He's a (Bad) Cut Above the Norm

The 7-foot basketball player with the porcupine haircut is thinking about the things that please him most. His notion of a nice afternoon is to ride around in his Chevy Blazer humming along to cassettes of Randy Travis or Reba McIntyre. The kind of professional athlete he admires most is Karl Malone, not because of any funky dunking the Mailman has done but because Malone owns a ranch and a pickup truck and a dog.

Oh, and baseball. Eric Montross also enjoys baseball.

His hands, large as oven mitts, happen to be clutching and crumpling a cap with a "C" on it.

"The Cubs your team?" someone asks, not inspecting the cap closely enough.

"No, Cincinnati," Montross says. "But don't tell them."

There is a reason that the very large center of North Carolina's very large basketball team prefers to whisper when he reveals his summertime allegiance. He wouldn't want "them" to know of his loyalty to anyone from Cincinnati today, not with a team from that community standing in the way of another Tar Heel hike to the Final Four. Not with so much riding on today's East Regional championship game.

Disloyalty is something Montross knows something about. Both he and his parents were accused of it, of downright treachery and treason, by more than one neighbor back home in Indiana when the boy of every recruiter's dreams decided that faraway Chapel Hill, N.C., was the place to be. They couldn't fathom why he would leave Big Ten country any more than many could farther north at the University of Michigan, where both Eric's father and grandfather had studied and played.

Montross considers himself a country boy at heart but a free-thinker most of all. His interests vary and do not always reflect any norm. Once asked his favorite film, Montross responded: "Conagher." None of his friends had heard of it. Asked his favorite food, Montross replied: "Zucchini." Now his friends wondered whether he was kidding.

That was when he was asked to name his favorite book. Montross named two. One was called "Where the Red Fern Grows," which, to his buddies' knowledge, was not anything Stephen King or John Grisham had recently done. The other was the Encyclopedia Britannica, Volume II. That's when they knew he was kidding.

For a guy who smiles in public about once a month, Montross does own a sense of humor as dry as a tobacco-plantation road. He is an occasionally off-center center who wears double-zero as his jersey number to be different and wears his hair that way because: "It dries very quickly." And although his style of basketball has been known to get brutal and even bloody, coaches and classmates will tell you that Montross doesn't have a mean bone in his 270-pound body.

He was the one who laughed loudest when the Duke student newspaper ran a blank page on the day of a big game with a caption: "USELESS WHITE SPACE--JUST LIKE ERIC MONTROSS." And the thought of what trash-talking Cincinnati might wish to discuss with him today amuses Montross no end, to the point that he wonders why anyone would even bother.

"I think it takes them out of their game more than it does us," he says. "They might as well be talking into a mirror."

Montross says there are two sides to every story. He got this from his father, a personal-injury lawyer in Indianapolis who is more likely to sit on a judicial bench someday than he was to get off the Michigan bench back when he was a teammate of Cazzie Russell several decades ago. It was Scott Montross who persuaded his son to make up his own mind about college, to be independent and proud enough to put TARHEEL on his Hoosier State vanity license plate.

Eric himself called Bob Knight with the news that he wasn't coming. The Indiana coach wished him nothing but the best and Montross appreciates it greatly, same as he does the understanding that: "The thing about Coach Knight is, if you don't want to attend his school, he doesn't want you."

Now a junior at North Carolina and adamant that he will play there as a senior, even if he does receive his degree prematurely as planned and even if the NBA moneybags do come calling, Montross has scored in double figures in 33 of 35 games this season, and one of the times he missed was when he got off only seven shots in a game against Cornell that his side won by 38 points.

"I love to shoot the three-footer all day," is what he says. Not the three- pointer . The three-footer. Eric Montross' idea of an outside shot is a four-footer.

But that's the way he likes to play basketball. That is what pleases him most about life, come to think of it. The simple things. Baseball. Zucchini. Chevrolet.

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