From Volleyball magazine in 1990: An in-depth profile of Karch Kiraly

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Karch Kiraly 6/11/2020
Portrait of Karch Kiraly by Sean Thonson

This time of no volleyball has given us opportunity to go into our archives and this time we’ve found a really good one.
Volleyball magazine, now in its fourth decade, had evolved over the years. This story is from the July/August 1990 issue — which was Volume 1, Number 1 — about Karch Kiraly and written by Chris Carter.
The original headline: “Jumping into the pro arena, volleyball’s king of the court is determined to make a point.” Karch, by the way, has since moved from the house in reference.

Jumping into the pro arena, volleyball’s king of the court is determined to make a point.

By all appearances, it could be the home of any prospering Orange County businessman. Three bedrooms, two and a half baths in a gated, guarded new development in the hills of San Clemente. With an aerie panorama of the Pacific sweeping 180 degrees up the coast to Dana Point, it’s an American Dream come true, with a view.

The owner of this house, Charles Karch Kiraly, knows something about American Dreams.

He is living one himself.

A two-time Olympic gold medalist whose father, a Hungarian immigrant, taught him volleyball at the age of 6 and drove him hard to become the player generally regarded as the best American ever to take the court, Karch represents most, if not all of all of our ideas about commitment, determination, possibility, and heroism. Around the world, hundreds of millions saw him lead the U.S. team to victories over Japan, Holland, Argentina, France, Tunisia, Brazil, and finally the Soviets in Seoul in 1989; saw his father waving the American flag wildly in the grandstands and learned the story of the kid from Santa Barbara in an NBC Sports vignette that called him the Larry Bird of volleyball.

If he wasn’t before, the American with the funny name also became the best known player in the world. Of course, for those involved in the sport, the name has signified greatness for over a decade. He has won just about every honor there is, and even one the Federation Internationale de Volleyball made up just for him: The Greatest Volleyball Player in the World. As they say now when he is introduced at beach tournaments around the country: “For anyone who follows volleyball at all, Karch Kiraly needs no introduction.”

So it comes as a bit of a surprise when he leads you on a tour of his new home that not a trace of these enormous achievements is to be seen. Karch will point out the chandelier over the dining room table that his wife Janna recently picked out, or the clever faux stained glass window in the guest bathroom; the new gray-bottomed pool and Jacuzzi or the plexiglass perimeter fence his father-in-law built which provides an unobstructed coastal view, but if you’ve anticipated a trophy room or walls lined with NCAA awards from his days at UCLA, the national-team titles, the USOC commendations or even a beach trophy, forget it. If you’ve planned on seeing the gold medals you’re going to have to ask, because they aren’t out either. And even then, it might take Karch a moment to remember where he put them.

“One time somebody asked to see them and it took Janna and I fifteen minutes to remember where they were,” Karch admits. There isn’t a picture, a plaque or even a volleyball lying around that might explain how the man of the house makes his living. The only clue that he’s even an athlete is a pair of golf shoes sitting outside the back door. It begs the question.

“I try not to take myself or my accomplishments too seriously. There’s more to a man than his accomplishments and … if you’re confident in yourself and your abilities you don’t need to broadcast it,” he offers reluctantly. “I don’t know, maybe I’ll put them up after I retire.”

Anyone who knows Karch Kiraly at all will tell you this isn’t false modesty. Nor is it a pose or an attempt to cut an image.

“He’s always been a self-effacing person,” says his mother, Toni, in whose house many of the old trophies sit. “That’s just the way he is.” That may be just the way he is, but Karch Kiraly just spent the last decade of his life as an amateur athlete where the rewards are almost entirely symbolic.

They’re meant to be held up, put on display … to trumpet excellence as its own reward. Which begs several other questions: If not for the trophies or the glory, then why does Karch play the game? And play it with such ferocious intensity? Why has he never popped a cassette of the Olympic victory in the VCR and relived the moment? Why doesn’t he read anything written about himself? What is in it for Karch Kiraly?

