Home » Posts » “Proud To Say He is from Indiana” Bob Knight on Eric Montross

“Proud To Say He is from Indiana” Bob Knight on Eric Montross

eric montross 1971-2023 ‘People around here will be proud to say he’s from Indiana.’

Todd Leary was exchanging texts with his old high school teammate and friend, Eric Montross, on Nov. 30, when he asked how he was doing. Nine months ago, Montross had been diagnosed with cancer and stepped away from his duties as radio analyst for North Carolina basketball broadcasts.

‘Not my best day,’ Montross responded. ‘But grinding it out.’

Montross changed the subject and Leary left it there. Monday morning, Leary was heartbroken to find out his former Lawrence North teammate had died at age 52. The University of North Carolina released a statement that Montross died Sunday at his home in Chapel Hill surrounded by his family, including wife, Laura, and children Sarah, Andrew and Megan.

‘There are probably 50 people around the country who feel like they lost their best friend today,’ Leary said. ‘I feel bad for all of them. Most of us might have one. But Eric had that way about him.’

The North Carolina athletic department released the following:

‘Carolina Athletics, the Tar Heel basketball family and the entire University community are profoundly saddened and stunned by the loss of Eric Montross, one of our most beloved former student-athletes, at far too young an age. Eric was a great player and accomplished student, but the impacts he made on our community went way beyond the basketball court. He was a man of faith, a tremendous father, husband and son, and one of the most recognizable ambassadors of the University and Chapel Hill.’

The 7-foot Montross made his post-high school life, which included a national championship at North Carolina in 1993 and an eight-year NBA career, away from Indianapolis. But the ‘gentle giant’, as described by his teammates, was a big part of Lawrence North’s first state championship team as a junior in 1989.

Leary, an Indiana All-Star as a senior on the 1989 team who went on to play at Indiana, said his running joke to Montross was that he only won a state championship because Leary was on the team.

‘The reality is it was the other way around,’ Leary said.

‘Eric is one of those people — and I would say this had he not died — is one of the best humans and nicest people you would ever meet. He was always willing to help or do anything for you. The term ‘gentile giant’ is about him. He’s the poster child for it. When things were going crazy and I was the hothead, he was always the calming factor on the team. He was fiery and competitive, don’t get me wrong, but had this clam demeanor.’

Though Montross came along before recruiting rankings, college coaches knew the way to his house. After winning the state championship as a junior, he was considering Indiana, Purdue, Notre Dame, Michigan, Duke, North Carolina and Kentucky. His coach at Lawrence North, Jack Keefer, remembers sitting in on the meetings with the coaches recruiting Montross.

North Carolina coach Dean Smith pulled up to Montross’ home riding in a sky blue limousine, a contrast to the jeep Indiana coach Bob Knight parked outside following a pheasant hunting trip with former Minnesota Vikings coach Bud Grant.

‘(North Carolina coach) Dean Smith came in with two pieces of legal pad paper with the names of the players who had played for him and where they were drafted,’ Keefer said. ‘He approached the whole concept differently than anybody else. (Rick) Pitino gave a great presentation, too, but hadn’t been at Kentucky long enough at that time. Eric went down to North Carolina and had a great visit.’

By the time his senior season started, Montross had cut his list to Indiana, Michigan and North Carolina. The Montross family had ties to Michigan; Eric’s mother and father both graduated from the school and his grandfather, John Townsend, was a 1938 consensus All-American for the Wolverines. There was considerable in-state pressure to choose Knight and the Hoosiers.

Leary hoped Montross would pick IU. He also knew it was not going to happen.

‘Indiana people to this day will tell me we would have won one national championship, maybe two, with Eric,’ Leary said. ‘I’ll second that motion. But you can’t say he made the wrong decision. Do I like it? No. But he won a national championship and had a career in the NBA.’

In late March of 1990, Montross chose North Carolina. It wasn’t a popular pick, at least in Big Ten country.

‘I know this decision is the right one for me,’ he told USA Today at the time. ‘I hope everyone will support my decision the way they supported me in high school. I’m happy. It’s a selfish decision on my part. I’m sorry if they don’t like it.’

Keefer said he knew Montross went back and forth on his decision.

‘It has been a tough decision for him,’ Keefer said at the time. ‘It’s tough to leave home. Not many players of his stature make the choice he made. It’s easy to stay home and just drive 50 or 60 miles away. I’m disappointed because I would like to turn on the TV every Saturday night and hear, ‘Eric Montross of Lawrence North.’ But you’ve got to think about what’s best for the young man. Just think of what he gave up in Michigan. It’s a Michigan family.’

