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He feels a bit constricted
Craig Neff
February 13, 1984
Tyke Peacock longs for the NBA even as he sets high-jump marks
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February 13, 1984

He Feels A Bit Constricted

Tyke Peacock longs for the NBA even as he sets high-jump marks

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Charles William (Tyke) Peacock, America's No. 1 high jumper, rattles the rims of a Fresno, Calif. high school gym with dunks. In his repertoire are reverses, tomahawks and whirlybirds. The twisting, spinning, gliding Peacock, who stands 6'1", puts on a gleeful display. He springs up effortlessly, hovers at eye level to the rim and then wham! He comes down grinning.

This is merely the start of a typical Thursday night workout in the middle of the indoor track season. Having warmed up with his dunks, he now takes to the court for an hour or so of recreation-league ball with the Easy East Express, a powerhouse of a team sprinkled with former junior-college players. Peacock, himself a onetime star at nearby Modesto J.C., jumps center, then shifts to guard and shows off a deadly outside shot. If it's a truly typical Thursday, Peacock by himself will all but outscore the opposing team. When the game is over, he'll drive home, tune in to, say, a Warrior-Laker broadcast and imagine what it will be like when all this basketball—the three hours he plays each afternoon in Fresno city parks, the three years he played for Modesto J.C. and the University of Kansas, the evenings he has spent with the Express—pays off with a ticket to the pros.

Peacock's priorities are clear: If given a choice between an Olympic gold medal in the high jump at this summer's Games in Los Angeles and a spot on an NBA roster, he'd take the latter without hesitation. Yet the 22-year-old Peacock has such extraordinary gifts for high jumping—quick acceleration, good body control and a standing vertical leap of at least 40 inches—that almost without trying he has become a gold-medal contender. He has improved by an average of nearly two inches a year for each of the last six years, during which time his training has consisted mostly of playground basketball. In recent months he has started practicing the high jump once or twice a week, but before that Peacock's idea of training was to "do maybe 50 dunks, get into a pickup game and that would be it."

Still, he won the high jump at the 1981 World Cup in Rome, got the silver medal at last summer's World Championships in Helsinki—losing on fewer misses to the U.S.S.R.'s Gennadi Avdeyenko after they had both cleared 7'7�"—and broke the U.S. record he'd tied at Helsinki with a 7'7�" jump four days later in Berlin. Moreover, in an event filled with skittish thoroughbreds, Peacock is now regarded as perhaps the world's best big-meet jumper. "You are never going to see him choke. He just doesn't," says former world-record holder Dwight Stones. "The European jumpers fear him," adds erstwhile U.S. indoor champion Benn Fields. The really bad news for the fearful is that Peacock finally seems truly well-disposed toward his event. "I think the American record has made me enjoy it a little more," he says. "Now I'm paying more attention to the technical aspects." He has even—though ever so reluctantly—put his NBA hopes on hold until after the L.A. Games.

Peacock is an upbeat, likable guy who shrugs off the superlatives heaped upon him for his dual talents. He has been high jumping since he was a seventh-grader at Urbana (Ill.) Junior High and playing basketball virtually since he became a Tyke. (His mom, LaCulia, gave him the nickname when he was a baby, because he was so tiny.) As a youngster, Tyke, the sixth of seven children, emulated an older brother, Turk (real name: Turhan), who straddle-jumped 6'6" at Urbana High and costarred with Tyke as a small forward on the school's basketball team. "Turk and Tyke, we used to catch the blues for our nicknames," says Tyke. "People called us everything from Heckle and Jeckle to Frick and Frack." By the time Tyke graduated in 1979, he was also known as an honorable mention all-state guard (22 points per game as a senior) and the Illinois high school high jump champion (7'2�"). Two years later he was a junior-college All-America guard (19.0) and, on the strength of his 7'5�" World Cup victory, the No. 1-ranked high jumper in the world.

Long before that, Peacock had established himself as tops when it came to high-jumping style. In high school he always competed wearing an old leather aviator's helmet and bright orange sweat pants cut off just above the knees. He also kept a toothpick in his mouth. "It made me feel good and helped psych other jumpers out," says Peacock. To gain a further mental edge—and keep his legs warm as long as possible—he began leaving his full sweat pants on in competition until he missed. Today that's as much his hallmark as the diamond stud he wears in his left ear.

In high school Peacock also developed the prejump ritual he still performs. First he squats with his back to the bar, ridding himself of any distracting thoughts. He then rises, turns and begins delicately massaging pressure points on his sternum and the inside of each knee. "If you rub those points with a clockwise motion, it gives you, I guess you'd call it, a burst of energy," he says. Next Peacock stares at the bar and runs through an assortment of expressions—fascination, anger, bewilderment—as if all that energy has caused an overload in his facial circuitry. "I'm mentally picturing myself clearing," he says. Finally he rocks back, takes four slow steps and runs his J-curve to the bar.

What follows is a jump that, to say the least, is rough around the edges. "Tyke could cut his run in half and jump about as well," says master technician Stones, still a world-class performer at 30. "All he does is get into position for a rebound in the last few steps." But when he plants his left foot, shoots up like a coil spring and comes down with an American record, who's to criticize him? Even Stones says, "He's created a technique and a run-up around his particular ability, and you have to admire that."

And you've got to expect Peacock to do things his own way. He rides a motorcycle, does terrific impersonations—sometimes during competition—of everyone from Teddy Pendergrass to Elvis to Archie Bunker, and generally tries to avoid taking the world or himself too seriously. He keeps a four-foot boa constrictor named Smoothy as a pet, "probably," he says, "because not too many other people would." Fortunately, Peacock's new wife, the former Kim Gary, whom he married last Saturday in Reno, is as unconventional as he is. After all, she gets along with that snake. She's also a former elementary school basketball coach and high school basketball player.

But Peacock's nonconformist ways don't always pay off. Kansas had offered him a full basketball scholarship in 1981, and his shooting eye and quickness made him valuable as a spot player. But there was too much playground in his style for him to become a regular. "The problem was, he was very unpredictable when he had the ball in the open court," says Jayhawk assistant coach Bob Hill. Seeking more playing time than the five minutes a game he was averaging, Peacock quit Kansas at the end of one season and enrolled at Fresno State, where after sitting out a year he hoped to make the team as a walk-on this season. But during preseason drills Peacock decided he "just wasn't fitting in" with the Bulldog program, hardly a surprising occurrence because Fresno State plays one of the most controlled offenses in the country. He left the team and dropped out of school.

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