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."