Rick Mount This Indiana schoolboy star flopped as a pro and is only now, at 54, coming to terms with life after hoops

July 01, 2001

The middle-aged man is alone on the asphalt playground courts of
his youth, a ghostly figure flicking jump shots into a gray
morning sky. This has been Rick Mount's haunt for almost 40
years. He was a callow 15-year-old with a devilish lock of waxed
blond hair crawling down his forehead in 1962 when he made the
first basket on these outdoor courts at Memorial Park in Lebanon,
Ind., a town of 9,500 then and 12,000 now that's 26 miles
northwest of Indianapolis. On summer mornings he would entice
kids into feeding him passes by offering them 10-cent ice cream
cones he bought at the green canteen that still stands next to
the courts. In the evenings a thousand or more townsfolk would
watch him school the city boys from Indy in rec-league games that
paved his way to stardom at Lebanon High and Purdue. Now Mount is
54, remarkably lean and still blond, still shooting more than 500
graceful jump shots a day, raining baskets that nobody sees.

He cradles a weathered all-season basketball, crouches at the
right of the key and narrates. "This was the shot against
Marquette in '69," he says, recalling his last-second basket in
Purdue's epic 75-73 victory over the Golden Eagles when he was a
junior. "Two dribbles to my right, went up and hit it, and we
went to the Final Four." The ball rises from his hands, splashes
through the net and falls to the pavement, backspin returning it
to Mount.

"You don't see this shot much anymore," he says, dribbling
toward the lane, jumping lightly off his right foot and arcing a
fallaway floater from just inside the free throw line. "Opposite
foot, quick release."

He carries the ball on his hip out past the three-point line on
the right side of the court, sweat wetting his tank top. "Of
course, this was my shot," he says, and then he pounds three
dribbles deep into the right corner before rising off battered
knees and lofting a shot high over the corner of the scarred
wooden backboard. The weight of time seems to carry the ball
earthward, through the goal, briefly hanging in the net.
"Wooooo-hoo!" shouts Mount, stepping back toward the middle of
the court, returning from a distant past.

Small-town heroes grow up differently from most people. Like
child movie stars, most of them are made mythic before they
mature and held to a standard that the rest of their lives can't
meet. They are usually slow to grow up and sometimes never finish
the job at all. Rick Mount was the Babe Ruth of Hooterville
superstars, a deadeye Midwestern jump shooter straight out of
central casting, Jimmy Chitwood long before Hoosiers. He was the
kind of kid who inspired grown-ups to climb into their cars and
follow.

As a freshman he made the varsity at Lebanon High, and suddenly
2,200-seat Memory Hall, with its pale-yellow brick walls and a
stage at one end of the floor, became the hottest spot in central
Indiana. "Why, ol' Rick could about fill the place up by himself
just shooting that basketball," says Bobby Joe Ashley, 71, a
janitor at Lebanon High in Mount's day.

Mount was a 6'4" guard with good ups, a quick release and a deep
well of passion. When Lebanon beat Logansport in the semi-state
round of the 1966 Indiana tournament, Mount, a senior, scored 20
of his 47 points in the fourth quarter. "People still ask if I
have film of the game," says Jim Rosenstihl, 75, Mount's high
school coach. "He made jump shots, hook shots, got rebounds--did
everything and never came out."

During his high school career Mount scored 2,595 points--second
highest in Indiana history at the time and a staggering 770 more
than Oscar Robertson had scored--and on Feb. 14, 1966, he became
the first male high school team athlete to appear on the cover of
SI. He chose Purdue over Indiana and Miami and, as a member of
the same college class (1970) as Pete Maravich and Calvin Murphy,
averaged 32.3 points over a three-year college career. In the
spring of 1969 the Boilermakers reached the NCAA title game,
which they lost to UCLA, and the following season Mount made
All-America for the third time and had his best season from the
field, averaging 35.4 points. From there, his fall was swift.

After having been picked in the eighth round of the NBA draft by
the Los Angeles Lakers and, Mount says, first overall in the ABA
draft by the Indiana Pacers, he signed with Indiana. He believed
his contract would be worth $1.5 million, but he says it paid him
less than $250,000 over the course of a five-year career with the
Pacers and three other ABA teams. He was an occasional starter
but never a star, averaging 11.8 points on 43.3% shooting, a
victim of either unfair coaches (his version) or slow feet (one
coach's version). "High school legend, one of the greatest
college shooters in history, but in the pros he had trouble
defending and getting his shot off," says Bob (Slick) Leonard,
who coached Mount--and clashed with him--on the Pacers. Mount to
this day says Leonard didn't like him because team ownership had
pressured Leonard to play a native Hoosier. (Leonard could not be
reached for comment.)