As a junior, Montross averaged 21.2 points and 13.9 rebounds, shooting 67%, to lead the Wildcats to a 25-4 record and the state championship. In nine tournament games, he averaged 25 points and 15 rebounds.

He averaged 20.5 points and 13.8 rebounds as a senior as Lawrence North finished 22-6.

Montross finished his high school career with 1,873 points and was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 2023.

Indiana fans didn’t let it go for a while. Appearing at the McDonald’s All American Game at Market Square Arena after his senior season, Montross heard more than a few boos from the crowd.

‘They’ll get over it,’ said Knight, who attended the game. ‘Once this kid makes All-America at North Carolina, the people around here will be proud to say he’s from Indiana.’

Even when Montross left for North Carolina, he wasn’t gone for long. The Tar Heels advanced to the Final Four his freshman season in Indianapolis. Even at that time, there were rumors Montross might transfer back home to Indiana.

‘Most people have kind of let it ride by now,’ he told UPI. ‘They understand that the decision was made and nothing critical is going to make me change my mind and transfer no matter what the rumors may be.’

After averaging 5.8 points and 4.2 rebounds as a freshman for the Tar Heels, Montross improved his numbers to 11.2 points and 7.0 rebounds as a sophomore, shooting better than 57% from the field. North Carolina went 23-10 and lost in the Sweet 16 to Ohio State.

Montross blossomed into a second team All-American as a junior, establishing a reputation as one of the toughest players in the Atlantic Coast Conference. He averaged 15.8 points, 7.6 rebounds and shot 62% from the field as North Carolina defeated Michigan in the national championship game.

‘I wanted to step out of high school and go right in,’ Montross told the Chicago Tribune during his junior season. ‘That first year was tough for me. Not in a bad way. It was a positive tough time, I guess you would call it, when I learned an awful lot.’

His senior season wasn’t quite as good statistically. He averaged 13.6 points and 8.1 rebounds and shot 56% from the field as North Carolina went 28-7 and were upset in the second round of the NCAA tournament by Boston College.

He was again named second team All-American.

‘In about every game we’ve played since early in Eric’s freshman year, he’s had two or three players on him,’ North Carolina’s Smith told the Virginian-Pilot.

‘It is going to be such a relief for him when he gets to the NBA and only has one guy guarding him.’

Montross was taken with the ninth overall pick in the 1994 draft by the Boston Celtics.

‘We had a glaring need in the center position,’ Boston scout Rick Weitzman said at the time. ‘We filled a need. And we filled it with a quality player. He’ll be a solid NBA player. He was someone we were leaning towards.’

Montross was named second team All-Rookie in 1994-95 after averaging 10.0 points, 7.3 rebounds and shooting better than 53 percent from the field. He averaged 7.2 points and 5.8 rebounds the following year, then was traded to Dallas.

He played for five teams over the next six seasons and was never a full-time starter after his third year.

‘Every player would love to find one city and call it home,’ Montross said in 2002, while with Toronto.

‘Anybody who’s been traded, even if it’s a better situation, it’s not an easy transition. But I try to put a positive spin on everything. If I had stayed in Boston, who knows what would have happened? The bottom line is it’s a great game and a great league to be in and it’s an enjoyable job.’

After breaking his foot, Montross retired prior to the 2003-04 season at age 31.

He averaged 4.5 points and 4.6 rebounds in eight NBA seasons.

‘Not everyone has a storybook ending,’ he said in an Associated Press story. ‘It was something everybody would do. It was just a step, not a misstep or a fall or a twist.

Leary and former Lawrence North teammate Victor Bush had checked in recently with Montross’ family recently. In 2014, Montross returned to Lawrence North to take part in a 25-year anniversary celebration of the 1989 championship team.

‘When you shook hands with Eric, it took up your whole hand and part of your arm,’ Bush said.

‘It was great to see my little big brother again, give him one of those big high-fives and share a few memories. The word ‘champion’ comes to mind with Eric. We worked a summer job together and I remember a lot of talks with him. He was a person who cared; not a selfish bone in his body.’

Two weeks ago, Keefer sent Montross a picture of him holding the state championship trophy, referencing his cancer battle. ‘Fight hard like you did this day,’ Keefer wrote.

‘He was a loved guy,’ Keefer said.

Call Star reporter Kyle Neddenriep at (317) 444-6649. Indianapolis Star.

Bookmark and Share

Powered by TECNAVIACopyright (c) 2023 Herald-Times, Edition 12/20/2023

Click here to see this page in the eEdition: 
(Login Required)

Bookmark and Share

Read More Blog Posts

Featured (19) High School Basketball (182) Newspaper (56) Posts (154) Stories (6) Uncategorized (123) Videos (5)