Greg Lee helped to totally re-write the narrative of beach volleyball. 

When Lee embraced the game, it was no longer the well-kept Southern California secret. He was the point guard on two UCLA NCAA-championship basketball teams under John Wooden. But, as his best friend, Bill Walton said, he was more than just a point guard. When Jamaal Wilkes, whom Wooden regularly described as the perfect player, was asked what it was like to play with such an incredible passer and playmaker like Magic Johnson on the Lakers, Wilkes simply said, “Hey, I played with Greg Lee.”

So, when Lee started playing beach volleyball at Sorrento Beach in Santa Monica, in 1970, and within a year competed in Opens, it got the media’s attention. But the real breakthrough was when Lee won a record 13 consecutive tournaments playing with another Bruin, Jim Menges. 

Greg Lee/courtesy of Bill Walton

The run began June 15, 1975, at Sorrento when they beat Ron Von Hagen and Fred Zuelich in the final. It ended 78 matches later on August 15, 1976, when they lost twice in one of the most bizarre Manhattan Opens of all-time, where they finished fourth. 

Menges and Lee recovered from that setback about a month later to win the first ever World Championships of Beach Volleyball at Santa Monica’s State Beach.

Menges and Lee became the first rock stars of the sport. They transcended. It wasn’t only the beach volleyball people who knew them, but with the help of the Los Angeles Times and some local over-the-air television stations, the sport got the publicity it needed and took off like a rocket ship beyond the Southern California shores. 

All of the world’s current top players owe a debt of gratitude to Greg and Jim.

Lee died this past Wednesday afters years of battling health issues. He was 70.

Greg Lee

What deep and abiding respect the legends of the game have for Lee. The day after he passed away, I reached out to his brother Jon, a superb player in his own right, and the bard of that generation with his own incomparable writing skills, as well as Walton, Jim Menges, Sinjin Smith, Chris Marlowe, and Steve Obradovich. Literally within minutes, everyone responded generously with their time and stories. 

Karch Kiraly, in the final stages of preparing his USA women’s national team for its first match at the World Championships, responded from Arnhem, Netherlands at 2 in the morning. 

That was the gravitas Greg Lee had in the sport.

Greg Lee was born in Reseda, California, on December 12, 1951. His father, Marvin, played center at UCLA for Wilbur Johns and coached Greg at Reseda High School. Greg was the youngest of three brothers, all of whom played basketball and volleyball at a high level. 

Chris, who played for Al Scates at UCLA, was the oldest, and Jon, the middle child, both fueled Greg’s interest in volleyball. 

Greg and Jon played together and took two second-place finishes, at Marine Street in 1972 and five years later in Santa Cruz when what appeared to be a tourney ending net violation wasn’t called. 

A “net,” in those days, was an honor call by the player committing the infraction. Gary Hooper said, “No way.” He and partner Fred Sturm came back to win the tournament. Greg, a frequent tourney winner, was furious, hoping to get his older brother his first tournament win. Greg confronted Hooper and called him a cheater. In that era players had no problem getting in the grill of each other. Hooper said, “Shut up Greg. You have a big nose and I’m going to make it bigger.” According to Jon, the rest of the summer if someone failed to call a net, players called it, “A Hoopy.”

Another headscratcher for Greg occurred on those same Cowell Beach courts five years earlier, when it got so late that play was suspended because no one could see the ball. So it was determined that a game of Rochambeau would determine the official order. Greg was not as good at rock, paper, scissors as he was at volleyball and Larry Rundle and Bob Clem came away with the “title.”

That was a rare “loss” for Greg. In point of fact, has anyone ever been more of a winner than Greg Lee? 

His freshman basketball team at UCLA went 20-0, his sophomore and junior year NCAA title teams went undefeated, 30-0 in both seasons. In 1973, in the title game against Memphis, Greg dished out 14 assists in an NCAA-championship game record that lasts to this day. 

For some reason, Coach Wooden replaced Lee as a starter in his senior year and the Bruins started to lose their way. The 88-game win streak, gone. The seven consecutive NCAA title streak ended. It’s always hard to criticize the “Wizard of Westwood,” but the Bruins, according to Walton, “stumbled badly in the absence of Greg’s steadying influence and creative leadership, losing multiple games, before ultimately collapsing in the Final Four.”

Beyond the 13-tournament win streak in beach volleyball, Lee played a total of 61 tournaments, winning 29. Not bad for a part-timer. Menges and Lee won 26 of the 38 tournaments they played, a 68.4 winning percentage. Only Kiraly and Smith have ever done better, winning 21 of 28 events, an even 75 percent of the time. Kent Steffes and Kiraly won 74 of 116 for a 63.8 mark, while Sinjin Smith and Randy Stoklos, the winningest partnership in history, won 114 out of 239 for 47.7 percent. 

Lee learned the game from the masters who roamed the sand at Sorrento Beach in the early 1970’s. He was given the nickname “The Kid,” from the vets who played there, and it stuck.

