Ain't God good to Indiana?
Folks, a feller never knows
Just how close he is to Eden
Till, sometime, he tips and goes
Seekin' fairer, greener pastures
Than he has here right at home,
Where there's sunshine in the clover
An' there's honey on the comb;
Where th' ripples on the river
Kind of chuckle as they flow—
Ain't God good to Indiana?
Ain't He fellers? Ain't He though?
—WILLIAM H. HASKELL (1873-1930)
Despite such idyllic sentiments, with which all Hoosiers would agree, it soon will be time for Rick Mount to leave Lebanon, Ind. (pop. 9,523) and attack the bigger world with a basketball. He is eager for the challenge for, though Rick Mount is a small-town Hoosier (see cover), he is not Penrod. But the Penrods are gone, just like the small towns, all turned pseudosuburban. Penrod was not 6 feet 4 and 179 pounds, neither was he given to alpaca sweaters and tight ankle-high white Levi's, nor to wing-tip shoes that you get at the "Red" Apple Shoe Store. And he did not have a tricky man-made curl hanging over his forehead, a curl that only Dobby or Gerald, down at the Modern Barber Shop, is capable of cutting properly.
Rick Mount does fish for crappies and channel cat out in Cool Lake, and he wanders through the woods outside of town hunting for rabbits with his beagle Bootsy at his side, but he also has a lavender '57 Chevy convertible and a pretty little blonde who wants to be a dental technician, and he takes her to the Sky Vue Drive-In and to the Tom Boy for Cokes and 19¢ hamburgers. He works extra hard to get Bs and Cs in Spanish, Biblical literature, English and government in a sparkling, modern high school that is fashioned in the popular hues of Holiday Inn green and Howard Johnson orange. It is now complete with windows ripped full of buckshot holes by juvenile delinquents that they have not caught yet—exactly like in the big city.
So sunshiny clover and chuckling ripples notwithstanding, Indiana is going to have a tall time holding onto Rick Mount, who may be as good a high school basketball player as there ever was. He has the moves of a cat, Mr. Haskell, the eyes of a hawk, the presence of a king and he has visions of UCLA or Cincinnati or Miami or other faraway places. Coaches come clamoring to him. Not just the recruiters, but men like Vic Bubas of No. 1 Duke and old Adolph Rupp of No. 2 Kentucky and John Wooden of champion UCLA and Bruce Hale of Miami, who was so solicitous as to phone Rick last spring when he heard that a tornado had cut by just north of Lebanon. And, like gunslingers, the kids come from all over the state—the white farm boys and the Negroes from downtown Indianapolis—just for the chance to challenge him on the outdoor summer court in the Lebanon park.
February 14, 1966
Comparisons are obligatory because Oscar Robertson played in high school just 26 miles away, down what is now Interstate, in Indianapolis, and many people have seen them both. When Rick was just a sophomore Ray Crowe, Oscar's coach at Crispus Attucks High, said: "At this stage he's as good as Oscar was." Most fans, like Pistol Sheets, who runs the town pool hall, agree with this analysis. Pistol expresses the consensus this way: "Rick is a better shooter than anyone you ever saw in high school, but Arsker"—that's the way they pronounce Oscar in Lebanon, Ind.—"now Arsker, he had the better maneuverability."
Rick is modest, as heroes, particularly small-town ones, are supposed to be. His emotions are controlled, particularly on the court, where he seldom expresses himself with more than an occasional single loud handclap. Despite his blond hair and blue eyes, his high cheekbones create a decided Indian effect. He is shocked when anyone compares him with his idol, Robertson, even with the Big O's high school phase. Rick is, in fact, unspoiled by notoriety, except in a negative way, freezing with embarrassment when strange grown-ups make a fuss over him in front of his old friends and teammates—Larry Clark and Keith Campbell, whom he drives home from practices; Mike Caldwell and Rick Brown, the little junior guards; Ron Templin, who has some college offers himself; Jeff Tribbett and the others whom he has grown up with. At times, when trapped by a coach under circumstances that he considers confining, he tenses and will not speak at all but will merely nod yes or no—not impolitely, but merely because he is desperate to end such a confrontation.
