There's not much doing on the streets of Lebanon, Ind., on this wintry Friday night in late November. The town square is quiet, the restaurant at the Holiday Inn is empty. But there's action on the basketball court at the high school where the Lebanon Tigers are playing the Hammond Wildcats in the local school's first game of the 1986-87 season. The high school is the only place to be.
The center of attention is Rich Mount, 16, a blond sophomore, skinny as a cornstalk. He snags a rebound and heads upcourt. He fakes his man left and goes right. He pounds his last dribble and takes the ball up and launches a high-arching shot that falls through the rim clean. The crowd thunders its appreciation. Backpedaling, Rich shoots a glance at the sideline as if to say, "How about that? Could my dad have done it better?"
Rich's dad is Rick Mount, a three-time prep All-America at Lebanon, and the first male high school team athlete to appear on the cover of this magazine (Feb. 14, 1966). That was before he went on to be a three-time college All-America at Purdue. He was known as Rick the Rocket, the best pure shooter of a basketball who ever walked this earth. The Rocket is in the stands tonight. Rich looks up and finds him during a timeout. The father gives his son a clenched fist—that's my boy.
There are experts and judges sitting along the sideline tonight who have seen them both play, and they offer comparisons.
December 22, 1986
"Richie is a good high school player, but he's going to have to get bigger if he wants to be more than that," says Claude Wilson, 68, a real estate salesman who is one of the Downtown Coaches, the deans of the In crowd of Lebanon basketball. "Now, Rick, he had the most beautiful jump shot of anybody. Perfect mechanics."
Another of the sideline cognoscenti, Richard Green, a sales and service engineer, says, "The boy's got the shot but not the height, and he's slow-footed to boot. He doesn't have that quick first step his dad had."
Davey Koehler is 12 and, therefore, unprejudiced by the ancient exploits of Rick the Rocket. When asked who's the greatest Tiger of them all, Davey says, "Rich Mount, who else? He averages about 40 point per game."
Actually, Rich averaged precisely 17.1 as a freshman on the varsity last year. He always keeps a close eye on his stats. He keeps an eye on the top of his head, too. Rich is a shade under 6'3". His dad is 6'4". Rich thinks of being 6'4" the way other people think of having enormous wealth.
"Bill Hodges—he used to coach at Indiana State—said I'd be six-seven," Rich says. "A big guard. The doctor said six-five, six-four. I don't know. I take after my dad a lot...."
Tiger coach Jim Rosenstihl arrived in Lebanon in 1962 for the Rocket's freshman year, and he retired from coaching this past October. In those 24 years he made Lebanon a power, and in 1984 he was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. He coached Rick throughout high school and he coached Rich in his freshman year, but Rosenstihl tries to soften and deflect comparisons between father and son. "Richie does not have great foot speed, but he's got a lot of court savvy," Rosenstihl says. "Very few kids his age have played as much basketball as he has. He and his dad have played a lot together, and that's an advantage for him. Will he be as good as his dad? Rick wants him to be. I've told Rick not to expect so much. People ask that question a lot and my answer is, he doesn't have to be as good as his dad to be a hell of a player."
Former assistant coach Dave Carney, who took over the Tiger helm, inherits a team that went 14-7 last year and a skinny guard he expects to shoot .500 from the floor. "It's not a one-man team, and Richie knows that," Carney says. "Richie knows he has to score for us, but he mustn't approach it like he needs 35 a game. He just has such a great desire to excel—sometimes he gets down on himself when he doesn't make them all. One night at practice he missed a couple and got his head down. I asked him what he thought he'd shot that night. He had no idea. I told him 9 for 12. If I'd shot 9 for 12 when I played, I'd have done handsprings."
Every day on his way to the school gym, Rich passes a boxcar-sized trophy case. Inside is a picture of his dad, Indiana's "Mr. Basketball 1966." Being named Mr. Basketball is it in Indiana. Rich's dad was a shoo-in that year. In his high school career he out-scored Oscar Robertson by 770 points. In the picture in the trophy case, Rick wears his Mr. Basketball jersey, a smile and the trademark pointed forelock he favored—an inverted triangle that bisected his forehead. "The Cobra" or "the Point" they called that hairstyle. Hordes of Hoosier boys copied it.
Also in the trophy case are totems of the first great Lebanon star, the guy who led the 1943 team to the state finals, the guy whose school records Rick Mount broke. Fellow by the name of Pete Mount—Rick's dad, Rich's granddad.
Rich looks at his dad's picture through his own reflection. "I like that hair," he says. "It was probably kind of punk for back then."
