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'I don’t think he fully grasped how many lives he changed': Chapel Hill remembers Eric Montross

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Eric Montross, former UNC basketball player and NBA player, reads to children at Read-a-thon Night at Frank Porter Graham Elementary School on Wednesday, January 25, 2012.

Michael Norwood’s daughter was two and a half years old when she started receiving cancer treatments at Duke. That year, Norwood attended Eric Montross’ Father’s Day Basketball Camp, where Montross signed a hat for Norwood’s daughter: “Dear Nell, best wishes.”

Nell passed away later that year. The hat Montross signed still hangs on Norwood’s door.

“I don’t think he fully grasped how many lives he changed,” Norwood told The Daily Tar Heel. “Probably more than any Carolina athlete ever has in history.”

If you ask those who knew him, that story is one small sliver — one tiny glimpse — into the impact Montross had on UNC and the Chapel Hill community.

Montross died after his own months-long battle with cancer on Dec. 17. After the news broke the following day, the community's response was swift and, for Montross’ close friends, emotionally overpowering. 

The day after Montross died, UNC men's basketball arrived in Charlotte to play Oklahoma in the Jumpman Invitational. Pat Sullivan, a current assistant coach who played alongside Montross in the 1990s, recalled the influx of support — from Michigan’s Juwan Howard to strangers passing by on the street.

“It just felt like anywhere we went, people had so many kind words about him, little stories about how he’d touch their lives,” Sullivan told The Daily Tar Heel. 

Against Oklahoma, the Tar Heels sported Montross warmup shirts. Those shirts made another appearance when UNC took on Charleston Southern at home — the first game for North Carolina in the Dean E. Smith Center since Montross’ death.

Sullivan dropped by Montross’ old radio spot and left a cough drop, just like he always did. UNC play-by-play announcer and longtime coworker of Montross, Jones Angell, left Montross’ seat open in tribute. A Carolina blue bouquet of flowers sat on the table where Montross used to cover games, positioned delicately behind a media credential with Montross’ name.

The lights dimmed just before tip off and Angell’s voice came over the loudspeakers, offering a two-minute long speech in honor of Montross before a moment of silence, which Hubert Davis described after the game — with audible emotion in his voice — as “very sad and very hard.”

The tributes didn’t stop there. As recently as Saturday, the basketball community has continued to honor “Big E,” with Clemson basketball leaving a seat in its press area open for Montross during its game against North Carolina and continued nods to the former UNC center in recent men’s basketball telecasts.

“[TV announcer] Cory Alexander took the time to talk about Eric and how much he’s going to miss seeing him at the Smith Center,” Sullivan said. “It’s been really nice to see the outpouring of love and support.”

Travis Stephenson, Montross’ best friend and former UNC teammate, said Montross approached his battle with cancer as he did all things in his life — he was all in. His enduring legacy, to Stephenson, will revolve around the people Montross impacted.

“A lot of charismatic people come in a room and the room brightens up, and then they leave and the room goes back to whatever it was,” Stephenson told The Daily Tar Heel. “Eric, he goes into a room, and I think when he leaves, the room doesn’t go back to what it was. The light doesn’t dim back to what it was. He has that longer-lasting impression on people.”  

@shelbymswanson

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com 

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Shelby Swanson

Shelby Swanson is the 2023-24 sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as an assistant sports editor and senior writer. Shelby is a junior pursuing a double major in media and journalism and Hispanic literatures and cultures.