By: Eric Montross
Growing up in the heart of Big Ten country, outside Indianapolis, Ind., the University of North Carolina was unfamiliar to me. My father played basketball at the University of Michigan from 1965-69, at the end of the Cassie Russell era. My mother’s father also played for Michigan from 1935-38 and is enshrined in the Michigan basketball Hall of Fame, having earned honors as a three-time member of the first team All-Big Ten as well as being named as a first team All-America in 1938.
So it should come as little surprise that my first real exposure to Carolina would take a while. It came on a steamy summer day, inside my high school gymnasium in Indiana, where we met to play pickup. As my truck slowed to a stop in the parking lot, I was greeted by one of my closest friends, who was quickly approaching my rolled down window. He announced there was a famous coach here to watch me play. As I entered the gym and my eyes acclimated to the indoor lighting, I saw Dean Smith sitting in a corner on a folding metal chair. We couldn’t talk, but the message was clear...I wanted and needed to learn more about the Tar Heels.
My “18-year-old perspective” prevented me from being wowed by just about anything, so upon arrival to Carolina’s campus for my official recruiting visit, I wasn’t in awe of the fact my parents and I would be having dinner with Hall of Fame Coach Dean Smith and his long-time, devoted assistant, Bill Guthridge. But that evening as Coach Smith spoke, I was stirred by his deep passion for the University and the reverence with which he spoke about the educational opportunities that would be afforded to me as a scholarship student-athlete.
I was not motivated to leave a stable and loving home for college, but there was a strong, gut feeling Carolina was the right place for me. This decision led to four years that challenged me in the classroom and on the court. Aside from the inevitable life lessons you are taught while attending college, the value of self-discipline and hard work were reinforced, through on-court and classroom successes. Also during the four years, I would meet the love of my life and establish lifelong friends. These bonds strengthened the desire to remain close to Carolina.
When professional basketball led us to the Boston Celtics after graduation in 1994, it was the summer visits to Chapel Hill for off season workouts and the annual telegram from Coach Smith on the first day of NBA training camp, which continued to endear this place to our hearts. After playing for six teams over the course of ten years in the NBA, we moved back to Chapel Hill looking for a place to call home. Initially drawn by the familiarity of the place, we uncovered a dynamic, open-minded community, anchored by the University and full of opportunities for our young family to establish roots. In 2003, Carolina chose to embrace me again, this time as an adult, baptizing me into what it meant to represent this place without wearing a jersey. Opportunities to serve our Children’s Hospital, the GAA, broadcasting our basketball games and working for The Rams Club began to again positively bend the direction our lives.
Since that hot summer day in 1989, Carolina has inspired and served me. Today, as a member of The Rams Club staff, I have the privilege of fundraising for our next generation of scholarship student-athletes, offering to them, the same chance offered to me: the chance to walk through the doors of our University and soak up the opportunity within. Things have certainly come full circle.
The impact of giving comes through in wonderful stories about Carolina student-athletes and coaches, as well as the donors who make their opportunities possible. Learn more about the life-changing impact you can have on a fellow Tar Heel through one of the features included here: