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Original Issue

One for the Books

North Carolina's 7-foot center, Eric Montross, is college basketball's best big man, but there's more on his mind than just hoops

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, touchè. 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."

Arboriculture, the science of growing trees, is in vogue once more in the NBA, and that's why Montross is looking more and more appealing to the scouts, even if they'll have to wait another year to draft him. Not long ago the philosophy prevailing among NBA player-personnel types was to put together a team quick enough defensively to beat the Chicago Bulls. Now, after watching Shaquille O'Neal make his first destructive march through the league, some general managers are altering their thinking, looking for players big enough to check the Orlando Magic.

Montross will never have O'Neal's quickness. But he does have his bulk and the disposition to use it. And he plays up to his size, unlike Ralph Sampson, another back-to-the-basket 7-footer, whose turnaround jumper helped assure his professional misfortune. Montross doesn't even have a turnaround jumper.

"I've been around Duck [Kevin Duckworth], so I know big," says Portland Trail Blazer player-personnel director Brad Greenberg. "And Montross is big. But the other thing I like is he has a little mean streak in him."

Archives: Those that chronicle basketball at the University of Michigan contain the name of Scott Montross. He was practice fodder for Cazzie Russell in the mid '60s, and today he believes he played about as many minutes as Eric sits on the bench. Janice Montross's father, John Townsend, was a two-time All-America for the Wolverines in the 1930s. (Janice is a Michigan graduate too, and Christine is a sophomore in Ann Arbor; since every non-7-foot Montross but Muffin, the family dog, chose the maize-and-blue, you can understand why Wolverine fans were so unforgiving of coach Steve Fisher when he failed to sign Eric.)

Grandpa Townsend was a 6'4", slick-passing frontcourt player, a conjurer known as the Houdini of the Hardwood. While he took the game several decades forward, his grandson seems to be taking it several decades back, and Montross is the first to remark upon the irony of it. "Basketball's gotten to the point where everyone's trying to do flashy things, things I'm not sure I can do," he says. "But the basics get you a long way. And I enjoy the basics."

Meet the grandson of the Houdini of the Hardwood: the Dinosaur of the Deandome.

Argon, an inert gas, is colorless, odorless and tasteless, three things Montross is not. He chose his double-zero uniform number to go against the grain, having read somewhere that players who are either very tall or very broad wind up wearing numbers in the 50's. The haircut was the result of a wager with his father. "Dad said if I got one, he'd get one too," says Eric. "Needless to say, I was in the barber chair first. He double-crossed me." Eric keeps the 'do nonetheless, because it's practical. "I can wash it with a washcloth," he says.

Between the burr cut and the almost inhuman way Montross takes punishment around the basket, there may be potential for a cult following. When those laff-riots at The Duke Chronicle published their annual pre-Carolina-game parody issue of The Daily Tar Heel last season, they ran a swatch of vacant space on their front page over a caption identifying Montross. The intended offendee took it as a compliment. "I laughed," he says. "And I laughed even harder after the game"—in which he played Christian Laettner to a standstill and suffered cuts over an car and under an eye while leading Carolina to victory. A Daily Tar Heel columnist whimsically suggested last month that Montross would make a worthy write-in candidate for student-body president, and 121 students cast ballots for him. And the Raleigh News & Observer has juxtaposed mug shots of Montross and Anton Glanzelius, the child star of the 1985 Swedish film My Life As a Dog, to highlight their vaguely Vulcan resemblance.

Look for a chapter of Montross Youth, coming soon to your town.

Arithmetic. It's midday in the Deandome, and Eddie Wills, one of the Tar Heels' managers, is writing down the numbers as Montross takes a private tutorial with assistant coach Bill Guthridge. Wills pitches balls into the post, where Montross grabs them and wheels into jump hooks in sets of 10, tossing them in adeptly with either hand as Wills records the results on a clipboard. Guthridge watches, intermittently ordering a pair of free throws. Eventually Montross drifts out toward the elbow where the foul line meets the lane, from where he launches several sets of drop-step jumpers, all of which Wills also dutifully records. The key to Montross's offensive game is to not become too versatile. His coach, Dean Smith, says Montross need two moves to help Carolina win: a staple move (the jump hook) and, when that's denied him, a counter (the drop step).

