Inasmuch as the hockey and basketball playoffs ended before the New Hampshire primary, and football doesn't begin until tomorrow, and World Team Pie-Throwing is already on the wane, isn't it about time we had a new pro sport around here?
Diana Ross thinks so. David Wolper does, too. And so does the partially unknown but still somewhat talented Bob Hogan, who used to do things like steal hotel fire extinguishers but who last weekend played a semi-minuscule part in inaugurating, enriching and perpetuating—get this—professional, international, coed, rock 'em, sock 'em, spikers like-you-never-got-'em volleyball. Yeah!
When the International Volleyball Association opened in the San Diego Sports Arena Friday night, only 2,451 people showed up. But Ross was there, along with a stable full of Top Forty chart busters summoned by Berry Gordy, the president of Motown Industries as well as of the IVA San Diego franchise. Wolper was there, he of the movie and TV documentaries, and at present the president of the league. And 25 girl tumblers from the local Y were there, too, in honor of "YMCA Night."
Right out of the box, a special night. Pro volleyball doesn't mess around.
What everyone experienced in this first contest between the home-standing San Diego Breakers and the visiting El Paso-Juarez Sol suddenly became more than a mere stirring of the senses. Minds reeled. Bodies clashed. The sexes blended. There were thrills and spills, drama and romance, the agony of a man's impossible stuff-block, the ecstasy of a woman's desperate smashed-face dig and the sheer spectacle of Hogan's soon-to-be world famous (maybe) "Hogie Roundhouse Sky-Ball Fading Tornado Wildman Serve" which he brought off the beach to close out the match for San Diego with a flourish.
This turned out to be an especially significant clue to the nature of volleyball players after Hogan revealed that he had started the day, a new era really, with a fairly large head from an erratic night before and that he "woke up feeling like I was inside one of the pyramids."
Even though San Diego won the initial fray, three games to two, the visiting Sol were not without their heroes and heroines, particularly Player-Coaches Smitty Duke and Mary Jo Peppler, who feature his-and-hers free curl hairdos; 6'7", 215-pound Scott English, a refugee basketball forward from the NBA and ABA; 4'10", 90-pound Eileen Clancy, who is called "Our Incredible Bumping Machine" by her teammates, and Lino (Caveman) De Melo Gama, a bearded Brazilian whose name sounds like something the natives tell you to avoid eating in the rain forest and who fascinated the crowd with his inspired jumping, faking and hitting.
"The Caveman is doing it all tonight," Announcer Marc Jacobs kept screaming into the microphone.
Indeed, despite an English vocabulary that consists of "hokay" and several unbelievably filthy words, the Brazilian showed he was equally charismatic at the champagne party afterward.
"I want to kiss you. Do you speak English?" one brunette asked him.
"Very much hokay," the Caveman answered.
Not to be outdone, the Breakers presented an alluring cast that made up for its lack of geographical balance with a rare familial atmosphere.
"We only drafted friends who could hit and drink beer," said Don Weiner, the director of media operations.
These included "The Tasmanian Devil" himself, Player-Coach Rudy Suwara from East 136th Street in the South Bronx; his assistant, Bill Wardrop, a huge, quiet former U.S. national team star who might be the best hitter-blocker in the land; blonde Kathy Gregory, late of Wilt's Little Dippers; Connie Gibbon, pro sports' foxiest free agent who (everyone was forewarned) happens to be Wardrop's girl friend; and a lunatic fringe that consisted of Larry (Boomer) Milliken, Jay (Bird) Hanseth and Tom (Mad Dog) Madison.
Of playing on a team with women, Mad Dog said, "It's great to turn around after a great play to slap and catch some skin and see this super chick standing there. Much better than patting some sweaty guy."
This was the original point, of course, the gimmick, the raison d'etre of the IVA when it was founded last summer.
The idea of men and women together started with team tennis, but in that endeavor the distaff side mostly plays one another except in mixed doubles where tradition holds the man does not nail the woman between the eyes with a forehand. In the IVA, as Hogan says, "Gentlemen are not trusted." In fact, a guy smashing a girl in the face is said to have accomplished a "six-pack"; i.e., he is awarded a six-pack of beer for the deed.
Consequently, in an exhibition game last week, Hanseth committed this very act, absolutely crushing a ball into the tender forehead of one Kaprice Rupp. As Rupp lay there slightly unconscious, Hanseth said he was concerned about injury but "it felt good anyway." He chose Heineken.
IVA's original horizons were vast—10 cities coast to coast, a 40-game schedule and salaries approximating the budget of a space program. Wilt Chamberlain was out front in the league setup then, as were several entertainment-industry types, but Wilt went off to practice free throws or something and never came back. The floundering economy and the Harpo Marxian adventures of the World Football League scared off others.
As a result, the IVA is composed of the California Four Plus One—the Southern California Bangers, Santa Barbara Spikers and Los Angeles Stars are other charter members—and the schedule is weighted heavily toward home games in the two most volleyball-oriented areas, San Diego and El Paso-Juarez. In addition, there seems to be solid financial backing, what with Wolper owning the L.A. team and executives of Warner Brothers and Columbia Pictures involved in other franchises.
To emphasize that volleyball is not only a California phenomenon, a corporation of local businessmen put together the operation in El Paso-Juarez. Significantly for future expansion, league officials firmly believe the Sol will be the league's bellwether.
The Tex-Mex team will play its home matches on the only exclusively "volleyball floor" in the league, a multiple-color job of yellow, orange, red and burnt sienna at the El Paso County Coliseum. KTSM-FM will broadcast all games, and General Manager Wayne Vandenburg, the ex-UTEP track coach, even sent up a delayed tape telecast of the opening match back to El Paso. At home he promises "light shows, sirens, the Caveman in the rafters, the works."
