You could say we chose this Replay article by Mike Dodd, which celebrates the extraordinary career of Karch Kiraly after he won his 140th title and displaced Sinjin Smith as the winningest player of all time, in honor of the Pac-12 naming Kiraly its Player of the Century. But let’s be honest: It’s never a bad time for a Karch throwback. This glowing tribute from one of Kiraly’s peers, competitors, and former teammates gives a glimpse into the greatest player ever to set foot on the sandwho just happens to be the same guy who will fearlessly lead our women’s national team into battle at the Rio Olympics in August.
If you look back at the gold medals in the Olympics and think about all the guys who came up at the same time, we had maybe the greatest single generation of volleyball players of any country. Ever. And Karch is the crown prince of our generation.
The first thing I wonder is how many Open titles he gave up while leading our indoor team in the 80s. To put this record in perspective, that has to be considered. Karch has 140, and he’s probably going to get more. But he left at least a hundred at the gate.
In my mind, there’s no doubt he’s by far the greatest beach player ever. I think he’s the greatest volleyball player to ever play, indoors or beach. If you know the historyif you know what’s gone downyou just have that much more respect for him and what he’s accomplished.
How many wins would he have if hed been at the beach full time? You cant be sure, because Smith and Stokie were a darn good team and Hov and I were darn good, too. But hed have a solid 50 more, that’s for sure.
I think one of the real benchmarks of greatness is when a player makes other players better. Early on, before he hooked up with Randy, Sinjin made a lot of very mediocre players look really good. I think I made players a little better, and so did Hov and Stokie. But no one has done that better than Karch.
That goes for indoor, too. Was Craig Buck better because of Karch Kiraly? No doubt about it. Nobody on those gold-medal teams could stand here today and say they werent better because of his presence.
Another trademark of Karch is his ability to come through when it counts. I remember one of the Cuervo Gold Crowns. Karch and Kent were playing Brian Lewis and Mike Whitmarsh in the finals, and they really werent playing all that well. Whit and Lewy were unconscious, but Karch and Kent were just hanging tough. On one play, Lewy had a really nice set in transition. It was either for the match or for a 14-11 lead, I cant remember. Lewy just absolutely ripped it cross court. Against anybody else, that would have been it. But Karch got his hands up and made the dig. And it wasnt so much the dig that was unbelievable. It was the timing of it. I just remember sitting there, watching him make that play and saying: That’s Karch. I mean, Lewy hit the ball so hard. But Karch made the play, and he and Kent went on to win the tournament.
Making plays like that is more mental than physical. Guys like Karch know when one play is going to decide a match. Jordan hits the shot. Magic leads the fast break. It’s that one play, that one transition that turns the tide.
Karch’s ability to focus is almost mind boggling. We call him the computer. A lot of times, hed sit in the players tent for an hour without moving. Just in his chair, looking straight ahead. I cant help but think that wasnt much fun. I mean, he could have been out talking to people, running around, doing stuff. But that’s the way he has always been.
On the national team, when we were all about 23 or 24, we were a wild bunch of guys. I remember taking our first road trip. We flew on this big Japanese airliner, and we partied the entire way. When we got to our very first team meeting the next morning, our coach, Doug Beal, gave us the player handbook, and we saw that wed broken every single rule on the flight over.
For a couple of years, we all had a lot of fun. But then Karch said, You know what? I cant do this anymore. I guess everybody realizes that at a certain point, even The Hov. But Karch realized it sooner than the rest of us.
The thing is, Karch thinks through everything he does, whether it’s cleaning the garage or practicing volleyball. Knowing him as a player, I can only imagine what his files are like at home, how he does his billsall those little things that he’s so precise about.
The only time Karch really shows his emotions is when he talks about Janna and the boys. At tournaments like King of the Beach, Karch and I just hang around the pool and play with our kids. His boys, Kristian and Kory, are wonderfully polite, and you can see the love and admiration they have for their dad.
I think this record is big for Karch because he deserves it. But it’s important to remember that back in the early days of beach volleyball, there were many fewer tournaments. Ron Von Hagen had 62 Open victories in an era when you played seven a summer. What’s greater? I think 62 at that time might be equivalent to 140 now.
I have 75 Open wins, and Matt Gage had 28. Who deserves a higher ranking in the annals of volleyball history? I have it, but it’s not necessarily fair.
But my hat goes off to Karch. It’s been a privilege to play in this era. It was fun for me to compete with and against him and fun to watch him play. It’s been 20 years that none of us will ever forget.