Pete (Lebanon High class of '44), Rick (class of '66) and Rich (class of '89) are the most accomplished father-son-grandson combo in high school basketball history. All three scored 30 or more points in a game as freshmen, and that's just the first of the tripartite records they will hold by the time Rich graduates. In a hoops-crazy town in the hoops-craziest state in the union, they are hoops' First Family. They played together once, in a charity game two years ago. Rick scored 25, Rich scored 22 and Pete, who checked in just before the final buzzer, missed a hook shot. He was rusty. It was his first game in perhaps 20 years.
When Pete played during the war years, fans donated their gasoline ration coupons to the high school team. A ball used in the '43 state tourney was auctioned off for $119,000 in war bonds. After the state final game that year, Tiger fans tore the stairs off the buildings on Courthouse Square, built a bonfire and snake-danced through town, chanting "Lebanon Tigers, Lebanon Tigers!"—and the team had lost the game. Pete was, as the local scribes of the day put it, "as wily a pivoteer as cage fans have seen," "a leggy towhead whose sleepy demeanor belies his slyness" and "the greatest prep athlete to dribble 'n' shoot in modern times."
"We had good teams, we always filled that old gym," Pete says. "Back then, it wasn't so much the jump shot. We drove a lot. I shot a hook shot, sort of a George Mikan hook. One time I outscored the entire other team, and a little girl from school got it put in a comic book."
Pete skipped college and played a year of pro ball in the old NBL, the NBA's daddy—where he once found himself guarding Mikan and quickly switched off. Then he came home to Lebanon. The Mounts always do. He still has that old comic book, Magic Comics, February 1943, with Dagwood Bumstead on the cover and Pete Mount on an "incredible feats" page inside. Today his apartment is a shrine to his son, the living-legend Rocket. There are 24 pictures of Rick; two red, white and blue Rick Mount Autograph basketballs; and a Purdue Boilermaker toilet seat. There is also a Christmas tree ornament made by grandson Rich. There are 4,177 Tiger points in this room.
Rick the Rocket, 39, still in shape, plays a lot of tennis. He glides on the court, goes from baseline to net in three long strides, mashes overheads, flat serves down the middle and uses his spin serve to pretzel his opponent. A righthanded shooter who took up tennis after a separated right shoulder ended his basketball career, he plays tennis lefty. The difference between the great athlete and the rest of us is that he is an integrated circuit of muscle, mind and eye, and the rest of us are a mess of mixed connections.
He is also a shy man. As a boy, he got plucked out of Lebanon and planted square in a fiery spotlight because he possessed the world's most perfect jump shot. He would rather have gone squirrel hunting.
A bit suspicious, conditioned by the petty envies every small-town star endures, bugged by the knowledge that everybody in town had an opinion about him, hearing whispers that were louder than any applause, he developed a thin skin and a long memory. He is still upset that some of his high school teammates "looked through him" on the court and "hid the ball" from him during games.
"There were times I could have exploded," he says. "I'd go home and rant and rave at my mom. She'd sit and listen for hours. Some of my classmates were very jealous. Now a guy will come up and say, 'Hey, good to see you!' It almost makes me think, I don't need that guy. He was there giving me the finger when SPORTS ILLUSTRATED was taking my picture at the high school. They wanted me to go to a reunion. I said, 'I'll never go to your reunion, not the way you treated me.' "
"Rick is very much a loner," says Wilson. "He brought an awful lot of pleasure to this town, but some people don't have a good word for him. Some people would have liked to see him move away, like a bad dream. In no way is he a bad person. Maybe he was just a little lax in putting back the love the community gave him. But let's give the guy all the credit we can. He was a great, great ballplayer."
Rick spent 1963 to '66 putting his town on the map, and what happened? Somebody, somewhere, always found something to criticize. Somebody always mistook his shyness for conceit. He was the product of a "broken home" when that phrase still carried a stigma, and that set him apart from the other Lebanon kids, too. Grown-ups would drive past his house just to see it, but Rick wanted only to be left alone.
Yet he had that exquisite jumper....
It was a thing of beauty, that jumper. A flick of the wrist at the apex of his jump. Swish. Rick Mount drew crowds of 1,000 to fifth-grade games. Grown men lost the power to speak when they shook hands with him. Rick averaged 33.1 points his last two years at Lebanon, scoring 57 in one game, and 32.3 on the Purdue varsity, including 61 in one game.
In 1968, when Rick was 21 years old, a sign outside town read HOME OF RICK MOUNT, MR. BASKETBALL 1966. When he beat Marquette with a glorious last-second jumper, sending Purdue to the NCAA Final Four, his college fans uprooted the sign and took it home to West Lafayette.
After Purdue, Rick signed a 750,000-dollar contract with the Indiana Pacers of the ABA. The Pacers seemed perfect to him. All that money and he hardly had to leave home. He could commute the 20-odd miles to the Coliseum in Indianapolis. But if the Rocket had taken Indiana's geography and the ABA's big money into account, he had not given any thought to the Pacer's coach.
