When Bob Beamon, world record-holding long jumper, began playing basketball again three months ago, Coach Mike Gordon watched the reaction of his Adelphi University squad: "They had the image everyone has of Bob—on that pedestal in Mexico City, the gold medal around his neck. Suddenly, here he is—the guy who leaped 29'2½"—playing basketball with them at this little school."
The last time Beamon had played organized ball was five years before at Jamaica (N.Y.) High, where he averaged 20 points a game and was showy enough to attract an offer from the Harlem Magicians. On the basis of his performance in the 1968 Olympics the Phoenix Suns, sight unseen, made him their 15th-round pick in the 1969 NBA draft. Of one thing the Suns were sure: Beamon could leap. "I'm the kind of guy," he says, "who can get up in the morning, go out to the pit and jump 26 feet." That kind of guy probably can be counted on one finger.
Jumping, in fact, comes so easily to Beamon that he has never worked at it very seriously. "I could have jumped 35 feet if I had practiced track as much as I have basketball," he says.
From the first day of practice at Adelphi, Beamon did the expected on the basketball court. When he went up he put both elbows above the rim. A teammate remembers a time when the 6'3" forward sailed in for a jump shot and he could read Beamon's shoe size—printed on the bottom of his shoes. But Beamon's hands are not yet those of a skilled performer and he has still to acquire court sense. "He isn't going to take us to a national title," Gordon says, "but he'll help win some games. He is a challenge to my ability because he has such raw talent."
Somebody is meeting the challenge: Beamon, Gordon—maybe the two of them. Through eight games, including four victories, Beamon has averaged 11 points and eight rebounds while playing less than full time. His best game was against CCNY, when he scored 20 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in an 85-76 victory. He has shown he has speed, that he can move well with the ball and that he is an accurate shooter from 12 feet away. Most of all, he is aggressive. Gordon says: "I have never had an intimidator. He is one."
Is Bob Beamon through with track? Not exactly: he is thinking of the 1972 Olympics at Munich, but he is also talking about pro basketball. One problem is his eligibility. Beamon began college at North Carolina A&T, transferred to the University of Texas at El Paso, left there after the athletes struck prior to a scheduled meet against Brigham Young and finally ended up at Adelphi in Garden City, Long Island, N.Y. If the NCAA rules in his favor he will finish the basketball season at Adelphi and maybe go out for track in the spring. Track Coach Ron Bazil says he is not counting on having Beamon, but if he does come out it will be strictly for fun. "He'll do some high jumping and we might use him in the 440-yard relay," Bazil says, but he has advised Beamon not to long-jump until he intends to compete in earnest. Beamon agrees. It would take him about four months to get into the kind of jumping shape, he says, "where I would know I was Bob Beamon." Most of all he wants to avoid the kind of experience he had in Miami during a 1969 meet.
"I won with a jump of 26'11 "and did it by springing off my left foot—not the right as in Mexico City. I'm not bragging, but it was a hell of a jump for the wrong foot. Can you imagine, some people booed? I realize they've done the same thing to Jim Ryun, but if people see me jumping again, they'll see me jump."
They will not, however, see him jump for jumping's sake, particularly on a basketball court. As a matter of policy the Adelphi athletic department has refused to exploit its world-class athlete. Gordon says: "I know we can win every center jump this season just by putting Bob out there and then replacing him after the tap. But if I'm not going to start him, I'm not going to take advantage of his special talent."
Should Beamon be declared ineligible, which seems likely, he will play his last college game at the end of this month. "He'll still work out with us," says Gordon, "and I'll set him up in an outside league so he continues to develop while he works for his degree [in sociology and anthropology]."
Gordon sees the day coming when an experienced and confident Bob Beamon is going to race downcourt on a fast break, stop his dribble somewhere around midcourt and float in for a lay-up. "There isn't a referee in the nation who wouldn't call Bob for traveling," Gordon says, almost gleefully.