The volleyball world lost one of its brightest stars when multi-sport Olympian Mike “Bones” Bright died September 22, in Encinitas, Calif. at the age of 79.
“He was a really special guy and occupied a really special place in the history of our sport,” said Doug Beal, the former USA Volleyball player, coach and CEO.
Bright was a three-time indoor USA volleyball Olympian, competing in Tokyo in 1964, Mexico City in 1968, and was a member of the U.S. qualifying team in 1972. He was one of a rare breed that was equally adept on the hard courts and on the beach: He won five consecutive Manhattan Beach Opens from 1960-1964, a record to this day.
Nor were his achievements limited to volleyball.
Bright was an Olympian in Melbourne in 1956 in both paddling and surfing, then demonstration sports. At 6-foot-4, he was a talented basketball player, earning All-American honors at Mira Costa High School and he was later inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame at El Camino College.
He was inducted into the International Volleyball Hall of Fame in Holyoke, Mass., in 1993, the California Beach Volleyball Association Hall of Fame in 1995 and the Hermosa Beach Surfer’s Walk of Fame in 2006.
Unfortunately, Bright was paralyzed from the waist down in a diving accident at age 37 when he got the bends while diving between Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands in 1975.
Undaunted, Bright continued to stay involved in the volleyball world, coaching at Pepperdine with his wife and head coach, Patti Bright, and in club volleyball. He would ride a hand pedal bike from Palisades to Venice and back a couple of days a week, as well as swim two miles with floats on his legs at the Pepperdine pool.
One of his fiercest beach opponents was Ron Lang.
“The best compliment that I can give him is that he was a real tough competitor,” Lang said. “He was always a force to be reckoned with. He was an all-around player, he could pass, he was a very good setter, and he hit the ball real well.”
Bright grew up in Hermosa Beach. He was never far from ocean, playing volleyball, paddling, surfing, diving, and shaping surfboards. He was a decorated lifeguard at Hermosa Beach who also competed in international lifesaving competitions.
He was also known in his beloved Malibu for opening a scuba shop, the Malibu Diver’s Club in 1969 until he sold the shop in 1979.
Bright competed on the beach circuit from 1958-1970, much of it with Mike O’Hara. The duo was one of the first teams to successfully utilize the block in an era that prohibited blocking over. He earned 16 wins in 64 events.
Ron Von Hagen, one of the top players of that era, played both with and against him.
“I had the greatest respect for Mike, I thought very highly of him,” Von Hagen said. “I thought they (Bright and O’Hara) were one of the best teams I ever saw. He was really a good setter and hitter.
“I played three tournaments with him, his setting location was really good, I don’t think people realize how good of a setter he was.
“He was very humble and low-key. He was pretty quiet and humble”, remembers Von Hagen.
Bright’s wife, Arlen O’Hara, has fond memories of the finals at Santa Monica’s State Beach.
“Mike Bright had a fabulous sense of humor,” O’Hara’s wife Arlen said.
“I remember all those finals at State Beach with the lights on from the cars in the parking lot lighting the courts. Only the girlfriends and hard-core volleyball players were there. The fans from that day had gone home. Mike B would freak out about the dusk and darkness because he had trouble seeing, but they always seemed to be able to win.”
Bright’s indoor career with the national team spanned three quadrennials, from 1964-1972. He won eight championships and was a finalist three times in 13 years with his Hollywood YMCA team, and was named All-American nine times, culminating in his USA volleyball All-Time Great Player award in 1983.
“He was a remarkable player,” Beal said. “He’s one of the iconic players of his era. He had one of the best senses of humor, and saw the world in his own quirky way. He was one of the few players that could go back and forth seamlessly between indoor and beach.
“I remember being as comfortable around him as anyone on the team, and that’s not always the case with that kind of an age difference. Traveling with him, and rooming with him on a couple of occasions, was a very comfortable situation. He was one of those players that I admired and even idolized a little bit because he created a very comfortable social environment.
“He was just always interested in sitting down and talking. He was a pretty incisive guy. He saw things, and offered his insight, and I always enjoyed my time with him. He’s one of the iconic players of his era.”
Bright was a leader, Beal said.
