty Williams's wife has taught the former NBA coach two lessons: the beauty of forgiveness and the need to move on, no matter how painful that might be.
The low point came last March. Or maybe it was April. Monty Williams isn’t sure. Time blurs.
For two weeks Micah and Elijah passed the stomach flu back and forth, as five- and eight-year-olds do. They threw up on the carpet, in the bed, on the bathroom floor. Everywhere but in the toilet and the trash can. Finally one night, well after midnight, they combined for a particularly messy episode. As his three teenage daughters slept in nearby rooms, Monty—who’d spent a lifetime in basketball, first as a player and then as a coach, most recently as an assistant for the Thunder—stumbled out of bed and herded the boys into the shower, then into clean pajamas and back to sleep. Next he cleaned the rug, scrubbed the tile floor and disinfected the toilet. He longed to go back to bed but knew Ingrid never would have left the sheets to sit overnight in the laundry room, clumped with all that sickness. Which meant he couldn’t either. He’d promised the kids nothing in their day-to-day lives would change. If anyone’s life was going to change, he’d said, it would be his.
So at 2:30 a.m., Monty trudged downstairs and out the back door into the cold Oklahoma night, where he hung the sheets over the fence. As he hosed them down he shivered and stared up at the sky, feeling lost. He was supposed to be sleeping next to his wife, or watching film, or on the road with his team.
Instead he was here, alone and overwhelmed. How in the world is this my life? he wondered.
The morning of Feb. 9, 2016, began like so many others. Monty awoke at 7:00, still groggy from the previous night’s flight back from Phoenix, where the Thunder had beaten the Suns. Ingrid was already downstairs, conquering the morning. They’d been together 26 years, through five kids and eight cities, and he remained in awe of her. While many NBA wives contracted out the more mundane duties of parenting, Ingrid would not consider hiring a cook, a cleaner or a nanny. On game nights she bundled up the kids and brought them to the arena, but only after their homework was done. Then, at the end of the first quarter—sharp—they’d file out, because Dad may be an NBA coach, but nothing overrules bedtime.
On this morning Ingrid was out the door by 7:15, trailing five clean, neatly attired Williams children between the ages of five and 18, all of whom unfailingly addressed adults as Sir and Ma’am. She spent the rest of the day driving from this day care to that high school to this basketball practice to that doctor’s appointment, in addition to making her regular stops at the church and the center for inner-city kids, where she volunteered.
So when Monty didn’t hear from her that evening, as she returned from Faith’s basketball game, it didn’t strike him as strange. He was preoccupied anyway, at home preparing for the next Thunder opponent as Lael, his eldest, watched TV on the couch with Elijah.
Then, around 8:30, Lael’s cellphone rang. It was Faith, calling her sister. Monty saw Lael’s face fall.
This is what the police know: A little after 8 p.m., Ingrid was driving north on a four-lane road in downtown Oklahoma City in the family’s SUV with Faith, then 15; Janna, 13; and Micah.
A sedan driven by a 52-year-old woman named Susannah Donaldson approached from the opposite direction. During the preceding hours, toxicology reports would show, Donaldson had taken a substantial amount of methamphetamine. Police also believe she may have been cradling a dog on her lap. By the time she approached the 1400 block of South Western Avenue, she was in the left lane, going more than twice the posted limit of 40. She swerved to avoid the car in front of her, sending her vehicle across the center line. Impact with Ingrid’s SUV was head-on. Donaldson and the dog died at the scene. The Williams family was rushed to a hospital.
In the days that followed, local TV reporters stood by the road, grim-faced, noting the dark burn marks staining the asphalt, the spray of glass, debris lying on the side of the road. The newscasts showed photos of Ingrid and Monty together, her face frozen in that familiar smile, and her at a Thunder game. Interviews rolled with NBA coaches and players. They are difficult to watch, warned a reporter.
Monty clung to the fact that the children all survived, and without life-threatening injuries. For a while it seemed Ingrid might too, but the following afternoon she slipped away, at the age of 44.