No doubt Karch asked himself that very question sometime last July when, after eight years with the national team, he announced his retirement from Olympic competition. Fittingly, he capped his stellar career with a win over the Soviet team at the L.A. Forum. Then, after finishing out the AVP beach tour, he took four months off, the longest time by far he’d taken away from volleyball since he started playing the game. In those four months he played exactly three times, but only to fulfill appearance obligations and to play an exhibition match.

“I just needed a break from volleyball,” he says.

Which is something like the Pope saying he needs a little time away from religion. When you’re Karch Kiraly you don’t get away from volleyball quite that easily. In those four months he crisscrossed the U.S. doing media work for a non-profit sports clinic put on by the makers of Advil called Sports Sense 2 (he split engagements with baseball’s Nolan Ryan), made speeches to community organizations and reunited with the 1988 Olympic Team in Singapore for something called the World Gala where gold-medalists beat a team of international all-stars.

Otherwise, Karch did what most of us do on vacation: he went to Hawai’i with his wife, came home and swam in his pool, read some books, saw some movies and watched the Super Bowl. Having at times been mobbed in the streets by adoring fans, having stood before the world on the pinnacle of athletic achievement, Karch Kiraly came down from the mountain to his new home in San Clemente and settled back into the life of Riley.

Of course, the phone rang. It rang a lot and often it was Jerry Solomon, Karch’s agent and one of the principal partners in ProServe, a sports promotion cum full-service career management agency that represents athletes such as John McEnroe and Michael Jordan. While Karch was recharging, Solomon was hard at work laying down the groundwork for the future. He was on the phone to Europe, on the phone to the USVBA, on the phone to sponsors … Jerry Solomon spent many hours on the phone earning his 25 percent. No doubt about it, there was a future waiting for Karch and the future looked rich. How rich? At one point, Solomon turned down an offer of $250,000 for six months of play in Italy. He turned down a subsequent offer of $100,000 for six weeks.

Karch Kiraly volleyball 6/11/2020
Karch Kiraly finds some open line against the Netherlands/Tim DeFrisco, Allsport

By volleyball standards — by almost anyone’s standards — this was serious money. Combined with his existing sponsorships — Quiksilver, RayBan, Scott Hawaii, and Freestyle— Karch could be pulling down a salary commensurate, if not better than most professional athletes.

No one can say for sure if it would have made him the best paid man in volleyball, but it certainly would have put him in the running.

People were saying that Karch turned down the offers for the altruistic purpose of promoting the sport at home in the U.S. This may have been true, but it wasn’t the whole story.

Karch had turned down the Italians before, once after the ’84 Olympics and again in 1986, for reasons that were purely altruistic: the chance for a second Olympic victory competing against a full international field in 1988. The Soviets and their communist satellites had of course boycotted in ’84, leaving the U.S. team with what some felt was tarnished gold. When Karch began to field offers from Europe, the national-team functionaries came to him and implored him to stay for the good of the team. Some of the ’84 squad were lured away by the bucks, but Karch opted not to go and the rest is Olympic history.

Had they not won, though (and they came frighteningly close to losing against Argentina), Karch may have lamented the decision. Eight years toward a singular goal is an enormous commitment of time, win or lose. How many knew or remembered the years of national teamers living in unfurnished apartments, sleeping on floors and subsisting on peanut butter sandwiches? When they were in San Diego, Karch recalls that he and some of the guys used to jump in the ocean in their practice gear to save money on laundry.

True, conditions and even funds increased after ’84, but Karch had also met Janna Miller by that time and it’s safe to say that when they were married in 1987, the lifestyle had lost a lot of its charm. Especially when he knew how well his former teammates were being treated in Italy. Or even how much some of the others were making playing on the beach.

