After a few minutes of cordial catching up and introductions, Mike Lambert paused, sitting in his office in Lucca, Italy, and wondered, on SANDCAST: Beach volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter: “What should we talk about?”
The conversation would be wide-ranging, covering a vast canvas of topics. Midway through, however, it became comically evident what Lambert did not want to talk about: himself.
This is vintage Lambert.
Though he may be nearly a decade since he last appeared in an AVP tournament, he is still very much the same man who, in his Beach Volleyball Hall of Fame write up – he was inducted in 2018 – was described as “a favorite of both fans and his fellow tour professionals, often bringing his guitar to the beach to play songs in-between matches and charming with an infectious smile. You would have to search far and wide to find someone with anything bad to say about Mike Lambert.”
And, for that matter, you would likely have to search farther and wider to find a time Lambert uttering a single bad word about anyone else.
When he first posed the question of what we should discuss on the podcast, he immediately answered his own prompt: “Stein,” he said, referring to Stein Metzger, his childhood friend and partner for the 2006 season. “Let’s talk about that guy.”
And then, unprompted, he sang the UCLA coach’s praises.
“He was super special because he was so competitive, even back in the day,” Lambert said. “I think he would say that he’s not the most talented player, but he just wants to win more than the other guy. There’s so many memories of him, younger, and then in college and when he turned pro where he just wanted it more than the other player. That’s a fun guy to be partnered with. You get into battle and the trash talk starts going and he’s not going anywhere. He’s not backing down. He wants more of it.”
He talked plenty more on Metzger. He marveled at the discipline of John Hyden, with whom Lambert played on the 1996 and 2000 Olympic teams. Lambert, a Hawai’i native, even complimented Bourne’s mother, Katy, a teacher on the Island on which Bourne and Lambert were raised.
“Such a stud,” he said of the woman known for her penchant for excelling in long-distance events.
Mostly, though, Lambert wanted to talk about Karch Kiraly. It was only Lambert’s second full-time year on the beach when he got the call from Kiraly, the man he and Metzger, as kids — or “groms” as they’re called in Hawai’i — once pretended to be on the famed Outrigger Baby Court. By then, Kiraly was in his early 40s, Lambert coming off a successful indoor career to win, improbably, both Rookie of the Year and Best Offensive Player in the same AVP season in 2002.
Given that, “I thought I had played at a pretty high level,” Lambert said. “I had played in two Olympics and played against the best in the world indoor and on the beach but there are few people that are mentally just on a different level and they’ll never drop their game whether it’s practice or a game against a scrub team or a qualifier team or if he’s on center court against the best team. [Kiraly] keeps his level there. He never drops no matter who’s on the other side of the court or if he’s tired or where the sun is or what the wind is or this or that. He was always immovable. There were times where I was tired but I’d say ‘Look at my guy! He’s not tired so I’m gonna keep going.’ He was always there. Constant, just the North Star. It was crazy.”
To watch Lambert and Kiraly compete together — YouTube has plenty of fantastic match replays if you’d like to do so — is to witness exactly why Lambert is quick to praise others and slow to credit himself. If you were to only watch their celebrations, you’d never know who scored the point, who made the highlight, who put down the block or the big swing.
When the ball hit the sand, they wouldn’t find the camera, or the crowd, but each other. There were occasions where Kiraly — 148-time winner, three-time Olympic gold medalist Karch Kiraly — would go so far as to bow down to Lambert following a block. Dishing all the credit. Building up his teammate.
“Any chance he had to throw the spotlight on me he did,” Lambert said. “It was because ‘Lambo did this’ and ‘Lambo started stuffing balls!’ He was always trying to put his partner in the spotlight. Not long ago — he’s the coach of the national team now — he asked me what he did well as a teammate, and I said he was always giving me props for everything we did, and not trying to take the spotlight from his teammate. When you do that, all of a sudden, I’m puffing out my chest, like ‘Yeah! I am the guy stuffing balls!’
“And then I get more confident and become even more of what he wants. It’s almost like he’s feeding that. He was really good at that. He was really good at letting go of a great play and a terrible play because it was all about being in the moment. He had the same routine, whether he did something great or something terrible he’d either celebrate and move on or think about it and move on. He was always ready for the next play, which was super cool.
“If you make a great play on the court, there’s a finite amount of seconds where you’ve got this crazy energy and what do you do with it? Do you keep it all or do you go to your guy, stare him in the eye and go ‘Ahhh!’ and share that moment? That stokes the other guy’s fire and it can become contagious. Anytime we did something great, we right away tried to share that with each other. That’s what you miss. I’m never out here going ‘Yeah! I did a sale! Whooo! Let’s do another one!’”
Perhaps Lambert is not beating his chest, whooping after a successful digital marketing campaign. But he’s still the consummate teammate, dishing credit, building up those around him, even if, physically, they’re a world away.
Making sure to talk only the best of everyone who has come into contact with Mike Lambert.