In a year when Major League Baseball is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier and the nation is assessing its progress in social reform, Annett Davis and Jenny Johnson became the first African-American team to play for a championship in a professional beach volleyball tournament.
It happened on May 10, 1997, at the $60,000 Cybergenics Open in Orlando, Florida. Davis and Johnson, who had to qualify to get in, put together a string of upsets before losing 15-11 to Karolyn Kirby and Nancy Reno in the final.
The feat might have seemed miniscule compared to Robinson’s but not to Davis and Johnson. They entered as raw, unranked rookies but left after three tournaments as hopeful vanguards for young black women in the beach game.
The African-American community isnt really aware of beach volleyball, Johnson said. With Annett and me out there, maybe it will give them one more option to do something with their lives. Maybe there will be a little kid watching who will say, I can do that, too. That’s inspiring.
Before they returned to the pro fours leaguehaving played the maximum number of events allowed by the WPVA for players who compete full-time on another tourJohnson and Davis were awe-inspiring.
They had to qualify to get into each tournament. After tying for 25th (aka last) in Miami, they finished tied for seventh in Deerfield Beach, Florida, before taking second in Orlando. After a first-round loss to Linda Hanley and Barbara Fontana, Davis and Johnson won seven straight matches, including a 15-13 victory over Hanley and Fontana, before losing to Kirby and Reno in the final.
It was the best finish by a qualifying team in tour history. And both are 23, making them the youngest team in tour history to play in a final. They were ranked 31st when they entered and 13th when it was over.
Neither player had time to relax after their career-high performance. Six days later, Johnson married Kevin Jordan, a former All-American wide receiver for UCLA. While preparing to be Johnson’s matron of honor, Davis was turning down offers from other WPVA players. The two will stay together, Davis said, at least until the year 2000 when they hope to compete in the Olympics.
(Davis and Johnson Jordan qualified for the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and finished fifth.)
I personally think they can be the best in the game, and I wonder what the limits would be, said Jenny’s father, Rafer, a 1960 Olympic decathlon gold medalist. Behind the scenes, I know how hard they work.
Davis and one of her sponsors, Nike, will soon be working on a program to introduce minority youths to the sport. And she’s anticipating the dayperhaps next seasonwhen she and Johnson become the first African American champions.
(Davis and Johnson Jordan did become the first female African-American champions, winning the AVP Sunkist Michigan Open on July 11, 1999. They did not play on the WPVA because the tour folded before the 1998 season. In 1999, they also won their first international title in Espinho, Portual.)
Itll be huge, Davis said. I can count the African Americans in the WPVA on one hand. Right now the first thing younger black girls do is go out for basketball or run track.
Davis and Johnson returned to the pro fours league at the end of May where they play for different teams. Davis is captain and an outside hitter for Team Paul Mitchell while Johnson is an outside hitter for Team Nike. But both are giving serious thought to playing full time on the WPVA next year.
As much as I wanted to win [in Orlando], I think it was right for us not to win, Johnson said. It would have been too much too soon. We have something to strive for next year, and well be even hungrier.
Like Father, Like Daughter
It’s fairly common knowledge that Jenny Johnson’s father, Rafer, won the 1960 Olympic decathlon gold medal. Less known is the fact that Davis father played in the NBA. A member of the New York Knicks, Cleveland Buckner scored 33 points in the 169-147 loss to the Philadelphia Warriors on March 2, 1962. In that game, Wilt Chamberlain scored a record 100 points for the Warriors.
Davis said her father never pushed her into athletics. All my parents wanted of me was to graduate from college, which I did, said the 1994 UCLA grad. Whatever I did after that was okay with them. To that end, Davis could become one of the all-time greats on the WPVA tour according to Jeff Williams, her part-time coach on the fours tour. Shell be the best women’s volleyball player on any court next year, he said. Holly McPeak would be stupid not to pick her up. She has no weaknesses.
Davis is flattered by Williams comment, but has no plans to play with McPeak. Holly and I could be a great team, but Jenny and I have proved that were a pretty good team already, and were just learning. A lot of those players are at their peak. Jenny and I are best friends, and weve made a commitment to stay together.