Yet, in spite of the offers, Karch chose to keep his commitment to the national learn and their quest for a second gold medal in Seoul. The same gold medal that now sits in a dark closet in his house in San Clemente.

Of course, as Karch sat at home last fall discussing his options with Jerry Solomon, it didn’t much matter where the gold medal was. The simple fact that the Americans had won it — the first back-to-back victory in Olympic volleyball in 20 years — had opened up the world to him. In addition to having Europe on the time, there was the Calvin Klein underwear ad he did with teammate and best friend Steve Timmons, there were White House receptions, corporate appearances and a book deal with Simon and Shuster in the works. Eight years of selfless dedication, of living on not much more than the dream, was now paying off in spades.

On the sponsorships alone, the Kiralys were able to buy their new home. Now, as the Italians kept upping the ante, one could imagine Karch lying out by the pool in his Quiksilvers and his RayBans, checking his Freestyle watch to see if it was time to call his agent in Washington and ask how negotiations were progressing. If the trophies and the glory didn’t seem to move him, certainly Karch wasn’t immune to the dizzying realization that he was going to be rich. And certainly he wasn’t, but the image of him sitting back and resting on his laurels while waiting for the biggest cash offer couldn’t have been further from the real picture. Even before the triumph in Seoul, Karch had a pretty good idea what he wanted to do when the Olympics were over. And by the Fall of ’89, when the Italians were waving all that money under his nose, he’d actually already made up his mind. He wasn’t going to be touring Italy and eating pasta. He was going touring the U.S. and eating sand.

Following this announcement were the news items about Karch’s choosing the AVP Tour as a way to promote the sport at home, always adding that the decision involved considerable financial sacrifices. In other words, instead of running off to Europe with the money and the spotlight, Karch was making yet another selfless nod to volleyball, paying homage to his roots by staying and playing full time right where he first learned the game — on the beach. With this gesture, Karch must have ascended from volleyball legend to volleyball god in many people’s eyes.

Here he was giving up money — money he damn well deserved after giving eight years to the national team — and putting it back into the sport. You would think that anyone who’d ever played the game would have been moved by such a beau geste. Yet, oddly enough, there were some who might have been just as happy if he’d taken the cash and said arrivederci.

Karch wasn’t exactly coming back to the beach like a decorated war hero, as some might think. Whenever time and coaches permitted during the national team stint, Karch headed for the beach tournaments. Unlike a lot of the best indoor players who never learned the beach game, Karch had sand in his blood. From the age of 6, he and his father would make the weekend drive up from L.A. to East Beach in Santa Barbara (the family would eventually move to a condominium just up the street from the courts). It wasn’t long before they were playing beach tournaments as partners, which they did until Karch was nearly 16. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, Karch teamed up with Sinjin Smith and together they won eighteen tournaments and two beach world championships. Other passing partnerships included Mike Dodd, Tim Hovland and Pat Powers. He was undeniably a force on the beach whenever and wherever he showed. So when Karch committed himself to the full AVP season in 1990, it may have been the first time they were going to see his face every weekend, but he was hardly the new kid in town.

Actually, they had seen his face probably all too often in 1989 when Karch teamed up with Brent Frohoff and won four tournaments. Even though he wasn’t able to be at every event due to post-Olympic national-team duties, Karch played and won enough to finish sixth on the list of 1989 AVP money winners, pocketing over $96,000 in contest earnings for himself. This was almost double all his prior years’ winnings combined. With the AVP total tour purse increasing to $2 million in 1990, with a great (full) year, he could feasibly double the ’89 figure. While he’d turned down sure-thing big bucks in Italy, it wasn’t as if Karch was going to be suffering. And pounding sand was going to be a lot more forgiving than pounding floors indoors. Hell, it hardly seemed like a sacrifice at all, if you looked at it that way.

