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The vertical leap, that magic measurement that supposedly indicates a player's ability to soar, has become a basketball buzz phrase. As the popularity of the term has grown, so have the numbers attached to it. Currently the 40-inch barrier seems to separate the leapers from the lead-footed. To understand what that means, measure 40 inches up the wall in your living room and try jumping high enough to clear that mark with your heels—without a running start.
Can such a leap really be routine, as a number of observers seem to suggest, for the moderately gifted college player? "I have big trouble with it," says Dwight Stones, former world-record holder in the high jump. "I just don't believe a guy can spring almost four feet into the air without any momentum." When informed that Joey Johnson, a 6'4" Arizona State guard, is credited with a 50-inch vertical leap, Stones responded, "That's insane."
Stones says that if Johnson could vertical leap 50 inches, his hips, the key to a successful high jump, would be 90 inches, or 7'6", into the air. That would be just 5¼ inches under the world record—and from a standing start. With momentum from a running takeoff, Stones says, Johnson would be able to easily break the world record. In fact, Johnson is a talented high jumper, but his personal best is 7'5¾", achieved while he attended the College of Southern Idaho. The Arizona State athletic officials say that Johnson's vertical leap has never been measured by them. Like most other college players with big vertical-jump numbers, Johnson arrived on campus carrying his like a cherished icon.
Stones believes that the only fair test of one's leaping ability is the so-called Sargent jump: The athlete, standing on tiptoe, first makes a mark with a piece of chalk as high as he can reach on a wall; then, bending and springing as high as he can, he makes a second mark. The difference between the height of the marks is the height of the athlete's vertical leap. "My numbers are under 30," says Stones. "I've got trouble believing almost any number over 40. I want to witness somebody do that. I just want to see it."
Another skeptic is Mike Conley, one of the world's best long and triple jumpers, who was an all-state high school basketball player in Chicago. "I'm surprised by the numbers," he says, "but you have to know how they're being measured." There's the rub. Does the player jump from a stationary position? Is he allowed a single step? Or does he keep one foot planted and gain momentum by swinging the other foot into the jump? Conley has seen all three methods employed, with, of course, widely varied results. Until there's a consensus on how such a test should be administered and who should administer it, vertical leap stats are best considered leaps of faith.
The parity party raged on last week, leaving some major conference races topsy-turvy:
•Surprising Villanova sat atop the Big East at 6-1 while preseason heavies Georgetown and Syracuse found themselves fighting for their lives on Sunday in the Carrier Dome. After Georgetown lost 65-58 to St. John's four days earlier to run up its first three-game losing streak in the conference since 1981-82, Hoya coach John Thompson issued an emotional statement of support for his players: "I love these kids when we win, and I'm going to make damn sure I love them when we lose." The Hoyas won 69-68 in Syracuse as guard Charles Smith made a stirring end-to-end drive for a twisting hang-in-the-air layin at the buzzer. It was the third conference loss for the Orangemen.
•That the Big Eight title is up for grabs was best illustrated by Missouri's 119-93 drubbing of Iowa State last week. The Cyclones, who had looked like a team on the rise, fell prey to Tiger forward Derrick Chievous, who had 30 points and 14 rebounds, and to the Missouri crowd. Iowa State forward Jeff Grayer, who scored 23 points but shot only 8 for 22, said that taunting from the fans disturbed him. "It got to me. I took some bad shots trying to do too much," he said. Meanwhile the Big Eight leader was unheralded Kansas State, 2-0 in the conference and 10-4 overall.