By the winter of 1976, after a shoulder separation from the
'74-75 season effectively ended his career, Mount was in Lebanon
with his high school sweetheart, Donna, whom he had wed in '69,
and their only child, Richie--back in the only place he'd ever
felt comfortable. "I never liked big cities, and I hated travel
and airplanes," he says. Barely a decade had passed since his
high school graduation, and yet his world was vastly different.
There were no more games to play, and it would take nearly a
quarter century for Mount to adjust fully to this new life.

First came a business failure. Mount had long been an avid hunter
and fisherman, and in 1978 he opened an outdoors shop. It went
bankrupt in four years. He sold his house to pay off debts. In
the early '80s he applied for the coaching job at Central
Catholic High in nearby Lafayette but was turned down because he
had never gotten his college degree, an embarrassing rejection
that smudged his legend. He had always been shy--"Never was
comfortable in social settings," says Donna--but he withdrew so
much that his reclusiveness was the talk of Lebanon. Worst of
all, he rarely went to the high school's basketball games.

When Richie--a bloodless shooter like his dad--made the Lebanon
High varsity as a freshman in the fall of 1985, Rick went back to
the gym to watch but lasted only two years in the stands because,
he says, fans trashed him as he sat there. "Rick wanted to tear
some people's heads off," says Donna. For Richie's last two
years, during which he capped a terrific career, finishing with
2,139 points, Rick stayed away.

Mount felt bitter toward his college, too, after 1988, when
Boilermakers coach Gene Keady issued Mount's number 10 to
shooting guard Woody Austin. The number had never been retired
but also had never been assigned to another player. "All they
owed me was a courtesy call," Mount says. "It's all about that
one call."

It's about Richie, too. He signed with Purdue in 1988 and endured
one unproductive season under Keady before transferring to
Virginia Commonwealth (where he also played just one season).
Rick says he implored Keady not to sign Richie if he wasn't going
to play him. "I thought Rich was a good shooter who could help
us," says Keady. "Turns out his feet were a little slow on
defense, and that hurt him." That explanation wasn't enough for
Rick. A decade ago he said he wouldn't set foot on campus until
Keady left, and he hasn't.

Through the 1980s and '90s Mount refused to play in old-timers'
or "legends" games organized by his former high school teammates.
"I've never played in those kinds of games because I'm not an old
man yet," he says. "You want to lace 'em up and play, let's do
it, but not in one of those things where a bunch of old men go
out and hobble around for a few minutes." There's another reason:
For 10 years he has operated summer camps called the Rick Mount
Shooting School, and the last thing he wants is a potential
student to watch him shoot poorly in an exhibition.

Mount's egotistical attitude didn't sit well with some of his old
buddies. "It's wonderful to have been a star, but at some point
shouldn't you get on with your life?" says Jeff Tribbett, a bank
vice president who played at Lebanon High with Mount and at LSU
with Maravich. Tribbett called Mount a "loser" behind his back a
couple of years ago. Mount found out about it, and the two nearly
came to blows on the Memorial Park courts one morning.

Two years ago Mount was to have been one of the honorees at a
celebration of the top 50 basketball players in Indiana history.
He turned down the invitation to the banquet because Leonard was
invited, and he didn't want to share a ballroom with him. "Oh my
god, is that why Rick wasn't there?" Leonard, 69, asked recently.
"I haven't seen him in 20 years, and I have no animosity toward
him whatsoever. I was trying to win games. I played my best
players, that's all."

In late 1999, as Mount approached his 53rd birthday, he was
estranged from the high school where he had become famous, from
the college where he had been a three-time All-America, from his
first pro coach and from several high school teammates. Many
folks in Lebanon considered him a bitter man who had never
learned to live beyond the adulation of his childhood and who,
pathetically, took 500 jump shots a day to stay connected with
his past. It wasn't a pretty picture.

It might have ended that way, too, had Mount not been rescued by
a bunch of teenage girls. How sweet is this: The vehicle for his
salvation was the very same jump shot he has nurtured so long
past its prime. In the fall of 1999, Jim Hammel, a former coach
at Lake Central and Lafayette Jefferson high schools, was helping
his wife, Tracey, coach the Lebanon High girls' varsity. Jim
approached Mount, whom he had met when he coached against
Richie's Lebanon teams, and asked Mount to work on jump shooting
with some of the girls, including Suzie Hammel, Jim's daughter
from an earlier marriage.

