The Eric Montross Father’s Day Basketball Camp has become a rich tradition at UNC as dads and their kids hit the Dean Smith Center for two days this Father’s Day weekend. In its eleventh edition, 145 campers, including their dads, came to UNC to play basketball, scan the rafters, and just have fun in the historic basketball arena. Proceeds from the Camp benefit the North Carolina Children’s Hospital Division of Pediatric Oncology.
The Father’s Day Camp was started as a tribute to Jason Clark, a young boy with cancer who Montross befriended during his senior year at Carolina in 1993-94. Clark lost his nine-month fight with the disease in February of ‘94, but his spirit lives on in the Camp. Since the Camp was founded, it has raised more than $600,000 to benefit the Children’s Hospital. Food, prizes and monetary donations come from a variety of individuals who prefer to remain anonymous, as well as many local corporations.
Eric, who will be taking over for Mick Mixon on the Tar Heel Radio Network's basketball broadcasts next season, continues to provide significant time and energy to the camp on a very personal basis. However, his passion and commitment to the Children’s Hospital has also grown - he is on the Board of Directors of the Medical Foundation of North Carolina, and frequently serves as a spokesperson and representative of the Foundation.
“For the dads and kids, it’s having fun and learning about the sport together,” Montross said of the primary goals of the camp. “They learn about how to play basketball, and they can practice the drills that they learn at the Camp when they go home.”
They also learn good sportsmanship, and there are numerous examples of honesty and fair play each year; which are roundly praised by everyone at the Camp. Eric’s father, Scott Montross, has been an active participant every year.
“He’s been a big part of it. It’s a natural tie between father and son, and his enthusiasm has been important,” Eric said.
Scott came up with the idea of talking to the dads about fatherhood in general, and entertained them with stories about “bringing up Eric.”
Scott credits Eric’s hard work and passion for the success of the Camp.
“Eric is very sensitive; he had a passion for Jason, and for the charity, and wanted to give back to the community,” Scott said. “He has such a strong family concept, values the father-son relationship, and believes that it establishes strong family values.”
The campers, with kids ranging in age from seven to thirteen, vary from first-timers to families that have been attending from the first camp. Some campers are surprised to find a former Carolina player with his own son or daughter on their team. Current and former players from the men’s and women’s basketball teams also serve as coaches in the teams that are put together. This year, for the first time, Eric’s own seven-year-old son, Andrew, played with Eric’s dad.
Mandy Morgan, a social worker for families for the Interfaith Council for Social Services of Orange County, has been working with the Camp for five years. She approached the Medical Foundation about scholarships to the Camp for homeless kids, and Montross has enthusiastically supported the cause, providing free passes for three kids each year ever since, pairing them up with volunteer “surrogate” dads.
Scholarships are funded by donations from companies and individuals. This year, two of the three children had never been to a camp, or even spent a night away from a parent. When they arrived in their rooms at Granville Towers and opened the “goody bag” that each camper gets, they spread the plunder out on the bed. One ecstatic boy looked at Mandy and asked, “Do I get to keep all this?” At the Dean Dome, they looked around wide-eyed, from the expansive basketball court to the rafters.
“Most of these kids have never known their fathers,” Morgan explained. “These are children who have often been affected by family violence and substance abuse; they’ve lived hard lives. The surrogate dads serve as mentors and powerful male role models, something the kids often are experiencing for the first time.”
She also points out that Eric goes out of his way to introduce himself and talk to the kids. “Camp gives them hope, gives them a window into a world that they wouldn’t otherwise know,” Morgan said.
The Camp itself has been far more successful than Eric dreamed.
“I thought it might have a decent showing, and last a few years,” Montross said. “But we’ve been doing it for eleven years, and the last two have been the biggest. It’s close to my heart and to Laura’s heart (his wife). The community has embraced it, and it makes the hospital – which was already good – even better. The success of the camp is due in large part to tradition – friendly familiar faces in volunteer shirts, getting to see people again who are there simply because they want to be a part of it. I can’t imagine summer without the Camp.”
The warmth, the sharing and “Carolina family” feeling of the Camp is something every Tar Heel family should experience. Next year’s camp will be limited to 135 campers, and 99 campers from this year’s camp have already signed up for a return trip.
As I walked off of the basketball court of the Dean Dome at the end of the first day’s session with Jason’s mother, who still volunteers at every Camp, she looked around the arena and said, “I wish Jason could be here to see this.”
I just smiled and said, “I think he is.”
(Note: This article is a condensed version of a feature story that will appear in the Inside Carolina Magazine this fall. For more info about the IC Magazine, CLICK HERE)
Wick Smith, a repressed writer and basketball player, is a Managing Director for the investment banking firm Houlihan Lokey Howard & Zukin in Atlanta.