"We're down one," Guthridge says as Montross sights the first of two final free throws. He sinks it, tying the score. But his second free throw kicks off the rim.

"Lane violation," says Montross, every bit the lawyer's son. Guthridge, sitting in for Justice Smith, sustains the objection and grants another shot. Eric uses it to make his point.

Asheville is a North Carolina town Montross has never visited, although he's assuredly quite popular there, and Asheville rhymes with Nashville, which is quite popular with him—as it is with his roommate, Travis Stephenson, a Tar Heel walk-on who heard the strains of country music coming from Montross's room two falls ago and concluded that the freshman was ripe for befriending. The two teammates like to shoot skeet together or take off for a lake near Raleigh to drag a line.

However, the good-ol'-boy-ification of Eric Montross has its limits. "Hunting I'm not into too much," he says. "And I'm not into trophy hunting at all. I believe that if you hunt, you should use what you kill. Around here trophy hunting is a way of life. But if I go out and kill something, I'd rather cat it."

Attitude is the sum total of "inclinations, presumed to be enduring, to react in a certain way in response to certain kinds of situations," according to the Britannica. Montross knows precisely what his attitude must be to best serve the Tar Heels. "The most important thing is not to accept being stopped," he says. "I've got to figure out a way to work around things. That may include making a pass to a cutter, but in any case I have to have the confidence that they can't stop me. It's not that I'm hungry for points. It's that I can help the team that way.

"It's not one of these Green Beret, keep-everything-out-of-your-mind kinds of attitudes. It's just to be a very strong personality. Maybe it's a bad thing. I keep a lot of things bottled up inside. But it helps me in basketball."

You could say that Montross's lunch-bucket stoicism has come about in spite of his environment, for people raised in comfortable surroundings are supposed to have soft shells. You could say, too, that Montross's aggressiveness has come about in spite of his size. "Doc Allen, my college coach, used to say it's usually the little guys who fight back," says Smith. "It's hard to get big people to be aggressive, because they've been told not to be a bully in the schoolyard."

Yet Montross's willingness to bang has come about one way or another. Part of it, he says, comes from his father, which seems odd at first, for Scott Montross, who specializes in personal-injury cases, is the kind of person who not only looks both ways before crossing the street but also cites legal cases as cautionary tales. Papa Montross is, however, a world-class stoic. His insistence on shrugging off petty afflictions is so notorious within the household that, his wife says, "he's never been sick a day in his life."

Then, too, even before his son really spread the family name, Scott enjoyed a minor celebrity around Indianapolis for having once stood up to Bob Knight. The subject of their disagreement was Landon Turner, who had played for Knight at Indiana until an auto accident in 1981 left him in a wheelchair. The firm of Townsend, Hovde and Montross represented the Turner family in a suit against the Ford Motor Company, and Knight, it's said around town, worried that Turner would quit his job in the minority-relations division of a local college—a job Knight had helped him get—and lose motivation if he won a large settlement. (Montross did negotiate a substantial settlement, and Turner did quit his job.) Scott declines to go into the details of his differences with Knight, other than to say, "We clashed a little bit, because he's a strong-willed person and I'm a strong-willed person, and that's the way it was."

Television commentators remark often on the evenness of Eric's game face, but his parents see what others can't. "He's got a real even demeanor" says his father, "but there's a fire just below the surface." Mom and Dad can see disturbances register with a furrow in Eric's distinctive eyebrows, which look like iron filings Hung in a swath below his forehead. "It's that little-boy look I'm used to seeing," his mother says. "But Scott always preached to him that he has a choice. You can lose your cool and get ejected, but where are you at that point?"

Autographs are what two little boys are seeking when they approach Montross as he works his way through a pork chop—you expected a tofu burger?—at a diner in Carrboro, N.C. The boys carry crayons, but Montross's lunch mate has a pen, so he asks, "Would you like it in pen or crayon?" It is a choice the boys are too bewildered to make. Montross will learn that the signature itself is quite enough, but that day won't come until his heart calluses a little bit.