Twenty-four weekends on the road, a couple hundred grand for the trouble … why not? To the hardcore AVP players, Karch’s motives may have seemed laudable, but the fact is, legend or no legend, he’s just another guy they’ll have to split the pie with. Could that have been the reason that Karch was finding them a little, uh, edgy in the competitor’s tent? It may be one of the reasons, but it’s hard to tell. No one seems to want to come right out and say—particularly Karch—but tensions exist both on and off the court. It came to light last year after one of the Kiraly/Frohoff wins, when a magazine headline appeared proclaiming Karch is Back. This rated a snipe from at least one competitor who wanted to know how Karch could be back when he’d never been gone in the first place—at least not on the beach. Not for the past ten years, anyway.

Others were grousing about the media constantly homing in on Karch and Steve Timmons while passing over the sport’s real stars, those who’d been doing the beach thing their whole life. Ironically, a lot of those vibes were coming from Karch’s old beach partner, Sinjin Smith.  It was a rivalry waiting to happen: The Greatest Volleyball Player in the World versus the man who’d won over a hundred beach tournaments—the winningest player in the sport, King of the Beach. It should have been a promoter’s dream, but by the time the 1990 season rolled around, who wanted to touch it? Things had gotten a little weird. Those who had been waiting for the match out on center court had missed the street fight back in the alley. It centered around a political struggle at the top of the AVP, a clashing of ideas. A new board of directors was chosen. Karch was elected, Sinjin was not. Changes were made, sides were taken, lines were drawn.

Then there were the oft-rumored plans of Karch teaming up with Randy Stoklos, breaking up Sinjin’s eight-year-old winning partnership—a veritable dynasty of beach volleyball. Stoklos had made the overture, but Karch got tired of waiting and gave 21-year-old Kent Steffes a call. As fate would have it, on the second weekend of the 1990 AVP season the two teams would find themselves pitted in the finals with Kiraly/Steffes recording their first victory. From here on out they would all be grudge matches.

But who needed it? Karch’s style is basically nonconfrontational, and who needed the grief and pressure of maintaining an attitude of civility and restraint for six months? They were still begging him to go to Italy—what was he waiting for? The AVP Tour could go on without him. Here was the old question again: What was in it for Karch Kiraly? The answer, as it had always been with Karch, was actually another question. A question of character.

***

It is a Thursday afternoon in Capistrano Beach, a practice day for Karch and Steffes. They’re in the middle of a three-hour workout, still ironing some wrinkles out of their game. Last weekend in Honolulu they met Smith and Stoklos in the finals again, but this time they took a beating. Blocking and serving were problems. They still weren’t firing perfectly as a team, not generating points when they should have been.

Karch sets a tenor of seriousness on the court, even during workouts. He wears the same mask of utter concentration that you see in a tournament. No smiles, no jokes, no recognition of anything at all outside the court. The competitive intensity is the same as game day, only the emotion is modulated. Though he says his renowned 41-inch vertical leap is somewhat short of peak, he is skywalking on every block and spike. His mental edge has always been his trademark — he has a kind of command presence whenever he plays—but never to compensate for any physical shortcomings. At age 29, he still has no nagging or recurring injuries.

Karch Kiraly volleyball 6/11/2020
Karch Kiraly hits around the block/Robert Beck photo

Like a jungle cat, he is no more or no less muscular than he needs to be. He can run lesser men into the ground. Indeed, his decision to drop Brent Frohoff as his partner this year stemmed from what he says was Frohoff’s tendency to cramp in the late going. Steffes knows this and he too is going full speed. Karch is hopeful the partnership will be a long one. He admits with a smile that there will come a day when the roles reverse and Steffes could decide to drop him. But all he really cares about right now is that they keep winning.

