Warning! International killer about to be set loose in L.A.
This is an article from the July 4, 1988 issue
To promote last week's four-nation USA Cup volleyball tournament at the Los Angeles Forum, publicist John Black stuffed that message, unsigned, into about 100 plain white envelopes and mailed it to his media contacts across the country. The killer he was referring to was Steve Timmons, the U.S. national team's splendid spiker, who has knocked off more aliens than Sigourney Weaver. Black followed up three days later with a second message: Warning update: International killer sets sights on Soviets, French and Japanese in Los Angeles area.
When television columnist Rachel Shuster of USA Today got the first anonymous message, she grabbed the phone and called the Forum. Someone there told her to call the Los Angeles police, which she did. After receiving the second letter, she called the L.A. police again and they called the FBI. Following some detective work (the police department of Inglewood, Calif., the State Department and the embassies of Japan, France and the Soviet Union were all contacted during the investigation), the FBI traced the letter to the Forum, where Black explained it was just a come-on.
All of which has little to do with volleyball except to underline that it will take more than press-agentry and the combined security forces of the KGB and the French S‚Äö√†√∂¬¨‚Ñ¢retè to stop Timmons. None of the volleyball teams assembled in L.A. could do it. "The purpose of the American team is to prove it is unbeatable and to create an inferiority complex in the team it is playing," said Soviet coach Gennadi Parchin. "It succeeded extremely well."
In volleyball, Yankee ingenuity usually triumphs over Soviet might: The U.S. has won 26 of the last 35 matches between the two countries, including all seven this year. The Soviets last struck Olympic gold in 1980, and they were ranked No. 1 in May 1984 when the U.S. beat them in five games on Russian soil. With their top competitor a no-show later that year in Los Angeles, the Americans won the Olympic title. They completed international volleyball's triple crown by taking the 1985 World Cup in Tokyo and the '86 World Championship in Paris.
Timmons, the MVP of the '84 Games, is one of four former Olympians on the current U.S. team. All but one player on the 1988 roster grew up along the 150-mile stretch of Southern California sand between Santa Barbara and Laguna Beach. Timmons shares a house with teammate Karch Kiraly and Kiraly's wife, Janna, near the team training center in San Diego. Timmons markets his own line of beachwear and a volleyball the color of ballpark mustard. On weekends he tools up the freeway to the beach house of his girlfriend, Jeanie Buss, whose father, Jerry, owns the Forum, the Lakers and the Kings. "If there's one thing I'd like to improve between now and the Olympics," Timmons says, "it's my driving time between San Diego and L.A."
The U.S. team arrived in Los Angeles fresh from a four-match East Coast sweep of the Soviets. The teams shared planes and conversation, and the only uncomfortable moment came during a flight from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles when the pilot announced, "We'll be seeing Little Nikita, a film about a little boy who discovers that his parents are Soviet spies."
The Reds turned to the Americans; the Americans turned red. A few minutes later, the pilot came back on the air. "There's been a change in the movie," he said apologetically. "The new film is Shoot to Kill"
Which pretty well describes the U.S. team. On Wednesday night, June 22, the Americans defeated the Japanese, who will be their first-round opponent in Seoul. The match drew 2,517 fans, a disappointing crowd for a squad that had achieved its greatest glory just down the road in Long Beach four years before during the Olympics.
The U.S. bolted to an 8-1 lead before outside hitter Kiraly, nicknamed the Computer, malfunctioned. Pouncing on some sloppy setting and benefiting from some errant serves, the Japanese drew to within four. Kiraly, who in 1986 was named the world's best player by the International Volleyball Federation, got so frustrated that he slammed the heel of his hand into his forehead. He calls the move the Headsplitter.
The Computer rebooted and the U.S. pulled away. But Japan again rallied, and Kiraly bounced a fist off his temple. "He calls that the Brain Scrambler," said Janna. Just as Kiraly seemed on the verge of completely losing his head, an ace by Craig Buck gave the U.S. a 15-10 victory.
