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Jim Murray

Meet a 6-Foot-5 Killer Who Is Having a Ball

October 15, 1987|Jim Murray

I had lunch with a certified international killer the other day, a man with more kills to his credit than even 007, a Mafia hit man or the Red Baron, for all of that.

What's more, he's been pressed into operation this week to take out the Russians!

Covert operation? CIA caper?

Naw. You can buy a ticket and go see it. Lord knows, they're available.

Steve Timmons doesn't look like a guy who has maybe a thousand kills to his record. You'd expect maybe such a guy would look like Laird Cregar or James Woods or Bela Lugosi.

Steve is not even the James Bond type. He'd probably look uncomfortable even in a tux. He'd really make a lousy spy. He has this shock of red hair that sits on top of his head like a rooster's comb. He looks like he's right off a cereal box.

He probably doesn't even own a Luger or know what one looks like. I doubt he has a tie. He had lunch in shorts and sweats. If Huckleberry Finn were 6-foot-5, this is what he would look like. You're tempted to ask him where he parked the raft.

What he kills are volleyballs. His is the only sport I know of--short of German Army maneuvers--where a kill is part of the nomenclature of the game.

To get a kill in volleyball, you smash the ball down from a height over a net through a forest of forearms, sending it crashing to the floor for a point or a side-out, a retrieve of serve. Steve Timmons does that almost better than anybody in the world today.

He's the cleanup hitter on the U.S. team that is playing the Soviets, French and Canadians in the USA Cup round-robin at the Forum in Inglewood this week. In case you've forgotten, he was the MVP in the Olympic volleyball tournament in 1984. In fact, he's the one who jumped from the umpire's chair into a crowd of teammates in one of the more memorable news pictures of the Los Angeles Games.

He was moved to do that because only 10 months before those Games, Steve Timmons seemed to have about as much chance to make the U.S. volleyball team as Steve Lawrence.

Volleyball is a strange sport in this country. First of all, it is one of two truly American sports--well, three, if you want to count the American Indians' lacrosse. Baseball, football, tennis, even golf and bowling are all imports or derivatives of imports.

Volleyball, like basketball, was invented in western Massachusetts around the turn of the century to get away from the built-in brutality of American football and to give young men a game that could be played indoors in the winter.

Everyone knows who Dr. James Naismith was and what his sport is, but you can probably win a free trip to Acapulco on any quiz show if you can name the inventor of volleyball. In case you ever have to, it was one William G. Morgan of Holyoke, Mass., who had his brainstorm about the same time Naismith had his.

Basketball grew. In time, it had its Magic and Big O and Big E and Mr. Clutch, and the sportswriters gradually glorified it up to major status. Volleyball retreated to the beaches of Southern California and got built up to a place in the sports spectrum somewhere between quoit tossing and fly casting.

That didn't stop Europeans from embracing the sport with a frenzy, and standing-room-only crowds for volleyball games became not at all uncommon, even in out-of-the-way Balkan republics.

The Russians took the the sport like borscht. The Soviet national teams won the Olympic gold medal in volleyball three of the first five times after it became an Olympic sport in 1960. We never won it till 1984, when the great Eastern Bloc teams were not present.

"We still have no national program, no system to develop junior players and improve the quality of the game here," Timmons complains. "If we ever had a strike, there'd be no scab players in volleyball. There aren't any."

It's no way to treat a sport of one's very own, Timmons believes.

Even Timmons didn't set out to be a volleyball player. Basketball was his sport. Then one night at USC, he took a charge from teammate James McDonald under the basket. When they picked him up and carried him off, two vertebrae were broken.

When he recovered, Timmons turned to volleyball. He had a 38-inch vertical leap and arms so long he could whip mule teams with them, but when the teams assembled for the tryouts for the '84 Olympics, the authorities politely wondered, "Have you tried basketball?"

Timmons was relegated to the Pan Am team--second stringers--that got humiliated in Caracas in 1983.

"I would never have made the team but I got a chance to play in Cuba when a teammate (Craig Buck) got injured. I played my way onto the team. That night, I cried in the locker room. I knew I was going to play for the USA in the Games in Los Angeles."

Timmons not only played at Los Angeles, he became the team's home run hitter and lead killer--on a team that had more of them than a pirate ship.

Timmons and his crew of killers waylaid the Soviet team at the Forum Tuesday night in what may be a preview of the 1988 Olympic final. The scores: 15-2, 15-9, 15-11.

But the Soviets were more tenacious than that. The significant scores were kills--Americans 68, Soviets 52. Timmons had a third of the U.S. kills.

The Americans rely on the home run, the long ball. The Soviets prefer guile, defense.

Those teams should meet again in the final Saturday night-- if the Soviets can get by the improving team from France. Then their next meeting may be in '88 at Seoul, where the tricky Soviets could prove again that, in volleyball, killed doesn't necessarily mean dead.

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