Mark Montieth: Returning to his roots

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It all started as an offhand joke. Jeff Teague was back at his high school alma mater to watch a basketball game last season when someone asked why he was there. Aware that the head coaching job would come open at the end of the season, he said he was scouting for when he took over the program. He didn’t really mean it—or maybe subconsciously he did—but word got out.

“Somebody took it and ran with it,” he recalls.

Next thing he knew, people were asking him if he was serious. And the more he thought about it, yeah, maybe he was. And now here he is, Pike High School’s head coach. He’ll take it, run with it and see where it leads.

Why would a 12-season NBA veteran coach a high school team? Teague earned nearly $100 million, so it’s not about the money. He’s not even sure what he’s being paid for this lay coaching gig. He guessed $10,000, maybe $14,000. He also could be working in the NBA if he desired—he was a regional scout for the Atlanta Hawks last season—so it’s not about boredom, either.

What it’s about, he says, is impacting the lives of teenagers. Cliché answer, right? Every high school coach says that. Some mean it, though, and you don’t have to listen to the soft-spoken Teague for long to be convinced of his sincerity. He hopes to help the friends who make up his staff of assistants advance in the coaching world, but his primary ambition is clear.

“It’s about giving a kid an opportunity like I got, to be coached hard,” he says. “It’s a little different, being coached by somebody who’s experienced everything you want. I thought it would be a unique situation to come back to a high school and pour into kids everything I’ve experienced from high school to college to the pros. Hopefully, that can trigger somebody and help them live their dream like I did.”

A flying saucer

Teague is a rare breed, then. It’s not unusual for a former NBA player to become a coach, but the vast majority prefer remaining in the league. The five-star hotels, charter flights and generous per diems are difficult to give up, and the opportunity to work with fellow adults in an adrenaline-fueled environment maintains the comfort zone.

College coaching? Only a small percentage of NBA players have dared confront that grind. Mike Woodson at Indiana is one of them. But to illustrate how rare that is, Fred Hoiberg (Nebraska) is believed to be the only former Pacer doing it now. Kyle Macy (Morehead State), Kevin Ollie, (Connecticut), Louie Orr (three stops), Bill Keller (Indiana Central/UIndy) and Tom Thacker (Cincinnati women) have done it previously. Perhaps some others have as well, but not many, if any. The catch is that Hoiberg, a 10-year NBA veteran, is the only ex-Pacer who was financially set for life before becoming a head coach. The others had to get a job of some sort.

Pike High School coach Jeff Teague says he wants his players “to be able to trust me, not just for basketball but off the court. There’s bigger issues than basketball in this community right now.” (IBJ photo/Eric Learned)

Former NBA players directing high school teams, however, are the coaching equivalent of flying saucers. It’s such an unusual concept for a modern-day player that it was the basis of a fictional TV series that aired from 1978 to 1981: “The White Shadow.” Mike Bibby, a 14-season veteran, did it briefly in Phoenix after retiring, but Teague isn’t aware of any others.

The real-world hassles of teaching and mentoring teenagers, not to mention the possibility of dealing with their parents, will test his commitment at times. So will the transition from playing with and against the best players in the world to teaching the most basic of fundamentals to a team loaded with underclassmen. He got a crash course while coaching some of his players in a tournament at Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield last summer.

“We took some lumps,” he said. “I had this philosophy that we’re going to do this, do that, but in the summer, I realized you have guys [at different levels]. Not everybody is going to be a major college player. I have a pretty good grip on it now.”

Teague will coach an up-tempo style, the way he liked to play. Play defense and get good shots, sure, but score as many points as possible.

“Just make it a fun game,” he said. “I want the crowd to be into the game. I want people to want to come and watch us play, think that we’re going to put on a show. I just like that brand of basketball.”

His style

Teague, 35, had success playing that way in the NBA from 2009 to 2021 and left without regrets. He averaged in double figures in nine seasons, played in the all-star game in 2015 and has a championship ring from his final season with Milwaukee in 2020-2021.

He said he considers the lone season he played for the Pacers, in 2016-2017, his favorite. He got to play in his home city, and coach Nate McMillan gave him freedom to run the team as he saw fit, something every point guard relishes.

“For the first time in my career, I didn’t have to look over my shoulder,” Teague recalled.

With one caveat.

