To fully appreciate the extraordinary gifts of America's best high jumper, Franklin Jacobs, allow the mind to imagine Jimmy Carter leaping over Wilt Chamberlain -- when Chamberlain is on tippytoe.
At 5-foot-8 1/4, up a quarter-inch in the last few months, Jacobs looks out of place in his specialty, a dwarf among all those rangy fellows who surely must have been forward rejects from basketball. Physically, Jacobs most resembles a distance runner, a Filbert Bayi with muscles.
But Jacobs seems capable of jumping out of the ionospherem unless the event happens to be the AAU championship. Then the junior at Fairleigh Dickinson University will find a way to lose, as he did here Friday night.
Jacobs set the American record of 7 feet 7 1/4 inches -- an astonishing 23 1/4 inches over his height -- in Madison Square Garden last year and was confident of an even higher number Friday.
At the Millrose Games two weeks ago, he won at 7-6 and had visions of once unimaginable heights behind that small and wonderfully expressive face. To Track and Field News, he said: "7-9 is my goal for '79."
If someone had called Friday's test the Fleischmann's Invitational, after the sponsor, and kept those dratted letters, "AAU," out of it, perhaps that would have happened.
In slightly less than three years, Jacobs has won 47 meets. In the AAU, however, he knows how Sam Snead feels after the U.S. Open and Fran Tarkenton after the Super Bowl -- empty. Five times, three indoors and two outdoors, Jacobs has lost one of the country's most coveted titles. Once again Friday, an injury was partly to blame.
Jacobs developed what the thought was a bruise on the heel of his left, or takeoff, foot while winning at San Diego and New Orleans Feb. 16 and 17. He avoided a relatively minor meet earlier last week here and decided to compete in the AAUs after a decent warmup.
Much of the crowd had come to see Jacobs -- and he enjoys being seen, strutting about in a distinctive warmup suit with his name in large letters across the back of the jacket. He may well draw strength from crowds, because many of his best jumps have been in the Garden.
The world first took serious notice of Jacobs at the AAU meet two years ago, in part because he was one of the few jumpers jumping.
Dwight Stones, the mouth that soared, organized a boycott of the high jump. Straddling the issue for a long time, Jacobs finally decided to compete and finished third at 6-10.
In truth, no one much cared for Jacobs' views before the meet, but afterward Stones was heard muttering: "Who is this Jacob Franklin?"
Yes, even the AAU had overlooked the man wireservice stories now refer to as "Mr, Spring" and "The Flexible Flyer." His name was reversed in the program that night, for Stones and everyone else to see. Nobody has made a similar mistake since.
When Jacobs now so much as hints of a limp, the track and field world -- from Moscow to Riococks its head. With Stones apparently more interested in money then medals, Jacobs is America's best in the event.
A Soviet, Vladimir Yashchenko, holds the world record at 7-8 1/8 -- and jumpers unknown beyond their homes at the moment could leap past Jacobs in the '80 Games in Moscow. But he commands attention now.
Jacobs has a decided mental advantage before most jumps begin, for his competition nearly always is four to six inches taller (Yashchenko is 6-4). And he has no obvious physical edge.In fact, he looks as though he should be shooed away from the event and told to keep company with others his size.
Then he flops over some outrageously high warmup heights, effortlessly it seems, and everyone -- including some of the competition -- goes bonkers.
"I've watched many big guys," he said, "and they can't jump. They may have a longer torso or longer arms, so they are physically bigger. I've watched their vertical lift from the floor to their feet -- not too high. Like Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar), he can slam that ball so hard you'd think he had just jumped to the moon. But I've watched his feet and he's not that high off the ground.
"But I've seen myself in films -- and when I'm up there, it's a long way up. I really explode off the floor."
On his first try at 7-2 1/4 Friday night, Jacobs missed. The foot hurt again, so he was examined on the floor. During that examination, the doctor rewrapped the foot and thought he discovered a cyst on one side.
That miss cost Jacobs the title, for although he and Benn ("There's enough guys named Ben") Fields of the Philadelphia Pioneers cleared the same height, 7-4 3/4, Fields won on fewer misses.
About 2,500 of the original crowd of more than 13,000 stayed until nearly midnight to watch Jacobs; they chanted and clapped as he prepared for what would be his final jump of the meet and Jacobs responded with a weak salute.
Then he knocked the bar off on the way up