What was Karch Kiraly, intense as he is, doing in the midst of all this mellowness, this seaside of tranquillity? He seemed out of place among the bikiniclad volley dollies and the beach boys and their practiced cool. The crowd on Florida's Fort Walton Beach near Pensacola, awash as it was with suntan lotion and beer, was so horizontal. And Kiraly was most definitely vertical.
Kiraly and his beach volleyball partner, Ricci Luyties, were fighting back through the losers' bracket of this spring's opening event of the pro season, and many in the crowd had come to see Kiraly, the captain of the U.S. national team. One beach belle kept shouting, "Come on, dahlin'."
Kiraly (keer-EYE) is indeed the darling of American volleyball. At 25, he is both the best and most famous volleyball player the U.S. has ever produced. He was the youngest member of the '84 Olympic gold medal team and MVP of the 1985 World Cup. He's also as good a beach player as you'll find, even though he competes only part-time.
The two-man outdoor game permits no weaknesses. A player must be able to pass (receive service), set and hit (spike) on offense, dig and block on defense, and serve. Kiraly does all those things exceedingly well. "He may not be the best hitter, the best defensive player, the best blocker, the best server," says John Hanley, a top beach player who was a high school classmate of Kiraly's, "but when you put it all together, he's the best."
In the beach tournament Kiraly and Luyties clawed back and won five matches to reach the finals against the undefeated, well-rested team of Sinjin Smith and Randy Stoklos, the top seeds. Despite nearly eight hours on the sand, Kiraly was still a dervish, driving Luyties and himself to a 15-7 win. In the second match the pair finally burned out, losing it 15-8 and thus the championship.
Kiraly, whose name means "king" in Hungarian, is one of the few players who have successfully bridged the indoor six-man game and the outdoor two-man game. He is the only player to have an Olympic gold medal and a world beach championship (in fact, two, in 1979 and '81). And while he gets keyed up, he's not flamboyant. Other players at Fort Walton Beach favored loud, flowered shorts; Kiraly wore generic white. When the U.S. team clinched the World Cup tournament in Japan last Nov. 30 to cement its reputation as the best in the world, a Brazilian, Renan Dal Zotto, was named the tournament's most spectacular player. Kiraly was simply the most valuable.
"It may be saying too much, but he is a once-in-a-lifetime athlete," says Marv Dunphy, coach of the national team, which recently played host to France in a five-match exhibition in April and will play a similar series in Cuba next week. "I don't expect we're going to see a performer like him for a long time," says Doug Beal, coach of the 1984 U.S. Olympic team. "It is generally acknowledged that the U.S. team achieved its success largely because of Karch's ability to play. He is one of those unique players who can bring five other players up to his level," says Beal. "He rarely falls to the level of players on the court."
Although Kiraly walks the streets of the United States unnoticed, in Brazil, where fans fill soccer stadiums for volleyball matches, he is stopped frequently on the streets. He writes a column for a Japanese volleyball magazine, and when he's in that country teenage girls mob him in hotels and write him fan letters by the hundreds.
When I saw you on television, I couldn't go to sleep in enthusiasm for hours.... All of your motion, I love. Do you have a lover or a wife? If nothing, I want to be your sweetheart.
—Letter from Shizuoka
"Whatever he's doing, it's like nothing else is going on," says Janna Miller, Kiraly's girlfriend. "At matches, other players will wave or smile at their girlfriends. To this day Karch has never looked at me, or even in my direction."
Kiraly does nothing half-heartedly. He works hard, studies hard and parties hard. He will dance for hours on end, until his shirt is discarded and his jeans are soaked. He hit the books diligently in school, graduating from Santa Barbara High with a 3.96 GPA, third in a class of 800. At UCLA he had a 3.55 as a biochemistry major.
He was also said to be the best drinker around.
"I went overboard a little bit," Kiraly says. "It was a phase of wildness you have to get out of your system. Fortunately, I did, or maybe I wouldn't be alive."
Today Kiraly is so in control that friends call him the Computer. He has alphabetized his fan mail and is a compulsive listmaker, with an agenda for the next three months, not just tomorrow. "We once had a day in San Francisco," says Miller, "and Karch spent 45 minutes that morning making a route for the whole day of everywhere we were going to go, with time limits at each stop."