Mount was inclined to say no, but he liked Jim and liked teaching
the jump shot. He loved doing his camps, but this could be even
better: working with a small group of players over a season,
helping a team. When hunting season ended in late December 1999,
Mount started attending practice. The girls got better. "They
loved Rick," says Tracey. "He insisted that they call him Rick."

In mid-January 2000, Suzie, a senior guard and Lebanon's star
player, had to select someone to be her honorary coach for a game
against North Montgomery High. Usually a parent or some other
relative is chosen, but Suzie picked Rick, and he accepted. It's
customary for the designated player and her honorary coach to be
introduced before the game, and when Rick's name was announced, a
buzz went through the gym. Slowly the applause built until
everybody was standing. The ovation lasted more than two minutes,
the unqualified embracing of a prodigal son. Suzie rang up 50
points that night, and Jim even talked Rick into staying for the
boys' game that followed.

A week later Rick went on the road with the girls, to a game at
Pike High. "They begged him to come to all the games," says
Donna, "and when he walked into the gym at Pike, they all started
screaming, 'Rick! Rick!' It was so cute." Mount sat on the bench,
right between Jim and Tracey, and kept coming for the rest of the
season and for 2000-01, too. It was as if every jump shot he'd
ever attempted was being validated, so late in his life.

Last January, Jim Hammel, 55, died of a heart attack. Rick
started attending more practices than ever, getting involved not
only with shooting but also with other individual offensive
skills. "I think he feels sorry for me, but I'm sure glad to have
him around," says Tracey, 38. "People in the town are happy to
have him back, too. It's so sad that he lost 20 years."

On a rainy spring afternoon Mount sits in a recliner in the
living room of his and Donna's small ranch house on Hopkins
Street, a block from where he was raised. Fittingly, he makes his
money selling the Shoot-Away, a net and ramp contraption that
returns the basketball to the shooter. He makes more money
running his camps, most of which take place at Spiece Field House
in Fort Wayne.

Richie is a police officer in Lebanon, and he and his wife,
Robina, have two sons: Jordan, who is three, and Derek, six
months. Maybe they'll grow up to be jump shooters. "They have the
genes," says Rick.

He still puts up those 500 jumpers every morning, not in some
reach for past glory but because it keeps him fit. "He'll do it
when he's 80 if his knees hold up," says Richie. "It's his
passion."

He has been getting out more lately, too. Several times a year he
talks basketball with a dozen or so guys, including Rosenstihl
and Mount's Purdue and Pacers teammate Billy Keller. Nothing, it
seems, will thaw his enmity toward Keady, Leonard or Tribbett,
but his friends otherwise see a slow change. "I've always thought
Rick was a little bit misunderstood," says Keller. "People
thought he was cocky or distant or difficult. He's just always
had a very small comfort zone. Lately, working with those girls
in Lebanon, doing a few things more socially, his comfort zone is
finally getting wider. He's growing. He really is."

At home, Mount leans back in the recliner and considers a long
life. "God was looking after me, you know?" he says at last. "The
jump shot he gave me, that was my special gift."

With that, he raises his right arm skyward and flicks his wrist,
leaving a beautiful fishhook dangling in the air.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID BURNETT/CONTACT PRESS IMAGES HOOP DREAMER Mount still works out on the court of his old high school gym, now part of a private health club. COLOR PHOTO: RICH CLARKSON JUMP SHORT Mount's 28 points weren't enough for Purdue to overcome UCLA in his first college game, in '67. B/W PHOTO: JOHN D. HANLON Slow on the uptake? Mount felt the Pacers' coach didn't give him a fair shot, but lack of quickness was his downfall. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID BURNETT/CONTACT PRESS IMAGES SERMON FROM THE MOUNT The once idolized player now preaches his basketball gospel at one of his camps, in Fort Wayne. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID BURNETT/CONTACT PRESS IMAGES VITAMIN J Mount says that he hoists 500 jumpers every morning to stay in shape, not to hold onto a storied past.

"In the pros," says Mount's former coach Leonard, "he had
trouble defending and getting his shot off."

Many folks in Lebanon considered Mount to be a bitter man until
a bunch of teenage girls rescued him.

"He'll do it when he's 80 if his knees hold up," Richie says of
his dad's shooting. "It's his passion."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)