Friends and family descended. Ingrid’s parents drove through the night from their home in San Antonio. Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who’d played with and later coached Monty, canceled his vacation to fly in. Monty’s pastors from Portland and New Orleans arrived. Gregg Popovich, his longtime mentor, reached out immediately. Charlie Ward, Billy Donovan, Sam Presti, Avery Johnson, Tim Duncan: They visited, called, texted. Anthony Davis and Ryan Anderson, players he was close to on the Pelicans, in town to play the Thunder, came to the house to sit with him. So many people sent flowers that Ayana Lawson, the Thunder’s director of player services and appearances, finally contacted local florists and requested they send the gifts to one of Ingrid’s charitable causes. Even so, Shaquille O’Neal managed to have a white orchid the size of a small tree delivered.
Monty couldn’t process all of it. He knew people meant well, but he just wanted everyone to leave. Either that or to flee himself. Frustration and anger consumed him. The Lord could do anything. So why hadn’t he moved that car? Why couldn’t he have made Ingrid leave 10 minutes later, or a second earlier or a second later? Why did three of his kids have to suffer through that?
As a player, he used to hear Rivers tell him the same thing, over and over: “Get past mad.” But that was basketball; this was different. Now a lot of people were mad. Rivers certainly was. He wanted to prosecute someone. Seek justice. The other woman was the one who stole a life. How could you not be mad?
Monty focused on just making it through the memorial service, on Feb. 18. Then maybe he’d take the kids and bolt to some state where no one knew him. Wyoming. South Dakota. Just hunker down and disappear.
First, though, he had to survive the week. He wished Ingrid were there. She’d know what to do. She always had.
They met in 1989, at a freshman mixer at Notre Dame. Monty was tall and skinny, with short hair and sleepy eyes. She was tiny, with dark hair, an electric smile and catlike brown eyes. Different, that’s the word Monty comes back to. The girl drinking water instead of beer. The one not afraid to talk about her faith, right off the bat, but who never proselytized. To be on the outside who she was on the inside.
So what did Monty do? Like an idiot, he acted too cool, trying to play the role of the big–time hoops recruit. He even tried to set her up with a buddy instead. “Can you believe it?” he says now. “Dumb old Mont.”
But he knows that’s who he was then: dumb in so many ways. He’d grown up in Oxon Hill, Md., outside D.C., a neighborhood where, as Monty says, “you could either hustle and sell drugs or just not have.” Often, the Williams family didn’t have. His parents split when he was seven—Monty says he has “no real relationship” with his father. He was raised by his mom, Joyce, a strict, devout woman who worked as a data entry clerk. Sometimes she wondered about her only child; give the boy lunch money and, to her consternation, he’d often give it away to another kid who had none, then come home hungry. Still, he was well-liked and grew into a formidable small forward, fluid and athletic, averaging 30 points and 16 rebounds as a senior and leading Potomac High to the Class AAA state championship. He also graduated with a 4.0. “Never saw that boy take a bite of food without blessing it first,” says his coach, Taft Hickman. ”Even at McDonald’s.”
And yet Monty says he was putting on an act. Inside he was prideful, self-critical and prone to bouts of darkness. He spoke of faith but his was, he says, “nominal at best.” When adults weren’t around, he cussed up a storm. And when he prayed, what did he pray for? An NBA contract and fast cars.
For a young man who could go days without seeing a white face, who barely read a book a month, Notre Dame was a shock. Plato, genetics, philosophy, calculus? He just wanted to play ball. He failed his first test, then the next, then the one after that, after which he called his mom to say that maybe Notre Dame wasn’t for him. Joyce wasn’t having any of it. She hung up.
And if it weren’t for Ingrid, he might not have lasted in South Bend. But a few weeks later he saw her on campus and did the smart thing: apologized. The next time they saw each other, at a party, they spent the whole night talking.
Next came joint study sessions. Though really, it was more like Ingrid teaching Monty how to study. Lay your books and notes in a semicircle, left to right. Prioritize. On breaks they took long walks around campus. She told him about her brother and her parents, blue-collar folks who worked in the automotive industry back in Michigan. She became his anchor in an unfamiliar world. Slowly, his test scores rose. It would be the first of many times she would save him.
