DiG Classics: The Wild Bunch – Part 2

DiG Classics

The Wild Bunch – Part 2

If you like colorful characters and spicy stories, pull up a chair and enjoy DiG’s historical look at the 10 greatest beach volleyball tales of all-time.

by Tom Feuer

Perhaps more than any other vocation, beach volleyball has featured a litany of characters and stories that could fill volumes. Maybe part of the reason the sport has such a colorful history is that for years there was little to no money to be made playing on the Open circuit. Most “normal” people confronted with that predicament would get a job. This group, the best in the world at what they were doing, were content to play for the love of the game, every day, all day. Throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, the best of the best were literally living hand to mouth. As a consequence, the courts were filled with personalities performing, shall we say, rather eccentrically on the court.

Most of the stories below occurred during that time and are limited to ones that can be told in a family magazine.

Ex-Green Beret Mike Normand could be intimidating with an open net as well as when brash youngsters opened their mouths. (Photo: Kevin Goff)

1. “Same Time Next Year”

Arguably, the fiercest rivalry in beach volleyball history was the one between Tim Hovland/Mike Dodd and Sinjin Smith/Randy Stoklos. Over a nine-year period, between 1982 and 1990 these two teams met in the finals a whopping 62 times with Smith and Stoklos holding the advantage, 35-27. “They might have a slight edge on the total. But remember Hovland and Dodd were the big-game hunters,” Hovland said. “I am sure Smith and Stoklos would give us at least two Rhode Islands for a Manhattan or Cuervo!”

Considering the intensity of their rivalry, off the sand both pairs were surprisingly civil to one another as they traversed the country, arriving early at tournaments to drum up publicity and evangelize for each other and the sport. That is, they were collegial most of the time.

The Jose Cuervo tequila events were big prize money events, and there was a BIG difference between first-place booty and the scraps that were paid out to the rest of the finishers. (Another story for another time). One truism about the Cuervo events is that they threw the best parties on tour.

It was at the end of June in 1988 in Boulder when the fireworks occurred before the post-event party. While waiting for the festivities close by to the players’ hotel, Smith, Stoklos, Dodd and Hovland were in the parking lot “horsing around” and having a little “pre-party.” “Hov and Randy were about 10 to 15 feet apart from each other in three-point stances ready to go after it,” Smith says. “So I made my way around and jumped on Hov’s back, and he took a couple of steps back and pinned me to the hood of a car and knocked the wind out of me.” It’s instructive to note that Hovland was one of the finest athletes to ever come out of the Los Angeles city section, adept at a number of sports in high school including football, basketball. He even had a brief fling with track.

“Hovland was very physical and strong,” Smith notes. “So he turns quickly and grabs the car’s windshield wiper like he is going to put it around my neck to strangle me.” Smith put his hand up in self-preservation mode and then “Hov pushed it out of the way and the blade got caught between his hand and my hand.” I looked at my finger and it was dangling down and there was blood everywhere.” Hovland straightened the finger out and said it was “fine,” but then it drooped back down again and Smith was taken to the emergency room where the attending physician diagnosed it as a severed tendon. He sewed it temporarily back together but he told Sinjin he would be out four-six weeks.

However, if you are a beach volleyball player who doesn’t have the benefit of a contract or a bi-weekly salary, four to six weeks off in high season wasn’t acceptable. So Smith used a paper clip to keep the finger straight and taped three of his digits together for support and he played the following week in Rhode Island, defeating Dodd and Hovland in the semis while finishing second overall. The story should end there, but it doesn’t…

One year later at the Boulder tournament, there was once again a big party in a large theater space attached to the HQ hotel. “When (Hovland) has had several drinks, Doctor Hov shows up and he is not as nice as Tim.” At this time in the 1980s, Hovland was becoming well known for ripping off his shirt either in elation or frustration. On this night, Doctor Hov was in “rare form,” ripping shirts off of any players he could find.

