It frustrates, more than rankles Karch Kiraly that his sport is generally explained in a rudimentary manner. Volleyball's rules are still so unfamiliar to most Americans, says the captain of last summer's gold medal-winning US Olympic team, that TV announcers almost always begin at square one.
``They start off by explaining that the first team to score 15 points wins, only the serving team can score, and that a match consists of 3 out of 5 games,'' he says. ``In basketball that would be like explaining that a basket was worth two points and a free throw one point.''
As something of a volleyball ambassador, Kiraly (pronounced Keer-EYE) has learned not to be impatient or curt with those who ask him the same old, simplistic questions. ``I try to maintain a nice level of politeness,'' he said recently from San Diego, where he was reached after an all-night, transcontinental flight.
Only the day before he and partner Mike Dodd had won a beach volleyball tournament on the East Coast, where he called the turnout ``a little disappointing.''
Karch, a 6 ft. 3 in., 195 lb. setter/hitter, is possibly the best beach player in the world, and certainly one of the most experienced. Beginning at age six he learned the game at Santa Barbara's East Beach from his father, Dr. Laszlo Kiraly, a member of the Hungarian junior national volleyball team before emigrating to the United States in 1956.
The two-players-per-side beach game has long been popular in southern California. In attempting to take advantage of some of volleyball's Olympic momentum, however, promoters have also been organizing events along the Atlantic seaboard as well as inland in Colorado and Arizona.
This pro circuit offers prize money, although not exactly oodles of it. For his victory at the Massachusetts Open, Kiraly split the $8,000 first prize.
In order to maintain his amateur status, Karch places his checks in a trust fund administered by the US Volleyball Association. Withdrawals are permitted to pay living expenses -- rent, food, etc.-- with the remainder held in trust until his ``retirement,'' which doesn't appear imminent.
Though winning the gold medal was a great thrill, Karch obviously isn't content to make it the final chapter in his playing career.
He has three objectives at this point: 1) to help the national team to become the dominant sextet in the world; 2) to assist in stimulating TV's interest in the sport; and 3) to contribute toward creating a good product that will allow players to make better money.
In pursuing these goals, he has taken up volleyball full time, practicing with the national team in the mornings and working on his beach game in the afternoons.
To some that seems a dangerous mix. Skeptics compare it to playing both racquetball and tennis, two very different games.
Kiraly, of course, doesn't see it that way. ``I think it's more like when a tennis player goes from grass courts to clay. The fundamentals are the same, it's just the surface is different.''
Some, too, make the point that beach players may have to develop their all-around skills -- passing, setting, and spiking -- more than indoor players.
With Kiraly immersed in volleyball, his impressive academic credentials have been collecting dust.
He graduated from UCLA in 1983 with a 3.96 grade-point average in biochemistry, quite an achievement for an athlete busy leading the Bruins to three national championships and being named a four-time All-America. Plans for a medical career have gone on the back burner, and his budding interest in the business world finds him exploring options in that area.
For the moment, however, volleyball and a new event called the USA Cup are uppermost in thought.
The round-robin tournament, which begins in New York's Madison Square Garden Sunday and brings together four of the game's superpowers, should generate quite a bit of nationalistic feeling. On opening night, the US plays the Soviet Union and Cuba meets China. From there the competition moves to Philadelphia (Aug. 26) and Providence, R. I. (Aug. 28), before landing in Springfield, Mass., for the Aug. 30 final.
The Soviets won the Olympic gold at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, but boycotted Uncle Sam's gala Olympic bash last summer. The US-USSR confrontation, therefore, will make for an interesting showdown, especially since the Americans have never beaten the Soviets in tournament play. This week, however, the US has already defeated the Soviet squad twice in exhibitions, with a third scheduled tonight in San Francisco.
Kiraly is confident of a repeat in New York. ``We have a 5-4 record [not including the two latest US wins] against them since 1981, and seven of those matches were in the Soviet Union,'' he points out. ``This is the first time since '79 they have played in the US.''
With a paucity of serious competition in the states, visiting foreign teams generally supply the opposition on national tours. Kiraly says this makes for very supportive crowds. ``They cheer for us wherever we go, even if we're having a bad night. That wouldn't happen with Larry Bird.''
Karch, incidentally, is as much a superstar in volleyball, both indoors and outdoors, as Bird is in basketball, only not many people realize it, which suits him fine. ``The few tastes we've had of being a little famous makes us appreciate the privacy we still enjoy,'' he says.