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Ain't God good to Indiana?
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.
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."