“I kept him in my sight all night,” Smith recalls. “I made sure I was always on the other side of the room.” Somehow, the two found each other face to face in a small hallway. Fireworks ensued. To keep his shirt from being ripped, Smith got Hov in a headlock. At some point while civilians were walking around the two of them, Hovland pushed Smith backward and he hit his head on the corner of the hallway. “I was dazed,” Sinjin says. “And I reached back and there was no blood. I reached back a second time, no blood. Finally, I reached back one more time and my hands were full of blood.”

Again, Smith was rushed to the emergency room of the same hospital where he’d been the year before. The attending surgeon took one look at him and said, “Didn’t I see you here last year?!” Needless to say, Smith got stitched up and played the following week in Sacramento, where he and Stoklos beat Dodd and Hovland in the final. For his part, Hovland says now, “It sounds like Sinjin was in the wrong place two years in a row. Unfortunate for him, and again, sorry.”

What is perhaps most amazing is that Sinjin and Hovland patched things up and remain friends to this day.

2. “18 Patches”

In the modern world of beach volleyball, it would be hard to fathom all of the fights and brouhahas that emerged in the 1970s and ’80s over which ball should be used in a given match. Nowadays, players practice with countless numbers of Wilson AVP or Mikasa Beach Champs or Spalding King of the Beach models, depending on what tour they play on. Rarely, though, is there disagreement among teams about what orb to use because modern balls almost all play very similarly.

Things couldn’t have been more different in the 20th century, when the ball du jour was the Spalding 18 patch. The ball’s shape, weight and “feel” depended on the age, the atmospheric conditions and storage parameters. “Each ball had its own identity,” says Jon Lee, one of the legendary players and characters from the 70s era. “Back then, balls were rare specimens.” Unlike today, elite players might have one or two balls to their name per season.
In tournament matches, the choice of whose ball to use was decided by a pre-game roll to see who got closest to the opposite baseline without going over the line. Despite this, there were exceptions to the rule. Many players would defer, for instance, to Ron Von Hagen because of his status. He would label all of his balls, and they tended to be heavy.

As one might expect, some hijinks came into play from time to time. One of them was in 1980 at the Santa Monica Open at Muscle Beach during a hotly contested semifinal between Dane Selznick/Andy Fishburn and the Smith brothers, Andrew and Sinjin. “The ball I had was perfectly round,” Selznick says. “I liked to play with it for that reason. The tournament balls were never nice and round.” According to Hooper, “Selznick did not set well with his hands. He needed a ball he could bump set, spongy and heavy.”

Selznick’s ball was so legendary that Hooper gave it a name: “The Trunk Ball” because Selznick would keep it there when he was not playing.

In that iconic Muscle Beach semifinal, the Smiths were down a few points and took a timeout. According to Selznick, Sinjin said, “I cannot play with this ball.” And then the darnedest thing happened; the Selznick Spalding seemed to disappear under a tent filled with Sorrento Beach partisans. When Selznick asked Sinjin what he did with the ball, it came back with a hole poked in it!

But, alas, that is Selznick’s version. According to Sinjin, “During the timeout the ball was missing for a minute or two only. When the game resumed, the ball seemed different but good enough to play with, but by the second it was becoming softer and softer until it was unplayable.” The two teams resumed with a tournament ball and Selznick/Fishburn ended up not only beating the Smith brothers in that semi but also triumphing over Matt Gage and Jim Menges in the finals.

3. Rochambeau

The elements are always a factor when it comes to beach volleyball, and players generally are hardy souls. But there are times when the weather can be so untenable that it causes even the toughest to throw up the white flag. Such was the case in Santa Cruz on May 28, 1972. The conditions brought to mind the old Mark Twain line, “The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco.”

Greg Lee, one of the greatest guards in the glorious history of the John Wooden-era UCLA basketball teams, was also one of the best beach volleyball players of all-time. While playing point guard for the Bruins in 1972 and 1973, his sophomore and junior years, Lee won NCAA Championships as Bill Walton’s teammate and BFF.

Lee’s first foray into playing Open tournaments occurred in 1971 following his Bruin freshman basketball season. He partnered with his brother, Jon, and they took fourth at Laguna Beach.

