BRISTOL – When Bristol native and legendary high school basketball coach Vito Montelli received a letter about writing his own book back in 2006, he couldn’t figure out why he received it.
Montelli, the proud owner of a CIAC-record 878 career victories after coaching for 50 years at St. Joseph High School, hadn’t even thought of putting his life story to paper, but the random letter brought with it a seed for a post-retirement activity.
“They said they heard I wanted to write a book, but they put the thought in my head,” Montelli, 88, recalled. “I wasn’t event thinking of writing the book, but I figured why not.”
Now, 14 years later, Montelli’s life story is hitting bookshelves after being released earlier this month. ‘God, Family and Basketball: The 50-Year Career of St. Joseph High School Coach Vito Montelli,’ is a 167-page story of Montelli’s experience from growing up in Bristol to turning St. Joseph into a basketball powerhouse that won 11 state titles, produced more than two dozen McDonalds All-Americans, and helped Montelli earn a National Coach of the Year Award. Of course, the book is about far more than Montelli’s life on the hardwood.
“I think it’s a human-interest thing,” Montelli said. “It’s not about how you win a basketball game. Someone asked if it’s about how I won so many games, and I said no, maybe that will be in the next book.”
Montelli’s story was authored by Chris Ellsberry, a longtime sports reporter in Bridgeport who spent endless hours talking with Montelli about his life and coaching career, which unsurprisingly gave Ellsberry plenty of content to put the book together.
“It took close to three years,” Montelli said. “There was a lot of layoff time in between. [Chris] would come over and spent at least 100 days with his recorder and said we were going to tape everything. I would talk and give him the material I had, thank God I saved a lot of scrapbooks and what not, and once he had all that he would stay a couple hours and leave. Then he’d come back and we’d go through the same routine.”
Among the major life events chronicled by Montelli and Ellsberry is how Montelli got into coaching basketball, the career that made him a state legend and eventually landed him in the Bristol Sports Hall of Fame. Montelli began his coaching career on the baseball diamond at Notre Dame High School, but when an old friend asked him to continue his career at St. Joseph, his life hit an unexpected crossroad.
“When a fellow teacher of mine, a very good friend of mine became principal of St. Joseph High school, he told me he knew I wanted to be an athletic director, and to come with him to St. Joes,” Montelli said. “I went with him…and I looked at the facilities. There was no baseball field. I said ‘How the heck am I going to do a program the way I want it done? So I took basketball instead. That’s how life goes sometimes. The Lord sometimes gives you a fork in the road.”
Those crossroads are a prevailing theme in Montelli’s story, one which he believes Ellsberry helped make into a prominent message throughout the book.
“I think I live by that,” Montelli said. “I come to choices and have to make decisions, and I don’t look back.”
Montelli will be back at the site of his basketball success on Saturday, when he will do a book signing at St. Joseph High School from 2-4 p.m. He only hopes he sees a big turnout from Bristol residents to help represent a place he still holds close to his heart.
“My memories about Bristol are scattered throughout the book,” Montelli said. “I lived there, and I loved it there.”