- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
At North Carolina, as at many colleges around the country, the sports information department does its best to flesh out the young men who carry the school colors onto the basketball court. Each fall the Tar Heels are canvassed for their likes and dislikes, their hobbies and greatest influences and favorite foods, and the results are collected in the media guide in tidy tables called Personality Charts. This would be a benign enough exercise were it not for the possibility that somewhere there's a former player from the mid-'70s whose accomplishments, praiseworthy though they might have been, will always be sullied by an entry reading "Favorite Band: Bo Donaldson & The Heywoods." So give Eric Montross credit for recognizing the risk of embarrassment when the sports publicity questionnaire crossed his path. Asked to name the best books he had read, he mentioned Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 2.
If Montross is goofing on us, touché. College kids can never have too many outlets for harmless mischief, and Montross's sense of humor is now on record for posterity. But the frightening thing about the 7-foot junior center who will lead the top-seeded Tar Heels (28-4) into the NCAA East Regional this week is that he may not be goofing on us at all. Aside from being, in Maryland coach Gary Williams's judgment, "the best post player in the country," Montross is so far-ranging in his interests, so mature and so studious—he's on track to graduate in 3½ years—that it's conceivable he did, sometime in his 21 years, actually slog through Volume 2, from Ant to Balfe.
At a glance Montross seems serious even by the standards of the Tar Heels' program, which is itself so serious that it's often called college basketball's IBM, the game's model corporation. (The analogy misses badly this season, through no fault of basketball's Big Blue; as IBM has fallen into disarray, the Tar Heels have looked more selfless, patient and cohesive than at any time in recent memory.) Montross could be some middle manager: solid and stolid, with a regulation haircut, playing the role of the man in the powder-blue flannel suit. "I see his fan mail," says Laura Leonard, the Carolina senior who has dated Montross for almost two years now. "People write that they never see him smile. Well, he does smile."
There remains, nonetheless, the question of whether he is goofing on us. And so the larger task of determining who Eric Montross is—whether he's as serious as a multivolume. encyclopedia or only built like one—places you at Davis Library on the Chapel Hill campus. In the reference section. Reading about insects.
Ants are one of several groups of social insects belonging to the order Hymenoptera. Seven-footers are neither insects nor usually social in the orthodox way. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would fit the electronic calipers around his head and let Coltrane transport him far away. Wilt Chamberlain deflected queries about how the weather was up there by saying that his interlocutor looked like a monkey and should climb up and see. Journeyman pro Rich Kelley would slough off panhandling Hare Krishnas in airports by saying, "I gave in another life."
But if there's a strain of Garbo in every 7-footer, Montross has yet to show it. Even his affection for the outdoors has nothing to do with a rebellious Bill Walton-style desire to leave the 6-foot world behind. "I read some of these articles suggesting that Eric really values his privacy, and that's why he likes to get away from it all," says his father, Scott, an Indianapolis lawyer who goes 6'8" himself. "I think it's a little overdone. Lots of people value their privacy. Eric would go off to hike and fish just to deal with the pressure of being a college student."
Some families like to pack a cooler with Hamburger Helper and head for Grace-land; Scott and Janice Montross would take their two kids on vacations to a cabin in northern Michigan that has been in the family for generations. The Montrosses have cross-country skied in Wisconsin, Montana and Canada. They took their first trip to Alaska when Eric was 10 and his eight-year-old sister, Christine, had her teddy bear strapped to her backpack, and they have revisited the state twice since then. In 1989, after Eric led Indianapolis's Lawrence North High to the state title, the Montrosses went on safari in Kenya. A 7-footer so solidly put together sometimes leaves people awestruck, but never so awestruck as Eric himself was when he first saw a herd of wildebeests rumbling along the Masai Mara plain "like a big brown carpet," he says. "You could hear it for miles."
It's in such places, Montross says, that he slips off the bonds of the identity with which basketball has fit him. In Alaska four summers ago, somewhere in the wilds, another hiker asked him idly if he played hoops. A courteous yes ended the inquiry, and both parties resumed what they had come for: beholding the vastness of a glacier or the majesty of an eagle. In Kenya a group of Samburu tribesmen in red-and-yellow costumes and carrying spears forded a stream to mingle with the Montrosses—not because they wanted to glad-hand Eric but because the tribesmen had trinkets to sell or swap, and the huge American might have had a Mickey Mouse shirt to trade.
None of the Montrosses understood the Samburus, but Eric's size clearly was a topic of conversation among the tribesmen. "I've always been proud of my height," he says. "I wouldn't trade it for anything." Montross suspects he was 7 feet before his senior year in high school, but for some reason he never owned up to it. If someone asked how tall he was, he always responded 6'11", for that's what he had been the last time he checked. "My friends," he says, "got on me. 'Aw, you can't be 6'11". Go with seven feet. Seven-footer has more punch to it. Besides, you are. Measure yourself.'
"So I did. And that's what I was."