This is all Karch has really cared about all along. Which is why the trophies sit in the closet. He’s already won them. They’re history, what’s the next challenge? The game is the thing. Why else would he remember scores in matches twenty years ago or still lose a couple nights’ sleep when he loses a close one? It’s not an altogether conscious quality, it’s a compulsion, a sort of state he lives in. Karch has tried to play mixed matches with his wife, but she knows better now. He’s too intense. Which is why you have to believe him when he tells you the real reason he is committed to staying on the beach for the next six years. It’s not that he wants to win more money than anyone else — he wants to win more tournaments. Karch Kiraly wants to be King of the Beach.

When winners are born, not made, there is an almost innocent quality in their need to dominate—winning not for the sake of destroying their opponent but to take measure of themselves, of their character, of the depth of their desire. Volleyball has been Karch’s yardstick since he was in grade school, and if nothing had ever happened for Karch — if war had broken out and he missed college or the Olympics were cancelled — you’d find him on the beach today playing the game exactly the same way. If you doubt this, all you have to do is go to East Beach in Santa Barbara on almost any Saturday.

***

Dr. Laszlo Kiraly takes a pass from his partner mid-court and handsets the ball perfectly a yard back from the net. “OK now, hit it! Hit it!” he yells at his partner. “Bury that thing!” The spike goes wide, Dr. Kiraly slaps his hands together in dissatisfaction. “C’mon, Molar,” he admonishes. “You’ve got to put that thing away.”

This is not a Saturday, but a Tuesday actually. “Molar” is a Santa Barbara dentist and, like Dr. Kiraly, he’s taking his lunch hour on the beach. In all, there are about a dozen men playing on courts reserved for the “nooners,” a group of men who have been meeting on the beach like this for over 10 years. Many of them are professionals — dentists, doctors — but none of them look to be under 40. Anyone can play, but you better have your beach skills down because this isn’t jungle ball.

Molar remembers the first day he came down to the beach after a long lay off from the game. Dr. Kiraly sized him up and told him matter-of-factly, “You can play, but it won’t be any fun for you and it won’t be any fun for me.” Molar went away mad, but he worked on his game and now he’s one of the regulars.

Dr. Kiraly says he plays to keep in shape and burn off steam, but whatever court he’s on, the game turns suddenly competitive. Everyone stops talking but Dr. Kiraly, who comments on everything. Loudly.

“Call it! Call it! Talk to me!” he shouts at his partner after making a diving save but not knowing where the ball was in time to get back up and put it over the net. Rick Olmstead, who was Karch’s high school coach at Santa Barbara High and is now Dr. Kiraly’s partner for the Saturday morning games, says that he has gotten so mad at the constant shouting that he’s just walked off the court and gone home.

Al Scates was Karch’s UCLA coach and he’s now played with the elder Kiraly, too. He recalls being coaxed into playing a beach tournament, then showing up and realizing that Dr. Kiraly was dropping them down into an age group with men 15 years younger so they could get some competition. Both men say Karch was the most intense, motivated, focused athlete they’ve ever coached. And they both say that had a lot to do with his father.

Almost 25 years ago Dr. Kiraly brought Karch to this same stretch of beach. He’d played indoor volleyball in Hungary, but the beach game was new to him. He and Karch would stand on the sidelines and just hit the ball to each other, watching and waiting. Eventually they played with the same kind of verbal barrage. Karch’s mother admits now that he may have driven the boy too hard. But everyone who knew them then says the amazing thing was that Karch always came back for more.

“I think what I imbued in him was the desire to excel,” says Dr. Kiraly. “I’ve always been very hard on myself and I think Karch is hard on himself, too. I pushed Karch as a kid; but I don’t think I did it in any cruel way. I was insistent.”

Asked if he remembers his father’s approach as more than insistent, Karch shakes his head.

“I don’t think he was. My mom says he was, but it never seemed like it to me. I remember him being loud. I think that’s why I’ve always been rather quiet on the court. That’s one place where I could never compete with my dad.”

