The Kid From Villa Juana

Shea Kastriner/Overtime Elite

I still remember walking the streets of Villa Consuelo, at seven years old, and stumbling across a bodega that was playing this basketball game on the TV. I stopped in the street and watched from outside for like 45 minutes.

This was my first time seeing basketball on TV. 

The team that was playing had on these gold jerseys that added to the whole surreal vibe of everything, you know? They were really there to put on a show. Then there was this one player’s name that I kept hearing the announcers yell after every shot he made: Kobe Bryant. I walked home that night…. just on another planet. I knew I had to make it to the NBA one day. I started telling my cousin and my friend that they had to watch this cool team I had seen on TV called the Lakers.

And I started going around telling people, “I’m Kobe.” Lol.

Coming from Villa Juana, where most of the time one neighborhood is at war with another, where I had to literally build my own basketball court just to get some shots up….. this really wasn’t supposed to happen for me. This doesn’t happen for kids who are from where I’m from.

Lately, I’ve started looking around and taking in everything about this moment, everything it took for me to get here, all the people who helped me along the way. Honestly, I’m just grateful, and hungry to keep grinding…. to keep working and proving myself at every level. And Overtime Elite feels like the perfect opportunity for me to take my game to the next level.

Both on and off the court, this feels like it’s just the beginning. 

It used to be that my goal was to just make it in my hometown, or in my country, or maybe make it all the way to the league. But I understand now that my goals are about more than just me. I want kids where I’m from to be able to look at what I’m doing and see that if they put their mind to it, they can achieve great things. I want them to see the kid from Villa Juana post the first triple double in Overtime Elite history. I want more big nights on this stage. 

Jean Montero | Overtime Elite | The Kid from Villa Juana | The Players' Tribune
Rusty Jones/Overtime Elite

And, oh yeah, I’m also trying to be the first Dominican since Al Horford to go top 10.

I’ve been reflecting a lot as I get ready for what’s next. I’ve been thinking about where it all started. How things were before my life started to change. I’ve been thinking about a little place called La Canchita

Or the little court as we would call it.

My cousins and I were bored walking the streets and we just had this idea to build our own basketball court. Yup, our own. Lol. We found some wood, a bike that we took the wheels off of, took the cables inside the bike and some nails, then boom — we had our own court. 

La Canchita. 

We built it outside my cousin’s barbershop because we wanted people who were getting their haircut to be able to watch us play lol. It didn’t matter if it was raining, sunny, dark, the ball was dirty, we ALWAYS were playing. 

But like I told you, we really made the court. So sometimes the nails would get bad and the hoop would fall down, and we would have to go over to the Dinamita, or we’d go to Paulino’s house, he was this old boxing coach that made a court for all the kids to play on. We would play for hours, man. I’m talking about till the sun didn’t shine any more.

I told y’all how I started telling everybody that I was Kobe, right? Well, my cousin is left-handed, so he started calling himself James Harden. I don’t know how, but he made this beard out of string and he would put it on every time we played. One day he would win, one day I would win. We just wanted to compete

I learned the basics like shooting, dribbling, and defense at the Club Dosa. I would walk straight over there after school and Coach Basil would teach me. I was 9 years old going up against 13 and 14 year olds. I didn’t care. I just wanted to play and people started to see I wasn’t scared to go against anybody because I wasn’t.

I remember the year when everything changed for me. Age 12. Club Mauricio Baez. Any and every big basketball player from the Dominican Republic played at Club Mauricio Baez. When you play there that’s when opportunities start to look wide open. That’s when basketball really begins.

This really wasn’t supposed to happen for me. This doesn’t happen for kids from where I’m from.

Jean Montero

I never lost in Santo Domingo — NEVER. I’m serious. Because I was always the youngest player on the team, it was either I was beating kids that were my age because I was so ahead of them or I was beating the older guys because they underestimated how well I could play. Nobody could stop me. 

I was dropping 20 and 30 points in these tournaments, trying to get a spot on the national team. That year I thought I would get the invite, but I was told I was too skinny, so I didn’t. 

I was pretty hurt about it, because I wanted to play for my country. But I ended up meeting this guy named Mago. He comes up to me and he says how I need to come train with him and prepare myself. I was both proud and nervous because he said to me, “You’re going to make the national team. It’s going to happen in two years.”  

I made it in less than two years. Man, that was still a long journey though because I really had to start transforming my game. El Mago would keep telling me that I needed to “keep going.” It was hard work.

But I kept fighting for my spot.

The next year I had really started to find my voice as a leader on the team. I had one goal on my mind when training started again — I wanted them to respect me. To show them that I would do anything for the team. 

But life happens when you least expect it.

It’s not easy growing up in Villa Juana. There’s a lot of pressure on you, you know? Only some people will understand. But I’ll say this — if it weren’t for Lili looking after me and keeping me out of trouble, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today.

