To his former Lawrence North High School coach Jack Keefer, Eric Montross was so much more than a great basketball player.
He became a great friend through the years.
“He was very down-to-earth,” Keefer said. “He was very interested in what you were doing and not what he was doing. He was quite the gentleman.”
Montross, who along with former Indiana University guard Todd Leary helped lead Lawrence North to an IHSAA state title in 1989, died Dec. 17 at age 52 from cancer at his home in Chapel Hill, N.C.
“He was a major part of our program and had great years when he was here,” said Keefer, who retired in 2022 after 46 seasons as Lawrence North’s coach. “He was recruited by a who’s who of coaching at that time in the college ranks. He was a McDonald’s All-American, and you can keep going on and on.”
Montross, a 7-foot center who graduated from Lawrence North in 1990, was supposed to return to Indiana in March of 2023 for his Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame induction. That was the first Keefer learned of his former player’s cancer diagnosis. Keefer accepted the honor on Montross’ behalf.
Montross played for legendary coach Dean Smith at the University of North Carolina before playing in the NBA. He was the starting center on the Tar Heels’ national championship team in 1993.
A first-round draft pick of the Boston Celtics, Montross averaged 4.5 points and 4.6 rebounds while playing for six teams in eight seasons in the NBA.
Near the end of his NBA career, Keefer said Montross talked about becoming an attorney or an assistant coach at North Carolina. But Keefer reminded him he retired from the NBA to spend more time with his family.
“I said, ‘I know you want to tackle a new project but be careful what you tackle. You’re going to be busier,’” Keefer said.
Montross found his niche. He served as the analyst on the Tar Heel Sports Network for 18 seasons, with the 2022-23 season being his final one. He also served as senior major gifts director at the Rams Club, the fundraising arm of the Tar Heels’ athletic department.
Derwin Webb, who graduated from Lawrence North in 1988, played with Montross for one season. Montross had played his freshman year at Park Tudor before transferring.
“We stayed in touch while we were in school and a little bit after we got out,” said Webb, who played at the University of Louisville. “Then we lost touch with one another.”
Webb, who serves as a judge in Jefferson County Family Court 10th Division in Kentucky, was contacted by Montross’ father, Scott, for information on a case. Scott passed along Eric’s contact so the two could catch up. Webb and Eric Montross played phone tag but never connected despite efforts.
“It’s one of those things where you say we’ll catch up eventually, but I was completely devastated when he passed away because the catching up never actually happened,” Webb said.
Webb said he always enjoyed being around Montross.
“The image in the community and public was who he was,” Webb said. “It was not made up. Eric was one of the best guys I’ve ever been around. He cared about people.”
Meeting in Maui
Former Lawrence North teammate Todd Leary reconnected with Eric Montross when Indiana University and North Carolina played basketball in the Maui Invitational in 2008. Leary was then a radio analyst of his alma mater IU and Montross was on North Carolina’s radio broadcasts.
“We stumbled across each other on the beach,” Leary said.
They shared stories about their families. The two had been key members of the 1989 state championship team when Leary was a senior.
“Eric and I had a mutual respect for our leadership, which coach (Jack) Keefer instilled in us,” Leary said. “We felt we were co-leaders of our team. I always (jokingly) gave him a hard time that they couldn’t win without me because they didn’t win the state his senior year.”
Leary said the memories of winning a state title are something they always shared.
“A person like him is obviously who you build your team around,” Leary said. “It’s much easier for me to admit at 53 years old that Eric was truly the centerpiece of our team. As a cocky 17-year-old, I would say, ‘I averaged more points than he did, I’m more important than him.’ Obviously, I watch a lot of basketball now and analyze closely, and I see now that Eric was the center point of our team and I was able to do a lot of things I did because other teams had to focus on him. The fun thing I remember is how close we all became in our basketball family, and that included my dad and Eric’s dad.”
Leary said they accomplished the goal of winning the state title together.
“We put everything into it,” he said. “That was all we talked about and thought about. We were about basketball 24/7.”
In the last several years, Leary said he and Montross connected by text. They texted more after Montross’ cancer diagnosis was revealed in 2023.
“At this point in my life, there are so many things I want to accomplish, and I know Eric felt that way, too,” Leary said. “To not have that opportunity to do those things is what really makes it hurt. Eric was a good person, and the world is not a better place without Eric in it.”