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 Jo√£o 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.
May 16, 1982
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."
The rest cost Banks dearly. When he got to the World Cup in Rome in September, his leg had healed enough to allow him to compete in the triple again, but he had missed too much training and had lost a lot of muscle mass. Worse yet, while he was warming up, a dour official took his earphones away, and Banks was bereft of his music. The fans nearest the pit kept cheering, but, says Banks, "I was trying so hard and nothing would come to me." He came in third, with 55'11"; Oliveira, whose career would be ended when he injured his right leg in an automobile accident four months later, won at 57 feet. But Banks had made his mark with the crowd, and it was he who had brought sudden attention to the triple.
Banks got into triple-jumping when Oceanside High included the event in its program in 1973, his junior year at the school. He had been a high and long jumper and a hurdler, but young Willie was always eager to try something new. Oceanside's track coach. Ken Barnes, was still learning about those strange kangaroo leaps of the triple from books and films when he had to double the length of the long jump pit, because Banks was popping 44-foot triples right off the bat. He had quickly learned how to "hop" on his right leg for the first part of the triple and land stretched way out in the third-part, the "jump," but like all novice triple jumpers, he was having difficulty mastering the middle part, the "step," where he had to bound first off his right leg and then his left. In this crucial part of the triple. Banks was too short. He consulted Bill Christopher, a retired lieutenant colonel and geography teacher at Oceanside who had been a triple jumper at a Baton Rouge high school back in the '30s when Louisiana was about the only state where the hop, step and jump, as the triple was then called, was contested. "The triple jump consists of three equal parts, Christopher told Banks. "You have to have a steady rhythm—tom, tom, tom, not tom, tatom."
Banks also wasn't above gleaning a lesson from a rival. At the Oceanside-Vista dual meet that year, he studied Al McClure, a Vista senior and the favorite to win the event. He saw that McClure went nine feet in the step phase, while Banks had never gone more than four or five. "So that's how you do it," he told McClure's coach, Jim Downs, and then he simply added three feet to his step and won with a 48-foot jump.
In both his junior and senior years. Banks was California high school champion in the event, setting state meet records of 49'7¼" and then 50'7". "We won almost all the relay titles because of Willie," says Barnes. "You could count on him winning three events. In his senior year he became San Diego County champion in the high hurdles, the long jump and the triple jump, all in one day."
"I recruited Willie for two years," says UCLA Track Coach Jim Bush. Little did Bush know that Banks had decided in elementary school that he would go to UCLA. That was when he got a gleaming blue-and-gold UCLA button at the Orange County Fair and pinned it to the wall in his bedroom.
Georgia Banks, a big, bustling woman needed her irrepressible sense of humor in raising determined young Willie and his four brothers and sisters, but she was up to the job. Georgia's husband, William Augustus Banks II, who served in the Marine Corps until 1973 and saw duty in Korea and Vietnam, was forced to leave much of the children's education to her. Even now, he spends weekdays working as a personnel accountant at Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino and is free to visit his family only over weekends.
Still, the photograph of Gunnery Sergeant Banks in the den of the family's comfortable home, showing a dignified man in uniform, decorated with eight of the 13 medals he has been awarded, serves as a constant reminder that the sergeant expected as much from his children as his wife did. Both could point to examples of excellence in their families: Georgia's uncle, William McKinley Battle, known simply as Uncle Mac, was the only black lawyer in Kinston, N.C. When he died in 1963, he left all his books to 7-year-old Willie. Willie's grandfather, William Augustus Banks Sr., had been a minister and poet in Chattanooga.
When Sgt. Banks was home, he was the disciplinarian, reminding his children that they wouldn't succeed in life without putting in what he most believed in—hard work. "His word was the law," says Willie. "Everybody feared him. From my father I learned to work, to discipline myself, to have self-confidence. I think I got my direction from my mother. My parents didn't have a lot of money, but they made all these opportunities available to us. I grabbed every opportunity; I didn't want to miss out on anything. I was probably the luckiest kid in the family."
Through the years the Banks family lived on various Marine bases in California, Georgia made sure her children were exposed to whatever opportunities each new post presented. "Mother can't swim," she says. "Therefore, every one of my kids had to learn to swim so they could save me." They also learned to ride horses, play golf, ice-skate and ski. "Often we were the only black people doing these things," Georgia says. She played football with them during the day and read to them at night.
Willie began to read when he was four. He won his first trophy—in a rodeo barrel race—at seven. He made eagle scout at 13. But as Georgia puts it, he was also "the cryingest baby you ever saw." In elementary school, if he missed a question in a test, he cried. He couldn't accept a B or a C. The teachers told Georgia to take Willie to a psychiatrist. "There's nothing wrong with him," said the doctor. "Every parent would like to have a child like that."
Banks got involved in school politics at Oceanside High. He was president of his freshman class, vice-president of his sophomore class and vice-president of the Associated Student Body as a junior and senior.
In 1973 Downs and Bob Larsen, who then coached at Grossmont College in El Cajon, Calif., took an all-star track team of 40 teen-agers on a five-week trip to Finland and Sweden. Even though Banks was one of the youngest members of the group, he was picked as its spokesman. "He made the speeches," says Downs. "We always introduced him as the future mayor of Oceanside. He would come on like a junior George Jessel."
