Dream comes true in last year at N. Carolina


March 27, 1991|By Jerry Bembry

North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith's record was incorrect in yesterday's editions. His record is 717-208.

The Sun regrets the errors.

North Carolina swingman Rick Fox remembered his first Final Four, when, as a high school senior attending the 1987 championships, he ran into Tar Heels coach Dean Smith.

"I told him, 'I want to go to the Final Four next year,' " said Fox, who already had committed to play at North Carolina. "He told me, 'I don't know about next year, but maybe the year after that.' "


It took more time than that, but Fox gets his Final Four wish this weekend -- and this time as a player. The 6-foot-7 senior is the leading scorer for North Carolina, which will be making its first Final Four appearance since 1982, when it faces Kansas on Saturday.

The game will be a homecoming of sorts for Fox, as well as for freshman center Eric Montross.Fox, who is from the Bahamas, ** played his high school ball at Warsaw (Ind.) High School. Montross, a reserve, was a high school All-American at Lawrence North High School in Indianapolis.

Both were criticized for leaving Indiana to play at North Carolina,criticism that Fox shrugs off with a smile.

"People here feel that if you are born in Indiana, you should never leave," Fox said. "I had a lot of influence to go to Indiana or Purdue. But all I wanted to do was go to Carolina, and if I didn't, I would have regretted it.

"I guess you could say we're outcasts," Fox said of himself and and Montross. "But I wouldn't change it for anything."

His interest in basketball developed while he was growing up in the Bahamas and met a visiting team from Grace College in Indiana.

"They did some camps in the Bahamas, and I just became interested," said Fox, whose only serious sport up to that point was softball. "Before they left, they told methat I should come to some of the camps in Indiana."

Fox went one step further, enrolling at Warsaw High School in an exchange-student program set up by a church mission. He picked up basketball quickly and was an immediate contributor in his sophomore and junior years. Once Fox got serious about basketball, he wanted nothing more than to play at North Carolina.

"The first words I told my high school coach were, 'I want to go to Carolina,' " Fox said. "He told me it would be a great accomplishment and a lot of hard work."

The work paid off. Fox -- even then an accurate outside shooter with strong penetration -- developed into one of the best players in the state by the end of his junior year. But he never got a chance to prove himself on the court in his senior year. The Indiana High School Athletic Association banned him from playing because of the number of years he attended school in the Bahamas.

Undeterred, Fox kept his skills sharp by practicing with the high school team, and by season's end he was a McDonald's All-American as well as a member of the Indiana high school all-star team that twice beat a Kentucky contingent.

"Rick was just a basketball player waiting to happen," Fox's high school coach, Al Rhodes, said yesterday. "He only played two years, but he progressed at a tremendous rate. He was a young man who always worked hard to improve."

Fox had long since caught the eye of Smith, who had seen the high school star battle New York playground legend Lloyd Daniels at a Five-Star basketball camp.

"Daniels got the better of him," Smith recalled, laughing. "But I was impressed. When we called his junior year, his coach said Rick had always been a Carolina fan."

Fox started his first game at North Carolina -- one of only eight freshmen ever to do so under Smith -- but was mainly a role player that season.

"When I first got here, I wanted to dunk everything," Fox said. "I needed to develop control."

Control was apparent when Fox was a sophomore. He led the team in steals and shot 58.3 percent from the field. As a junior, he was named the team's Most Valuable Player, leading the team in scoring, and this season he was named the Most Valuable Player in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament and a third-team All-American by The Sporting News.

"I think my late start helped me, because I didn't bring a lot of

vTC bad habits with me," Fox said.

Until Sunday, North Carolina hadn't played in a regional final since Fox's freshman year, when the Tar Heels lost to Arizona in the Southeast. So Fox was one of the happiest players on the court after a three-point attempt by Temple's Mark Macon hit off the front rim in the final seconds to preserve North Carolina's 75-72 win.

"It's a great feeling," Fox said of going to the Final Four. "It means a lot going back to Indiana, because that's where I picked up all my basketball."

And Fox also will get an opportunity to fulfill a desire that arose when he watched the 1987 finals at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans.

"It's one of the biggest sporting events in the world," Fox said. "I sat behind the basket, and I could feel the adrenalin from the players -- I could see myself out there."

And now he is.

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