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.