“It was awesome to grow up watching them play at Sorrento before I started playing and then when I started,” Sinjin Smith said. “They (Menges and Lee) and Ron Von Hagen and Tom Chamales were battling at Sorrento every day of the week, and I had a chance to watch them. When I got to UCLA, I was able to play against them. I can attribute my success to growing up at Sorrento and watching them and practicing against them. It was an incredible training ground for someone starting out or trying to be the best.”

While beach volleyball was a nice “diversion,” Greg Lee’s ultimate goal was to catch on as an NBA or ABA player. He had brief stints with the San Diego Conquistadores of the ABA and the Portland Trail Blazers of the NBA, and he played four seasons in West Germany. So, like Kiraly, who was playing on the USA indoor team during arguably his peak years, Lee was not always on the sand during his peak either.

So, what was the secret sauce? What made Lee so formidable? According to Menges, “Back then (early-late 1970’s) the whole premise was to have good ball control. I got served 95 percent of the time. I was a really good passer and Greg was a great setter and I moved the ball around. Matches back then used to last three hours and the key was who could put it on the net most consistently (No part of the body was allowed to cross the plain of the net in those days).” 

According to Kiraly, “Greg’s ball control and defense was exceptional, considering he was a taller player (6-4½). He loved to get the 50-50 set and swipe at it. He had a great way of swiping sideways and catching the side of the ball without breaking the plane.”

Another weapon in Lee’s arsenal was his psychological game. 

As luck would have it, a 15-year-old Kiraly played his very first open in Santa Barbara in 1976, with Rich Payne, and drew Menges and Lee while at the peak of their powers. 

“They were an incredibly mentally tough duo. That was what I aspired to reach,” Kiraly said. “That level of mental toughness. Menges had the burning hot intensity. And Greg Lee had a way of keeping his focus, and distracting the focus of others. He definitely had more gab in him, and he would use the gift of gab to distract, deter, and deflate people and teams across the net and I always enjoyed listening to it, a great model of consistency and confidence of figuring out ways to discombobulate the opponent.”

Marlowe got to know that gift of gab early and often. 

The Big Sy’s Palisades High School basketball teams and Lee’s Reseda squad were the two best teams in the Los Angeles City section in 1968 and 1969. Marlowe’s Dolphins won the title later that year, with Lee winning his second consecutive City Player of the Year honor. And then a few years later they squared off on the sand. 

“He was quick with a quip.” Marlowe said. “He always thought he was going to win. He was always cocky and confident. It was that basketball confidence that transferred over to volleyball.”

To say Lee was smart is an absolute understatement. He was a three-time Academic All-American at UCLA after being the valedictorian at Reseda.

“He figured the game out,” Marlowe said. “When Ron Von Hagen and Ron Lang had the game wired it was about sideout. Don’t make any mistakes. Don’t give up any points. It was not about offense. Greg and Jimmy epitomized that they were the toughest team mentally on the beach at that time. Greg was a very good athlete, extremely smart, extremely skilled. I would compare him more to (two-time NBA MVP Denver Nugget) a Nikola Jokic. Greg was smarter and more skilled than anyone else. The strength in his game was the mental part, very tough nut to crack, could play all day, was one of the all-time great winners.” 

It was not just the athletic “smarts.” Lee also had a legendary photographic memory. As good an athlete as Lee was, his brain was even better.

“We played Trivial Pursuit one night and before he would answer ALL the questions, he would explain why you should know the answer,” said Obradovich, who was one of his sand rivals. “Brilliant person and a great guy to hang around with.” 

According to Jon Lee, “My father kept the official score books from all of Greg’s high school games. Forty years later Greg could remember every little detail of every game in his high school career. He simply excelled at crossword puzzles and any kind of word games.”

His IQ served him well in his career as a basketball coach and teacher of gifted math students for decades in San Diego.

Lee was a character in an era when there were many of them. As a young wannabe, I would head down to tournaments as much to listen to the banter across the net as to watch great volleyball. You could spot Greg from a mile away. For one, he was taller than most of the players at that time. For another he had a washboard-like stomach and what seemed to be negative body fat. He had long brown hair and always wore a bandana of sorts. He also stalked the court with this long gait in between points. 

And then, most interestingly, he actually relished the pressure and the opportunity to referee.

Back in those days, the loser of the previous match would have to ref the next one. As a ref, Greg maintained a very tight setting standard, at a time when he and Jim were the most consistent setters on the beach. Other top players were a bit less consistent.

“One of the ways Greg and Jimmy could assert their dominance was to promote strict setting enforcement, and it disabled many who lost confidence, and their touch,” according to Jon Lee.

“Everybody in those days needed precise sets on the net as courts were dug out by continuous play, not manicured as they are today. Greg did all the reffing for the Lee-Menges machine, so many credit him for the more stringent setting issues.”   