Just two months after leading UCLA to their eighth NCAA championship with a win over Florida State in the ’72 title game, Lee was in Santa Cruz in what ultimately was his coming out party as a beach volleyball player. Earlier in the tournament the Lee brothers took down Ron Von Hagen and John Vallely (another of Coach Wooden’s disciples) twice in a couple of eye opening upsets. After the second match, there were three teams left in the tournament. Larry Rundle and Bob Clem had emerged from the winners’ bracket, and Bill Imwalle/Matt Gage and the Lee brothers were left in the final of the losers’. At that point, the weather was so bad that the players decided on a novel way of determining the winner and the secondary places. “It was miserably cold and nobody was there to watch at the end,” Jon Lee says. “And, of course, there was no big paycheck, so we decided to use rock, paper, scissors to settle it.”

In the first game of Rochambeau, Imwalle and Gage beat the Lee brothers and thus advanced to face Rundle and Clem in the finals. Imwalle and Gage, on a roll by now, defeated Rundle and Clem in the first bake off, so it went to a double final. Under intense pressure, Rundle and Clem emerged victorious this time, and so ended the most improbable way to settle a tournament in the history of beach volleyball.

Greg Lee was famous as an NCAA champion point guard while playing for John Wooden at UCLA, but he was a cult hero up and down the beaches of California. (Photo: Kevin Goff)

Before we say goodbye to Santa Cruz, there was another classic story that came from the courts that sat adjacent to the old “Dream Inn.” It was five years later, in 1977, when the Lee brothers were once again in the thick of a most unusual ending. It’s hard to believe in today’s modern world of beach volleyball, but in the “old days” coming into contact with the net was an honor call.

The finals of that ’77 Open featured the Lees against Fred Sturm and Gary Hooper. The latter team, young and on the rise, had each won their first tournament while playing together the previous August in Lake Tahoe. That earned them $250, one of the first paydays in the history of the sport.

A year later, the Santa Cruz championship game was hotly contested. On match point, the net appeared to quiver on a Hooper put away. Sturm reached under the net to shake and congratulate the Lees, but no call came from Hooper, despite referee Bill Imwalle’s plea to confess. “No f***in way,” Hooper said. “It’s my call, and I’m not calling it.” Naturally, all hell broke loose, but Hooper and Sturm went on to win the match.

Later in a Dream Inn room, with adrenaline and accusations of cheating going to and fro, Hooper threatened Greg Lee, saying, “You have a big nose, and I am going to make it bigger.” Ultimately, the rule book prevailed and Hooper and Sturm will go down as capturing the title in one of the most controversial finishes in the history of beach volleyball. Throughout the rest of the summer of ’77, a net that wasn’t called was termed a “Hoopie.”

4. Stormin’ Normand

In May of 1974, 13-year-old Karch Kiraly was in attendance at a raucous Robertson Gym on the campus of UC Santa Barbara for the title match of the fifth NCAA Indoor Volleyball Championships between the host school and UCLA. Despite Karch and friends’ best attempts at heckling the visiting school, the Bruins ultimately won in five sets.

One of the UCLA players who made the All-Tournament team and also made quite an impression on Karch was an ex-Green Beret outside hitter named Mike Normand. Standing at 5-9 at best, Normand was built like a fire plug. Massive thighs, muscles on top of muscles, a thick moustache, loud voice and a no-nonsense countenance that characterized his persona. He even had a nickname, “Stormin,” that was eminently appropriate.

Larry Witt was smooth on the court and easygoing off the sand, but he heckled Karch Kiraly in Arizona about the color of his headwear. (Photo: Peter Brouillet)

Fast forward three years to May of 1977. Sinjin Smith, just 20 years old, won at Marine Street in Manhattan Beach in what was his first competitive beach event and only his third appearance in any kind of tournament. He had gone from a novice to a AAA in a matter of two weeks! His partner at the Marine Street tourney was 28-year-old Mike Normand. This was also Normand’s first win and, as it would ultimately turn out, his only Open win.

The next stop on the 15 event “tour” would be the following week in Santa Barbara at East Beach.

Due to his indoor obligations, and a full-time job, the 16-year-old Kiraly entered his one and only tournament that year on his home beach. His partner was Marco Ortega. Kiraly had won an “A” tourney with Ortega the year before in Santa Barbara, earning his “AA” rating.

