Renee Montgomery has been known as a champion at all levels of her basketball career — three state titles in high school at South Charleston and Capital, one in college at Connecticut and two in the WNBA with the Minnesota Lynx.
But now, Montgomery is becoming known as a champion of another sort — one of social justice reforms. And in turn, she’s being regarded as more than just an athlete — she’s being called a crusader and a trailblazer.
Last week, Montgomery announced she is sitting out the upcoming WNBA season with the Atlanta Dream, which would have been her 12th in the pro league, in order to focus on social justice and civil rights. Several media outlets pegged Montgomery as the first pro athlete this year to walk away from his or her career to immerse themselves in those issues, which have become a hot-button topic across the country.
“To me, it sounds crazy — because it’s me,’’ Montgomery said in a telephone interview with the Gazette-Mail.
Montgomery said advocacy work wasn’t even on her radar back in February. But the May 25 death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, while in police custody in Minnesota started to change her perspective as protests sprouted all over the country, some of them coming close to Montgomery’s neighborhood in Atlanta.
“It was a series of events,’’ Montgomery said of her new calling. “Obviously, when George Floyd was murdered, that triggered the world and everyone woke up at that point. I was talking to my mom about her going through the same thing as far as riots were concerned, and civil rights movements. It just blocked in my mind. We have great momentum right now.’’
Montgomery’s mother, Bertlela, lived in Detroit in the summer of 1967 when civil rights riots pitted Black residents there against the city’s police force.
In The Players’ Tribune, a media platform that allows athletes to connect with fans in their own words, the 33-year-old Montgomery explained her feelings.
“A whole bunch of emotions were running through me,’’ she wrote. “I felt empowered. I felt nervous.’’
Soon, Montgomery was handing out water bottles at Black Lives Matter protests in Atlanta. She then set up a GoFundMe account to raise money for water and other supplies. She also had her eye on other topics she felt were essential in the Black community.
“Educated financial literacy is something that needs to be focused on, definitely, and voting,’’ Montgomery told the Gazette-Mail. “Educating the younger generation, those 18 years old and able to vote now, and things of that nature. Educating why they should vote.
“It’s something I want to do at the local level. Build back up the communities, whether it’s an event I’m doing or a minority-owned business, trying to build up the community.’’
Montgomery shrugs off any recognition she receives as 2020’s pioneer of social change. She defers to Maya Moore, the Minnesota Lynx star who’s skipping her second straight WNBA season to focus on getting Jonathan Irons released from prison in Missouri.
Irons, 40, was sentenced as a 16-year-old to 50 years for assault with a deadly weapon and burglary that was never supported by physical evidence. Moore, at the time of stepping away from her sport, was one of the top players in the WNBA — a former MVP with six All-Star appearances and four league championships.
“You always have to remember Maya Moore did it before,’’ Montgomery said. “She was ahead of the game. That was impressive because somebody now can understand why she’s doing what she’s doing. She was doing it before it was understood.’’
Montgomery stressed that she wasn’t closing the door on her own WNBA career. In two seasons with the Dream, she’s averaged 9.9 points and 3.2 assists and provides a veteran presence.
“That hasn’t been planned out yet,’’ Montgomery said. “It’s about me optimizing the 2020 season — that’s what I’m focusing on right now.’’
She isn’t worried that taking a sabbatical at this point in her career might cause her to lose a step.
“That hasn’t been what I’m worried about,’’ she said, then added with a laugh, “but I guess now you’re telling me I should be.’’
Regardless of where Montgomery’s path winds up, she’s already in demand off the court. During the offseason, she has served as an in-studio analyst/host for NBA TV, ESPN and Fox Sports South. Last winter, she was an analyst for the College Park Skyhawks of the NBA G League, an affiliate of the Atlanta Hawks. Those positions are currently surrounded by uncertainty as the NBA, WNBA and other leagues sort out where and how they’re playing under the aura of COVID-19.
“Right now,’’ Montgomery said, “all the news stations are trying to get it figured out. They don’t know what they’re going to have as far as video in these bubbles for a lot of things. Hopefully, something will come of that but for right now, it’s still [postponed].’’
Montgomery’s been a visible presence on Twitter and when the topic there recently revealed that no Black woman has ever hosted the ESPYs awards show, she volunteered. After all, she’s well-spoken and also has a burgeoning acting career, with roles in several movies. In addition, she co-hosts an eSportsXTRA show on Twitch.tv, where she has become a fast fan of NASCAR.
“We were doing a segment [on Twitch] on how a lot of NASCAR fans were leaving because of the banning of the Confederate flag,’’ Montgomery said. “I wanted to make sure I voiced my opinion on that. But they have a new fan in me because I like the direction NASCAR is taking. You hear all these crazy stories about NASCAR drivers, and they’re actually real interesting. They sound like myths, legends.’’
Montgomery has received overwhelming support for her decision to step away from her basketball career, and one of those offering an assist was Alexis Hornbuckle, her former running mate at Capital and South Charleston who preceded her in the WNBA. Hornbuckle was a three-time state player of the year (2002-04), an honor Montgomery took in 2005.
“She actually hit me up,’’ Montgomery said, “and told me whatever I need in this off-season, whatever I was trying to do, she wanted to help. She’s ready and willing to help me with anything I have planned.’’