Second Act: This WNBA Star Is Ready for a Bit of Drama
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because life after basketball has to begin early in this league.
By Matt Foley
Back in December 2017, Renee Montgomery was holed up in her apartment outside Tel Aviv, going through what had grown into an unintended nine-year holiday-season ritual. She called her mother and her friends and FaceTimed her two sisters and their children, telling them she couldn’t wait to see them, and that she’d be home for the holidays next year.
They’d heard these promises before, but this time she wasn’t acting — that would happen a year later.
An 11-year WNBA veteran playing for the Atlanta Dream after stints in Connecticut, Seattle and Minnesota, Montgomery is like many other professional women’s basketball players in that her pursuit of financial freedom has pushed her to play overseas to supplement a WNBA salary that topped out at $107,000 this year. Since being drafted out of UConn in 2009, Montgomery has played in Israel, Russia, Lithuania, Poland and Australia from fall to spring — two full seasons of hoops per year. Before this past offseason, though, she called her basketball agent and told him she was making a change. She was staying in Atlanta.
“Turning down guaranteed money is always a struggle,” says Montgomery, 32. “But I spent years putting myself in a position financially where I can now go six months without a paycheck. I had to take a leap of faith.”
That’s because the gregarious Montgomery — known around the WNBA as one of the league’s foremost locker room and pregame warmup entertainers — is making moves to perform on another professional level, living out her childhood dream as an actress. In Atlanta, which has blossomed into a mini-Hollywood thanks to generous state tax breaks for filmmakers, Montgomery takes drama classes at Nick Conti’s Professional Actor’s Studio. She has immersed herself in improv competitions and booked a number of upcoming roles — including a feature film. She already has one 16-minute short film — Not My Favorite Christmas — that can be streamed on Amazon Prime. In the holiday-themed comedy, Montgomery plays the friend of an internet influencer who, unbeknownst to those around him, is being evicted on Christmas Eve.
I’m going to have to pay my dues.
Her life also has taken a dramatic turn socially. Montgomery’s parents and one sister live in their native West Virginia, and another sister is in Washington, D.C., so visiting family is easier than ever. And Montgomery soon found that even spontaneous hangs with her two best friends in Atlanta were a rejuvenating force that she’d long been missing out on. “Finally, I can attend all the weekend barbecues,” she says. “I’m RSVPing ‘yes’ to all the house-warming parties. I even hosted a New Year’s Eve party this year!”
A top high school player who, as many do, matriculated to UConn to play for legendary coach Geno Auriemma, Montgomery finished her career ranked in Connecticut’s all-time top 10 in points, games played, three-pointers, assists and steals, and she led the Huskies to an undefeated season in 2009. She became a WNBA All-Star with the Connecticut Sun in 2011 and followed it up with a Sixth Woman of the Year award. She won WNBA titles with the Minnesota Lynx in 2015 and 2017. In her first season with Atlanta last year, she averaged 10.3 points and 3.7 assists per game, leading the rebuilding Dream to the conference finals.
“When I got the job I immediately targeted Renee,” says Dream head coach Nicki Collen, who was hired ahead of the 2018 season. “Beyond her skill on the court, she was the exact type of high-energy leader we needed in the locker room.”
Away from the court, though, Montgomery yearned to flex her creative muscles. Always an entertainer, Montgomery felt a responsibility to not waste her pristine basketball skills that were so apparent from an early age. But the life of an athlete only lasts so long. Determined not to be pigeonholed into coaching or broadcasting (she did a college basketball analyst stint for ESPN in 2010) in the next stage of her career, Montgomery is going all in on acting.
Reflecting on her decision to abandon her winter globe-trotting for a new dream, Montgomery seems almost surprised at how happy she is with the life change. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that professional athletes are real people, with passions and dreams unrelated to sports; players often have to find the key that unlocks that second door to happiness. Still cutting her teeth in drama, Montgomery is proud to have graduated from beginner to intermediate courses at Nick Conti’s faster than expected.
When we spoke, she was excited to be wrapping up four months of shooting a film about the effects of diplomatic immunity, tentatively called Desert Lily. For Montgomery, who plays a government agent, the experience was a major lesson in the art of filmmaking. And in coming to terms with wearing the same thing every day for months. “I’ll be burning that outfit when I’m done,” she jokes.
With the 2019 WNBA season underway, Montgomery’s focus has returned to the hardwood. Atlanta began the year with the fourth-best championship odds (7-1) of any team, and Montgomery is a valuable cog for the playoff push. Still, whether it’s after this or another few seasons, the lifelong hooper knows her time on the hardwood is nearing a logical end. “I had to start my life after basketball while still playing basketball,” she says.
She knows that not everyone appreciates, or even accepts, that athletes foster dual identities. It will take time to win some people over. “I’m going to have to pay my dues,” she says. “Until I book a recurring role or a major film, people aren’t going to take [my acting] seriously. And that’s fine. In time, the respect will come.”
In class, at least, Montgomery is earning the respect of her peers. Her acting coach, Franco Castan, says that Montgomery’s commitment and serious approach to the craft have spread throughout the class. “For young actors, the biggest hurdle is being vulnerable enough to apply what you’re learning in class,” says Castan. “To get out and hunt for roles. Renee’s already doing that — and booking gigs. That’s inspiring to my other students.”
For now, she’s staying focused on small achievements, like graduating levels in her acting class or scoring laughs during an improv set, that fill her with a sense of pride unlike any she’s felt on the hardwood. “The little things are big to me now,” Montgomery says. “Doing it here in Atlanta, I finally feel like I’m living.”
That’s no act.
Read more: This WNBA star plans to build an old boys’ club — for women.