Sitting in his San Clemente home, Karch seems anything but intense. The mask of concentration has vanished, though Karch’s demeanor tends toward the serious. He’s openly affectionate toward his wife, concerned about her comfort as she is getting over a bout with the flu. Janna is three and a half months pregnant, due in September. Fatherhood is not the only thing looming up ahead. Karch turns 30 next November, a milestone for any professional athlete. Then there are the 1992 Olympics.

When the ’88 national team beat the world all-stars in Singapore last year there was excitement about trying for a third consecutive gold medal in Barcelona. Changes in eligibility rules now make the reunion a possibility. Especially since the current national team has been suffering competitively.

“People say we’d be crazy to do it — why spoil a perfect record. But a third gold medal would be unprecedented. That would be the challenge.”

Karch’s eyes light up a little at the thought of it, but he’s not committing himself one way or the other. After retiring from the national Team he made a deal with himself to keep his options open.

“When you put the kind of pressure we put on ourselves to beat the Soviets. . . after that nothing could come close. But every victory adds a new challenge to the next one. People knew we were the gold medalists so we had to play like gold medalists. Teams were out to get us. The more you win the harder it is to keep winning. Since I left the national team, in a way the pressure is off.”

Keeping his options open last fall, Karch said no to the Italian offers but not to the Italians. They continued to bring deals to the table and negotiations were on-going. In early April he could announce it — he would be playing Italy next year. The Italians had made both Karch and Steve Timmons an offer they couldn’t refuse. Though a confidentiality clause prevents him from revealing the figure, insiders speculate the deal is worth half a million dollars to each man.

“If they were willing to pay us the kind of money they said they were, I just couldn’t pass it up.” The contract will keep him in Italy seven months of the year, only a slight conflict with the AVP beach season which still remains a priority. Though the Italian numbers are a guess, Jerry Solomon says that at Karch’s current yearly income he’ll be set for life in three years. Does this mean that a pro volleyball player can break the million-dollar-a-year mark?

“If he’s winnning and doing everything right and having a good year,” Karch says guardedly, using the third person.

The new deal has its downside, though. Karch will be playing year-round volleyball. They’ll have to move to Italy for seven months, and since he and Janna are both close to their families it’ll be a strain on everyone. Especially the grandparents, since the baby will be raised where the team is based, in Ravenna.

Yet a mythic irony surrounds the move. Maybe someday there will be a little boy who hears the story of the father who left revolutionary Hungary for the freedoms of America, who taught the son to play the game on the freedom soil. Of the son who becomes a legend in his own time, goes back to the Continent to seek his fortune and who begats another child—a third generation Kiraly who will learn the game not on a California beach, but in a gym in Europe, where his grandfather learned it.

Then again, as far as Ravenna may be from the beaches of Santa Barbara and San Clemente, it won’t be too far from the beaches of the Adriatic — where one can imagine the family taking a Sunday drive. Dad could park the car and take a ball and a net out of the trunk and “I think I’ll show him — or her — all the sports,” Karch says with a smile. “It won’t be my decision.”

***

VITAL STATS (from the 1990 article)
Height: 6′ 3″
Weight: 190
Birthdate: November 3, 1960
High School: Santa Barbara High
College: UCLA
Degree: Biology/Pre-Med
GPA: 3.55
College Coach: Al Scates
Birthplace: Jackson, Michigan
High School Coach: Rick Olmstead
Vertical leap: 41″
Vertical reach: 11′ 6″
Bench press: 265 lbs.
Nickname: “The Computer”
Greatest accomplishment: Winning Gold Medal 1988
Low point: competitively Losing to USC in 1980
Other sports: “Golf, but I’m terrible”
Personal: Married Janna Miller in 1986; expecting first child in November
Ancestry: Hungarian
Agent: Pro Serv

1 COMMENT

  1. Karch has been one of the most friendly, welcoming and genuine personalities in all of volleyball. As a kid in the mid-80s playing against him in Capo Beach 4s tourneys to sitting sideline with him with USA Volleyball is not only legendary but also a class act.

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