His new teammates couldn’t believe it. Who gets to college and immediately falls for a girl? What a rookie move. Monty didn’t care. He knew this was someone worth holding on to. Ingrid wanted to take it slow. One afternoon he asked for a goodbye kiss after she walked him to practice and she pecked his cheek. A few days later she tippy-toed up to do it again and Monty pivoted.
The ensuing months were some of the best of Monty’s life. Neither of them had much money, so date nights were at the dorm. Pizza from the basement snack bar, Corn Nuts and soda from the vending machines, then sit and talk. That summer he stayed on campus, while Ingrid went back home to Michigan. They wrote letters, hers arriving in envelopes covered in colorful drawings.
At the time he was just a smitten 18-year-old. It wasn’t until later that Monty would realize that he hadn’t just met the love of his life at Notre Dame, but he had discovered all the things he would become, through her. He’d joke about how his players got sick of him talking about Ingrid all the time, using her as an example, over and over. How when he met new players for the first time, he introduced her even if she wasn’t there: “Hi, I’m Monty and you’ll meet my wife, Ingrid.” But who else was he going to talk about?
The day of the memorial happened also to be the NBA trade deadline. So Sam Presti, the Thunder general manager, told the rest of the league that he had his own deadline, at 1 p.m., an hour before the service. He ended up dealing two players that day, D.J. Augustin and Steve Novak. Both still showed up with their wives at Crossings Community Church, along with nearly a thousand others. Ingrid’s life—their life—was there in the pews. Family and friends, of course, but also women from the ministry where she volunteered. Local police. A contingent from the Spurs, including Popovich, Duncan and David West, who flew in on the team plane even though they played later that night in L.A. Their opponents, the Clippers, were also represented, led by Rivers, his son Austin and Chris Paul. And on it went: Jeff Van Gundy and Brett Brown and P.J. Carlesimo and Kevin Durant, along with the whole Thunder organization. Members of the Pelicans—the team that fired Monty as coach less than a year earlier—folded themselves into a row. “Tallest funeral I’ve ever seen,” says pastor Bil Gebhardt.
A little after 2:30, Monty walked to the dais, wearing a black suit and tie, his shaved head gleaming. At 6' 8", and still fit at 44, he looked young enough to be a player. He placed a folded coach’s card, containing some notes and scriptures, on the lectern. Then he took a deep breath and looked up.
Van Gundy wondered if it was a good idea for Monty to be speaking publicly. Monty had long been a pessimist, given to despair at times, and this could be too much. Others wondered if—even hoped that—he would condemn the other driver, as a coach calls out a player.
Monty had promised himself he wouldn’t cry, the way he had the night before during the run-through with his family. “I’m thankful for all the people that showed up today,” he began, his voice deep and more powerful than he expected. “It’s a pretty tough time, not just for me but for all of you as well. I’m mindful of that.”
He looked around the room but his only audience was his five children. He needed to show the way. “This is hard for my family, but this will work out,” he continued. “And my wife would punch me if I were to sit up here and whine about what’s going on. That doesn’t take away the pain. But it will work out because God causes all things to work out. You just can’t quit.” He paused, looked around. “You can’t give in.”
You can’t give in. How many times had she told him that? Like on that day in the doctor’s office during his sophomore year, only a few weeks after Hickman had called to tell Monty that he was hearing he might be a first-round pick—not eventually, but next year. Now, Monty listened to a doctor tell him he had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. A thickening of his left ventricle. Irregular heartbeat. Potentially fatal. All Monty heard was No more basketball. Not now, not next year, not ever.
Anger and depression consumed him. He pulled away from his teammates, his coaches, even Joyce. He got in fights. Punched through walls. He thought about transferring or dropping out, and at one point he even entertained the thought of taking his own life. For the next two years he became, as his mom says now, “not the nicest person” and “a different child.”
