Eric Montross is going to hate this story. We need to get that out of the way right at the top, because the fundamental thing you need to understand about Eric Montross is that he is going to hate this story.
Unfortunately for the big man, he will be honored on Saturday at the Greensboro Coliseum as an ACC Legend. Every great athlete has a sense of pride in their performance, and somewhere deep down, even if they don't show it, they appreciate being recognized. But my guess is that his preference is that the honor would come with a nice certificate in the mail rather than a center court ceremony at the ACC Tournament semifinals.
Here is another thing: in most of this story, we are going to call him Eric. That is because he spends most of his time hearing people say, "There goes Montross!" or "Hey Montross, can you sign this?" as though referring to a stranger by their last name is a perfectly normal way to address people.
But no one considers him a stranger. Not Carolina fans, who saw him help lead the Tar Heels to a national championship in 1993, and even more importantly, saw his head bleed against Duke in 1992, prompting him to angrily storm off the court and then return to dispatch the undefeated Blue Devils. Not opposing fans, who saw him patrol the post for four years as a two-time All-America, the living, breathing symbol of Dean Smith's immovable place at the center of the league. Not NBA fans, who remember him mostly as a Boston Celtic during what was a difficult time to be a Boston Celtic.
Everyone, it seems, knows Montross. He is unfailingly polite to these people. He signs every autograph ("Who should I make this to?" he always asks, just like Smith always did) and poses for every picture. You might think you would love this type of attention, that it would never get old. But it is constant, and it has to get old at some point. He never shows it.
So that's Montross. That's the guy who will go to center court Saturday afternoon with the rest of an ACC Legends class that includes Terry Holland and John Lucas. He's an important player in Carolina basketball history. He tends to make us forget it because he is so self-deprecating, but Montross was a very, very good player for the Tar Heels who played on some tremendous Carolina teams. Even though he detests it when someone points this out, his jersey is in the Smith Center rafters.
But some people will also see someone else when he takes his place in Greensboro. They'll see Eric, who has become a fixture of the Chapel Hill and Tar Heel communities over the past decade. He's worked on the Tar Heel Sports Network since 2006, which seems like a fairly typical job for a retired ACC Legend. That would be enough for most people.
It is not even a good starting point for Eric. He and his wife, Laura, who has the unenviable task of being his companion at all of those dinners or shopping trips when one more fan has to announce, "There's Montross!" founded a wildly popular Father's Day Basketball Camp that benefits charity. They are deeply involved with the North Carolina Children's Hospital. Eric is as familiar a sight in the halls of that facility as most doctors, because it's not unusual for him to drop by unannounced and see a young patient who might need a little encouragement.
In recent years, he has taken on a leadership role with fundraising for Carolina Basketball. He is the perfect fit for the position, because he is a well-known Tar Heel player who just happens to be incredibly friendly and concerned about other people. He remembers names. He asks about your kids before he talks about Carolina's free throw shooting. He sends handwritten thank you notes. If this sounds suspiciously like a certain former Tar Heel head coach, well, that's not an entirely inaccurate comparison.
Eric is one of the signature players of the modern Carolina era. One of the most difficult things about being Eric Montross is that there is absolutely no doubt he is Eric Montross. When you see Phil Ford at a game, you have to wonder for just a second--is that Phil Ford? When you see Eric Montross, it is most definitely all seven feet of Eric Montross. He has never traded on that notoriety one time. He waits in lines at restaurants. He pays retail price.
In other words, he does normal stuff, which is why everyone likes Eric so much. On a recent weekend, Carolina played a road game on Saturday. Eric went to his son's lacrosse game on Friday. On Saturday, he was thrilled--"tickled," as he would probably say--to unexpectedly arrive back home from the Carolina game in time to make it to the final match of his daughter's volleyball tournament. He saw three games in those two days and was passionate about every one of them. But the ones that were the most fun for him did not involve a team wearing argyle.
I would imagine some of the ACC Legends will have raucous celebratory dinners in their honor on Saturday night. They deserve it. It's an impressive career milestone.
You know what Eric is doing? The same thing he does every Saturday night of the ACC Tournament: inviting the rest of the Tar Heel Sports Network radio crew to dinner. His treat.
One time, I saw him boast just a little, which is sort of like catching a glimpse of Halley's comet. When Carolina played at Indiana in December of 2012, Eric wore his 1989 state title ring from Lawrence North High School in Indianapolis. He didn't say anything about it, he just wore it. Wearing the ring was Eric's equivalent of a Rasheed Wallace--they were teammates for one season in Chapel Hill, which probably should have been a reality show--scream and chest thump after a slam dunk.
So congratulations to Montross, who had a terrific Carolina career and deserves his place among the ACC Legends. Tar Heel fans are incredibly lucky to count you among the pantheon of the best Tar Heel players ever, and to see you take your place among the most memorable players in league history.
But more importantly, congratulations to Eric, who has made the lives of other people better in ways that have nothing to do with basketball. We promise to never mention the honor again.
Tune into the Tar Heel Sports Network coverage of the ACC Tournament on Saturday for a special feature on Eric, including memories from several former Tar Heel teammates and coaches.