At UCLA Banks majored in political science, and he pursued a master's in urban studies on a Coro Fellowship, awarded to outstanding student leaders. His master's is pending because he's still working on his thesis, entitled "Redevelopment in Montebello," which deals with the renewal of the section of East L.A. of that name.
Georgia says that Willie has long wanted to become President of the U.S., but recently he has been reevaluating that goal. "Most youngsters are impressed by the power of the President," he says. "As I grew older, I started to analyze what the presidency was. I want to help as many people as I can, and the job of the President isn't designed to help people on a one-on-one basis. I'm into that. I want to go out to people and talk to them like I'm a person and not a mystical supreme being."
Banks may have chosen UCLA because it has an outstanding political science department, but it happens that the school also has a reputation for turning out some of the best triple jumpers in the country, most notably Tiff and James Butts, another former American record-holder. Banks served notice that he was eager to carry on that tradition in the UCLA-USC dual meet of his freshman year, 1975. He still recalls it as his most thrilling moment in sport. According to the dopesheets. Banks figured to finish fourth in the long jump and third in the triple. The day before the meet he had told Maxie Parks, the anchor man on the mile relay, which is usually the last event of a college meet, "Just once I'd like to be you and be the guy who clinches a meet." The next day Banks was the surprise winner in the long jump, and the triple jump lasted so much longer than usual that the outcome of the meet did indeed depend on Banks's last attempt. Parks walked up to Banks, who stood third in the competition after the first five jumps, and said, "You always wanted to be me. Here's your chance." Banks leaped 55'1", two feet farther than he ever had before, which was good enough to win the event, give UCLA the team championship, earn a ride off the field on the shoulders of his teammates and set 15,000 fans in UCLA's Drake Stadium to cheering a triple jumper, probably for the first time in their lives. It was a preview of what Banks would be able to do for his event worldwide a few years later.
Banks now works out with Bruin seniors Chip Benson and Dokie Williams, who are both coached by Larsen, who has moved from Grossmont to UCLA. "I don't coach Willie," says Larsen. "On the contrary, he helps me." The three jumpers do special drills together, bounding from the top of one wooden box to the ground, then to the next box. "There are days when Chip and I don't feel like doing the boxes," says Williams, "but Willie always gets us going. He'll just grab me by the ear and drag me out there, and often those turn out to be my best days. He'll always go first and attack the boxes, and then he'll tell us what it's like to be floating on air. And he'll say, "There it is! Sixty feet!' "
It would take a 21-foot hop, an 18-foot step and a 21-foot jump to get to the 60-foot mark, and many believe that Banks will be the first to get there. He now touches down at 19, 18 and 20 feet when he jumps 57, and he knows that he will have to improve his speed down the runway and carry the added velocity all the way to his jackknife landing.
Since Banks started setting American records last year—one indoors and five outdoors so far—it has been rumored that his success is the result of a secret Tiff passed on to him. Tiff, who is 32 years old and a well-received surrealistic painter, is regarded as something of a triple-jumping guru. In the spring of 1980 he began working with Banks because, as he told him, "You just don't know how to triple-jump." From Tiff, Banks picked up a significant change in his hop phase: Instead of cocking the knee of his right—or lead—leg throughout the hop, the classic position, he stretches both legs as straight out as he can, performing almost a split in midair, reaching for a greater distance. It's pure ballet. Ron Livers, another Tiff disciple, uses the same technique.
Banks also adopted Tiffs philosophy that triple-jumping is an art form, a dance rather than an athletic event. "I think of it as a single movement," he says. "I'm swinging. It's not like I'm touching down at all." Tiff, who is an intense conversationalist, spent long hours talking to Banks. Banks. Tiff said, could jump so far that people wouldn't believe their eyes. He would jump with horses and they would hold each other up in the air. "He likes to say things that are on the edge of reality," says Banks. "Finally, the businessman in me took over, and I realized that you cannot spend so much time talking." He had a falling-out with Tiff and Livers over the Olympic boycott. Tiff and Livers decided that all three of them should stay away from the Olympic Trials because they were a futile exercise; Banks disagreed and went on to win there.
When Tiff is asked about the secret that he's said to have passed on to Banks, he speaks elliptically of his former disciple: "I have jumped 60 feet in the privacy of myself. For those who have seen me do it, it is impossible to explain. Sixty feet is painful. It turns you into a completely different human being. I taught Willie to prepare himself for that."
But for Banks 60 feet will just be another opportunity to grab. "It's not going to be impossible to explain," he says. "It's not going to come as a great shock to the world. Til be jumping in the 58s first, then 59s, then 60. It'll be just a logical progression."
As for the secret, Banks is still looking. After he watched Mikhail Baryshnikov perform his "helicopter" on TV, he wrote Baryshnikov and suggested an exchange of training methods. "If I could hold my position in the air for as long as he does, I know I could go 60 feet," says Banks, who's still awaiting a reply.
First in line, however, is the goal of surpassing Oliveira's world record. The secret to that. Banks feels, isn't so much high altitude as the following ingredients: an inspiring competition ("like Dokie and Chip—they always turn me on"); a partisan crowd ("including my family, all fired up to help me"); a hot afternoon; a favorite pit. All those elements will be there next Sunday at the Pepsi Invitational at UCLA—plus the taped inspiration of Funkadelic. It would be wise to tune in.