It was that kind of good-heartedness, not bloodlust, that prompted Montross to leave the bench on Feb. 27, late in the Tar Heels' game at Florida State, when Derrick Phelps, Carolina's point guard, went down hard after being fouled on a breakaway. Florida State coach Pat Kennedy railed at the referees for failing to assess Montross a technical foul, as is customary when a player leaves the bench. The officials concluded that Montross had come only about six feet off the bench and, realizing his error, promptly returned. "Montross must have taken at least four steps," Kennedy would say later, "and for him every step is six feet!"

In any event Montross clearly wasn't looking to rumble. "I wanted to be the first to see if Derrick was O.K.," he said after the game. "They can complain all they want. I'm never going to apologize for helping my teammate."

Automobile. Eric's is a black Chevy Blazer that fits him as felicitously as that burr cut. It's jarring, however, to see TARHEEL on the license plate, sandwiched between INDIANA and the slogan HOOSIER HOSPITALITY. Hoosiers behaved less than hospitably when Montross signed with North Carolina. Some wrote nasty letters. Others phoned the house anonymously. When Montross played in the McDonald's High School All-America Game at Indianapolis's Market Square Arena, the home folks booed him. "I would like Eric Montross to think seriously about how long he would continue to play if no one...ever cheered for him or watched him play," wrote one reader to The Indianapolis Star. "I think loyal fans have a right to expect a little loyalty in return for their support."

Janice and Scott Montross were more bemused than offended by the idea that their son owed his choice of college to anyone but himself. They wanted Eric to make his own decision free of pressure from anyone, especially them. This isn't to say that Scott and Janice didn't have their own notions of where their son should go. They simply kept those (pro-Carolina) feelings to themselves, and Eric remembers being frustrated by their reticence. "At one point I told them, 'I'd like to have a little input here,' " he says.

Today it is almost impossible to imagine him anywhere but Chapel Hill. At Michigan, which brought in its Fab Five recruiting class a year after missing out on Montross, he might be left behind in a five's-company, six-is-a-crowd freeze-out. If Montross were at Indiana, absorbing the philippics of Knight, his father might find it difficult to play golf with the Indiana coach, which he still does, cordially, once a year. And can you imagine Montross at Duke? People swear by his fundamentally pacific nature, but if Laettner in college was even half the pain in the ass the good burghers of Minneapolis know him to be—if, for instance, Montross had been subjected to two years of the same hazing that Laettner gave Cherokee Parks last season—the precious Laettner features might be unrecognizable today.

Autopsy. That, to hear Dean Smith tell it, is what officials want to see before they whistle someone for fouling Montross. The coach saw a prominent ACC referee at an officiating seminar in Greensboro, N.C., in October and even then pleaded his case. "They knee Montross," Smith implored. "Knee him!"

The victim shows his usual forbearance. "I figure I'm big enough, I'll be able to handle it," Montross says. "Now, I'm not saying it doesn't get old. It gets real old real quick, especially when people think that just because you're big, it's not worth calling the foul."

He's still at the diner in Carrboro, only the kids and the pork chop are gone now. He launches into a long explication of how lighter defenders lay into him with impunity, simply because he's immovable. "If the refs don't see me moving, they're not going to call a foul. If I were some other player, they couldn't lean like that. Some other player would move. It would be an obvious push."

Avoirdupois. Eric tips the scales at 275. "You're doing a story on Montross?" says Dave Odom, the Wake Forest coach, after watching Montross lead Carolina past his team on March 3 by sinking seven of eight shots and dunking anything dunkable. "It's got to be a very large story. There's no one in this league who can guard him."

Baden-Powell, Robert, who founded the Boy Scouts, would be disappointed to learn that Montross was only a Webelo. But if he had wanted, he could have gone on to earn a sashful of merit badges. Growing up he was a karate student. He built model cars. He tinkered with cameras. And he was a youth-hockey player in a (mercifully for the other players) no-check league until he outgrew his skates and gave up the game for Indiana's secular religion.