“He would ref anybody’s game,” Menges said. “He loved to watch people play, critique the game and call throws.” 

According to Jon Lee, Greg once said, “If I played God and Steve Sims, I would serve God until Steve Sims threw 15 balls!”

Discipline was another of Lee’s trademarks, even from a young age. 

“Greg was 10 years old when he heard (MLB Hall of Famer) Frank Robinson did not eat desserts,” according to Jon. “After that, he didn’t eat candy, ice cream, cookies, cake … His whole youth he didn’t eat candy. He had crazy discipline. He thought he was cut from superior stuff and was going to do what they (the great athletes) do. 

“He trained himself to be left-handed because he knew it gave him an advantage. So he’d shoot free throws lefthanded in our back yard for hours and I saw him make 30 in a row. He’d throw tennis balls against the garage, eat and brush his teeth, all left-handed. He became ambidextrous.”

Lee was underappreciated, but a couple of weeks ago he was finally inducted into the Los Angeles City Section Hall of Fame. He is not in the UCLA Sports Hall of Fame, a slight that, in time, will hopefully be rectified.

It was one of life’s saddest ironies that this man who epitomized superior fitness (he was also an exceptional backpacker and tennis player) was struck down by one insidious health problem after another. It all began to unravel over 20 years ago when Lee went in for back surgery that went horribly wrong. In the process of operating, Greg’s spinal cord got nicked and he lost spinal fluid. That was followed by a staph infection, a replacement of a heart valve, sepsis which almost killed him and finally, the systemic disorder that compromised his immune system. 

Kevin Cleary, the first president of the AVP, said it best in an email to Jon Lee: “Very few people had a better front nine than Greg. Or a better attitude during his struggles on the back nine.” 

Greg persevered and somehow fought the good fight day after day for decades.

Throughout all of this tribulation was the steadfast support of his loyal wife of 45 years, Lisa Parducci, as well as his son Ethan and daughter Jessamyn Feves, and his brothers. 

Before he slipped from consciousness, Jon was bedside as Ethan played Neil Young’s “Thrasher,” on guitar, with Lisa singing and Greg mouthing the words. It was always a campfire favorite and a perfect note to end on.

But me I’m not stopping there
Got my own row left to hoe
Just another line in the field of time
When the thrasher comes, I’ll be stuck in the sun
Like the dinosaurs in shrines
But I’ll know the time has come
To give what’s mine 

Greg Lee RIP.

***

The following is from the CBVA Beach Volleyball Hall of Fame website, which inducted Lee in 1997:

1975. Gerald Ford was in the White House. Jaws was the number one movie. Ali beat Frazier in the “Thriller in Manilla.” And in our little world of beach volleyball Greg Lee and Jim Menges had a season that to this day set the benchmark for excellence. Lee and Menges played in ten tournaments in 1975, made the finals in all of them, and won nine. For those of you who are math-challenged, Lee batted .900 that season. Not bad.

From 1973 to 1982 Lee-Menges played in 30 tournaments, winning 25, finishing second three times and third twice. They were, unquestionably, one of the handful of truly great teams in our sport.
He was born Gregory Scott Lee in Reseda, California and was a standout basketball player in high school. Greg played basketball for John Wooden at UCLA from 1971 to 1974, where he was a three-year starter at guard and won two National Championships. His UCLA teams won 88 straight games by an average of 30 points! He was drafted by both the NBA and the ABA and had stints with the Portland Trailblazers as well as professional teams overseas.
Greg Lee at his 1997 induction/CBVA phot by Bruce Hazelton
Greg is one of the few players, along with Mike Whitmarsh, who had no real indoor volleyball background at all. He was introduced to the beach game by his older brother Jon and learned at the feet of the masters at Sorrento.
In many ways, Greg was the poster child for the 1970s volleyball player. Pulling up to tournaments in his V.W. van after an all-night Grateful Dead concert. The long flowing hair and the bandana headband. He embodied the quirky, slightly counter-culture vibe of that era.
While Greg was listed at 6’ 3”, he had seriously long arms and played much taller than his height. He was one of the most rangy hitters on the beach and also had some of the best hands around, delivering sweet sauce to Mingo on a routine basis. In fact, to this day some say that it was Greg Lee who pushed hard to tighten up the setting calls back then because he knew that with his hands he would rarely be called while others would be forced to bump set.
Ironically, if he weren’t such a great athlete, Greg Lee would have won a whole lot more tournaments. Beach volleyball overlapped with his pursuit of a professional basketball career. Had he been dedicated solely to beach volleyball, it’s hard to imagine how many victories he would have had.
But in the time he did dedicate to the beach, including that magical year in 1975, there was no one better. 
Mike Anapol tries to block Greg Lee/photo courtesy of Dane Selznick

1 COMMENT

  1. I was a Greg Lee fan in my youth watching those great UCLA Brian teams. Wonderful article , RIP Greg Lee, thanks for the memories.

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