However, having been witness to Rick's talent for so long, the other players—far from exhibiting the least bit of jealousy that Coach Jim Rosenstihl fears—are not affected one way or another by all the attention paid Mount. They have never played on the Lebanon Tigers without him, so the fuss is status quo for them. Just as serene is Donna Cadger, the very pretty blonde with whom Rick has been going officially since two weeks before Christmas. She has his sweetheart ring, two gold hearts intertwined with a "teensy-weensy" diamond. "Gee," Donna says, "I know it's just Rick. I mean, I've known him all my life. Anyway, you know, I used to go out with him before, back in grade school. The people who get so excited about him are just the grown-ups, like my father. He's just a real nut about basketball." Richard Cadger, as a matter of fact, did nickname Rick "Rocket," and that is what Rick's friends now call him.
Teen-age fame, then, is hardly uncommon in Indiana, but it is the adults and not the crazy kids who are responsible for it. When Rick was playing in the fifth grade, crowds of a thousand or more would show up to watch him. Grown people, grandfathers and grandmothers. They travel 80 or 100 miles one way to see a game that does not even involve their own team. A bunch from Lebanon went that far to see a game in Cloverdale the other night and ran into Tink Bennett from Rossville, and he had come 35 miles farther. Herbie West flagged down a train once to get from Lebanon to a game in Shelbyville. He hitched a ride back with Ham Foster and Claude Wilson, and Ham says Herbie complained all the way home that the officiating had robbed the Tigers of victory, though Lebanon had lost by 45 points. These people go to fifth-grade games, scouting the future for Rosenstihl. They cut work early 10 attend varsity practice, and since Rosenstihl prohibits talking, they sit huddled together in the southeast corner of the gym, silently attentive as if they were in some holy place. They get together to watch old game movies that they know by heart. Waiting lists for season tickets are impossibly long. Mayor and Mrs. Herb Ransdell have had the same seats at the Lebanon gym (capacity: 2,200) since it was opened in 1931. Last year, for the price of two tickets to the sectionals (the opening round of the state tournament), Dick Perkins and Bob Staton were able to borrow a brand-new $6,000 tractor so that they could get through a blizzard to rescue Daryl Kern at his farm. Daryl is a substitute.
It is in this atmosphere that Rick Mount grew up, but he still does not understand how important he is to Lebanon. His fans, to him, are just neighbors. "Why, you take a guy like Gene Thomas," Rick said, driving into the courthouse square past the Avon Theatre, "he's as good a mechanic as there is in town, I guess, and I'll take my car in to get it fixed, and Gene'll say: 'Hey, keep my car till I get this fixed.' I mean, just like that. His car. Yeah, this town's been good to me. It's my home."
Aside from Rick himself, there is nothing in Lebanon to distinguish it from any other small Midwest town except that its courthouse is supposed to be the only public building in the world that is bisected by a meridian. (No one seems to have the faintest idea what meridian.) The town advertises itself as "The Friendly City," and Pistol Sheets says that is right as rain. "Any old stranger comes to town, just wandering through," he says, "and they take him right in and give him something to eat and all he can drink—just about everything maybe but a ticket to the game. Oh, it's friendly all right. There's a lot of card playing in this town. A man loses too much, everyone gets him paid off, and then we bar him from any more games. We take care of our own."
