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ON THE BEACH / MIKE REILLEY : Menges, Lee Recall a Different Era

August 14, 1992|MIKE REILLEY

Kent Steffes grew up idolizing Jim Menges, and for two summers watched Menges and Greg Lee dominate the pro beach volleyball tour.

Fresh off outstanding athletic careers at UCLA, Menges and Lee won a record 13 consecutive tournaments in 1975-76, a streak few figured would be matched.

Then along came two other former Bruins--Steffes and San Clemente's Karch Kiraly.

Kiraly and Steffes will try to win their 14th consecutive tournament this weekend at the $100,000 Seal Beach Open, and attempt to break the record set by Menges and Lee 16 years ago.

The three-day, double-elimination tournament begins today with a qualifying tournament. The finals are scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday and will be televised live by NBC.

Menges and Lee have been mentioned several times in the past few weeks in reference to the record.

Some background:

--Menges played for the Bruins' national championship volleyball teams in 1972 and '74.

--Lee, a starter on the Bruins' NCAA-champion basketball teams in 1972 and '73, was best known as the guy who pushed the ball inside to Bill Walton. He was a reserve on the 1974 team that reached the NCAA semifinals.

Their partnership was formed out of friendship. Menges, 6 feet 2, was a standout athlete at Santa Monica High. Lee, 6-5, was an All-American in basketball at Reseda High. They met while playing beach volleyball with friends in 1972.

They were partners off and on for the next two seasons, and played together full-time in 1975, after completing their UCLA careers.

"One of the reasons I really liked the beach volleyball scene was that I felt like I had a significant say in how the team did," Lee said. "I felt the same way in basketball, but if I played perfectly at UCLA, we would win by 50 points. But if I didn't play as well, we would win by 40.

"If I played poorly in volleyball, I was out of there. If you made errors, you were history."

But for two summers, Menges and Lee made history by making few errors.

Menges and Lee won the final seven matches of the 1975 season and the first six in 1976.

In those days, teams in the winners' bracket played best-of-three matches to 11 points; losers'-bracket matches were best of three to 15 points. Some matches lasted as long as three hours.

"It was more of an endurance game back then," Menges said. "You had to be in great shape. Now, points are scored so fast, it's more of a power game. Now you need jump serves, and you have to have a great blocker."

The winning streak ended where it began a year earlier--at the Manhattan Beach Open. Chris Marlowe and Steve Obradovich beat Menges and Lee in a losers'-bracket match, knocking them out of the tournament.

When it was over, neither Lee nor Menges realized they had set a record.

"I was totally oblivious to it," Lee said. "If we thought that those numbers mattered, the streak could have been longer. It's horrendously trite to say that records are made to be broken, but they are."

Sixteen years later, Menges is surprised to see a team tie the record.

"I didn't think anyone would get 13 in a row," he said. "The competition is so much better now than when Greg and I played. In the 1-15 (scoring) matches they play today, anyone can get beat at any time."

Menges and Lee played in an era when teams competed for little more than a hearty handshake, a trophy and maybe a cooler of beer. Prize money was scarce.

"(Players today) have food and water waiting for them in the player tents," Menges said. "They have paid refs. That's a big positive. But the downside is that they are under contract to the AVP (Assn. of Volleyball Professionals), and they are limited to play in certain events."

In the mid-1970s, the beach volleyball tour consisted of 12 tournaments played from San Diego to Santa Cruz. Today's tour features 26 tournaments, including stops in Cleveland, Milwaukee, Chicago, Belmar Beach, N.J., and Ft. Myers, Fla.

Two of the biggest paydays for Menges and Lee were $1,000 each for winning the Manhattan Open and $1,250 each for winning the 1976 World Championships at State Beach.

This weekend, the winning team at Seal Beach will split $20,000. Steffes has earned $180,770 in prize money this season and Kiraly $149,500.

"We weren't playing for money back then, but for pride, to see how good we were," Menges said. "We had an idea that we were the best. It's like with Steffes and Kiraly now, if they get down, they still know they can win all the close games. Other teams worry that they can't beat them."

Menges and Lee played together through 1977, then Lee left for a season to play basketball in Germany. Menges played with a variety of partners over the next few years, and played some more tournaments with Lee.

By 1983, both players had retired from the tour.

Lee now teaches math at San Diego Clairemont High School, where he also coaches varsity tennis and basketball.

Menges, now a tour director with the AVP, tried a comeback last season at age 40, playing in 15 tournaments. He finished 17th with Jeff Williams at last year's Seal Beach Open.

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