Coaches Duke and Peppler led the promotional campaign around El Paso, and the team put on exhibition matches, clinics, even moonlight games in the street. "Interest is building like a volcano," says Duke.
The coach is one of only two American players ever selected to the All-World team (the Mexicans nicknamed him Manos de Oro—hands of gold), but he has been a rebel within the volleyball Establishment.
In the IVA draft, Duke was true to form, concentrating on foreign players and non-Californians. Ironically, probably the best player in the league is an internationalist Duke didn't get, Santa Barbara's Stan Gosciniak, a Pole who was MVP of the 1975 amateur All-World team. Besides De Melo Gama, the Sol drafted a couple of other foreigners, so upon arrival in San Diego they were an unknown product.
"People think we're hurting," says Duke, "but my bag is deception and intrigue. Ain't nobody getting a serve past my midget, Clancy. And the Caveman just might pound somebody."
"Who are these guys?" said San Diego announcer Jacobs at a Sol practice. "They look like they held their draft in the desert."
Peppler commanded respect from the opposition. And well she might. The 6-foot, 30-year-old Mary Jo has been the best woman volleyballer in the world for years but just recently gained celebrity status with her victory in the women's Superstars contest. She is sloe-eyed, variously sultry and regal. "A gnarly, dynamite lady," said one Breaker in admiration.
Then, too, Peppler is single-handedly responsible for changing the IVA rules to make women the most important factor in the league. In addition to the slightly larger and heavier blue, white and yellow ball and the shorter 12-point games, league rules dictate that at least two women (of a team's six players) must be on the floor at all times. Instead of the normal strict rotation, which might create mismatches at the net, the IVA has adopted "designated switchers." These are one man and woman who can change positions on each point, the hitter-blocker (male) moving up to the front line, and the setter-bumper (usually female) switching to the back; women are better at saving, or "digging," a ball and bumping or setting a spike from back there anyway.
But Peppler's strength and agility forced the IVA into a sort of amendment, "the wildcard," whereby one of a team's women is permitted to function along the front row as an extra hitter-blocker. Naturally this is already known as the "Peppler rule" and Mary Jo took good advantage of it in the first game Friday night. Facing game point at 11-8 against her team, Peppler whirled to net and spiked a placement between four Breakers to gain side-out. The Sol went on to win 13-11.
"I have to have a physical outlet in this game, a power outlet," Peppler said. "I wouldn't be in the IVA without the wildcard rule."
What was supposed to be a struggle between San Diego's hitter-blockers and El Paso's tricky setting game instead was dominated early by the magnificent all-round play of De Melo Gama.
Windmilling his arms, hammering spikes, dinking little kills, the Caveman astounded even the Breakers with a vertical leap only David Thompson could approximate. Consistently he would fly over the taller Wardrop and Suwara for points. San Diego had to change tactics to handle the Brazilian; Suwara moved into the middle with Wardrop taking the outside to set up a better block.
Meanwhile the sight of El Paso's tiny 90-pounder, Clancy, constantly exchanging positions with the massive English seemed like something out of Ringling Brothers.
English is a marvelous athlete whose potential is awesome, and early in the match he came through with some wondrous spikes and blocks; he even won the first game with a strong stuff-block on Wardrop. But English has been playing volleyball for only three months, and his inexperience began to cost the Sol enough points that he was benched throughout the final game.
After the teams split the first two games, the ubiquitous Hogan made his presence felt with some fine setting to lead San Diego to a 12-6 victory in the third.
Though the women were acquitting themselves admirably—Gregory contributing assists all over for the Breakers, Peppler hurling her body every which way to make saving digs for the Sol—El Paso's hitters were failing.
Nonetheless the visiting coaches kept giving each other affectionate pats on the rump (something else you don't see in team tennis) and the Brazilian Caveman began to erupt again. At 8—all in the fourth game, De Melo Gama made a kill for side-out to the Sol and he took serve. Four points later—a neat Gama bump and Maze spike followed by three San Diego errors—El Paso had won 12-8 and tied the match at two games each.
That was the setting of the Sol. In the fifth game San Diego grabbed momentum on some early sets by Hogan, and the Breakers began to wash over the opposition. Suwara finally made a tough one-on-one block of De Melo Gama for a 4-1 lead. ("I roofed the Caveman," he said later.) Boomer Milliken stuffed a spike by Maze for an 8-1 margin. ("Eat it, eat it," Boomer shouted at the El Paso hit man.) And Hogan settled the issue when he went to the service line with San Diego ahead by 10-1.
With the Breaker bench in an uproar and Jacobs screaming over the P.A., "It's Magic Time," Hogan uncorked his famous serve.
Back to the court, he hurled the ball up through the fog of the arena ceiling. As it descended, Hogan wheeled around, made some kind of leaping impersonation of a maniac and punched it deep across the net.
It worked twice and the Breakers scored both times for a 12-1 victory.
In the joyous San Diego locker room afterward, Hogan acknowledged a new feeling about volleyball.
"The deal is, it's a whole new role model," he said. "Look at these celebs, this excitement. It's not like being a beach rat trading in empty soda pop bottles for pennies. Now I'm a pro."
Which the girls could agree with. Over in the corner Gregory said she couldn't remember having so much fun in volleyball, if it weren't for one thing. "This league is only a game old," she said, "and already I have a run in my uniform."
At least Gregory didn't get six-packed.