“I remember going on a trip to Montpellier, in the south of France, 1972, near the coast. Mike was past his prime at that point, the conditions were not fantastic, and he really played a role in keeping that team focused and looking on the positive side of things,” Beal recalled.
“He would make fun of everybody, including most of the staff. The team ultimately didn’t qualify, but we had an interesting group of guys from Mike’s era, and a group that was quite a bit younger, and I thought that Mike, more than anyone else, bridged that gap with humor, and insight and connection to the younger players.
“His ability to see the humor and poke fun at pretty difficult living and travel conditions was pretty significant for that team.”
One of Bright’s teammates, Bill Neville, who became one of the USA assistant coaches, also remembers his role as a unifying force.
“Mike was a friend to all. When I first joined the USA Team staff as a 22-year-old from Seattle of all places, I was a bit concerned about how I would be accepted. I had heard the Southern California players assumed anyone worth their volleyball salt lived west of the San Andreas fault.
“Mike was one of the volleyball elite and I knew him only by his exalted playing reputation and looked up to him. What impressed me most was that he accepted me right off. He had that great smile and engaging style that made me immediately a part of the team.
“We became friends and spent hours laughing at some quirk of life. It always intrigued me how he could be so friendly and engaging yet be fiercely competitive.
“He played the game for the right reasons: The love and satisfaction of a great effort, being a part of something big, enjoying and reveling in his teammates and family. He was terrific and my memories of him always bring a smile to my face.
“He will be greatly missed by all those who know him.”
His wife, 1964 and 1968 volleyball Olympian Patti Bright, died in 2004 at the age of 63. Patti, also an accomplished beach volleyball player, was also the first head coach at Pepperdine University from 1975-1978, where Mike assisted.
Bright, who was born in Grants Pass, Oregon, on November 3, 1937, is survived by his sister, Donna Bright Dobson, his four children Jodi, Lari Lou, David and Bonnie, and his seven grandchildren and one great-grand-child.
His daughter Bonnie, who played at UC Santa Barbara and was a USA Volleyball Nationals All-American and MVP, as well as competing on the beach in the WPVA, remembers his passion for the game.
“Playing for my parents, or being around them in life and in volleyball, instilled such a passion and a desire to pass on what you’ve learned. I feel so fortunate to have the ability to pass on that knowledge and way of life to my players,” Bonnie Bright said.
“We have a court in the backyard that is Bright Volleyball Club. My dad loved to watch me coach from up on his deck. He would yell down pointers to us. My parents were the best coaches anyone could have had.”
Her husband, Dave Counts, was an AVP qualifier competitor and earned an AAA rating 11 times. Bonnie and Dave met while playing at a beach volleyball tournament. “Dave respected my dad and, the night my dad passed, Dave reassured him that he would carry on and take good care of us.”
The second generation of Bright offspring is beginning to earn accolades as well. Grand-daughter Maile Counts is the senior setter for Mission Vista High School, grand-daughter Carina Walker played at Cal Poly Pomona and husband, Lance, is the head coach at Pierce College.
Step-granddaughter Mariah Counts played for Poway High School and Epic Volleyball club.
The list goes on: Sister-in-law Nancy Lucas Evans is a USA Volleyball All-American and MVP that played at Santa Monica City College and served as an SCVA and Great Lakes Region Board member. Her children have also added to Bright’s legacy, as nephews Tagore Evans and John Canning played at Santa Monica High School. Tagore went on to set at San Diego State. John’s son (Bright’s grand-nephew), Zach Canning, also plays at Santa Monica High School.
“It’s like passing down a legacy,” Bonnie Bright said. “Check with Rod Wilde, Liz Masakayan and Liane Sato to get an idea of what I am talking about. This is not yet the end of an era for us as there are so many players in the family who will carry on playing and one day coaching the game as well.
“I include the players I coach in my family and refer to them as “my kids.” Over the past ten years of coaching both club and beach, I’ve accumulated a lot of “kids” and I love them all!”
The family is planning a paddle-out on October 28th to honor Bright’s memory in Hermosa Beach. The family has also set up the Mike Bright Beach Volleyball Foundation to provide beach volleyball scholarship funds for Bright Volleyball Club’s college-bound players. Click here to learn more or contribute.