Veteran State Beach Volleyball Players Bump, Set, Spike Through Life’s Ups and Downs
By MICHAEL JOHNSON | Special to the Palisadian-Post
State Beach saved my life. Or should I say, State Beach gave me a life. I needed one, because I had left my old life behind.
Just as people have for decades I headed to the western edge of America to find myself. The allure wasn’t only the sand and surf. The real star was beach volleyball, and in the late ’80s and early ’90s State Beach (officially known as Will Rogers State Beach), where Chautauqua Boulevard meets Pacific Coast Highway, was Mecca.
But this isn’t a story about the well-known players of the time. Yes volleyball legends like Palisadians Sinjin Smith and Randy Stoklos and Palisades Charter High School standout Kent Steffes roamed the State Beach courts. They traveled to exotic places and cashed increasingly large checks.
No. The heart and soul of State Beach were the weekend warriors, those who started checking the weather reports every Wednesday to make sure the sun was shining come Saturday morning games.
We weren’t pros—some were better than others. We came from all walks of life—Palisades trust funders, entertainment industry agents, waiters, actor/models, carpenters and even a few homeless guys. I was a former tennis pro running a tennis academy in La Cañada looking for a new sport.
At State Beach, it didn’t matter what you did for a living. When someone stepped on to the sand in a pair of neon pink board shorts, all men were created equal…until the game started.
Then your ability to pass, set and “sideout” defined your beach status. It defined who you were. That and your nickname. I was MJ.
Among the Palisadians: Gurv/Three Bean (Marquez Knolls resident Steve Gurevitch), Wilbur (El Medio Bluffs resident Wil Sharpe), Conte (Marquez Knolls resident Jeff Conte), Mother (former Sunset Mesa resident Garrett Jamison) and Water (Marquez resident Kevin Waterbury).
There were many other Palisadians in the mix such as Jim Kanan (Alphabet Streets), Dr. Paul (El Medio Bluffs resident Paul Austin, MD) and Andy Fay (El Medio Bluffs).
There were also the guys who made the drive or bike ride from Santa Monica and other surrounding areas: Bumpy (cuz he would always bump set the ball rather than hand set it), Old School Bill, Argonaut. Nobody was a boring “Bob.”
It was possible to see the same guy every weekend for years and have no clue about his real name, his profession or where he lived. No one cared. Only “were ya cool” and “could you help me win.”
We did not play games. We had wars.
The friendly handshakes and pregame small-talk ritual turned into alpha male battles with profanity and threats, and that was just to your own partner.
Come sundown things took a different turn—a more social, drunken, partying turn. Most of us were between 28 and 35 years old and single. The Westside had no shortage of women and bars. You do the math.
I had grown tired of the commute from La Cañada to State Beach and then never having a place to shower and prepare for the inevitable night out after volleyball. So when two recent college grads told me they had a room available in their apartment in Sunset Mesa across from the Getty Villa with a big-screen TV (come on, it was 1993, they were rare), I jumped at the chance.
Our place became party central, a crucial meeting place in the transition from day to night. Nights usually began at Marix Tex Mex in Santa Monica Canyon, where pitchers of Margaritas flowed and the day’s games were retold in great detail.
After, we would hit Renaissance nightclub on the then-newly refurbished Third Street Promenade, where our favorite doorman was a guy named Ronald Goldman. (We were stunned when Ron was stabbed to death and OJ Simpson later stood trial for his murder.) Then it was off to the Deuce Club 217 just down the street on Broadway to close the night.
As beach guys we were afforded VIP status and without fail our group of three could grow to a traveling circus of 10 times that by the last stop of the evening.
We would wake up on Sunday morning and step over someone sleeping in the living room with no idea who they were—in the best possible way.
I had grown up in a strict religious family. The key word in my life until I found the beach was “No.” No, you can’t do that. No, God doesn’t approve. I now lived in a world of “Yes.” I wasn’t in Kansas anymore; I was at State Beach.
Time marched on. Weddings on a Saturday replaced volleyball. There were bachelor parties and going-away parties. We would always say, “They’ll be back.” But most of them never returned.
There was a revolving cast of girlfriends who became wives who became ex-wives.
And kids, lots of kids.
Conte used to back his SUV up to the wall, open the trunk and toss out a load of umbrellas, towels and toys. There was so much stuff for his four kids, we called it “Contetown.”
Six-packs became “no-packs” and the golden tones the sun painted us became wrinkles.
There were those who left this earth too soon: the Mayor of State Beach—Lenny, our precious Kiki gone from brain cancer and Jan killed in a car accident on PCH on New Year’s Day 2000.
There were plenty of divorces—including my own. Those who were married were single again, those who were single now married.
We still play volleyball, but somehow the State Beach crowd migrated to Sorrento Beach. Doubles is slowly giving way to the less strenuous Fours.
“Morning after” talk of wild nights morphed into talk of AYSO soccer matches and what vintage wine you drank last night. For 30-plus years we’ve had a place “where everybody knows your name,” a rest stop on the road of life.
And still, in a far more complicated world, when I find happiness to be out of my reach, get me to the edge of the world—get me to the beach.
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