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California head coach Mike Montgomery responds to a question during the PAC-12 Conference NCAA college basketball media day, Friday, Oct. 28, 2011, in Los Angeles. Montgomery announced that he was diagnosed with bladder cancer and had surgery last week that has left him cancer-free. (AP Photo/Gus Ruelas)

LOS ANGELES -- Even after 25 years in a public capacity, we don't know much about this man Mike Montgomery.

He's good at what he does, which is coach basketball.

He may be even better at avoiding scrutiny, letting his work speak on his behalf, using dry wit and flippant sarcasm to occasionally sprinkle a few drops of himself.

He doesn't do grand shows of emotion, isn't comfortable pulling back the curtains to reveal his personal life.

Until Friday, when the Cal coach shared himself more than ever, acknowledging he underwent surgery last week to remove a cancerous polyp from his bladder. Insofar as discovery was made during a routine exam in September, leading to further tests, Montgomery says he is lucky, that the timing was fortuitous and that the cancer is gone.

"To go from what could have been a life-threatening event to being cancer-free in five weeks is pretty good," he said with typical understatement.

Upon receiving the diagnosis, Montgomery paused and pondered. Face-to-face with his mortality, his initial instinct was in line with that of today's high-powered coach.

He thought about his team.

That's the competitor's mentality, the obsessive trait so many coaches and managers and athletes share. They tend to evolve from creatures of habit into slaves to their professional commitments.

Montgomery, 64, has been coaching for almost 40 years, including 31 as a head coach. From Montana to Stanford to the Warriors to Cal, basketball has determined the direction of his life. He was preparing for another season. The first practice was a few weeks away.


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The nerve of cancer! Why couldn't it, if it was going to surface at all, wait for a more convenient time?

"This thing kind of happened in the middle of trying to coach the team," Montgomery said, gritting his teeth and limping his way through Pac-12 Media Day at LA Live. "I was trying to figure out if I could coach without disruption."

With doctors and his wife, Sarah, expressing urgency, along with his own acceptance, perspective eventually came. Cancer doesn't care how good a coach you might be, or how masterful you might be with a grease board. Cancer is immune to any offense or defense one might draw up.

"It's a pretty lonely feeling. You're scared," Montgomery said of his emotions upon facing reality. "For pretty much the first time in your life, you're not in control. You have no answers. The (disease) is in control."

Cal had issued a news release before Montgomery's surgery and two more afterward, one stating the surgery was successful, the next saying he was set to return to the team. None of the releases provided details beyond the procedure being successful and that the coach returned home the next day.

"During this time," the last line of each release stated, "the Cal athletic department requests the utmost respect for the privacy of Coach Montgomery and his family."

That's typical Montgomery, under cover. No fuss.

In the years since Montgomery moved from Montana to the Bay Area to take over the program at Stanford, we've followed the health issues of many, from Roger Craig's angioplasty procedure, to Dusty Baker and Don Nelson killing prostate cancers, to Ben Braun's artificial hip. We've peeked into personal lives.

The book on Montgomery beyond basketball can be written on a napkin. Married, father, square guy, good coach, superb at keeping a low profile.

His revelation Friday, though, provides a glimpse into the man whose pursuit of perfection and withering critiques, no matter how constructive, always seemed to intimidate collegiate players. He is, at once, a lot more human.

"He opened up a little bit more," Cal senior guard Jorge Gutierrez told reporters Friday, "so that helps us relate to him more."

Montgomery's weight is down, his spirits up. His gait is labored. His outlook is being altered, slowly.

"My wife is telling me it's time we take care of ourselves," he said.

The coach says he hasn't yet reached the point during which sweeping reassessments are made. He barely had time to reel before he was in recovery.

"He doesn't need to do this," said Ernie Kent, the former coach at Saint Mary's College and Oregon, who worked as an assistant to Montgomery at Stanford. "He's got a good life. He's going to be a Hall of Famer. Why not go sit on a beach?"

Montgomery can't do that. Not yet. Not when there are so many young basketball players still in need of coaching -- which happens to be his passion.

But the beach is approaching, easier to see than it was two months ago. For now, he's still processing and healing, still getting ready for the season.

Contact Monte Poole at mpoole@bayareanewsgroup.com.