Kiraly and Ortega ripped through the draw and made it to the winners’ bracket quarterfinals, where they faced Normand and Smith. The format at the time was two out of three to 11, sideout scoring, win by two. Kiraly and Ortega were really feeling it from the get-go and built an 8-2 lead by taking advantage of Normand mistakes.

When the score reached 9-2 on an Ortega serve and Normand shank, Karch exclaimed, “Marco, keep serving him he’s choking.” That comment could be heard across the net.

As soon as the words left Karch’s mouth, Normand reacted. He screamed at the top of his lungs, his veins popping out, “Did you hear what that f***ing punk said?” And that was just the opening salvo of a three- to four-minute verbal tirade that could be heard up one court and down another throughout the vast expanse of East Beach. “All courts stopped play, every jaw hit the ground,” Kiraly remembers. But Normand was just getting started because at the very end of this magnum opus of temper tantrums, Normand bellowed “I’ll tell you what, if you beat us I will … (the rest cannot be written in a family magazine). And if we win, I will beat the s*** out of you.” It was a moment that those in attendance never forgot. Least of all, Kiraly.

“At that point I was totally distraught,” Kiraly says. Down that 9-2 score, Normand and Smith ripped off nine consecutive points to take that first game 11-9. “I was barely keeping it together,” Kiraly says. “As a person who was not in many fights, I was thinking I would get the holy crap beaten out of me. Here was an ex-Green Beret who had so much muscle he could grind me into the ground and rip my beating heart out of my chest! I was half playing and half waiting to see what would happen.” The second game was worse: Kiraly and Ortega tumbled quickly, 11-2.

And then came the moment everyone was waiting for. “After they won, I headed towards the net to shake their hands waiting for the other shoe to drop,” Kiraly says. However, in spite of the world-class tantrum, Normand calmly shook Karch’s hand and the skinny 16-year-old made it out of the match alive and physically intact but having learned a valuable lesson. “What happened was totally out of character. It was a dumb thing to say. No, actually it was a moronic thing to say. I had never done anything like that before or since. And I learned another valuable lesson. Never be afraid on a volleyball court. I was never that way again, not even close.”

Normand and Smith would go on to finish second in Santa Barbara that weekend to Chris Marlowe and Jim Menges. The latter duo lost in the winners’ quarterfinals on Saturday and then had to play eight matches coming through the losers’ bracket to win a dramatic double final.

No bitterness remained between Kiraly and Normand. “Many years later,” Karch says, “we had a laugh about it.”

5. The Tempest in Tempe

One of the most exciting teams ever on the AVP tour was the combination of Sean Rosenthal and Larry Witt. Their high-flying athleticism and unique personas made them a huge fan favorite. Rosenthal even had his own band of gypsies called “Rosie’s Raiders” who followed him around everywhere he went.

Witt and Rosenthal won their first tournament in Belmar, New Jersey, in 2003 when Witt was just 24 and Rosenthal 23.

In 2004, they won the first event of the year in Fort Lauderdale, running through a murderer’s row of legendary teams, including Matt Fuerbringer and Casey Jennings (twice), three-time Olympic gold medalist Karch Kiraly and Mike Lambert, 2004 U.S. Olympians Stein Metzger and Dax Holdren, eventual 2008 Olympic gold medalist Todd Rogers and his partner, Sean Scott, and, early on, Larry Witt’s older brother, Andy, and indoor legend John Hyden.

Thus, Rosenthal and Larry Witt were feeling their oats three weeks later when the tour made a stop in Tempe, Arizona. As the number one ranked team, they drew the 17th seeds, Chad Mowrey and Ed Ratledge, in the first round and suffered a stunning loss, which included a 15-3 score in game 3. Matters got worse in the losers’ bracket where they faced the 18th seeds, Adam Roberts and Matt Heath, and lost in two. Some dubious history was made as it may have been the first time in the history of the AVP that a team followed a tournament win by going “one-two barbeque.” The net effect was that Witt and Rosenthal were out of the tourney by noon on Saturday, giving them plenty of time to stew about their losses.