Bob (Slick) Leonard had an ABA championship team stocked with veterans. He was a high-octane local celebrity himself, and he did not like the thought of this glorified young gunner stealing everyone's thunder—least of all his own. At rookie camp, when the Rocket launched—and made—his first Pacer jumper from 25 feet, Leonard snapped, "You're not at Purdue anymore."
"If I had it to do over, I'd go to the NBA," Rick says. "The Lakers were interested. Signing with Indiana was the worst thing I ever did."
The Lebanon and Purdue offenses had been cut to fit him like the James Dean jeans he favored (James Dean, guard., Fairmount, Ind., class of '49). His job had been to fire the ball whenever he thought he ought to; now Leonard wanted a defensive specialist, a ballhandler, a playmaker. The Rocket wound up grounded on the bench, a disappointment to himself, his town, his fans, his family. Rick remembers many nights of driving home from the Coliseum at 115 miles an hour.
The Pacers finally traded him to Dallas, and Dallas traded him to Kentucky, where his job was to pass off to Dan Issel. He had later stints with the Utah Stars and the Memphis Sounds before the shoulder separation finished his career in 1975. He came home to Lebanon and found that all those jump shots didn't amount to anything of real value. Rick Mount was a curiosity, the greatest Johnny One-Note in basketball history. In 1978 he got an offer from the Houston Rockets. He turned it down because he was sick of traveling. "Maybe I should have taken it," he says now. "But I just couldn't get back on those planes." He never did like planes.
He was rejected for a high school coaching job because he had never graduated from Purdue. Several bad investments wiped out his small fortune, and now it is important to him that Rich win a college scholarship. Today Rick works for The Athlete, a sporting goods store in Lafayette. He sells basketballs with other people's names on them.
If he boycotts Tiger reunions because some of his classmates were jealous, well, they were. If he feels cheated because he never got his chance to thrive in pro ball, well, he didn't. What bothers him most, perhaps, is that after all the thrills he brought to his hometown, Lebanon could never leave him alone.
"There's some Rick Mount haters in this town," Rick says. "And there's some Rick Mount likers. Everybody's got their own opinion, but you just can't listen to everybody's opinion; it'll drive you nuts. If you're a good athlete, they're going to put you in a little glass case. You just have to be nice to everybody." He shrugs. "I made my niche. I guess I was considered the greatest shooter to ever live. Al McGuire said that. John Havlicek said that. I'm enjoying life now. I'm starting to come back."
Rick has refused to go to a lot of Lebanon games over the years, but he had a good reason to go to last year's games—Rich. "If he grows up to be my size, watch out. Katy, bar the door," says Rick. "I thought, for the pressure, Richie had a super year last year. When the redshirt deal started, I told him, this is the best thing that ever happened to you. If you find out you can deal with this kind of pressure, you've learned something."
Yes, the redshirt deal....
Four years ago, when Rich was 12, the Mounts began to feel he needed an extra year to grow. "I was kind of immature, not mature enough yet to be with my class," says Rich. "Even last year, I'd go in a game and they'd be yelling 'Babyface' or 'When you gonna start shaving?' "
Two years ago, Rick and his wife, Donna, decided that it would be best to redshirt their 14-year-old son for a year—in other words, to put him through the eighth grade one more time. Now they figured it would improve his chances of winning a major college scholarship. If his name had been Smith or Jones, this might not have caused a fuss. Pete and Rick had both been held back a year (for reasons of health), and other young Hoosier basketball players were redshirted with some regularity. But this boy's name was Mount, and in Lebanon that name can never be ignored. Also, maybe Rick was just a little too honest about his reason for redshirting Rich. Whereas the parents of most redshirts sang sad songs about the socio-academic needs of their boys, Rick Mount admitted that the point of redshirting little Rich was to make him a better ballplayer. Period.
The school superintendent refused to let Rich repeat the eighth grade, and the Mounts appealed to the school board. "The Rich Mount Case" was front-page news in The Lebanon Reporter and The Indianapolis News. It also made the wire services. School officials stood up for academic integrity while hotheaded Tiger fans supported the Mounts.
The Lebanon school board ruled 3-2 in favor of the Mounts. Rich was allowed to repeat the eighth grade. That winter the Indiana Department of Education adopted a new regulation, now sometimes referred to as the Richie Mount Rule: "Each school corporation shall adopt and enforce a written policy that prohibits retaining a student in a grade level for the sole purpose of improving the student's ability to participate in extracurricular athletic programs."
Last season, when Rich had made the varsity as a freshman and the Tigers played at Frankfort, the Frankfort Hot Dogs' fans wore red shirts, carried red signs, waved red towels, threw pennies and yelled the dirty word every time Rich touched the ball.