The touch that rounds out an idyllic suburban childhood—Muffin the dog—almost didn't come to be. Eric was 10 that December day when the Montross family went off to buy a Christmas tree. Not far from the cashier lay a box of puppies, and Eric and Christine asked their mother if they could take one home.

"Ask your father," said Janice, bravely.

"No," said Scott. There had once been a family dog, a black Labrador who had laid waste to a piece of lawn furniture.

When Scott and Janice lugged the tree back to the car, they found Christine, sobbing, but no Brie. Her brother, Christine informed them, had gone off into the Christmas-tree fields and would not be coming home unless a puppy came with him. It's hard to imagine a more perfect balance between softness and hardness.

Nowadays father and son are more likely to clash over who gets dibs on the long lens when, cameras at hand, they are out in the wilderness. The results of Eric's photography include a shot of an Alaskan brown bear poking its head through a thicket and another of a giraffe taken from as close to eye level as humans can hope to get. Eric stops short of calling himself an environmentalist, not because he wouldn't be proud to but because he doesn't feel he has enough time to devote to the cause. "I'd say I'm environmentally aware," he says. "I can do a lot of little things, not big things."

Montross will talk about the natural world at the slightest invitation. His major, speech communication, would serve him well whether he became a park ranger or followed his father to the bar. Last year he delivered a 25-minute class presentation on the effect of clear-cutting on soil erosion and animal habitats in Alaska. "Something as simple as a road," he says, "can destroy a whole way of life."

He seems drawn most keenly to those animals least like him. "It would be fantastic to fly like a bald eagle, just fly around all day. But I'm kind of on a kick right now about wolves. They're so graceful and so fast. And they're one of the most powerful animals. Their jaws can exert 2,000 pounds of pressure per square inch. And they have this hierarchical social structure. There's an alpha male and an alpha female. They're the leaders. They teach the cubs how to act."

Kind of, coach Smith might point out, like seniors.

Balanchine is a name you will never hear in connection with Montross's. As recently as last year, a locomotive had better lateral movement than the Tar Heel center, and Montross cornered like the Exxon Valdez. "I'm not Mr. Grace," he says now. But what he is now, compared with what he was back then, is all but unrecognizable.

He now bounds, not gracelessly, out to the perimeter on defense, bringing his considerable arm span to bear on the luckless victims of the Tar Heel trap. "The fact that you know where you're going," says his coach, "can improve your quickness." He also does a better job of "chinning" the ball in traffic, to keep it safe from Lilliputian foragers. And there's an extra dimension to his power move in the low post, as if he can press some button and make his upper body extend itself hydraulically.

"I'm not scared to go outside and guard somebody now," says Montross, who has spent off-seasons pulling a weighted sled from a standing start to improve his first step. "I get frustrated sometimes at not being able to trap somebody, of thinking maybe he'll blow by me. But that gets me working even harder."

It was Duke's misfortune to come through Chapel Hill two weeks ago for the ACC regular-season finale and find Montross more or less everywhere. He scored inexorably inside. He blocked shot after Blue Devil shot, including one that wound up being drilled straight into the floor, as if by a pile driver. On a single Duke possession the ubiquitous White Space was both harassing Bobby Hurley out on the wing and plucking a rebound off the defensive glass. Little Eric has come out of the Christmas-tree fields, and over these three weeks we'll see if he can bring his pups home.

Balboa, Baldness, Balearic Islands and Balfe (that's Michael William Balfe, a mid-19th-century Irish singer and composer, for those of you scoring at home), and you're finished. At your earliest opportunity, you check to see if you've been had.

Eric, about that Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 2....

His face broadens, the iron filings dance. "That's my light reading," he says.



Never even cracked it?

"I may have once, but I don't think so."

He doesn't know what he's missing.





Under the basket Montross is all but unstoppable at one end of the court, immovable at the other.


Christine, Janice, Scott and Eric are wild about the wilds of Alaska, where Eric bagged a bear with his camera.



Indiana fans loved Montross's play in high school (below) but not his choice of college.



[See caption above.]



Montross bled for the Tar Heels in this game against Laettner and the Blue Devils in 1992.



How's the weather up there? Montross shows John Grimes, a stepbrother of teammate Phelps's.