Throughout, Ingrid was the one person who calmed him, “the one person I didn’t want to hurt, no matter what.” To leave school, or worse, would mean leaving her, and he couldn’t bear that. If anything, they spent more time together: walking the campus, past the lake, stopping to pray at the Notre Dame Grotto. “The Lord will heal your heart,” she told him, and something about the way she said it—so confident—made him believe her. So he poured himself into prayer, if for desperate, selfish reasons.
Ingrid’s faith was different, though. Never convenient, never for show. Every week she disappeared for hours at a time in the afternoon. Finally, he asked where. So she brought him along and Monty watched, confused, as Ingrid spent two hours at a nursing home with a woman named Helen, one he was pretty sure was suffering from Alzheimer’s. Ingrid brushed Helen’s hair, talked with her, bathed her. As an athlete, Monty had been taught to perform charitable acts for the camera. But here was Ingrid, a young black woman, caring for an old white one, not for the cameras or a pat on the back. When he asked Ingrid why she did it, she looked at him funny. Wasn’t this what Christ taught us to do? Monty was floored. “It was so real, and raw,” he says.
For a while he accompanied her. Began to find his faith becoming more authentic. And then, in 1992, a Notre Dame trainer told him about an experimental test to determine if he could play with HCM. So he flew to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. Five days of poking and prodding led to a final, frightening test. We’re going to stop your heart on purpose, the doctors told him. Trigger an arrhythmic episode. If it doesn’t go well, it could kill you. You and your mom need to sign this waiver.
What choice did Monty have? In his mind, there was no Plan B. For two years he’d gone against doctor’s orders, working out furiously and playing in pickup games. In his mind it was basketball or nothing. Besides, he wasn’t afraid of death. Or maybe, he’d later realize, he just didn’t understand it yet.
Five doctors stood around the bed, just in case. Hours passed. Monty drifted in and out of consciousness. When he awoke, a doctor warned him not to sit up, or a vein could burst. Then he said there was something Monty should know. He was O.K. Not just O.K., but great. He could play ball again.
Monty sobbed. He had his life back. And can you blame him if his pride returned with it? He averaged 22.4 points and 8.2 boards for the Irish in 1993–94. After the Knicks picked him 24th, he spent his money on cars and lived like the big star he always thought he’d be.
But Ingrid? She never changed, not really. She told him the cars were a waste of money; “You can only drive one at a time,” she’d say. They’d gotten married after his rookie season then moved city to city—five teams in nine years as a player. When he got the head job in New Orleans, she was eight months pregnant with Micah and yet she seamlessly integrated into another community. Players like Anthony Davis later described her as a “second mother.” Along with Monty, she spoke to inmates, distributing copies of "Look Again 52", the Bible study book they’d written together. They worked at a shelter for abused kids, donated shoes and equipment to the poor. In the off-season they went to South Africa with Basketball Without Borders.
Monty stresses that Ingrid was by no means perfect. She could be stubborn and headstrong. She could cut you down with one look. She was a loud talker, Monty always reminding her that “Hey honey, I’m sitting right next to you,” to which she’d fume, because he was supposed to be listening to the message, not the delivery. And good luck changing her mind once she was set on an opinion. But all Monty knows is that when people have praised him for things in his life, it’s usually Ingrid who was his ballast. Like in 2013, when Gia Allemand, the girlfriend of Ryan Anderson, committed suicide, and Ryan was the first one to find her, at her apartment. Hysterical, he called Gia’s mom, then the police and then, as Ryan says, “the one person I knew in New Orleans that would be there for me no matter what.” Monty arrived to find Ryan on the floor, a mixture of sweat and tears. The coach dropped to his knees, unsure what to do, and began hugging Ryan, rocking slightly.
When Monty finally got him into his truck, he thought about how he couldn’t mess this up—how these are the tests that really matter. Back home, Ingrid had already taken control. She’d moved the kids upstairs and put them to bed, with instructions not to come downstairs for anything. After her own brother’s unexpected suicide in 2003, she knew that the only thing to do was just be there for Ryan. So she and Monty sat with him in the family room, praying. When it got late and Monty tried to come to bed, she redirected him: No, you’re sleeping downstairs, right next to Ryan. And so he did, on a mattress next to the couch. When Ryan wanted to talk, they talked. When it was quiet, it was quiet. Monty followed Ingrid’s advice: Just listen.
