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Banks Single-Footedly Saved Endangered Species

Quick! Who is the world record-holder in the men’s triple jump?

No offense to Jonathan Edwards, the Englishman who broke the 60-foot barrier. But if you’re not a track and field fan, and perhaps even if you are, he’s probably jumping below your radar screen.

The event was not always so obscure, and neither was its champion. When Willie Banks reigned, he was as famous in parts of the world where the sport is appreciated as Carl Lewis, Edwin Moses and Evelyn Ashford.

The world record Banks set in 1985, which stood until Edwards broke it 10 years later, was a great example of perseverance, coming less than a year after his greatest disappointment--the failure to win a medal in the 1984 L.A. Olympics.

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His greatest accomplishment, however, was single-handedly saving his event from extinction.

Actually, the former UCLA All-American from Oceanside credits the 16 hands of “eight drunken Swedes,” who were in the crowd for a 1981 meet at Stockholm and began mimicking his runway ritual of pumping his fist twice and clapping.

By the time he was ready for his sixth and final jump that night, virtually everyone in the stadium was clapping in unison.

Suddenly, European promoters, who had been eliminating the triple jump from their meets because triple jumpers “don’t put butts in the seats,” were begging Banks to appear.

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Because they needed a field, other triple jumpers found work as well. Some of Banks’ competitors, who didn’t appreciate the crowd participation initially because it distracted them, became his biggest fans.

The triple jump is in trouble again. Whenever you read speculation about events that might go the way of the two-handed javelin throw because of lack of interest, it’s on the list.

Unfortunately, though, there’s only one Willie Banks and, at 43, his only upcoming track and field appearance will be at the Century Plaza Hotel on Thursday. He will be inducted with three others--marathon runner Bill Rodgers, hurdler Charlie Moore and the late coach Larry Ellis--into the National Track & Field Hall of Fame in a ceremony sponsored by Xerox. That’s at least one more chance to clap for him.

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It’s too bad Kobe Bryant couldn’t have returned in time for tonight’s Laker game at Seattle. Then we could have seen whether Ruben Patterson, an unlikely SuperSonic sensation who spent most of last season on the Laker bench, is the “Kobe stopper” he claims to have been. . . .

Regulars at Laker practices remember Patterson mostly as the player who got Bryant going by challenging him. But maybe Patterson stopped him a couple of times. . . .

Give him some credit. He’s certainly had more of an impact in Seattle through the first 14 games of the season than the Lakers believed possible. . . .

W.C. Heinz’s brilliant 1961 anthology, “The Book of Boxing,” which includes prose from Plato to Victor Hugo to Red Smith, has been updated and re-released by Total Sports Illustrated Classics. . . .

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As Heinz points out in the preface, Muhammad Ali might have been “the Greatest,” but he was only the latest to make that claim. . . .

In an excerpt from “The Iliad,” which Heinz calls the first fight story, boxing champion Epeus, boasting that he will win a prize mule in a tournament, shouts, “Step right up and get it--whoever wants that cup! This mule is mine, I tell you. No Achaen in sight will knock me out and take her--I am the greatest!” . . .

I’m glad that Heinz includes a piece from Hugh McIlvanney, an outstanding boxing writer from London who receives scant attention on this side of the Atlantic. . . .

But the book is missing contributions from Richard Hoffer and John Schulian. No boxing library is complete without Hoffer’s biography of Mike Tyson, “A Savage Business,” and Schulian’s, “Writers’ Fighters and Other Sweet Scientists.” . . .

Tony Ayala, a promising middleweight before spending 16 years in prison, continues his comeback Saturday in San Antonio against Tony Menefee. Ayala has an open workout scheduled today at noon at the L.A. Boxing Gym on Washington Boulevard. . . .

Laffit Pincay, on the verge of breaking Bill Shoemaker’s record for victories, told the Daily News’ Kevin Modesti that seven mounts is hard on a 52-year-old body. But there is one advantage to those full days. He gets to consume 100 extra calories. What is that, a ginger snap?

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While wondering who would have guessed that Tampa Bay at Seattle would be the most attractive NFL game of the weekend, I was thinking: Green Bay versus San Francisco must have looked like a winner to “Monday Night Football” before the season.

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Randy Harvey can be reached at his e-mail address: randy.harvey@latimes.com.


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