The night Willie Banks placed sixth in the triple jump at the 1984 Olympic Games, he went to a hotel room, lay on the bed and cried.

"I cried and cried for an hour and a half," Banks recalled, "and then I finally asked myself why I was crying. Was it because I'd lost? No. It was because I no longer had a goal in life.

"I thought about it some more and I realized that I was healthy, I was a good athlete and I still had a brain. I also had a goal left, because I want to become an attorney.

"And how about athletics? Well, there's the world record. The tears dried up and I smiled and thought, 'This is going to be fun.' It has been fun, but now that I've made it, I'll have to go home and cry until I find another goal."

Banks, who improved the world triple jump record to 58 feet 11 1/2 inches Sunday night in the U.S. Track and Field Championships, obviously is a man with a sense of humor. It has helped him over some rough spots, including three unsuccessful attempts to pass the California bar exam, and it also has made him one of the most popular figures in U.S. track and field.

Banks' legion of fans suffered with him after his Olympic failure. Now they can join in the cheers and savor the anticipation of what is still to come.

The eclipsed record of 58-8 1/2 was set by Joao de Oliveira of Brazil at Mexico City in 1975. Like Bob Beamon's 29-2 1/2 long jump of 1968, it was considered virtually unassailable, certainly at sea level where the greater air resistance renders the horizontal jumps far more difficult.

Until Sunday's amazing competition here, no other athlete had surpassed 58 feet without the benefit of an aiding wind. After Banks became the second, Mike Conley leaped 58-1 1/4 to become No. 3. With Charlie Simpkins jumping 57-5 3/4 and Olympic champion Al Joyner going 57-3 1/2, it made for an unparalleled competition.

Indianapolis is about 700 feet above sea level, Mexico City 7,550 feet.

"Now I think I can do 60 feet. I'm greedy," Banks said. "And now that I've done the world record at sea level -- I said I'd do it at sea level or not at all -- I can go to altitude and put it out so far I'll hold the world record for 10 years like Joao Oliveira. At least I will unless Mike Conley comes with me and then I'll have something to worry about."

Banks, 29, came here convinced he was capable of setting a world record. Only the weather provided some anxious moments.

"The facilities are extremely fast, even though I'm not especially fast," Banks said. "The wind isn't too bad, either. But the weather was terrible the first two days of the meet and I was afraid it would wreck my world record.

"When I got up this (Sunday) morning and saw the sun shining, I said, 'Something's going to happen here.' With the triple jump, sometimes you're hot and sometimes you're not.

"I started doing 57s a couple of months ago, and I knew I was there, even if nobody was paying attention. But when Mike Conley went 58-1 (wind-aided at the NCAA meet), I got nervous. I said, 'Willie, there's no way you'll win the national championship over Mike Conley unless you're in the low 59s or the high 58s.' "

After his Olympic failure, Banks began his turnaround by flying to Europe and topping 57 feet at Koblenz, West Germany. Then he switched his allegiance from Athletics West to the Los Angeles Track Club, and he credits his new teammates for making track and field fun again. He boosted his American record to 57-11 3/4 last week before making Sunday's hop, step and jump to glory.

"I've become a kid about the triple jump," Banks said. "It's no longer a job, going for a gold medal. And -- at least until now -- I was no longer the premier jumper, being hassled by people.

"I'm just Willie the kid again, having fun. I'd been on my own the last four years, but now I'm part of a team. I'm a gregarious person and when I'm training with these people it's not like I'm training. I can push it further, because it's fun, not a job."

For years, Banks has led the cheers for fellow triple jumpers and he has orchestrated a groundswell of crowd noise when he begins his run. But on his record attempt, the crowd was virtually unaware until the landing of what had happened. Everyone saw it, though, because he finished the jump just as Claudette Groenendaal overhauled Louise Romo in the 800 meters a few feet to his right.

"The crowd was not even aware I was jumping," Banks said. "But the excitement of Louise running through in first place got me up. I had told her she could win, just as I told (high jumper) Lee Balkin I was going to set a world record on that jump, and we both did it."

Banks embraced Romo after his world record was announced. Later Sunday night, as Banks spoke in the media tent, Romo stood amid the throng and watched him relate the events that led up to what he called "the greatest moment in my life." When he talked about how her victory in the 800 had inspired him, she made no attempt to interject a correction.

None of Willie Banks' many friends would have done a thing to disrupt that wonderful smile.