Jean Montero | Overtime Elite | The Kid from Villa Juana | The Players' Tribune
Courtesy Jean Montero

Lili was one of my cousins. He was a lot older and into some street stuff. That’s just the way it was out there. But Lili didn’t want me to be involved in none of that. He always told me to stay out of trouble and focus on making it to the league. If someone tried me on the court, he stepped in, you know? He made sure they never messed with me again.  

A funny thing about Lili though, is that he would never tell me how good I was to my face. Every time he saw me he’d joke around like, “You’re not good enough yet. I’m still better than you.” But it didn’t bother me because I knew his secret. This one time when I was with my other cousins they told me that all Lili would talk about was me, how he knew I was going to make it to the league, and how he saw how special I was on the court. 

He was the first person to see my potential. The first person to push me. He believed in me before I even believed in myself.

And what’s heartbreaking is he died from the same stuff he was trying to keep me out of. 

Lili was killed when I was 12, just as I was starting to find my voice in the locker room. I miss him. His death affected me more than I realized at the time. I was still a kid trying to figure out how to even process it.

I started skipping practices, hanging out with my friends and just doing whatever. Wasn’t even training anymore. One day I skipped practice to go hang out at the pool with my friends. 

I’m in the pool having a good time and my dad found out where I was. Man…. I don’t know how he found me, because I was ignoring all his where are you? texts. He walked right up to me at the pool and said, “You didn’t go to practice? Let’s get out of here.” 

I was embarrassed. Walking out the pool with my dad. But it was the wake-up call I needed. I apologized to my teammates and coaches and worked to rebuild their confidence in me. I really had to start working myself back into the lineup. Showing the coach that I was going to be a consistent player, a leader for the team. 

To be honest, it wasn’t the easiest thing, trying to be a star athlete and dealing with the loss of my cousin. But I knew that I had something to offer, that I needed to be there giving it my all like Lili would have wanted.

There was this saying that I started: “El Quinto.”

In Santo Domingo, El Quinto is this dangerous zone and nobody was ever trying to get caught over there. So when I yelled “El Quinto!” on the court, it was for my team to know that we were about to get at it. That our defense was going to be smothering the other team. 

People laughed at it and made fun of me for it. But I didn’t care what they thought, because everytime I told the team “El Quinto,” no team could score on us. Steals, blocked shots, everything…. El Quinto

That year I made the national team at 13 years old.

Jean Montero | Overtime Elite | The Kid from Villa Juana | The Players' Tribune
Casey Sykes/Overtime Elite

The one tournament that stands out to me though was the pre-World Cup. I had played horribly because I was coming back from being sick — and the next few games, my coach sat me down and showed me everything I was doing wrong. 

After that, I went and watched 45 minutes of Kobe highlights…. 45 minutes lol. When you’re down like that, you gotta go back to the blueprint. The Kobe highlights are a must.

And you need something else. You need that special sauce. That energy. That feeling that nothing and nobody can stand in your way.

Man, I don’t know how else to explain it…… you just need that El Quinto Mode. Lol.

I don’t even remember who we played after Argentina, but I remember they couldn’t stop me. I dropped 42 points. It was CRAZY. I was trending on Twitter, man. Social media in the DR was blowing up.

I want kids where I’m from to be able to look at what I’m doing and see that if they put their mind to it, they can achieve great things.

Jean Montero

That’s just another example of how I’ve seen myself progress and adapt over and over. You can throw me in any environment, and I will not only survive but also thrive in it. 

Now, being here at Overtime Elite, I see even more how close I am to my dream. I wouldn’t say that I’m scared. Definitely not. But, I would say that I’m anxious. I’m ready to see how this will all unfold. Every day I’m waking up and training and I feel time is just passing by so fast. 

I don’t know, maybe it sounds crazy, but like I said: The thing that drives me, it’s not just about me. It’s about my country. My family. It’s a sense of pride for where I’m from and for all Latinos. No player born in the Dominican Republic since Al Horford has made it in the top 10 in the NBA draft. (The last Dominican player who made it to the draft was Chris Duarte and he was the 13th pick). And I want my cousin to be proud of me…. I think if he was here right now, he would cry and say, “I told you so.” I know when draft day comes, he’ll be there, and he’ll make sure I know that he is. 

This game has blessed me in ways that I never even imagined. When I came here to OTE, I knew I was jumping into the unknown. I didn’t know what this exactly would be. But I knew one thing. I’m hungry. I’m ready for whatever’s next. And while I can hope and set goals, I know at the end of the day it’s all in God’s hands.

Jean Montero | Overtime Elite | The Kid from Villa Juana | The Players' Tribune
Shea Kastriner/Overtime Elite

I’m just focused on where I am right now. Eighteen years old and starting a new journey.

But just know — when I go out there, every game, deep down I’m still that skinny kid bustin’ heads at the La Canchita outside my cousin’s barbershop.

I’m still that kid from Villa Juana.

And that’s better than any feeling in the world.