When it comes to basketball in Indiana, loyalties stop at the state line. Hoosiers bleed Indiana red, or Purdue black-and-gold, or they don't bleed at all.
So it should come as no surprise that when Eric Montross, a native son from Indianapolis, returns home with his North Carolina teammates for the NCAA's Final Four this weekend, he likely will hear the backlash of his decision to cross that line.
Montross expects to be booed, native son or not.
"I don't think I expect a totally warm welcome," the 7-foot freshman center said, choosing his words carefully, once the Tar Heels secured a berth in the national semifinals against Kansas. "Some people don't understand why I chose North Carolina."
Montross was a high school All-American at Lawrence North in Indianapolis a year ago. He was one of the most sought after players in the country. Hoosier fans assumed both Damon Bailey and Montross would matriculate to Bloomington, and that a national championship would follow. Bailey obliged; Montross didn't. That's when the fallout started.
In the McDonald's Classic at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis last spring, Montross was greeted with a loud chorus of boos by the hometown fans. When he turned up in West Lafayette, Ind., last December for North Carolina's game against Purdue, he heard the abuse again. In between those incidents, there were letters of protest the family received, and there were unfounded rumors of unhappiness along Tobacco Road. Wishful thinking, those rumors turned out to be.
"It's primarily been vocal," Scott Montross, Eric's father, said yesterday of the backlash. "It's just sour grapes. He got it at Purdue when Carolina played there. I was embarrassed for the people, the way they treated him up there. I think this will be a little different because with Indiana not being in the Final Four, well, it's not like he's playing Indiana. I think that will take some of [the sting] out of it."
That's what Montross, an attorney in Indianapolis, is counting on, anyway. That the state's fans will stifle themselves so as not to give Indiana a national black eye.
"I hope the reaction will be positive," he said. "I would like to think that the vocal minority will not make its presence too heavily known. As a citizen of Indiana, I hope the state doesn't embarrass itself in front of the country by being so petty as to boo a kid over his college decision."
Indiana's passion play is a sign of misplaced priorities. Rick Fox, Montross' senior teammate at Carolina, knows a little about those priorities. He spent two years and played one season of basketball at Warsaw (Ind.) Community High as an exchange student. Born in Toronto, Canada, Fox lists his home as The Bahamas.
"It was easier for me than Eric," Fox said. "There were a lot of people trying to influence me to go to IU or Purdue . . . The fans are pretty loyal there. They want you to stay in the state, or never come back if you do leave."
When Carolina coach Dean Smith began recruiting Fox, he was told Rick had always wanted to become a Tar Heel. With Montross, there was no such obvious advantage.
"It surprised me more with Eric," Smith said, "because his mom and dad are both Michigan grads."
But Scott and Janice Montross let Eric make his own decision. He considered Michigan, Indiana and Duke, then decided on Carolina.
"I felt most comfortable with the North Carolina staff, and with the academic and social status on campus," said Montross, who is 19. "There wasn't really a second [choice]. Michigan and Indiana were behind Carolina."
Scott Montross said the decision came down to a preference for playing under Smith. "He was the reason Eric went to Carolina," the elder Montross said. "I say that with regard to Dean as a person, the program he has developed, the people he surrounds himself with, the players he attracts, his track record and his tradition. More than anything, it was the integrity of the man. We knew, Eric knew, Carolina was the right choice."
In his first season at Chapel Hill, Montross has shown flashes of why he was so highly recruited a year ago. He has averaged 5.8 points and 4.3 rebounds over 33 games, but his presence was never more keenly felt than in a 93-67 victory over Eastern Michigan in the Sweet 16 last weekend. Montross had a season-high 17 points to go with six rebounds and three blocked shots in 18 minutes, fueling Carolina's second-half surge.
When Carolina dispatched Temple, 75-72, in the East Regional final, Montross said he was "elated" to be going home to Indianapolis.
"You couldn't pick a better spot in the world to hold the Final Four," he said. "People are crazy about basketball."
He spoke with the voice of experience.