I have encountered Eric Montross twice in my life.
One summer afternoon in the early 90’s, I was at the Paul Webb Basketball Camp in Virginia Beach and he was a guest. I don’t remember many details, but I’m sure he spoke to the group of eager campers about lessons he’d learned as a basketball player at UNC. He probably told us to study, eat our Wheaties, practice layups, say our prayers, Just Say No and Just Do It. Then he probably threw down a few dunks, to the campers delight. During the course of his visit, it seemed perfectly normal for me to take off my sweaty basketball sneaker, hand it to Eric accompanied with a Sharpie, have him sign said sneaker and then have him return the sneaker to me. A kid and his shoe, with a fresh autograph from a future NBA journeyman, was a recipe for happiness. These were simple times.
The second time I encountered Montross, was outside the RBC Center (now PNC Arena) in Raleigh, North Carolina on the campus of NC State. I was leaving the 2nd round of the 2004 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, and he was standing outside arena talking to a news reporter. This time, the thought of asking him for an autograph never crossed my mind. However, kids and adults alike did occasionally ask the former Tar Heel for his autograph on shirts and hats. Was I no longer interested because I had grown out of being excited over an autograph? Perhaps it was because Montross was now on the other side of a lackluster NBA career (avg 4.5 points and 4.6 rebounds per game over eight seasons with six teams) and the excitement of seeing him was absent. Whatever the reason, I caught a glimpse of Montross, paused, maybe thought about that sneaker from 10 years prior, and then got on with my life.
Autographs are still a big deal, evidently. Sports teams still dispatch players to shopping malls across the country to sit at tables and sign stuff. Baseball teams will enroll B-list players to be on the field early for special autograph sessions and fans still wait in hotel lobbies and near team buses for the chance at the immortal Sharpie moment.
While bugging someone for their signature is not a high priority for me anymore, it’ll always be a part of the sports fan experience. It’s good to see many high profile players still do oblige fans. Sports Memorabilia sites also still seem to be doing good business, moving away from the bricks and mortar shops to online shopping.
My Montross shoe is long gone, but I do have a few signatures laying around, including a Pete Rose signed ball. I’m not naive enough to think a Rose autograph is valuable, knowing that he spends most of his waking hours signing merchandise for fans and lobbying to get into the Baseball Hall of Fame, which he’s currently banned from for gambling. It hit home this weekend just how prevalent a Pete Rose signature has become. I was at my good friends house he had just moved into and he found a Pete Rose signed ball in one of the many boxes of stuff he was unpacking. It may as well have been an unopened set of melon ballers off of his wedding registry.
Back in 1992, I was at Tigers/Orioles at Camden Yards with my dad and we happened to be staying in the same hotel as the Tigers. I got a few autographs in the lobby (Sparky Anderson, nice guy..RIP). Cecil Fielder was the slugger du jour in Detroit, but he gave me the cold shoulder. This strange guy was stalking the lobby, equipped with a handful of different colored markers. He attempted to take me under his wing, explaining who signs and who doesn’t as well as tips to capturing the illusive signatures. This guy was a little too strange and a little too helpful for my fathers liking, and this led to him almost getting an unwanted autograph; the initials on my dads Signet ring imprinted on his jawbone.
I have a Jerry Rice hanging on my wall, with the Certificate of Authenticity, so I KNOW it’s real. Right? It’s from some place called Sports Card Heaven in Orange, Connecticut. Stumbling upon a baseball card shop is rare these days, so I’m guessing Sports Card Heaven is now a Cash for Gold store, after stints as a Blockbuster Video, Borders and Hartford Whalers Team Shop.
My most random autograph has to be my Mark Rypien signed picture. Rypien has the honor of being one of the most unlikely Super Bowl MVPs of all time, after he caught fire in 1991 as the QB of an offense that averaged 30 points a game. Even in circles of Skins fans, this may be more of a cruel reminder than a sought after collectible. To think, the last Skins QB to reach the Super Bowl is now 51 years old. The big game drought can also be summarized by the halftime entertainment on FOX that night, a new episode of In Living Color.
I will hold onto these mementos moving forward, finding them in moving boxes next to registry gifts and cleaning supplies. Maybe the Montross shoe will show up. Otherwise, I’ll have to bump into him again some day and not ask for his autograph.