Miller has had a hard time teaching Kiraly to cook. "Seasoning to taste" smacks of anarchy to his orderly mind. "If I'm making spaghetti sauce and I ask Karch to cook the noodles, he wants to count each noodle," Miller says. "He'd be a great accountant. He'd be great at anything working with numbers." Which is fine, most of the time. He is, after all, the Computer. But his hardware occasionally needs a rest. "Sometimes," says Dave Saunders, a teammate, "Steve [Timmons, Kiraly's roommate] and I have to tell him to unplug the computer and be a human for a while."
Surprisingly, Kiraly is unsure what the future holds. His plans to enter medical school have been scrapped temporarily. "I'm interested in real estate investment and finance," says Kiraly, who bought a house in San Diego in April. Even volleyball, he says, is a year-to-year thing, although it's hard to believe he might not be around for the '88 Seoul Games.
"He is the one player they can't afford to lose," says Chris Marlowe, captain of the '84 Olympic team. "Without him, they would drop three or four places in the world—behind the Soviets, the Cubans and Brazil, if not lower."
Toni Kiraly laughs when asked about her son's precision. "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree," she says, nodding toward her husband, Laszlo. He agrees. "That's my compulsivity coming through," he says. Laszlo Kiraly was an engineering student in Budapest when he took part in the ill-fated Hungarian revolt in 1956. He left the country with little more than a duffel bag. Eventually he made his way to the U.S. and earned two engineering degrees and an M.D. at the University of Michigan. Now he specializes in rehabilitation medicine in Santa Barbara.
As a teenager, Kiraly played volleyball for the Hungarian junior national team. He still plays during lunch break and on weekends. His voice, a trumpet of competitiveness, can easily be heard from one end of the beach to the other as he admonishes teammates and himself.
When he was interning in Santa Barbara in 1967, Las introduced Karch, then six, to volleyball. Five years later Karch and his father became beach partners. Sanguinary opponents hit everything Karch's way. As if that weren't difficult enough, his father was also sandblasting him.
"I pushed him very hard in those days," Dr. Kiraly says. "I was critical of him. I could see him seething inside. I forgot that he was 11 or 12 years old."
Karch was steeled by his experience. When he was 15, opponents started serving to his father, and their partnership soon ended. "My annual treat," Dr. Kiraly says, "is that on Father's Day or my birthday, he will play volleyball with me. It's like getting to play basketball with Wilt Chamberlain."
Do you know that your name, Kiraly, means "I don't like you" in Japanese. But, of course, I don't kiraly you.
—Letter from Osaka
At Santa Barbara High Kiraly wore his blond hair at shoulder length and had a body that should have gotten sand kicked in his face. "Karch was a scrawny kid," Hanley recalls, "but he had the biggest calves. Standing under the basket on one leg, he could jump up and stuff a volleyball. The basketball team would watch in amazement."
At UCLA the 6'3" Kiraly cut his hair, gained some 25 pounds (to 195) and helped the Bruins to three national championships and a 124-5 record. In the summer of 1981, after his junior season, he joined the national team and was an immediate starter. "In 1982 we were 13th in the world just before Karch joined the team full time," says Marlowe. "It is no coincidence that when Karch arrived, we began playing well."
Even before the Olympics, Kiraly was the most famous U.S. player ever, which may be damning with faint praise. "I'll be in the grocery store," says Timmons, "and someone will come up to me and say, 'You're a volleyball player. You're that, uh, you're that Karch guy.' His name is synonymous with U.S. volleyball."
Though Karch was, at 23, the youngest member of the Olympic team, he has played in more international matches for the U.S. than anyone else. He is a powerful athlete, with a 41½-inch vertical leap and almost extrasensory court awareness. Last winter Kiraly became the first athlete in his sport ever nominated for the prestigious Sullivan Award. His fame was made more tenable when he finished second after Mark Gastineau in the 1985 Superstars competition. But if volleyball is to really get into the U.S. sporting consciousness, it still has a way to go. For example, at the end of a well-intentioned radio interview, his host turned to Kiraly and naively asked, "Now, Karch, you guys play with 11 guys on a side just like football?"
"People don't see the intricacies of the game," Kiraly says. "The hitter puts the ball away and that's what the spectators see. They only look at the terminal play. They can't work backward to what set that up."
Timmons, however, assuredly can. Although in his own right he is one of the best hitters in the world, he says, "I know that when I am old and confined to a wheelchair with arthritic knees, my grandchildren are going to want to know if I really played with Karch."