The basketball world lost a giant on Sunday night, and that has nothing to do with his 7'0" frame. Eric Montross, a national champion and two-time Second Team All-American with the North Carolina Tar Heels, passed away after a nine-month battle with cancer.
I write this from the perspective of someone that graduated from UNC 11 years after Montross did. I can still remember staying up late to watch the 1993 national championship game as a 9-year-old Tar Heel fan, and celebrating after Chris Webber's infamous timeout sealed the title for the Heels.
As a young sports nut that had fallen in love with Dean Smith's brand of basketball by the time I was in kindergarten, that team has always stuck with me. Montross, Donald Williams, Brian Reese, George Lynch. I used to pretend I was Dante Calabria when I was shooting baskets at home.
Montross was such an important part of that team, a traditional center that embodied toughness and heart. Everyone knows the famous image of him shooting a free throw against Duke with blood rolling down his face. I'd encourage everyone to read Adam Lucas' tribute to his friend, where he recounts how that bloody image followed Montross for years, yet he always showed the grace to engage with fans who wanted to share their own experience of it.
It's not an exaggeration to say that Montross and his teammates are partly responsible for me wanting to attend UNC in the first place. I fell in love with the basketball team first, I fell in love with the campus and people later.
Montross grew up in Indiana but found the pull of Chapel Hill irresistible, returning there after his playing career to live and work for the Tar Heel Sports Network, and as someone who grew up in New York and now lives 20 minutes from campus, I can relate.
There are players whose exploits on the court we admire, but whose behavior off it doesn't reach the same standard. By all accounts, Montross was someone who was an even better person than he was a player, a pretty incredible statement to make about someone who was a key part of a national title-winning team and who played in the NBA for eight seasons.
Montross was known for his work with pediatric cancer patients, long before he himself was diagnosed. He befriended Jason Clark, a teenager battling the disease, when Montross was still in school, and he later started an annual basketball camp to raise money for sick kids and UNC Children's Hospital, all in Jason's name. Jason was an important person to Eric for the rest of his life, and like Jason, Eric passed nine months after his initial diagnosis.
I met him only once, on an elevator a few years ago when I ran the FedEx Ground delivery route on UNC's campus. I was in the building adjacent to the Dean Dome that houses the Carolina Basketball Museum, the athletic department offices, and the Ram's Club offices.
Montross worked for the Ram's Club, where he helped drive donations that went to athletic scholarships at Carolina, so he was going to the third floor. I had a package for the athletic department, which was on the second floor.
It's hard to describe the awe of sharing an elevator with someone that is seven feet tall, let alone when that man is someone you grew up watching play for your favorite team. He smiled and extended his hand and said, "Hi, I'm Eric Montross."
When I thought about it later that day with a big smile on my face, I thought, he has to know that I know who he is, he's Eric Montross and we're right next to the Dean Dome. Maybe he did, or maybe he was just such a humble guy that he would never assume something like that. I quickly realized that it didn't actually matter. If I knew who he was, then he knew it would give me a thrill to shake his hand and introduce myself back. If I didn't, then he was just a friendly stranger who was brightening someone's day.
Like many Tar Heels who interacted with him, all I can say is that it was a thrill, and that it brightened more than just my day. It's a small moment, but one I won't forget. Rest in peace, big man.