Just listen. That Monty could do. It’s what he’d done as a Trail Blazers assistant, after Nate McMillan hired him in 2005. Monty’s was the door that was always open at the team hotel. He was the coach who had players over for dinner. The guy sharing his own mistakes. Because that’s how a real connection grows.
To ask people around the league about Monty is to have your calls returned immediately, to have people cry on the phone, to hear a string of testimonials. Durant, who worked with Monty for a season in OKC, says, “He’ll hate that I say this, but he’s the best man that I know. And that’s no slight to my dad, my godfather, my uncle or any coaches that I’ve had.” For Durant, lots of men have tried to fill the role of mentor. Most had lots of advice; few wanted to listen. Fewer still shared the hiccups in their own life. “Monty listens, allows you to vent,” Durant says, “but then he’ll bring you back in and keep it real with you.”
Which is why when Durant needed advice last summer, while trying to decide whether to sign with the Warriors, he called Williams. A man most recently employed by the team he was considering leaving. (Williams didn’t try to sway him: “The only way I could help was to say, ‘Look, don’t let anybody else make this decision for you. Your family or your boys or your shoe company. It’s your decision.’ ”)
Says Durant, “I was on the phone with him the second I made the decision, right after, right before. A lot of people keep their mind in this basketball bubble and he looked at the whole life. He was there for me as a friend first.”
All those people who flew out for the service? Maybe you’re starting to understand why. They’d come to support Monty and to honor Ingrid’s life. Still, most had no idea what to expect when he spoke.
Watching in the audience, Presti tried to keep it together. He had been the first to receive a call on the night of the accident, awoken at 2 AM by the hospital pastor. Presti had first met Monty in 2004, when they were both with San Antonio. Both men had moved on but, as with so many, remained part of the Spurs family. So Presti had thrown on some clothes and hurried to the hospital. In the hours to come, he’d sit with Monty all night, rubbing his back so hard that, “it was like I was trying to start a fire.” Throughout, Presti thought about everyone he now represented and how he felt, “a huge amount of responsibility to make sure I was handling this the way Pop would handle it. This was on my watch, and I had to live up to the standard that Pop expects of us all. I had to fulfill an obligation that’s much greater than basketball.” In Monty's case, his indoctrination to the Spurs had come in 1996, when San Antonio traded for him, hoping for scoring. (“Turns out he couldn’t shoot a lick,” says Popovich.) He and Pop didn’t get along at first. Monty chafed at Pop’s tirades, thought he deserved more playing time, more touches. Pop saw him as a role player. Pop also noticed a darkness to the young man. “He was kind of a Debbie Downer, always expecting the worst to happen,” Popovich recalls.
Still, Monty responded to the Spurs’ culture. Bible study with David Robinson and Avery Johnson. Post–game parties at Sean Elliott’s house. In particular he bonded with Duncan, the player he would come to hold up as the standard as a teammate and a leader. A man who became so close with the Williams family that he coined a nickname for Ingrid on account of how she juggled the kids and everything else, and always put Monty in his place: Legend.
Then, before the 1998 season, the Spurs let Monty go. He ended up sitting on his couch in June, crying as he watched San Antonio celebrate the first of five titles, filled with regret. In the years that followed, Monty and Popovich stayed in touch. Despite what Monty may have thought, Pop always liked the young man, thought he was intelligent and a hard worker. “And we’re always looking for those kind of guys” says Popovich, “Because you can’t teach intelligence and it's pretty tough to get someone to have a work ethic if they don’t have already have one.” So when Monty called him in 2004, despondent after bad knees had forced him to stop playing, Pop encouraged Monty to come hang out around the team. See if you like it. Soon enough, Pop slapped a label on him: coaching intern. Meanwhile Pop, a sucker for projects, pushed Monty to take chances, try new stuff. He introduced him to different foods, talked to him about politics and reveled in cursing around Monty, who never cusses. (“That’s his way of saying I love you,” Monty explains.)
