LONG BEACH — He's come back from the Michigan cold to the balmy temptations here which once proved as dizzying as the heights he hurls his body over at track meets. A small-town boy, he readily fell into Southern California's clutches, but it won't happen again, he says, now that the wildness within him has been purged. All he wants to do is jump.
And there aren't many people who jump higher than Dennis Lewis.
Last March, Lewis, then a 26-year-old freshman at Long Beach City College, flopped over a bar 7 feet, 8 inches above the ground, tying the American high-jump record set by Dwight Stones, perhaps the sport's most well-known competitor.
That came as no surprise to Lewis, who will jump Friday night in the Sunkist Invitational Track Meet at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. Jumping has always come naturally to him.
"He probably has more raw talent than Dwight," said Long Beach City College track coach Ron Allice, "but Dwight gets more out of his talent."
Which is to suggest that Lewis has always needed to work a little harder than he thinks he does.
Last summer he told a reporter, "I'm crazy, wild and loose."
Now, Lewis, whom Allice calls a "super human being," has returned to California from his home in Ypsilanti, Mich., to train for the new track season. He said he's ready to make a commitment to hard work.
"I'm not actin' the same, I'm coolin' out," he said, looking cool in his sunglasses, gold necklace and wild, multicolored shorts, before a workout Monday at the college, where he is no longer a student, having dropped out after one year to concentrate on jumping for the New Balance Track Club.
"I'm not wild and loose. The first year here was an experience. The California life was too much for me. I was always going someplace, actin' wild. Not really wild . . . well, it was wild. Hanging out at the beaches, screaming at ladies."
Blame it on the endless summer.
"In Michigan it's wild and crazy in the summer but in the winter it cools off," Lewis said. "You aren't going to be crazy when it's 20 below."
The craziness, he says, has left his system.
"I'm back to normal," said Lewis. "I want to get seriously down to business. This year I want to get a world ranking in the top 5, then go to (compete in) Europe. That will be cool with me."
Hung Around With the Wrong Crowd
Arrangements for the coveted tour of Europe last summer fell through, leaving Lewis, who had trained hard, disappointed. "That's when he gave up the ship," Allice said. "Then he started to hang around with the wrong crowd."
Lewis is no longer the co-holder of the American record. Last May, Jimmy Howard jumped 7-8 1/2 to surpass Lewis and Stones.
"First I've got to break the American record," said Lewis, who expects a jump of 7-5 or 7-6 will win the Sunkist. "That will come a lot easier than 7-10 3/4 (the world record held by Russia's Rudolf Povarnitsin). If I can do that, it will get me on a lot of commercials."
And his innate ability makes him a likely candidate to be the first to jump eight feet. "Very possible," he said.
'Not Going to Say I Choked'
The 1988 Olympics are a definite goal. "I should be all the way ready by then," said Lewis, who first came to California in 1984 to try out--unsuccessfully--for the Los Angeles Games.
"I'm not going to say I choked," said Lewis, who has a reputation of being calm during competition. "But the pressure was on me. I kept saying I was going to kill the bar. I went out of my head. I was just flying at the bar, not thinking of technique. I was overexcited and my chest was clogged up with smog."
He cleared 7-5, which was pretty good considering that he had only returned to the sport the year before after a four-year layoff, but it wasn't good enough.
High jumping is not Lewis' first love. Basketball is. The all-time moment in his life probably wasn't when he cleared 7-8, but when he blocked a shot by Magic Johnson in a Michigan high school game. "He (Johnson) remembers that," Lewis said.
Nevertheless, at Ypsilanti High, Lewis made his biggest impression in track. As a senior in 1977, he jumped 7-2 to set a national high school indoor record. He won a track scholarship to Michigan State University where, as a freshman, he jumped 7-3 and was second in the NCAA indoor meet.
But he left after one year.
"I really wasn't ready for college," he said.
He went to work in the Ford plant at Ypsilanti. "I tossed these screws on a distributor," Lewis said. "I didn't have to get all greasy and dirty, and the money was good."
He doubted that he would ever high jump again, so he joined as many basketball leagues as he could find.
But he knew it was time to get back into high-jumping in the winter of 1983 when he was watching a track meet on television, and wasn't impressed.
"I said if these big dudes can win these meets and only jump 7-3, I know I can beat them," he recalled. "I kept telling my father I could jump higher than that, and that I should get back into jumping so I could travel a bit and make some of that money out there."