Beach volleyball Hall of Fame honors latest round of legends
by Ryan McDonald
Rose Duncan remembered thinking that there were an awful lot of cops on the floor for a volleyball match.
It was 1979 and Duncan, a Hermosa Beach native and Mira Costa graduate was playing volleyball for the Denver Comets of the International Volleyball Association, one of the various indoor leagues that sprang up after the 1972 Munich Olympics. As a promotion to draw fans to the games, the owners had declared the evening “Coke Night,” with those in attendance received a heavily discounted can of Coca-Cola.
Authorities, however, had a different kind of coke in mind. Immediately following the match, the police officers sealed the exits to the Auditorium Arena and arrested Comets ownership on drug trafficking charges.
Duncan shared the story to big laughs last Friday evening at the California Beach Volleyball Hall of Fame Awards at the Hermosa Beach Community Theater. The awards honor legends of a sport that is integral to the coastal lifestyle. And, as Duncan’s story and that of other honorees revealed, pursuing the game has often been a labor of love for players, with sometimes uncertain financial rewards. (The Comets eked out another half-season, and by the next year the IVA had folded.)
John Vallely, another honoree, recalled growing up a “beach rat” in Newport Beach but split his time between beach volleyball and basketball because of the lack of athletic scholarship opportunities for ocean sports. He played for John Wooden at UCLA and was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks. Later, while playing for a volleyball team headed by NBA legend Wilt Chamberlain — a co-founder of the IVA and frequent participant in South Bay beach tournaments — he decided to ask for a raise.
“Wilt took $2,000. Everyone else got $100 per game,” Vallely said. Instead, he found himself out of a job.
Gail Castro, who played for team USA in beach volleyball’s debut appearance at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, also used her induction speech to describe the challenging path to the height of the sport. She grew up in inland Southern California, 90 minutes from the coast, and found the beach game almost by accident. But she realized it was her passion and stuck with it, she said, a trait that served her well when she made her way up through the ranks to qualify for Atlanta by playing in every tournament she could.
Along with illuminating challenges, the evening also honored the pairing of Sinjin Smith and Randy Stoklos, two of the most successful beach volleyball careers of all time. With 114 tournament victories over 11 years, the Smith-Stoklos partnership remains the winningest in the history of the AVP, which found its period of greatest popularity, and profitability in the 1980s when the two were playing together. Smith and Stoklos were so dominant at times, announcer Paul Sunderland recalled, that he occasionally called parts of their matches with his eyes closed.
Sunderland joined the Hall on Friday as well, for his contributions as an announcer. Sunderland was the voice of beach volleyball during the Smith-Stoklos era and went on to become a play-by-play commentator at the Olympics. He also had the tough task of briefly succeeding Chick Hearn to call Lakers games.
“All of that started with beach volleyball. It’s not beach volleyball’s fault that I got fired by the Lakers. But that’s another story,” Sunderland deadpanned.
The evening began with an uplifting moment honoring Mike Bright, who passed away in September. Bright was recalled as an astounding athlete in several sports. According to legend, after emerging on the sand at the Manhattan Beach Pier after winning the 32-mile Catalina Classic paddleboard race, Bright dropped his board and immediately helped his team to victory in the Charlie Saikley 6-man tournament. But his daughter Bonnie Counts-Bright said what she remembered most was the example he set after being paralyzed in a diving accident in his late 30s: he taught himself to walk and swim again and continued to coach youth volleyball.
“He instilled in you such a drive. Something about him made you feel that pushing yourself was what you do for the love of sport,” Counts-Bright said in a video played at the ceremony.