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A Star Is Born : They Wanted His Best Friend, but He Made the Trip Alone and Bruin Jim Banich Became a Track Champ

June 04, 1987|MARTY ESQUIVEL | Times Staff Writer

Jim Banich's path to track stardom at UCLA could be termed pure Hollywood.

You know the scenario: The Bruins are after Banich's best friend, but they take him as an afterthought.

Wham! The afterthought becomes the hero.

It may sound like Hollywood, but it really happened.

"They were interested in a friend who was a pole vaulter," says Banich, a senior from Arvada, Colo. "I was basically an inducement to get him to come here. . . . They weren't interested in me. I was just a footnote."

The Bruins never got that pole vaulter. But five years later the footnote became the PAC-10 champion in the shot put and the discus, and is one of the favorites in this week's NCAA Track and Field Championships at Baton Rouge, La.

His throws of 63-5 in the shot and 194-3 in the discus were short of his bests (65-3 1/2, 199-10) but were good enough for conference titles. In fact, Banich's performance in the PAC-10 Championships in Corvallis, Ore., was so impressive that he was named the meet's outstanding male athlete.

Yet, Banich has yet to attain personal satisfaction. There is still an emptiness, a dream not realized.

"This is the year that the scholarship people pay back their dividends," Banich says. "So you always feel the coach stare at you a little more. You feel it when people ask you what year you are. You have to say you're a senior and they immediately ask what you've done. Hopefully, you have a long list of accomplishments . . . to quantify your scholarship."

Banich's resume includes the NCAA finals in both events as a sophomore; a sixth-place finish in the shot last year as a junior that made him an All-American, and the PAC-10 championships. His coach says he's got a shot at the '88 Olympics. Yet, Banich finds no solace.

"I'd have to come in first or second the last couple of years to make this school feel like they've made a good investment, which is what is seems to be nowadays, not just a grant of sorts. It's an economic investment.

"But hopefully I can pay (UCLA) back this year.

"Maybe I should just say I haven't reached my potential. I don't mean to say that I stiffed UCLA, but I don't feel I've reached my potential for the school or for myself."

To untrained observers, the 6-4, 240-pound Banich--who didn't play football in high school, "I had a protective mother"--merely throws a discus and heaves a shot. Basically, that's correct. But technically, that's like saying Magic Johnson plays basketball.

"The shot put looks like an explosive event, which it is," Banich says. "You know, as physics says: mass times acceleration equals distance, which is the foundation of it. But you have to have the linear speed across the ring and you have to convert that to vertical. At the same time, you have to be as flexible as possible so you can't tighten up. You have to remain relaxed while you're trying to explode with your legs and then your upper body."

UCLA assistant coach Art Venegas, who heads the Bruin weight events, is impressed with Banich's skill and precision. What Banich lacks in strength, he more than makes up in technique.

"Jim is one of the most technical throwers in the U. S.," Venegas says. "If you take the top seven to 10 throwers in the country and break them down, he's one of the best."

That's quite a compliment from Venegas, who's highly regarded in coaching. But no matter how fine Banich's form is, points are scored with distance, not elegance. And no matter how competitive Banich is now, one thing separates him from greatness.

"His problem is strength," Venegas says.

A decathlete in high school, Banich still needs to add bulk. Venegas says that Banich's body hasn't quite caught up to its potential. Additionally, there have been injuries. Not big injuries, nagging injuries. Enough to make him gun-shy about attacking the weights.

"I don't think I've missed more than three meets (during his career at UCLA) but it was just nagging to have to worry about an injury more than worrying about throwing far."

Banich has had a healthy season and, according to Venegas, has been making strides in building up his strength. Some brawn and a lot of brains have carried--and will carry--Banich far.

"Jim has a very good mind," Venegas says. "He demands a lot from himself and he gets a lot from himself. Jim gets a lot of distance from his technique."

Banich's preoccupation with form and technique is a matter of perfection. It's his formula to success.

"I guess you could put it all into an equation as to what the farthest throw could be," Banich says.

Yet there's one factor that even Einstein couldn't figure into this equation. It's a complex variable, of sorts.

Only Banich knows the answer: He's got to beat himself.

"It's not always a battle against someone else," says Banich. "It's a struggle from within--trying to better yourself. To me, the true me, it's just a personal battle. If I can beat my own standards, I probably will beat 90% of the people."

Banich, Venegas says, is a competitor. "Put a big hurdle in front of him and he goes after it," Venegas says.

The hurdle awaits.

It's an NCAA championship.

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