Rich recalls that night with a laugh. "It was great. I just thought, They're making a fool of themselves. It pumped me up." He went 13 for 15 from the field and 8 of 10 from the line for 34 points. He punctuated each basket with an upraised fist, and Lebanon won by three. "We put it right back in their faces," he says.
The Tigers' season record was 14-7, but it all ended on a sour note when Lebanon lost the opening game of its sectional tournament to Tri-West, 55-51. Rich scored a meager 8 points, hitting 3 for 11. He was removed late in the fourth quarter. It was all too much. He boiled over. He popped off at Rosenstihl. He apologized the next day, and everyone concerned now considers the whole situation nothing more than a useful growing experience.
"He wants so badly to excel," says coach Carney. "I think he handles the pressure very well outwardly. Nobody can judge how he deals with it inside."
That last bad game pulled Rich's shooting percentage below .500, but his .493 was still better than his dad shot his first year. Rick cites that stat himself. He is proud of what his son did last season, though he could have done without the upraised fists during that uproarious game at Frankfort. "I tell Richie not to show too much emotion," Rick says. "I never showed emotion. You could knock me down, I'd just get up and put two free throws in there. But Richie is hard-headed, like most males. When I tell him something—well, I'm his father, it's hard for him to listen. I think he listens, but he doesn't want me to know it."
Donna thinks the redshirt deal and the Frankfort fans really didn't bother Rich at all, that he enjoyed the attention. Donna has played enough tennis with her husband to know what a demanding tutor he is, and she thinks the pressure on Rich begins at home.
"The only strain on Richie is Rick," she says. "I've never seen anything get him down except Rick. They used to go out to play one-on-one, and come home separately. Richie would be so mad. It wasn't fair—Rick is bigger and stronger. He knew everything Richie was going to do, knew his every move. He'd block Richie's shot. It's important to Rick that Richie be as good as he was, but I think Richie needs encouragement. After one of Richie's games, immediately Rick will find something negative to say. It's that competitive instinct. Rick's probably right. But I'm a mother, I don't think like that. If I were raising Richie by myself, he would probably play tiddlywinks instead of basketball."
This past summer, after hundreds of one-on-one sessions and a ton of frustration, Rich finally beat Mr. Basketball 1966.
"My dad taught me a lot," says Rich. "He taught me all the moves, the fake right-go left, the fake left-go right, hesitations off the dribble. But then he'd know what was coming. He'd try to intimidate me. He'd block my shot. He can't now, but he used to. So that day, I just got mad and said let's go. The first game I beat him, and he said, 'Aw, I can't leave with you beating me.' So I beat him again, and again. And it was so good. I thought, Right now, everything's paid off."
Rick had mixed feelings that day. "I was kind of on the fence," he says. "I mean, I could see he was improving, and that was great. I could see those scoring moves that I used. You know they're coming and you take those fakes anyway. But I still wanted to wax his fanny. Richie was pleased with himself. He wouldn't smile, but I could tell he wanted to."
Rich dreams of state championships, last-second shots and 38-inch inseams. Says Rosenstihl, "He thinks about wanting to be tall. We've had three Indiana All-Stars here since Rick, and if he develops, I think Richie can be one, too. Richie is driven to be a star."
The HOME OF RICK MOUNT sign is gone. The new sign reads LEBANON, INDIANA, POPULATION 12,156, A GOOD PLACE TO LIVE. The streets are quiet, and the only game in town is the one against Hammond at the high school gym. Rich Mount is the center of attention. It is the first game of his sophomore season, and he has already been picked third-team All-State. The pressure is on, the Mount family legacy is his tonight, and there is no escaping it.
In the first half, Rich shoots 3 for 15, a disaster, and Lebanon is down 24-19. Later he confesses, "I was kind of nervous at first. But every shot I released really felt good. They just didn't go down. At halftime, I said to myself, I know they're going to start falling."
They did. He hit 6 of his first 10 in the second half. Lebanon pulled closer, then with a few minutes to go, Rich turned his ankle and went down hard on the floor. He was in pain, but he did not leave the game. He limped through the last moments, even scored two baskets. When the buzzer sounded, Lebanon had lost its opener 54-48 to the bigger, quicker team from Hammond. But Rich Mount had scored 28 of those 48 points.
His dad was there and afterward he was full of his son's game. "He had about eight shots go in and out that first half. He could've scored 40, easy," said the Rocket. Some of the sideline connoisseurs were discussing Rich's jumper, and one of them said, "It doesn't make you swoon like Rick's did. It just goes in." But then Rick began talking about a picture of Rich he had seen in a paper not long ago. "When I looked at that picture, I thought about my shooting form," he said. "It was scary."
And last week, after five games, young Rich Mount was averaging 19.2 a game. Some fans have started calling him the Missile.