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Called to serve ... and spike

Pro and amateur volleyball players go head to head on Southland beaches. If you want a piece of the action, choose your court wisely, or suffer a 'six-pack.'

June 17, 2004|Ann Herold | Times Staff Writer

The skater bouncing off the bike-path wall is three concrete inches from meeting his maker and it's wasted on me. I'm scanning the volleyball courts and hoping that one can give my partner and me a game. But with the exception of the pumped-pecs guy who just hammered one straight down, I'm seeing all the classic mistakes: straight knees on the pass, not squaring off on the set, no wrist on the hit, no understanding of how to make the wind an ally. But the balls are going back and forth across the net and this is beach volleyball.

Granted, it's not what will be seen in Athens or on the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals tour or even at single-A competitions. But all the ingredients -- sand, sunlight, sea air -- that prompted turn-of-the-century day-trippers to set up nets on Santa Monica beaches and play the first games of beach volleyball are there. And I'm betting these modern-day players are just as happy about running and jumping and diving and not smacking into a hard gym floor.

But any illusions of softness end with the sand. The athletes who took the game from a laissez-faire afternoon in the sun to the see-saw marathons played by car headlights in the 1960s were in it for the explosive power that came with cocking your arm and sending the ball 65 mph. Along with the hard hitting came hard living (nail an opponent in the face with a spike and it was called a "six-pack," and your teammate owed you the equivalent in beer). The game hasn't gotten any easier, but the people who play it today are as likely to be Ivy Leaguers from New York as surfers from California. It's a public sport with a private face. You are welcome to challenge anyone to play, but nowadays that could easily be an athlete on her way to the Olympics (top pro Misty May is famous for having been patient enough to play even novices), and you're probably wasting her precious practice time. It's good to seek out tough competition, better to look for about your level.

Which is my excuse for not jumping into any of those quartets dotting this Westside horizon. My partner is a volleyball Hall of Famer and I now have too many sand years to make them a challenge. Besides, there's a kids' game starting up, and they could probably use some old-timers to show them the way.

Sand warriors

To play on the beach, you've got to have bravado pumping through your veins. The uniform is a barely there bikini and love-handle framing trunks. The court size hasn't changed in 100 years even though the predominant team size has: from six to two. (By 2002, the Olympics and the U.S. pro tour had gone to a smaller court for doubles play, but just about every public court out there is still 60 feet by 30 feet.)

At least the trash talk has been dialed down. I cite vintage Steve Obradovich: "You eat with those hands?"

You're now more likely to hear platitudes ("Great shot") or self-effacement ("Set you too tight. My bad.") There's even the temper-cooling etiquette of exchanging low-fives on side changes. Now if you want to get in your opponent's head, it's by clever wisecracks (When an opponent gives you a gift by serving into the net: "Thank you and Merry Christmas to you.")

Mercy is not one of volleyball's seven virtues, and the physics can take the blame. By the time the legendary Paul Johnson played the first recorded doubles games in 1915, it was apparent that getting four people together was easier than assembling 12. But now you've got this nucleus and another pair shows up and wants in, just how do you split the atom? The winning team holds the court and takes on challengers until there's a new winner. So win or go home.

Beach volleyball appeals to the miser. The biggest expense, the poles and net, are provided in a number of beach cities. You can actually play beach volleyball all over the country, and every addict has their favorite story. Mine was playing doubles in a parking lot behind a bar in Savannah, Ga., where the sand was so powdery and the humidity so high that our legs looked like sugar-dusted churros.

Purchasing a ball is smart -- and can sometimes buy you a game ("You need to borrow my ball? Then I get to play."). Get leather and never vinyl, and no one who plays sees much of a difference between Wilson and Spalding and Mikasa; the Wilson and Spalding balls are produced at the same factory in Pakistan. The majolica-colored balls used by the pros are a synthetic leather that's soft and light and easy on the arms but makes you pay for the tiniest mistake.

You might also want to invest in a set of the rope lines used to mark court boundaries. It's hit and miss which court sites will have lines. Both Sorrento beach, north of the California Incline, and the courts next to the pier in Santa Monica have them year-round, while it's bring-your-own at nearby Will Rogers State Beach. If you like to hear your pennies scream, you can make your own by buying cotton or nylon rope and tying a leftover scrap of wood at each corner in place of metal stakes.

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