Quantum leap

Video jogs jumper's memories of Wilt

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Bud Smith and Wilt Chamberlain high-jumping

Video footage of Bud Smith and Wilt Chamberlain high-jumping at the 1957 Kansas Relays.

It took a half a century for Bud Smith to learn that his rich memories had visual proof.

Now 73, Smith has entered the twilight of his life, complete with charming stories of his past track-and-field accomplishments. One of his proudest moments, in fact, was at the 1957 Kansas Relays. There, he competed alongside several greats in the high jump - most notably KU legend Wilt Chamberlain.

"I did not know," Smith says now, "it was being filmed."

But it was. And it took the curiosity of his son to bring it back to life.

Smith, who lives in Iowa, will be at Memorial Stadium this weekend to see the Kansas Relays. It will be the first time he's been in Lawrence since he was jumping alongside Chamberlain 51 years ago.

Smith competed in the 1956 and '57 Relays as a member of the University of Chicago Track Club. He was the guy who competed with one shoe, a habit that started in high school when his parents couldn't afford the proper footwear.

In the years that followed, Smith told his kids about jumping alongside Chamberlain, the 7-foot behemoth known more for his basketball dominance. The tales stuck with his son, Tim, who decided to call Kansas University about six months ago and share his father's story.

While talking to someone in the athletic department, it crossed Tim's mind to ask: Did KU ever film anything from that long ago?

He was transferred to university archives. The answer was yes - and in color.

"He was just shaking," Tim said of his father's first look at the film. "He never thought that he'd ever get to see somebody straddle jumping, much alone himself."

Added Bud: "I have never had a video of me in my entire life."

Smith is an old-school high jumper who did the "straddle" technique, a way of clearing the bar before the Fosbury Flop became famous in the late 1960s.

Long after his prime had passed, Smith continued high jumping in senior events well into the 21st century. He never strayed from the straddle technique, which involved going belly-down over the bar and swinging the legs over.

Smith developed lots of success jumping this way. He spent one successful year at Northern Illinois in 1955, where he said his accomplishments started becoming publicized nationally. Smith's name reached the desk of KU coach Bill Easton, who invited him to the 1956 Relays with the promise that he'd get a chance to meet Chamberlain.

The 6-foot-3 Smith never felt so small.

"I had never met a man seven feet tall before," Smith said. "I have pretty good-sized hands, and Wilt just wrapped his hands around mine."

Smith never took a picture of him with Chamberlain. He had no camera and really saw Chamberlain as an equal in track and field during those two encounters.

But the video is the next-best thing, if not better. There was Smith, one shoe on, flinging himself over the bar and landing in the sand pit. And there was Chamberlain getting every bit of his long legs wrapped over the bar somehow.

Other high jumpers were filmed, too, and many used different ways to get over the bar. One jumper even tried to flat-out hurdle it.

Now, the Fosbury Flop dominates elite high-jump competitions. Smith will admit that the new approach works, but he doesn't prefer it. Heck, it was impossible to do in the 1950s because high jumpers back then landed in a pit of sand or saw dust. A Fosbury Flopper could get seriously hurt.

"Back in my day, you had a variety of styles and techniques. It was fun to watch," Smith said. "Then you have a Fosbury jumper. If you've seen one, you've seen them all."

Smith stopped high jumping in 2005 (at age 70) after having both of his hips replaced. He still competes in the Senior Olympics as a shot putter, though he knows that his best days as an athlete are well behind him.

He now shares his stories, and for years the picture had to be painted with Smith's words. Then the proof surfaced, and his memories rushed back to a spring day 51 years ago in Lawrence.

It was like yesterday.

"I had never seen myself in a video," Smith said. "I thought it was so neat."