BERKELEY -- One year after a cancer scare, life is good for Cal basketball coach Mike Montgomery. He is healthy, on the verge of signing an excellent recruiting class and ready to begin practice with a team expected to compete near the top of the Pac-12 Conference.

The mood was different at this time last year.

"It's frightening, especially when something comes from nowhere," said Montgomery, 65, who was diagnosed with bladder cancer just before the start of practice last season.

He underwent surgery Oct. 19 and was declared cancer-free and was able to work the entire season. But Montgomery knows it could have gone the other way.

"It's taken out of your hands. You're at the mercy of this thing," Montgomery said. "It could have been that I had no control. You just don't know what's going to happen.

"People all over the place are fighting for their lives with cancer. And you certainly have some empathy for that because it could have been me."

Both of Montgomery's parents died of cancer in their 70s, and he said his episode with the disease was a reminder of life's unpredictability.

"It alerts you to the fact that this is not a given, that you don't have forever," he said. "But I've always felt that way, based on my parents dying relatively young."

With practice starting Friday, Montgomery begins his fifth season at Cal. He will coach at least through the 2015-16 season, if he chooses, after signing a contract extension last summer.


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Two decades ago, he'd never have imagined staying this long. He spent 18 successful seasons at Stanford, then gave the NBA a try. But the Warriors fired him after two seasons, and Montgomery did not enjoy retirement.

Cal provided him a chance to help usher son John into the profession, first as the program's director of operations, now as an assistant coach.

"Having John involved changes the dynamic of the thing," Montgomery said. "It's always been a family deal anyway."

Turns out, Montgomery has found lots to like in Berkeley.

"It's clearly different (than Stanford), but I like the people," he said. "I never knew about Cal, I never knew what existed over here, and now I do. I got off the bus and came in the backdoor, it's all I ever did.

"People are what make places, and we've got some good people over here."

Montgomery's 2009-10 team won Cal's first conference championship in 50 years and last season the Bears finished one game shy of another title.

Still, Montgomery acknowledged that it's been a slow process selling recruits on the notion that Cal is among the Pac-12's consistently elite programs.

"It hasn't been easy. We don't get a lot of the attention that some others do," he said, alluding to UCLA and Arizona, long regarded as the league's premier programs.

Cal's academic demands complicate the equation, Montgomery said.

"This is not Disneyland," he said. "Kids that don't want to do work and have a challenge, don't look at this."

This fall, however, the Bears have gotten commitments from three high school players, including consensus national top-25 prospect Jabari Bird of Salesian-Richmond. Cal is dueling Kentucky for Deer Valley-Antioch forward/center Marcus Lee, rated as the No. 15 prospect by Rivals.

"We've won more (Pac-12) games than anyone except Washington. And people go, 'Really?' " Montgomery said of his four-year stint. "But they're starting to look at us more as a contender, as somebody who consistently has been there."

The preseason magazines are getting onboard. Athlon Sports picks Cal third in the Pac-12, Lindy's has the Bears fourth.

Montgomery doesn't dwell on his bout with cancer. He said it serves no purpose, and he doesn't have the time. Coaching his team keeps him busy.

"It dominates you. It's what you do," Montgomery said, and he likes it that way.

For more on Cal sports, see the Bear Talk blog at ibabuzz.com/beartalk. Follow Jeff Faraudo on Twitter at Twitter.com/CalBearsBANG.