By Adam Lucas
You probably already know what Luke Maye did the morning after his game-winning shot against Kentucky: he went to class.
You might not know what he did later that day: he went to lunch.
Not just any lunch. On the flight home from Memphis on Sunday night, Maye approached former Tar Heel center and current Tar Heel Sports Network analyst Eric Montross.
Imagine the moment. Maye was just hours removed from making one of the biggest shots in Carolina basketball history. His cell phone was humming with interview requests and congratulatory messages. His team was going to the Final Four. At that moment, he was more in demand than he had ever been in his entire life.
And Maye had a question for Montross.
“Mr. Montross,” he said, and yes, Maye is really that polite. “Do you think we could have lunch with Yash tomorrow?”
Yash Krishnan is a nine-year-old Tar Heel fan Maye had met on one of his many unpublicized trips to the North Carolina Children's Hospital. The visits are a Tar Heel basketball tradition. It was on one of those visits almost 25 years ago that Montross met Jason Clark, a young Carolina fan battling brain cancer.
The friendship changed Montross' life. Clark passed away after a nine-month fight; during the 1993-94 season, Montross assembled the UNC basketball media in the Carolina locker room after a game at the Smith Center and voluntarily gave a tear-inducing testimony on Clark's bravery.
Soon after graduation, Montross and his wife, Laura, founded the Eric Montross Father's Day Basketball Camp. Every dollar from the event—the 24th edition of which begins today in Chapel Hill—benefits the Children's Hospital, with well over $1 million raised so far. The camp has proven so popular that it has a lengthy waiting list.
When it was founded, Eric and Laura could imagine the financial impact. Perhaps they even had some idea of the various projects the camp has funded at the hospital, including the Jason Clark Teen Activity Center, murals on walls, a lookout terrace on the 7th floor, and multiple pieces of important medical technology.
What they couldn't imagine, however, was the multi-generational impact their relationship with the hospital would have on the Carolina basketball program and multiple future players—many of whom weren't even born when Eric Montross met Jason Clark.
After returning to Chapel Hill following his NBA career, Montross resumed his regular Children's Hospital visits. Several Tar Heel players have quietly accompanied him in recent years. The visits aren't announced and the children often don't know the Tar Heel representatives are coming. Sometimes they are just brief, one-time visits. But sometimes, a relationship develops.
Such is the case with Yash, who has Constitutional Mismatch Repair Deficiency Syndrome, which leaves him at high risk for all childhood cancers. Treatment has left him with significant hospital stays over recent months. His usual routine is to take care of his treatments, do his homework and then crack open a sports-related book. “You would not believe,” Montross says, “how many stats and facts about sports he knows.”
During this past season, Maye accompanied Montross on a visit to see Yash, and those stats are where the trio found common ground. “He can spit out any fact about our team and past teams,” Maye says. “His love for the game emulates my love for the game. It's an awesome feeling to have so much in common with someone and connect in that way. The smile he gets on his face when he talks about our team really puts in perspective that the work I'm doing every day isn't close to what he's going through.”
Yash's energy and positivity have connected with other members of the Carolina athletic department. The cross-country team “signed” him to become the newest Tar Heel, and 17 members of the track and field team showed up—after school was out and several student-athletes had already left Chapel Hill—to Yash's recent birthday party at Boshamer Stadium.
And then there is Maye, who asked Montross to arrange a lunch meeting with Yash on perhaps one of the busiest days of Maye's life. Yash's parents simply told the boy they were going to lunch; they didn't mention who would be meeting them there. When Maye walked in, two things happened: everyone in the restaurant turned to stare, and Yash beamed.
“As a mother, I was in tears that he cared so much about our child to push himself to meet with him that day,” says Yash's mother, Parvathy.
It could just as easily be Jason Clark's mother, Lindy, talking. And it doesn't take too much imagination to picture some other mother, 20 years down the road, describing the influence of some other Tar Heel player we haven't even imagined yet. Montross to Maye to...one day we'll find out. Carolina basketball endures, but so does--despite the best efforts of those like the Montross family--the need of children facing unimaginably difficult circumstances.
But, wait: so does the spirit of a nine-year-old like Yash, and the impact one well-timed lunch can have on his outlook.
“Luke could have gone to see anyone,” Yash says. “He could go see his mother, go see his friends, go see his teammates. Instead, he took the time to come and see me. I was happy that somebody cared about me like that. It made me feel like I was special.”
For more on how you can help the Eric Montross Father's Day Camp, visit their website.