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Covered in Glory

Rick Mount originated role of prep phenom-as-media star in 1966, but life since hasn't been all layups and open jumpers

January 03, 2003|Mike Bresnahan | Times Staff Writer

Before Kobe Bryant made the jump to the big time, before Dajuan Wagner scored 100 points in a high school game, before LeBron James appeared on national television and the cover of Sports Illustrated, way before any of this, there was the original.

He played to overflow crowds at the 2,200-seat gym in Lebanon, Ind., Rick Mount did, drilling shot after shot for Lebanon High.

He was textbook before a text had been written, learning by repetition, shooting for hours at Memorial Park as little kids fought to get the ball back to him.

He rode in convertibles in Fourth of July parades and was the treasure in a town of fewer than 10,000 people 25 miles northwest of Indianapolis.

It was Feb. 14, 1966, when Mount stopped being Lebanon's little secret and became the first male high school team athlete to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated. It changed his life, throwing him into mailboxes from Orono, Maine, to Orange County, and raised expectations that he had been able to fulfill only partially when his pro career came to an abrupt, uninspiring end with the Utah Stars in the old American Basketball Assn. in 1975.

James, whose next tour stop is Saturday night at Pauley Pavilion against Santa Ana Mater Dei, was on the cover of Sports Illustrated last February. He was photographed clutching a golden basketball, with the words "The Chosen One" practically predicting a nine-time NBA All-Star run for the senior from St. Vincent-St. Mary's High in Akron, Ohio.

Mount's cover photo better fit his era, a softer snapshot taken in front of a barn in Boone County, imprinting upon a national readership the notion of a sweet-shooting small-town Hoosier kid years before Larry Bird arrived on the scene.

"I had a lot of statewide publicity already," Mount said. "And then when that article came out, it gave me national prominence."

Life since that Sports Illustrated cover has been a series of three-pointers and airballs for Mount.

He was a three-time All-American at Purdue, but he never approached his amateur achievements in pro ball, spending a humble five-year ABA career with four teams.

He stumbled as a post-basketball businessman and later sparred with Purdue over the treatment of his famed, but not retired, No. 10 jersey, making some people wonder what happened to the kid they used to call Mount Lebanon.

He now lives less than a block from where he grew up, mere miles from the red barn in the photo.

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Mount, with his trademark blond flat-top haircut, was purity and poetry with the ball, his 6-foot-4 frame and strong leaping ability a perfect combination for his jump shot.

He was the king of the medium-range jumper, drilling 17-footers near the top of the key, on the wing and from the baseline.

"There's that old image of a country kid shooting on a basketball backboard nailed to a barn door, with snowflakes coming down," said Bob King, Mount's coach at Purdue. "That's Rick Mount. That's Indiana basketball."

Mount was Indiana's high school Mr. Basketball in 1966 and became Purdue's all-time leading scorer during a different time in college basketball.

Dunking was not allowed. The three-point line did not exist. College players stayed all four years and played only three -- freshmen, ineligible for varsity competition, spent a mandatory year on their own team.

Lucrative sponsorship deals from sneaker companies were nonexistent. NCAA games were televised regionally, if that, until the tournament, which included only 25 teams.

More relaxed rules let college coaches recruit whenever they wanted, allowing them to flock to Memory Hall to see the sweet-shooting kid in person.

"There were a lot of them coming through," said Jim Rosenstihl, Mount's coach at Lebanon. "I'd take them down to the dressing room after the game. I'd tell them before I went down there that I'd want them to shake some of these other players' hands too. And they would. But Rick was the one they were interested in."

Understandably.

Mount averaged 33.1 points in his final two years at Lebanon and finished with 2,595 points, still fourth in Indiana prep history.

Crawfordsville High, the host of a game against Lebanon in 1965, anticipated a large crowd and moved the game to the fieldhouse at Butler University in Indianapolis. More than 10,000 people attended. The school made enough money to buy a bus.

After high school, Mount originally committed to Miami. Then he realized that basketball there was secondary, perhaps tertiary, behind football and sunbathing. He never enrolled and instead went 35 miles away to Purdue, which had quietly kept open a scholarship in case Mount changed his mind.

At Purdue, Mount averaged 32.3 points in his three-year career and was Big Ten player of the year in 1969 and '70. He is best known for his role in one of the more memorable NCAA tournament games, hitting a "leaping lofter," as some observers called it, with two seconds left to beat Marquette in overtime, 75-73, sending the Boilermakers to the 1969 Final Four.

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