Monty learned what so many others already had. Once you joined the Spurs you were in for life, as long as you operated by certain principles. It was never about you. Pay it forward. Basketball is important, but not as important as family and relationships. In June 2005 the Spurs won their third title, the one that had eluded Monty as a player. As the confetti fell, he stood behind the bench, part of the team but still feeling like an outsider, when he felt someone tackle him from the side. He turned to see a grinning Pop. “You got one,” Popovich shouted. “You missed out before, but now you got one.”
Funny then, that Monty’s most important game as a head coach, on the last day of the 2014–15 season, was a win over Pop’s Spurs that put the Pelicans in the playoffs. Afterward, as players celebrated and Ingrid brought the kids onto the court, Pop and Monty embraced at midcourt. It felt like a crowning moment.
It’d be easy to see it as karma of sorts: Good things happen to good people, right? But in this case, not long after the Pelicans lost to the title-bound Warriors in the first round, Monty was fired. That same day, a TV reporter knocked on Monty’s front door. Monty came out in a T-shirt and spoke for four minutes. He said a lot, thanking the city for its support and the ownership for the opportunity, but one line stood out. “Life’s not fair,” Monty said. “Don’t expect it to be.”
And now here was Monty, a guy who always expected the worst, confronted with about the worst situation imaginable. Yet he stood up on stage, projecting calm as he built to what he termed, “the most important thing we need to understand.” That’s what drew the millions who would later watch video of the speech. What led to all those packages and letters, the ones that continued for half a year, flooding the Thunder offices. What led Popovich to decide that he needed to show the eulogy, in its entirety, to his players.
“Everybody’s praying for me and my family, which is right,” Monty said, left hand jammed in his pocket like an anchor. “But let us not forget that there were two people in this situation. And that family needs prayer as well.” He paused. “That family didn’t wake up wanting to hurt my wife.
“Life is hard. It is very hard. And that was tough, but we hold no ill will toward the Donaldson family, and we”—he made a circling motion with his right hand, indicating the whole room—“as a group, brothers united in unity, should be praying for that family because they grieve as well. So let’s not lose sight of what’simportant.”
Not long after, he wrapped up with a simple message: “And when we walk away from this place today, let’s celebrate because my wife is where we all need to be. And I’m envious of that. But I’ve got five crumb-snatchers that I need to deal with.”
Monty paused as some in the crowd chuckled. “I love you guys for taking time out of your day to celebrate my wife. We didn’t lose her. When you lose something, you can’t find it. I know exactly where my wife is.”
As he left the stage, Monty didn’t notice the reaction in the room, or if he did, he doesn’t remember it. But those who were there describe a stunned silence. “He was saying to us what we should have been saying to him,” says RC Buford, the San Antonio GM. David West turned contemplative. “We always talk about physical strength, but it’s nothing compared to mental and emotional strength,” West says. “You realize your own deficiencies, because I don’t have that type of courage or strength or fortitude to stand as courageously as he did in that moment.” Later, on the plane ride home, Popovich told West and Duncan that it would be “years before we understand the totality of that moment.” Says Popovich now, “I was in awe. I could not believe that a human being could muster the control and command of his feelings and at the same time be as loving and magnanimous.”
The theme at the heart of the speech—-forgiveness—was simple, and not unique. Still, the effect was profound. Maybe it was Monty’s delivery; it felt sincere. Maybe it’s because, right or wrong, we don’t always expect such empathy from professional athletes. Maybe it was that, for a message steeped in faith, it never felt preachy. In the weeks that followed, video of the memorial spread, and the reaction was immediate. OKC staffers made pins embossed with w7—that’s what people always called the Williams family. Donations poured in to Faithworks, the nonprofit Ingrid believed in so much, from strangers, from a half dozen teams, from players Monty had never met.
Meanwhile, concerned friends offered help. All those people he and Ingrid had poured into over the years? “Now we all wanted to pour back into him,” says Durant. His phone beeped constantly, only Monty didn’t want any advice or help. On the exterior, he may have appeared strong, and in control. Inside, he was falling apart. He just wanted everyone to leave.
