Who are the best all-around athletes?
Most Americans answer that question with the names of halfbacks, outfielders, basketball guards, and the like.
In one extreme corner of the country, however, a lot of people will tell you that beach volleyball players Singin Smith and Randy Stoklos rank right up there too. Not long ago 20,000 such fans watched Smith and Stoklos win the sport's world championship at Redondo Beach.
Beach volleyball? It hasn't exactly swept the nation yet, to be sure. But, the game's advocates argue, in what other sport must you be able to leap like Dr. J., dive like Pete Rose going headfirst into the bag, or hit a ball like John McEnroe?
They might have a point. Certainly there are many outstanding young athletes who for one reason or another (size, parental objections, etc.) drift away from the major sports.
''I was small in high school, so I just concentrated on volleyball because I had good ball control,'' Smith said.
He did well enough at it to get a scholarship to UCLA, where he was a three-time All-American and helped UCLA win two NCAA championships. Now he donates his volleyball earnings to charity so he can play on the US Olympic team , and earns ''a comfortable living'' as a top fashion model.
''My parents wouldn't let me play football or basketball because they thought I might get hurt,'' said the muscular, 6 ft. 4 in. Stoklos, whose spike has been clocked at 90 m.p.h.
In the early rounds the favored teams such as Smith-Stoklos dominate so thoroughly that they can afford to be loose and joke around. Arguing with the referee is as integral a part of the game as in baseball, except the referees are usually fellow players and friends.
After winning one match despite some questionable calls by referee David Anthony, Smith and Stoklos tried to throw him in a nearby lagoon. They gave up after Anthony, a former high school halfback, broke several tackles and made some moves that would make Walter Payton jealous.
Advancing to meet Smith and Stoklos for the title were Mike Dodd, a 6-6 former basketball star at San Diego State, and Tim Hovland a 6-5 former Southern California High School Athlete of the Year who was recruited by dozens of colleges in football, baseball, and volleyball.
Utilizing their height, they advanced easily in the 49-team double-elimination tournament, even beating former world champions Dane Selznick and Andy Fishburn (a former Yale tennis star) handily.
For the title match, The two teams were introduced and jogged through the crowd like boxers on their way into the ring. Although they were playing for $20 ,000 and the world championship, they drank water from the same jug, and even set the opposing team for practice spikes.
''Today's paid attendance: zero,'' the tournament director announced. A cheer went up from the crowd. They'd come at 4 or 5 a.m. to set up their beach chairs at courtside - a 6 a.m. arrival got them a seat six or seven rows back.
For hours the teams battled back and forth. Once, as they changed sides after a controversial call Hovland and Stoklos bumped into each other, exchanging glares. They took out their aggression when play continued, each alternately breaking the other's serve with vicious spikes.
Blocking at the net, Dodd and Hovland used their height to instantly return would-be spikes. Stoklos countered with blocks, while Smith took the rest of the court, diving like a soccer goalie to keep alive any touchable ball.
Smith-Stoklos led 12-11 in the final game as boats sailed in at day's end across the lagoon. The bronzed fans donned T-shirts, then sweatsuits, then wrapped beach towels around them, and watched shivering as the score went to 13- 13.
The darkness was almost complete as the two teams somehow saw to receive, set , and spike as hard as they had four hours earlier.
Finally Smith and Stoklos scored the final two points, and the crowd roared as the winners tackled each other with joy.
It might seem a trivial sport to many, but to Smith, Stoklos, Hovland, Dodd, and the 20,000 people watching, it was worthy of the name world championship.