Lebanon, the seat of Boone County, was settled in 1832 by Abner H. Longley. An early account carefully notes: "Longley was the first postmaster, and carried the mail in his hat, consequently the office was not always in the same place." As early as 1843, the direct forerunner of Lebanon High, the county seminary, was holding classes. By the '80s something of an athletic program was in effect, the school had assumed its present name and had moved to the third floor of the "Martin Hohl Building." On the first floor was a saloon, on the second floor were Martin Hohl and family. The principal was a tough West Pointer named Strange N. Cragum, who was renowned for possessing "excellent knowledge of the general behavior of both boys and girls." His way of handling the boys was to make them put on boxing gloves and then beat the tar out of them. Lebanon's first basketball team was fielded in 1907, just 16 years after the sport was invented. In 1911, the first year of the Indiana tournament—a festival that now enlists virtually every school in the state, grosses well over $1 million and draws more than 1.5 million spectators—Lebanon lost in the finals to neighboring Crawfordsville, 24-17. The next year, Lebanon won. One of the six members of that 1912 team was John Porter, who delivered Richard Carl Mount, the only child of Mary Catherine and Paul W. (Pete) Mount, on January 5, 1947. Four years before, Pete, a skinny 6-foot-3 center, had led Lebanon to the state championship game for the first time since the Tigers won in 1918. His records were not broken until Rick took care of them, and Pete played one year of pro ball with the Sheboygan Redskins of the early NBA. "Old John Mount—that's Pete's father—what a shame he didn't live to see Rick play ball," Claude Wilson said one night recently, just talking high school basketball. "Every year, John would say not to get excited; Pete had the last team to get to the finals and there wouldn't be another one till Rick came along."
"Around our house," Mrs. Mount remembers, "no one ever tripped over little cars or toys—just balls and bats." Rick was obviously a natural athlete, and when he took to eating and then writing left-handed, Pete Mount says he thought for sure he had a southpaw pitcher. But for some reason, Rick has always thrown and shot a ball right-handed. For all practical and basketball purposes, he is ambidextrous. A prolonged strep throat and ear infection forced him to repeat the second grade, and four years ago his parents were divorced, but otherwise Rick's life in Lebanon has hardly been touched by incident. Once, he remembers, he and Ron Edwards got caught shooting pigeons just inside the city limits. His descriptions of the daily routine in Lebanon closely resemble the reminiscences of a boy who was a pretty good guard over on the Fairmount High teams about 17 years ago—James Dean, the late movie actor. There were long walks, miles and miles up the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks with "a huntin' buddy," Alan Adams; time spent hanging around Preston Cain's gun shop or at the Model Sports Shop; and the early, solitary hours that Rick still spends fishing with his dog—"and you bring your gun along, because every now and then you might get a shot at a turtle." Later, girls and drive-ins replaced walking down the railroad tracks with Alan Adams, and that is about it, growing up in Lebanon. That and school. And basketball.
Rick excelled in every sport he tried but by his freshman year he had decided to concentrate on basketball; it was about then that he began to sense his potential. "Still," Mrs. Mount says, "I don't think he appreciates yet how very good he really is. I guess he's too wrapped up in it. He keeps a lot to himself anyway. He goes out there all by himself, just fishing and thinking, I guess, and he never lets on if something is bothering him. He'll finally tell me about it about a week or so later, and usually then it isn't a problem anymore. Since it's been just me living with Rick, with no man in the house, I've tried to let him be more independent. I knew that I couldn't make him any more mature myself, so I just gave him a better chance to do it himself."
Rick's dedication to what he considers important led him to pass up a five-day fishing trip to Canada last June because he felt that would be too much time away from basketball. He has been out of Indiana only four times in his life—three times to see basketball games in Louisville and once to play in one in Chicago. He not only practices incessantly, but he possesses the self-discipline to work on the more tedious facets of the game, not just shooting. He was talking along about this one day recently, when all of a sudden he paused and said: "Well, I found this out: if you don't want to do it, that's the time to do it." That would suffice as Rick Mount's credo.