Everyone who loses a loved one processes grief differently. Some focus on coping mechanisms. Disbelief. Denial. Others become disorganized, acting out of character and making rash decisions. Still others try to “intellectualize” the loss, analyzing the situation leading to a loved one’s death in intricate detail. To Monty, the world lost its grays; everything was either pitch black or blinding white. One moment he was fine; the next, a tiny thing would set him off. His appetite disappeared and sleep became impossible on many nights. He wanted to lash out, even feared that he’d hurt others. So he did what he’d always done and closed up, turning away from the world to only his family. After all, he and Ingrid had never needed help before. He didn’t need it now.
“I got this,” he told Popovich.
“No, you don’t have this,” Pop answered. “You’re going to have days you’re pissed off and want to punch a wall, and you have to let it go. And other days when you’ll be more together and in both situations you’re going to need people, and friends and mentors, and it’s O.K., it’s O.K., you’re not a f------ island.”
Still, he tried to go it alone. He woke at 5:30 for Bible study, then he got the kids up and was out of the house by 7:30. He wandered the aisles of the grocery store, in search of the darn bread. Fought with the laundry. At 11 he picked up Micah from nursery school, and then he was with the kids all afternoon, driving around Edmond, Okla.—to basketball, track, school, plays, doctors. He could handle breakfast and lunch, but many nights, dinner was Chick-fil-A. By the end of the day, he was so exhausted he’d fall asleep by 9:30.
Meanwhile, people kept saying he needed to take time for himself. It made him mad sometimes. Time? He didn’t have time. And what did that even mean, anyway? What was he going to do, go get a massage?
The nights were the worst, once the kids were in bed but before sleep took hold. That’s when the darker thoughts emerged. Popovich remembers talking to him in such moments, and how Monty sounded “like a wounded animal.”
Many days Monty fought the urge to check out. And he might have if it weren’t for Ingrid’s voice in his head. Just take care of the kids. Just take care of the kids.
How in the world is this my life?
The pain and confusion never goes away, this is what Monty’s learned. But it does recede. It’s now January of 2017, and he ticks off the milestones. The first birthday without Ingrid, the first Thanksgiving, the first graduation. All that’s left now is the anniversary of the crash itself.
It’s a warm afternoon and he’s driving back from practice in San Antonio, where he moved the family in June, to get away from the memories in Oklahoma City and to be closer to Ingrid’s parents. He is back with the Spurs for the third time, now as executive VP of operations—“basically a job I made up for Monty,” says Pop. He doesn’t travel, so he can be home at night. After practices he can often be seen playing one-on-one with Duncan, whose friendship has been instrumental in helping Monty regain some sense of normalcy. Eventually, Pop just gave the two of them their own lockers in the coaches’ room, next to each other.
The final month in Oklahoma City wasn’t easy. He got through it on his faith and the generosity of others. It was Lawson, coming over to do the stuff that bewildered him, taking the girls shopping for bras. It was Presti and coach Billy Donovan, checking on him, and Pop calling, and Ingrid’s parents, and Pastor Bil, reminding him that, “grief is the price of love.” It was Tonja Ward, an old friend, pushing him until he hired a cook, to ease his burden.
Teams had reached out about coaching vacancies, and the kids had pushed him to get back into it, thinking it would make their dad happy. But it was too soon.
In August he’d lived a dream, serving as an assistant for the U.S. Olympic team. Upon returning from Rio, he developed something resembling a rhythm. Exercise to work out his anger. Focus on being a dad. Work toward being ready to coach again. Be O.K. delegating: to a cook, a cleaner, his in-laws.
To visit his home now is to enter a whirl of activity. There are the two boys, running outside to shoot hoops in the driveway, Monty stopping Micah—“Put some socks and shoes on, dude!”—and then turning to Elijah. “What do I always tell you?” Monty asks.
“Do. Not. Dominate him,” Elijah responds. Monty nods, makes him repeat it again.