In the meantime, another shocker was taking place on an outer court in the first round of the Tempe tournament as the sixth seeded team of Kiraly and Lambert took on Hyden and Andy Witt. KK and Lambo got to the site late, the 43-year-old Kiraly could not get in a good warm-up, and they fell in three.

But as the day progressed, the pink-hatted Kiraly and Lambert made their way through the losers’ bracket. Down went Canyon Ceman and Eli Fairfield, Ian Clark and Chip McCaw, 2000 Olympic gold medalist Dain Blanton and his 2004 Olympic partner Jeff Nygaard.

Karch Kiraly was usually showered with adoration, but there were exceptions. (Photo:Peter Brouillet)

As all of this was taking place, Larry Witt was trying to soothe the pain of two losses with a few suds.

By the time Saturday night arrived, Kiraly and Lambert were on their fifth match of the day and a battle loomed between them and Blanton’s 2000 Olympic gold medal teammate Eric Fonoimoana, who was partnered with another 2000 Olympian, Kevin Wong. A very good team was going to be out of the tourney in what promised to be a battle royale.

Meanwhile, the imbibing of spirits had caught up with Larry Witt. “Larry is not Larry Witt anymore,” Kiraly says. “This very nice, mild-mannered guy gets up on the (AVP) stage and starts to heckle Fonoi and Wong,” Kiraly says. It was all Fonoi could do to control himself as Witt bellowed insults so loud they could be heard in the grandstands, where unbeknownst to him, and as luck would have it, Karch’s wife, Janna, and sons Kristian and Kory, 14 and 12 were seated.

Soon, Witt was turning his attention to Kiraly. No one in their right mind goes after Kiraly, do they? Witt did. In between all the insults, he let fly one of the greatest G-rated heckles in beach volleyball history: “Karch, the 80s called and they want their pink hat back!”

Before the Witt sideshow could veer into further uncharted waters, one of his best friends, the 6-6, 250-pound (at least) player/manimal George Roumain picked up his very close friend with one hand and shoved him against a wall, thus ending a four-hour verbal reign of terror.

Despite, or maybe because of the commotion, a classic was playing out with this backdrop on the court between KK and Lambo and Fonoi and Wong. In the end, the ’96 Olympic beach champ Kiraly and Lambert survived and advanced.

Improbably, two more victories ensued Sunday morning over Holdren and Metzger as well as Jason Ring and Roumain, another of which was decided by a score of 15-13 in the third after KK and Lambo were down 13-11. So, while Rosenthal and Witt made dubious history with their “uno-dos adios” performance, Kiraly and Lambert were on the cusp of making some of their own by potentially winning a double elimination tournament after losing in the first round. All that stood in their way was Rogers and Scott, the tournaments’ number two seeds.

Kiraly and Lambert started off winning the first set 21-15. And then in the second, up 20-19, and at tournament point, they served Sean Scott. “Lambo was blocking angle and I am digging line and I chase it down and (send it back over) in the right corner of the court,” Kiraly says. “Somehow Rogers makes this amazing save coming all the way to the back of the court from the setting position.” And with that play as a catalyst, Rogers and Scott take set two 25-23.

On it goes to a third game. “Lambo had been a blocking fiend all weekend long and I was chasing shots down with some rototiller defense while trying to make my own shots,” Kiraly says. Once again up tournament point, this time in the third game to 15, Lambert was in position to salt the historic game away. But he tried to finesse the ball with a dink over Sean Scott, and it hit the tape and rolled to the other side. Scott scooped it up. That proved pivotal, and Rogers-Scott managed to take the game and match 18-16. After a one hour and 19-minute final on top of seven other matches over a 30-hour span, it was over. “Lambo felt horrible – he played the tournament of a lifetime,” Kiraly says.

By his own estimation, Kiraly took 320 jumps that weekend, which could be a record in and of itself – if those numbers were actually kept.

As for Larry Witt, according to Kiraly, “Larry felt awful afterwards. He realized it was not one of his shining moments. Later he sent my wife flowers and wrote a note to the boys.”

So ended one of the wildest tournaments both on and off the court in the history of beach volleyball.