The good citizens of El Paso do not tell Polish jokes. They tell Polish sagas about this tall, tanned pogo-stick Pole who is superb at the game of siatkowka (volleyball), who in 1974 led his country to the world championship in Mexico and who in 1976 led his country to the Olympic gold medal in Montreal. His name is Edward Skorek, and although his spikes and blocks will not be remembered as long as Chopin's nocturnes or Conrad's novels, he is an artist.
So how did Skorek become a hero in El Paso, which is the sort of place where you'd expect people to know more about tamales and high school football than volleyball? Through a fledgling professional league called the International Volleyball Association (IVA) and its local franchise, the El Paso/Juàrez Sol ("sol" is pronounced soul and means sun in Spanish). The sole Sol Pole is not the only foreigner in the league—there are other Poles, as well as Yugoslavs, Canadians, Mexicans, Brazilians and Peruvians on the rosters of the seven teams—but he is indisputably the best at his position.
In the IVA each team has two women who receive serves and try to "dig" opposing spikes, one male setter who puts the nine-ounce ball above the net in just the right place for one of his teammates, and three male hitter-blockers. Unlike amateur volleyball, there is no rotation, so Hitter-Blocker Skorek is always at the net, always a threat, except when it is his turn to serve. Then he smacks the ball from behind the end line and sprints 30 feet to the net in the manner of a hard-serving tennis player.
The Sol plays its home matches in the Civic Center, where public-address announcer Paul Strelzin wanders wherever he likes with his wireless, battery-operated microphone, leading cheers and exhorting the team to greater efforts. When the Sol needs an extra bit of inspiration, the musicians strike up the William Tell Overture, and Strelzin gallops around the arena astride a broomstick equipped with a toy horse's head. When Skorek does something special, Strelzin brandishes a green flag, which he says is emblematic of "Polish Pickle Power."
"Skorek is amazing, a true world-class player," says Wayne Vanderburg, president and general manager of the Sol. "His spikes are unbelievable, and sometimes he surprises us all with his dink shots. He winds up like he's going to pop that ball, then just dinks it."
The Sol's player-coach is 28-year-old Tom Read, a junior high school physical education teacher in Mission Viejo, Calif. "I'm in awe of Skorek," Read says. "Picture that you're the rookie manager for the Atlanta Braves and your idol, Henry Aaron, walks in the door to play for you. And you're 28 and he's 34. I saw Eddie on my first international trip. He's always been the master to me."
Skorek, an amiable man whose English does not match his Polish or Italian, claims to be 34, but some IVA people, perhaps influenced by his receding hairline, think he is several years older.
Whatever his age, he has been around. He is from the medium-sized town of Tomazow-Maz, about an hour's drive from Warsaw. In addition to playing for the Polish national team, Skorek starred for club teams and studied at Warsaw Institute of Physical Education, where he met his wife Bogta, a very attractive woman who was Poland's all-round gymnastics champion in 1963.
Skorek and his teammates came in fifth at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968 and ninth at Munich in 1972. Then in 1974 they perfected a system—an extremely difficult one—in which a hitter, usually Skorek, approached the net, observed how the opponents were setting up to block and called a play—all while the ball was in the air between the serve receiver and the setter. The Poles won the World Games in Mexico that year, an accomplishment that ranks as Skorek's biggest thrill, and they were still far enough ahead of the rest of the world to win the Gold at Montreal. Skorek was captain of both teams.
The IVA was just beginning operations in 1974, and it made offers to some of the Poles on the world championship team. Skorek declined, but his compatriot Stan Gosciniak, a superb setter, joined Santa Barbara. He played two seasons with the Spikers and this year is with the Phoenix Heat, for which he keeps busy setting (and the P.A. announcer keeps busy pronouncing) Yugoslavs Miodrag Gvozdenovic and Cedo Drigovic.
After the Montreal Olympics, Skorek returned to Italy as player-coach for a team in an "amateur" league but then succumbed to a chance to live and play a summer in the United States. He insists that he is getting only expenses from the IVA, thus retaining his amateur status in Italy and Poland. The Sol has put up Skorek, his wife and their two small sons in a two-bedroom apartment in El Paso.
To no one's surprise, the 6'5" Skorek was an instant success with the IVA. He has the lift-off of a rocket, and he somehow manages to watch the ball and everyone on the opponents' court at the same time. On defense he is an expert at stuffing opponents' spikes back down their throats. In his IVA debut against Phoenix—and his old friend Gosciniak—Skorek had 28 kills in 45 attempts. (Anything that reaches the opponents' floor is a "kill"; it doesn't matter if it's a dink, a mishit or a howitzer shot that shakes the building's foundation.) In another match he was 27 for 45 and had 10 stuff blocks, not too bad on a team with only a so-so setter, Jose Lopes of Rio de Janeiro.
Skorek's premier IVA performance came last month against Santa Barbara, which has a dynamo hitter of its own in Jose Luis Garcia Sanchez of Mexico. The Pole had 51 kills in 69 attempts, a league record, plus six stuff blocks. Then, at the All-Star match in Denver, where he was reunited with Gosciniak on the East team, Skorek was voted the Most Valuable Player.
The latest IVA statistics show Skorek first in kills, first in stuff blocks, second in "attacking attempts," second in "attacking efficiency" (a rating that includes attempts, kills and errors), fourth in "attacking average" (kills per attempt) and second in service receiving (he is the only man among the 11 leaders).
Clearly, one of the finest athletes in the world is performing in the U.S., but not many are aware of it. Bigger crowds turn out to see ex-NBA star Wilt Chamberlain in his occasional appearances with the Orange County Stars than show up to see Skorek. IVA attendance is up more than 77% from last year, but the two cities pulling the biggest crowds. Santa Barbara and Denver, still are averaging fewer than 3,000 a match. Three of the teams in the league, Orange County, Phoenix and Tucson, play in high school gyms, and there are no teams east of El Paso and Denver. The IVA schedule also is short—36 matches per team plus the playoffs.
The league is surviving because James L. Bartlett III, the man who runs the IVA and who has modeled it somewhat after a fast-food restaurant chain, has put a ceiling on spending: $150,000 per franchise, with a salary limit of $55,000 per team.
It appears that the IVA will live to play again next summer. It wouldn't hurt the league's chances for success, of course, if Skorek chose to return for another season. The IVA shouldn't let Skorek say no, even if it has to award a franchise to Tomazow-Maz.