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Here he comes, the Leaping Lawyer, the Bounding Barrister! Meet the future mayor of Oceanside, the future governor of California...maybe the future President of the U.S. Not long ago it was suggested to Georgia Banks, Willie Banks's mother, that he run for city councilman. "But he's still in law school!" she protested. Nevertheless, there are plenty of folks in Oceanside telling 26-year-old William Augustus Banks III, "If you ever run for anything, you have my vote." Banks, who's completing his second year at UCLA law school, certainly wants to try for some office—but at the proper time, BANKS FOR PRESIDENT—does have a nice ring, BANK ON WILLIE—there's a readymade bumper sticker most candidates would kill for.
At present, however, Banks is campaigning on behalf of his sport. So if this guy is so charismatic, you ask, how come one has to be a hard-core track nut to recognize his name? Well, Banks happens to be the indoor world-record holder in the triple jump, an event that's about as carefully followed by the general population as speed crocheting. Indeed, until he decided to do something about it. Banks knew that when he toed the line the eyes of the crowd would be almost inevitably on someone else; if he heard cheers, he would look around to see what was going on, because they surely wouldn't be for him.
When the triple jump happened to be the last event to finish at a meet, as it was at the The Athletics Congress championships in Sacramento last June, Banks looked at a great vista of empty bleachers, occasionally saved from being totally vacant by a handful of "hop, step and jump" faithful, most of them apparently sitting on their hands. "I'm an emotional jumper," he said. "Why are they so quiet? I need noise!" Still, at the TACs, he improved his American outdoor record twice, to 56'11¼" and 57'7½". Both marks were second only to the world record of 58'8¼" that João Oliveira of Brazil set in 1975 at the 7,200-foot altitude of Mexico City. And as if to show that the denser air at low-lying Sacramento didn't faze him. Banks flung his body out to 58'7" on his last try—a foul by a mere couple of inches.
So to get the emotional jolt he wants—nay, needs—Banks has taken to traveling with his own noise. In the spring of 1980 he was roller-skating in Los Angeles with former national triple-jump champion Milan Tiff when he heard this electrifying tune pumping out of the loudspeaker. It was Knee Deep by a group called Funkadelic, and right away Banks was inspired, was skating so smooooth. "I'm not into funk," he says, "but this music made me do some awfully tricky moves." Now when Banks waits for his turn at the top of the runway, he holds a pocket-size tape player in his hands, listening through lightweight earphones as the Funkadelic leans into Something about the Music and then into a guitar instrumental going on and on and on. The music churns Banks's adrenaline until he can't stand it anymore, and just as the Funkadelic gets to Ants in the Pants and a Knee to Dance, he drops his earphones and recorder and starts his run-in.
Last summer in Scandinavia he had a hard time talking meet promoters into scheduling the triple jump. "It's just not a very exciting event," they told him before the Dagens Nyheter meet in Stockholm in early July, but they reluctantly agreed to give it a try. Banks talked to his fellow jumpers in the Olympic Stadium. "Guys, let's make the triple jump the most exciting event," he said. "Let's all do a PR." They looked at him. "Crazy," someone muttered.
"I watched a few of them jump," says Banks, "and I must admit it was all very dull." He decided to put on a show. Listening to Knee Deep, he began to stretch, move, dance. "I did an older dance called the Gigolo," he says. He noticed that a few spectators were looking his way. But when he got to the top of the runway ready to jump, the crowd was watching a race. Banks turned to the grandstands and started clapping. He got a polite response. After his first effort of 55'3½", which put him in the lead, a few people clapped again. "Thank you, thank you!" Banks shouted. Then he danced some more, bending and twisting his 6'3", 175-pound body, and when he took off his sweats before his next attempt, there was another trickle of applause from the section nearest him. This time he landed only 10 centimeters short of the stadium record, and when this feat was applauded, Banks again thanked his few fans profusely. Then he darted over in front of an adjacent section and yelled, "What's the matter with you?" He soon had a whole side of the stadium clapping for him. His fifth jump, of 56'10¾", bettered the stadium record, and from then on the crowd was in his pocket.
Before his turn came for his sixth and final attempt, he jogged a lap, a victory lap, and in every section of the 25,000-seat stadium he passed, fans were clapping and shouting. Right after he finished his lap, the 800 meters began, but now the whole stadium was watching him—not the race—and cheering. He was so fired up, he flew 57'7"—only ½" off his American record. "I was carried by their cheers," he says. Spectators bolted from their seats and ran over to hug and congratulate him. It was something that had never happened in the triple jump before. After that, no European promoter dared tell Banks that his wasn't a very exciting event.
And Banks's act has played as well in Melbourne as in Stockholm. Early this year he participated in six meets in New Zealand and Australia. "In Auckland," he says, "they even played the Funkadelic on the loudspeaker, and the whole stadium was clapping to the beat."
Before the Jack-In-The-Box Invitational indoor meet in San Diego last February, Banks was on every local TV station promoting his event. "When I go down the runway," he told the viewers, "I need noise, I need applause, I need your attention. If you want a world record, all you have to do is ask for it." But as he rode to the San Diego Sports Arena in a taxi, he realized he had forgotten to bring his Funkadelic tape. He was dropped at a record store, where he searched for the cassette. No luck. What was he to do? Then he remembered that in Australia he had been in a TV spot, running with a bunch of children to the tune of The Rolling Stones' Start Me Up, and that he had liked the song. Banks found a Stones' tape with the song on it, ran across the street to the Sports Arena and began to stretch to the sound of Mick Jagger attempting to swallow a microphone. "The music was so good," he says, "I told a couple of friends that I felt like setting a world record that night." The crowd, psyched by Banks's TV appeals and his warmup act, didn't let him down. Nor he them—he set his indoor world mark of 57'1½".
The triple jump is a bruising event. When Banks got to I ausanne a week after his Stockholm triumph last summer, he was hurting. In Lausanne, he and his teammate Mike Marlow, who was also injured, decided to cool it and compete in the long jump, which seems like a light workout to a triple jumper. Before the competition. Banks had to have acupuncture to ease the pain in his sore right ankle, and when he got to the track, one needle was still sticking in his right ear so that the treatment would last through the meet. His first leaps were around 23 feet, a distance that was surpassed by several other jumpers. There were shouts of "Willie, come on!" from the crowd, which had heard of his triple-jump performance of the previous week. Banks shouted to the fans, "All right! But I'm going to need some help." They started cheering lustily. He jumped 26'7¼" that day, the best of his life by almost eight inches. His triumphal tour ended the following week when he pulled his right hamstring warming up at the World University Games in Bucharest. "That was just God saying, 'Take it easy,' " he says. "I needed a rest."