In the kitchen Faith makes herself a snack. Ingrid’s mom, Veda, stops by—Monty says she has become his best friend over the last year. She brims with life, just like Ingrid, laughing and hugging and ribbing Monty because, after all these years of giving her grief, suddenly he’s drinking coffee. (The Spurs’ sports science people told him it was good for him.) Monty lets out the family’s dog, a border collie named TZ.
To walk the halls is to see memories everywhere. Just off the entrance, a large framed picture of Monty with a grinning Popovich in the back of a limo while wine-tasting in Napa with friends, another of Pop’s attempts to force Monty to liven up a bit (“You’re not gonna order iced tea, you’re gonna sit at dinner and try the damn wine and sit and talk with us”). Photos of the family line the walls. All seven of them, most in white, at a picnic in Oklahoma City. Monty and the kids, in the Turks and Caicos, their first vacation after Ingrid’s death. He leads the way to his study. A tiny blue pair of Micah’s shoes rests next to other mementos: nerf rims Elijah has broken, all-district plaques from the girls, Ziploc bags containing first lost teeth. A collection of framed photos of Ingrid occupies one corner. Next to it is his wedding ring. For a while he wore it, then put it on a chain around his neck. But that began to feel wrong. He’s 44 with five kids. He has half his life ahead of him. He knows he won’t stay single forever. She’d be upset if he did.
He puts on a good face, but talking about what happened, as he does over the course of the next three days, often pausing for minutes at a time, remains difficult. “I just couldn’t understand it,” he says. “And never will. But my faith in God never wavered. Just, sometimes your faith and your feelings don’t line up.”
He tries to put the grief in its place, as Pop always advises him to do. Compartmentalize. Still, he sometimes texts her, even though he knows she won’t respond. Other times, he looks up, thinking she’ll walk around a corner. “I can’t say that I feel her presence. I just see so much of her in the kids and so many things remind me of her,” Monty says. Sometimes he goes outside and talks to her. “And I don’t even know what that’s about. I just—I’m not grieving for her, you know. She’s in heaven, she’s with the Lord, she’s like, balling right now. You grieve because you don’t have what you had.”
Moving forward, for Monty, means returning to the bench. He thinks he’s ready, that it will center him. Indeed, he’ll start getting more calls. In March, after making it through the first anniversary of her death with the help of friends, he’ll turn down the top job at Illinois, wishing to focus on the NBA. People around the league will say it’s a matter of time—perhaps by the time you read this story—until he’s offered a head coaching job.
It will be weird, coaching without her. She was his sounding board, “his battery pack,” as West puts it. But that’s the reality of loss. You never fill certain voids.
Besides, he’s still learning from her, even now. For example, Monty hates candy. Has ever since he suffered toothaches as a kid. So he made a rule: no candy in the house. Still, every once in a while, he’d be cleaning and find a bag of Snickers or M&Ms. “What’s this?” he’d ask the kids. They’d hem and haw and finally one of the girls would answer. “Mom lets us have these when you’re gone.”
When he’d confront Ingrid, she’d stand her ground, as she always did. “Back off,” she’d say. “They need to live.”
Now if you go into the kitchen and open the cabinet, you’ll find the stash. Lollipops and chocolate. It’s a small thing, but it’s something. They need to live. So he made certain Lael—the one everyone says is so much like Ingrid and who’d been a rock the week of the funeral, making medical decisions, caring for her sisters, and helping plan the service—went off to college at Wheaton, rather than stay home. And he guards against becoming too protective. By no means does he have it figured out, but he’s trying.
That’s why Monty hates when people call him a role model. He’s just a guy who’s been tested, again and again. A guy trying to make it through, like all of us.
So maybe it’s best to focus on Monty in the real, human moments, like this one. It’s early evening and the winter sun is going down. The boys are getting a little crazy—“Dude, calm down,” he yells. He still needs to check on homework, and pick up the bombs that the dog left out in the yard, and figure out what to do about the pool, which is on the fritz. He turns to a visitor, watching, and apologizes. “Sorry, man,” he says. “I need to go deal with all this.”
And so he does.