Rosenstihl, considered one of the best young coaches in the state, came from Bluffton to take the Lebanon job in Rick's freshman year. He had heard about the Mount kid, and by the season's opener Rick was a starter. In that first game, as a freshman, Rick took 16 shots, made five of them and 12 points against Brownsburg. He went 11 for 17 against Crawfordsville next, averaged 20.4 for the year and has never scored less than 11 points in a game. High school statistics are notoriously misleading, but Mount's consistency through the difficult schedules that Rosenstihl draws up has left no doubts about his authenticity. (Rosenstihl even had New York's Power Memorial, with Lew Alcindor, lined up for a game last year until a technicality forced cancellation.) Rick averaged 23.6 as a sophomore, 33.1 last year and has 33.2 so far this season. He is discriminating with his shots, but will bomb from 30 feet regularly if he is open. And he hits better than 50%, more than 80% of his free throws. He passes and dribbles beautifully. Primarily a guard, he often moves into the forecourt or even the pivot. When he has to be, he is a fine rebounder.
But it is his distance shooting that is so fantastic. It is not exaggerating to say that, with the exception of the pros' Jerry West, there is no one in all of basketball who has the quickness and accuracy at long range that Rick Mount has. Right now, it is difficult to assess his defensive ability, but he is so easy an athlete that defense should be no problem once he can concentrate on it under game conditions. He is so valuable to Lebanon that, like many high school superstars, he must neglect defense to avoid being lost on fouls. But he asks no special favors. "Oh, sure," he says, "some of them smart off at me: 'Come on, great Rick,' and stuff like that, but I've got enough to worry about without carrying on conversations out there."
Since Rick was first-string All-Indiana as a sophomore, legions of coaches, self-appointed recruiters, newspapermen and adoring fans have been dogging him in earnest. Rosenstihl manages to protect him—without cutting his tongue out, the way they did with Alcindor—but the pressure continues to swell. Kenneth Dooley, the young principal at Lebanon, estimates that 250 colleges have sought out Rick in one way or another. For years John Wooden, a native Hoosier, has insisted he was unable to make it from UCLA to the Old-Timers Banquet in Indianapolis. This particular 1966, however, Wooden decided to accept the kind invitation. No, he said, he would not be visiting out in Lebanon, but no one thought to inquire if Rick Mount might drop over to the Indianapolis airport. It was a very interesting little t√™te-√†-t√™te, though the subject matter was, apparently, somewhat restricted. "Mostly," Rick says, "Mr. Wooden talked about collapsing zones. How everyone would have to collapse on Alcindor."
Rick not only looks the part for southern California, but he has UCLA glittering in his baby blues. He went to a party the other night and they all played a ouija-board type of game with a card table. Rick smiles somewhat sheepishly when he says that the card table indicated he would go to UCLA. This suggests that either Rick sort of helped the table to reach that answer or that UCLA, on top of everything else, also has a lock on the spirit world. Still, Rick does appear to be open-minded on the subject. He also favors Cincinnati, Oscar's alma mater, and there is fierce pressure from nearly everybody in the state for either Indiana University or Purdue. Rick also plans to visit some or all of these other schools after this season: Miami, Kentucky, Kansas, Tennessee, West Virginia, Duke, Michigan and Bradley.
In Lebanon interest in Rick's choice of a college must be shelved for a while, because the Indiana high school tournament begins next week and government, commerce, public health and other such mundane matters cannot be considered while the Hoosiers watch high school kids play basketball. If Lebanon is not one of the tournament favorites, it has a respectable chance; until the Tigers are eliminated and Rick plays his last game there can be no real concern about where he will continue his education. All along, anyway, there has been a remarkably positive air about what it will be like in Lebanon when Rick is gone. The people do not lack appreciation of the talent that they will be losing but, no matter how large a hero he has been, they could never permit him to transcend the only game in town. If he did it would be very bad indeed in Lebanon when he left. So lately there has been much talk about next year's team, about the value of balance, of the good-shooting junior guards, Caldwell and Brown, and how it could be really quite a team if Daryl Kern's younger brother Larry can develop at center.
But oh! will they talk of Rick Mount when he is gone! What he did was to make Lebanon special, and not many places pop. 9,523 ever get a shot at being special. They will remember Rick for that, no matter what he accomplishes somewhere else in all his college and professional games. He's been so good to them. He's been so good for Lebanon, Ind.