From then on, the taller, more powerful Americans simply overwhelmed Japan, 15-2 and 15-3. The Japanese, Olympic gold medalists in 1972, have not beaten the U.S. in their last 27 tries. Timmons blames their decline on a rock-star mentality. "The Japanese used to have a never-say-die attitude and dive for every ball," he says. "Now they seem more interested in how their hair is done and whether they look cute. Instead of worrying about making shots, they stand around posing for their film crews."
All three visiting teams spent Thursday afternoon at Disneyland. Some of the Soviet players got stranded atop Space Mountain. "We were stuck between Venus and Mars," said middle blocker Yuri Panchenko, the only gold medalist left from the 1980 team. "It was very scary." But apparently not quite as scary as playing the U.S. team.
On Friday night Parchin redefined "Eastern bloc" by benching all but two of his regulars and inserting what Kiraly called the Russian Goon Squad—five players 6'6" or taller. U.S. coach Marv Dunphy started 6'6" Doug Partie at middle blocker and moved the 6'5" Timmons to the outside. As Partie jammed up front, his wired teammates shook their fists, flexed their muscles and shouted encouragement to one another. The cool, clunky Soviets never got anything going, and they fell 15-9, 15-11, 15-7.
"The Soviets are a little too stoical on the court," observed Timmons. "They don't want to be excited, just efficient." Parchin said he envies the passionate intensity that the Americans bring to the court. "It worries me most that my team is so young and emotionally ravnodushen—what you call laid back," he said. "The Americans burn on the field: They have fire in their work."
No American was more fiery than Timmons, whose flaming flattop makes him look like a cross between Eraserhead and the Great Pumpkin. "Technically, he's an incredibly strong player," said Parchin. "He sets the mood of the whole American team. He alone can really decide the fate of the game.
"If we only had to contend with Timmons, it wouldn't be a problem. But with the Americans, every name is a problem. They have saturated themselves in the very best volleyball of the world: the excellent defense of some of the Asian teams, the powerful attack of the Europeans. They repeat the same simple combinations over and over, but with such speed and consistency that it is virtually impossible to defend against. We had no chance. They have weaknesses, but my players are incapable of exploiting them. So all my wonderful plans remain on paper....
"We were once the teacher and they the students," Parchin added wistfully. "Now we're the students and they are the teachers."
Perhaps because its game is so much like that of the U.S., France was able to extend the Americans last week in L. A. (The French upset the U.S. in a match last summer during the Savvin Cup in the Soviet Union, but the Americans came back to win the tournament.) The French are quick, explosive and thoroughly unpredictable, relying as much on deception as on brute force. Their net game is suspect, and they can't match the talent of the Americans, but they try. The French neutralized Timmons and Kiraly in the early going on Saturday evening. After dropping the first game, 15-7, France barely lost the next, 16-14, twice having the U.S. at game point. Then the French crushed the Americans 15-5 in the third, with a complex offense that had more options than a Hollywood producer. The histrionic Kiraly showed his frustration by tugging at the legs of his shorts. Happily, he managed to keep his pants on: Last year, after a disputed call during a televised club match, Kiraly yanked so hard that he wound up mooning the referee.
The U.S. copped the clincher 15-5 as Timmons killed them softly with feathery dinks, and setter Jeff Stork made better digs than Don Rickles at a celebrity roast. "The Americans have the best team in the world," said French coach Eric Daniel. "To defeat them, you've got to play perfectly."
The Soviets almost did that on Sunday night, winning the first two games of the championship match 15-11 and 16-14 before the United States team rallied dramatically 15-9, 15-10 and 15-4 for the victory, thus confirming Parchin's theories about the pupil-teacher relationship and about the competitive "fire" of the American players.
The U.S. showing in the tournament was so convincing that some opponents have already conceded them the gold in Seoul. "It is a foregone conclusion that the United States and the Soviets will finish one and two in Korea," said Alain Fabiani, France's brilliant setter. "The rest of us are just going for the bronze."
"Training for the last Olympics was like going up Mount Fuji without a shirt on," said Timmons. "We had a lot of goose bumps, and each step we took was new and exciting. This year we've got experience. We'll be wearing long underwear."