Jean Montero was 6 years old when basketball first caught his eye in Villa Juana, a sector in the city of Santo Domingo on the south side of the Dominican Republic where he grew up. Walking the streets on his way to his grandmother’s house, he vividly remembers seeing Kobe Bryant playing on a television in a bodega. It was the 2010 NBA Finals, and Bryant, he recalls, was captivating theater. Montero was instantly taken by the game as he watched from the street, and even more by the Lakers star who was on his way to winning Finals MVP in an eventual 4-3 series win over the Boston Celtics.
So much that Montero wanted to change his identity.
At such an impressionable age, Montero did not know basketball, nor did he know of Bryant’s superstardom in the states. He knew one thing right away, though: He wanted to be Kobe. So he began calling himself Kobe to family and friends. He created a Facebook account not to check on friends, but to extoll the exceptionalism of Kobe’s game. He posted Kobe highlights and spread the gospel of No. 24 to all who would listen. It was a biblical obsession; he was a disciple.
“They won [the championship], so I was rocking with him because he was the best,” Montero, now 18 and a potential first-round pick in this year’s NBA Draft, said “That’s when I started studying him and everything he did. I was watching highlights, games, whatever I could get my hands on. Anything he did I would watch.”
For Montero, a youngster from a country whose sports passion – then and now – centers primarily around baseball, it fueled him. But he had no outlet to channel it through. In Villa Juana, resources were sparse for him to chase his newfound fascination.
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It wasn’t until he was 8 or 9 years old that he finally acted. He remembers telling his cousin that he wanted to play basketball and compete. At that time there was no place to follow through on that wish, but, turns out, you can’t underestimate the creativity of a kid with an imagination and a little free time.
“We took the wheel off a bike, cleared out all the spokes and screwed the wheel onto wood so it would hang like a basketball goal,” Montero said. “We used that wheel as a rim.”
And so Montero’s basketball career began. It wasn’t much, but, finally, it was something. He had a hoop he could shoot on. He had a basketball. And on a rocky surface just outside his cousin’s barbershop, he had what most would call a construction area – but what he called a court. That was enough.
He and his cousin Ricky loved to play. They lived to play. Ricky called himself James Harden. Even made himself a fake little Harden beard. Montero kept his Kobe Bryant moniker. The two would battle for hours on end. Even as Montero was emerging as a star locally, the two were inseparable.
That’s about when everything changed. Ricky, long the older brother type who served as Montero’s staunchest competitor, biggest fan and protector, tragically died when Montero was 13 years old.
It was Ricky’s dream that Montero would make Villa Juana proud, put the place on the map. The two often talked about Montero earning a spot on the national team one day, about him maybe becoming a pro.
“Then when I was 13 I made the national team,” Montero said. “I remember [Ricky] telling me how proud he’d be if I made the national team. And that same year he was killed. I was so proud to go and do that . . . I used to wear his number.”
Montero on the way up the basketball ranks on the national team and in tournaments earned a reputation. And a good one, too. He was always playing against older players, yet almost always producing like a veteran. He took pride in the way he played defense. He loved involving his teammates with passes. And boy, could he score it. Over time, he developed maturity beyond his years to go with overwhelming confidence between the ears.
“I was beating everyone’s ass in practice,” Montero said.
And the ascension didn’t stop. He turned pro at 15 years old. By 16, he was blossoming with Gran Canaria into an NBA talent. Last year, at just 17 years old, he became the first international player to sign with Overtime Elite – a startup professional league that serves as an alternative for players to prepare for the NBA. At each turn, even as the youngest player on nearly every team, he produced.
“I went to Mexico and trained with the NBA Academy there. People who were way older than me, some going to college – and I was the best player,” says Montero. “That helped prepare me for my time with Overtime. I’ve always had to be more mature and grow up so quickly. I love the competition and the challenge.”
From the gravel court and homemade rim in the streets of Villa Juana, Montero has made his way into the NBA’s stratosphere as a potential first round pick in Thursday’s draft (he is projected as the No. 28 pick to the Warriors in my latest mock draft) against many odds. It’s a stunning story for those who don’t know him but an expected one for those who do. The young kid who could confidently blast the spokes out of a bike’s rim at a young age just to create his own hoop for entertainment has unsurprisingly willed his way into becoming one of the youngest and most enticing talents in the draft, and you can point to the confidence he exudes in himself as one of the contributing factors he’s gotten this far.
“I have so much confidence in myself,” Montero said. “People will talk their shit and doubt because that’s how people are sometimes. Every time I’ve had a challenge it’s turned into an opportunity for me, and I’ve made the most of it.”