Two weeks ago, at the tail end of the most recent national tour of the U.S. men's volleyball team, a Soviet sportswriter approached U.S. coach Bill Neville and told him that it would really help U.S.S.R. coach Gennadi Parchin if the Americans let the Soviets win at least one match. Neville, an affable man, smiled noncommittally and said to himself, You must be kidding. We're going to whip them seven straight times. After all, he thought, it won't be long before we'll be the team begging for mercy.
On Saturday the Americans justified Neville's confidence by beating the Soviets in their seventh consecutive match, 15-9, 15-9, 15-5, to win the USA Cup in Inglewood, Calif. Then team captain Karch Kiraly, the best all-around player in the world, and Steve Timmons, the big redhead with the famous flattop and the devastating spike, walked off the floor for the last time as members of the U.S. team.
The match almost certainly marked the end of a marvelous 5½-year run for the U.S. as the No. 1 team in the world. "We're going to have to take our lumps for a while," said swing-hitter Bob (the King of Consonants) Ctvrtlik.
Before Kiraly and Timmons joined the U.S. team in the spring of '81, the most famous American volleyball players were Tom Selleck and Wilt Chamberlain. The U.S. had never won an Olympic medal or finished higher than sixth at the world championships (that was in 1956 in France). But with Kiraly playing swing-hitter and Timmons at middle blocker, the U.S. struck gold at the L.A. Olympics in 1984 and won the World Cup in '85, the World Championships in '86, the Pan Am Games in '87 and the Seoul Olympics in '88. Fittingly, Timmons was named the MVP of the volleyball competition in Los Angeles, and Kiraly claimed the honor in Seoul.
Just how much the U.S. will miss Kiraly and Timmons became apparent earlier this year when they skipped a European tour and the team lost eight of 10 matches. Back Stateside with the two veterans in the lineup for a five-city tour, the U.S. swept the Soviets, the world's No. 2 team. Then the U.S. breezed through its matches with Brazil, the Soviet Union and South Korea in the round-robin portion of the USA Cup before beating the Soviets in the finals. Even Parchin, whose team stands to benefit the most from the departure of Kiraly and Timmons, said their leave-taking "will be very sad."
Both have already begun playing part-time on the professional beach circuit and will increase their participation as the national tour winds down. Timmons also has a booming business with his Redsand line of volleyball wear. This fall he will marry Jeanie Buss, whose father, Jerry, owns the Los Angeles Lakers. Of his decision to quit, Timmons says, "I have to reintroduce myself to Jeanie every time I come home from a trip. I want to go jet-skiing on the weekend and get sunburned."
Kiraly and his wife, Janna, want to start a family. But Kiraly, who won two world beach titles, in 1979 and '81, hopes to restake his claim as the best in that brand of the game. The International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) is lobbying to have beach volleyball included among the demonstration sports at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, and Kiraly says he would like to win a third gold.
It's still possible—though not likely—that he could pick up a third gold playing indoors. The U.S. Volleyball Association (USVBA) has left the door open for Kiraly and Timmons to rejoin the team any time between now and March 1992. But at the moment, the only door they see is the one marked EXIT.
Setter Jeff Stork is also planning to leave the U.S. team—in November, after the World Cup—to play professionally in Italy, where he has been offered a contract he says is the most lucrative ever offered in that country. Stork announced his decision in the locker room before the U.S. beat the Soviets in Dallas in the first match of the tour. "What is it, guys?" asked Neville afterward. "Do I smell bad? Do I have BO?" The players all laughed, but as they did, they all looked at Ctvrtlik, the only remaining starter from the '88 Olympic team.
Ctvrtlik is weighing his options: He can either stay with the national team and become the heart of a rebuilding effort, or go to Italy and make a reported $180,000 a year—a good deal more than his stipend from the USVBA. "I wouldn't be surprised if we lose Ctvrtlik," Neville says. "We can't compete with guys who have pockets that reach down to their ankles."
Ctvrtlik says he would like to stay, but he finds the USVBA's inability to find new sponsors frustrating. Executive director Cliff McPeak acknowledges the problem. "It's very difficult to sell the USVBA at this point of its growth," he says. "It's not the NFL."
However, even if the U.S. loses Ctvrtlik and other veterans, McPeak is confident that Neville can put together a winning team. "The key to our success is not individuals," he says, "but the team and the permanent training center [in San Diego]."
Where will Neville find the talent he needs?
•On the '88 team. Jon Root, Scott Fortune, Troy Tanner and Eric Sato are younger players who all earned gold medals in Seoul. In particular, the 6'5" Root has the quickness and power that Neville wants for his attack.
•In college. Brian Ivie, a 6'6" junior at USC who played against the Soviets during their tour, impressed everyone who saw him.
•In high school. Lloy Ball, a 6'9" setter from Woodland (Ind.) High who is also a standout in basketball, sets Neville's heart racing.
•Under the basket. Judd Buechler, a 6'5" forward at Arizona, has one more year of eligibility left, and then if the NBA doesn't grab him, the USVBA will. Neville would like to try him out in Kiraly's position.
Tactically, Stork may be the most difficult player to replace, because the U.S. is thin at setter, a position that requires a lot of grooming. But Kiraly and Timmons are the ones who will be most sorely missed, because they gave the team its identity. "They put U.S. volleyball on the map," says Chris Marlowe, captain of the '84 Olympic team and now a TV commentator, who has taken to calling himself the Voice of Volleyball. "They are the superstars volleyball never had."
Even if other superstars come along soon to take their place, the names of Kiraly and Timmons will certainly live on. Just last week, after the U.S. beat Brazil in Seattle, a woman approached Kiraly for an autograph. As he signed, she said to him, "We named our son after you. His name is Christopher Kiraly Batinovich."