It was the first open gym of the season at Coffeyville Community College. Montel James, then a freshman, was quietly lacing up his basketball shoes when a teammate approached him.
“He was like, ‘Hey, don’t Earl look like Kobe?’” James recollects. The teammate was referring to Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant. “And I was like, ‘He looks exactly like Kobe.’ So I started clowning Earl about that all the time, and then we became friends. It grew from there.”
“Earl” is Earl Peterson, who entered Coffeyville the same season as James. And he cracks up and shakes his head as James remembers the teammate’s remarks.
James is not lying when he says his relationship with Peterson grew after that first practice. If anything, that is an understatement. Their relationship blossomed.
James and Peterson became inseparable. When their two years in Coffeyville, Kansas, wrapped up, they were not going to head their separate ways. They are now playing together at Loyola as juniors, and a change of scenery has not changed the closeness of their friendship.
“It’s like they’re one person sometimes,” senior guard Joe Crisman says. “We call them ‘Montearl.’”
Peterson grew up in Raytown, Missouri, a Kansas City suburb. At the age of three, he was already playing basketball. Growing up right outside a place drenched in basketball history such as Kansas City, that’s not much of a surprise.
He played on the AAU circuit and challenged himself by practicing against kids on older teams, most notably Marcus Denmon, Travis Releford and Trevor Releford. Those three went on to become standout players for top-25 programs at Missouri, Kansas, and Alabama, respectively. He also faced current NBA guard Alec Burks.
“Practicing against [older teams] made me a better player, made me tougher,” Peterson says. “There was no mercy.”
He played his varsity basketball at Raytown South High School and developed into a 6-foot-3 guard with a balanced scoring attack.
The dream was to earn a Division I scholarship, and Peterson did. But not quite at the level he wanted. His Division I offers were from low-major programs Oral Roberts, Nebraska-Omaha and Central Arkansas.
As much as he wanted to live his dream, he decided a two-year stint at Coffeyville could help him mature into a better player.
“My high school coach [Brad Oestreich] was always telling me not to settle for less if you feel like you deserve better,” Peterson says. “I would come out of junior college with a higher IQ for the game of basketball. I would come out as a better leader, as a better person off the court. Even though it’s not a big school like a Division I school, I’m still in college away from home.”
Meanwhile, James came from football country, so he hit the gridiron before the hardwood.
He grew up in Kenner, Louisiana, close to New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, his family moved to Augusta, Georgia for four years.
James gave up football after 3rd grade, but he had watched his older brother play basketball in the street outside their house.
“It was just go to school and come home,” James says of his routine without football. “I was always watching my brother, so I was like, ‘You know what, maybe basketball can be my life.'”
In 7th grade, he finally gave basketball a try. But he was cut from the team.
“I cried my eyes out for weeks,” James says.
His brother and family kept motivating him, so he tried out again in 8th grade. This time he earned a spot.
“I was just terrible,” James says about his 8th-grade self. “But then I got to high school and everything just sparked. I became a better player and tougher and just had a basketball mentality.”
He played his freshman year in Augusta before returning to Louisiana, where he played for Glenn Dyer at Alfred Bonnabel High School. Although he did not have much experience, his size at 6-foot-7 gave him potential.
He wrapped up a strong career at Bonnabel by averaging 21.8 points and 11.0 rebounds per game and earning first team all-state honors for Class 5A.
“With his tenacity and his rebounding ability, he was just able to control the paint,” Dyer says. “He really exploded into one of the city’s elite players.”
Like Peterson, James had some offers from low-level Division I schools, such as Nicholls State. He was on the verge of qualifying academically for Division I and still played on the AAU circuit the summer after his senior year.
Coffeyville came to watch him, and after talking to his family and Dyer, he decided the two-year school was the best option.
“I told Montel, ‘You’re better than [those schools],’” Dyer remembers. “I talked to Montel and his dad, and we all agreed he could get better at junior college and then go play at a higher level.”
James and Peterson’s paths to Coffeyville mirrored each other, and they quickly realized how much more they had in common when they met at their new school.
They were in some of the same classes and began talking all the time. They discovered a shared sense of humor and affinity for Ice Cube’s “All About The Benjamins” and “Friday” series.
They quickly agree that those, along with basketball, formed a core of common interests.
“One of us will walk into the room and just quote something random,” James says. “And it’ll always be funny. We’ll just both start laughing.”
While James and Peterson were connecting off the court, they were also bringing success to Coffeyville on the court. The Ravens finished 32-3 and advanced to the second round of the NJCAA Tournament their freshman year.
James picked up first team all-conference honors.
“It’s always great to be recognized for the things that you do, but my goal wasn’t really to win [accolades],” James says. “My goal was to go out there and play hard and do whatever I can to be successful. If that was scoring, so be it. If that was rebounding and defense, so be it. Whatever I could do to get to Division I, that was my goal.”
They became roommates as sophomores and led the Ravens to a 23-9 record. This time Peterson earned a spot on the all-conference first team while James was named to the second team.
“I didn’t really set no goals to make first-team all-conference or anything,” Peterson says. “But I felt pretty good. It was a confidence boost.”
Then last spring, Peterson committed to Loyola.
But James wasn’t sure if he would follow. He also received an offer from Louisiana Tech, and that was a strong draw. The Bulldogs were coming off a 29-8 season and had won two straight conference titles under coach Michael White, one of the profession’s rising stars.
“It was pretty much 50-50,” Peterson says. “I knew he wanted to be close to home.”
As Loyola coach Porter Moser gave his final pitch, Peterson helped out as an unofficial recruiter.
“Going to the same school, all over again for two more years, it can’t get no better,” Peterson remembers telling James. “Also it’s a private school, so you’re going to get a good education regardless of how basketball goes after you graduate. You’re going to have a good job afterwards.”
With Moser in one ear and Peterson in the other, James was sold. Ultimately he could not pass up the opportunity to continue playing with Peterson.
“Everything was going our way once our strong bond translated to on the court, so we just wanted to keep that going,” James says. “I want to help him help me, so he can help me help him. We’re just helping each other get better.”
Now they are also trying to help their new teammates get better and give Moser his first winning season with the Ramblers.
Last season Loyola had many internal chemistry issues, Crisman says. The Ramblers never gelled, limping to a 10-22 record and last-place finish in the Missouri Valley Conference.
But Crisman thinks this team did an about-face in that regard, and now the chemistry is as good as it’s been in his four years.
“There were some outliers last year,” he says about the previous team’s lack of closeness. “I would never name names. Some guys are here, some guys are gone now. But this group, we’ve put it all together.”
Crisman credits James and Peterson with helping this team’s chemistry. The team has played off their relationship and tried to match it.
Improving the team is James and Peterson’s intention, but it also comes naturally. It’s what they’ve been doing together since their bond started forming in that first open gym.
“At Coffeyville, we’d do anything to help our team get wins and help our teammates be better players,” James says. “I think we can do the same here, help this program at least try to turn things around. And that bond we’ve got will help.”
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