Jeff Teague played one season for the Indiana Pacers, 2016-2017. He says it was the favorite of his 12 seasons in the NBA, from 2009 to 2021. (AP photo)

“He told me to keep Paul George happy and do whatever else I wanted to do.

“I don’t think I did a good enough job because [George] still wanted to leave,” he added, laughing.

That season might have been the best of his 12. Starting all 82 games, he averaged 15.3 points and 7.8 assists, and the more modern nuanced stats such as win share, which estimates the number of wins a player contributes to his team, were the best of his career. He raised his average to 17 points in the Pacers’ first-round playoff loss to Cleveland.

George’s trade demand the following summer shifted the Pacers into rebuilding mode, however, which made re-signing a veteran free agent such as Teague impractical for the Pacers. He signed a three-year, $57 million contract with Minnesota, returned to Atlanta where he began his career for a half season in the final year of that deal, then split the final season of his career between Boston and Milwaukee.

Teague lived in Indianapolis last year while scouting both college and NBA games for the Hawks. He could have continued in that position, or perhaps could have landed a job with the New York Knicks, where his coach in Minnesota, Tom Thibodeau, now works. He doesn’t rule out returning to the NBA, perhaps even coaching there, but he wanted to begin his coaching journey with a high school team and build from the ground up.

By example

Teague’s return to Pike, from where he graduated in 2007, is the prep equivalent of Larry Bird’s return to Indiana to coach the Pacers—a legend returning to his roots. It has generated some buzz within the school district and more within the school hallways. He says about 170 kids showed up for tryouts across all four grades. Teague not only brings the cachet of an NBA veteran young enough for some of his players to have seen him play, he carries a favorable image among faculty and administrators from his days as a student.

“I think all the teachers loved him,” said co-athletic director Kendra Champion-McAloon, who previously taught at Pike. “He was a great kid, worked hard on and off the court.

“He’s just a great person to have back. It’s really cool to listen to what he says about wanting to develop these kids as young men and not just awesome basketball players.”

Champion-McAloon does wonder about one thing, though: How will Teague comport himself on the sideline?

“He was so quiet in school,” she said, smiling. “I can’t wait to see him coach his first game, see if he actually opens his mouth.”

Teague is indeed quiet and unemotional by nature. He’ll leave most of the shouting to his staff of assistants, which includes his father, Shawn, a volunteer coach. His stoic nature masks his passion for the game, but his players are learning to see through that.

He considered his high school coach, Larry Bullington, “mean” because of the demands he made but now realizes it was for his own good. He also appreciates in retrospect Bullington’s approach of rewarding effort in practice with opportunities in games. He’ll take a similar approach, but with less volume.

“I’m a little harder on people than they expected,” he said. “I think they thought it was going to be all fun. I’m kind of old-fashioned. It was hard for them to understand that. But now they understand, ‘Man, it ain’t all fun and games with him. He’s actually pretty tough on us.’ But that’s all I know.”

Teague also will lead by humble example. Arrive early for practice and you might catch him mopping the dust off the court. Stay late and you might see him going one-on-one with a player—in conversation.

“I’m stern, but I try to build cool relationships with them,” he said. “I want the players to be able to trust me, not just for basketball but off the court. There’s bigger issues than basketball in this community right now. I want the kids to be able to come to me and talk about anything.”

Ultimately, that’s why he came back. No joking.

“Maybe somebody can do greater things than I did with the game of basketball,” he said. “Or maybe they can change their life or their families’ lives. The game of basketball can take you so many places. I truly believe it because I’m living it.”•

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Montieth, an Indianapolis native, is a longtime newspaper reporter and freelance writer. He is the author of three books: “Passion Play: Coach Gene Keady and the Purdue Boilermakers,” “Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis,” and “Extra Innings: My Life in Baseball,” with former Indianapolis Indians President Max Schumacher.

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3 thoughts on “Mark Montieth: Returning to his roots

  1. As a subscriber, I’m glad that the IBJ has hired writers like Mark Montieth and Dave Lindquist. Their long-term knowledge of Indianapolis shows in their contributions.

  2. When he played for the Pacers, I remember there was a story in the national media about him, a successful NBA player, living in his parent’s basement. Of course, his parents lived in a very nice house that he bought for them – it probably had a very nice basement – and he knew he was only going to play for the Pacers for a short time, so it made economic sense. Still, a great headline at the time.

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