“Set One” — Lesson One
For seasoned athletes, in spite of age and a relentless clock, the imperative is to stay the course. There needn’t be an expiration date stamped on the psyche, either self-imposed or by public affirmation. Put another way, if a person enjoys a healthy mind and body, if joints still flex with comparative ease and comfort, it is possible to play until Medicare kicks in, and for many, well beyond that venerable age. For its many devotees, it truly is a game for the ages! The game of the high internet, a remarkably fine, vigorous and competitive sport, when played well, when played by the rules. The uninitiated need only watch college volleyball or professional shore or Olympic volleyball.
To illustrate and to mention an exemplary case in point, Steve and Gigi have played for ages, since 1974 to be accurate. The terrific game continues to consume their disposable leisure time. For them, it’s a type of obsession, and one that has continued unabated for over 40 years. Now at age 72, Steve, and 68, Gigi, they are still in its grip.
Obsession is an apt description. In a way, it all began at the bell, a telephone bell, and like a present between extremes, it appears always to race between foreboding and hopeful anticipation. Spurred by that opening bell, they soon became prizefighters fired with enthusiasm, roped in, originally by the thought, but in the long term, consumed by the game itself, obsessed.
The ringing phone was loud and insistent. Steve refused to move. Glaring with annoyance in her eyes, Gigi put down a book and walked quickly, almost ran to subdue the obnoxious thing.
she asked with extravagant sarcasm.
Steve paid no attention at first, irritated by the instrument’s persistence, its capability to interrupt.
What? Yeah, we’re both fine, just hanging out. How’s Joan? That’s good.”
Steve’s attention moved slowly, as did his gaze, to a dialogue that was one-sided and cryptic. She turned. She paced.
Gigi asked to the instrument, a question wrapped in incredulity, yet with an increasing level of enthusiasm. Enthusiasm appeared to improve the current running through the wire.
“What,” he said. Who’s that?” The question fell flat as though inaudible, insignificant.
“Join a league? Couples, co-ed. Yeah, I played a little in high school. Steve? No. I don’t think so. Maybe at picnics, or in the backyard with family.”
he asked. Another feckless question, no reply expected or given.
“Where? And it begins in January? That’s next month! Yeah, yeah… exercise, something we can do as couples with friends. OK, great! Alright, we’ll talk on Monday and you can let us know the schedule and time.” She hung up the phone.
“Was that John O’Connor?” Steve asked. “What were you talking about? What league?”
“I just love the idea,” Gigi replied. You and I, the O’Connors and the Keegan’s are going to play volleyball in a co-ed league. The six people. We begin next month. We are going to play at a north side school. It is near Sherman on Green Tree Road.”
“Wait a moment,” Steve began. “We’ve never played. We don’t know the game. Can they have strict rules? Are the other teams in the league experienced, talented? How are we going to do that?”
“Ach… don’t worry,” said Gigi. “I played in college, and we are going to learn. We’ll get better. It’ll be great fun. We will have exercise, time with friends. It’ll be terrific. I’m really looking forward to this. Are not you?”
“Volleyball,” he said, a strong note of apprehension in his tone. “A league,” he continued, a heavy sigh punctuating. And that was the sum total of any objection or argument he might have offered in opposition. But, within the solitude of his thoughts, there was this:”I am married for, what, four or so months. I am just getting used to things. Now I am at a volleyball league. How long will this last.
Despite an inauspicious beginning, reluctance on the part of at least one participant, their volleyball-playing career, one that would last for 40 years and beyond, began in 1974.
Six novices appeared on a wood-plank floor at the gymnasium of a north side Milwaukee school, some nervous, some serene and positive. They understood that much. The opposition won the first support. The ball was a meteor, something taken from a cannon. One of the six made contact with the ball, palms up, lifting the volleyball a few feet . It dropped to the floor, between front and rear rows of players. The ball seemed embarrassed.
A shrill whistle wrenched their collective focus from the shock of the function and its feckless receipt to the referee’s ladder of authority. “Illegal hit,” the referee shouted. The question was wound in a thread of astonishment.
I mean, some of us played a little in high school, but that was a while ago.” The answer came from Gigi.
“Well,” the referee began, with a nod of apology to the opposing team, now standing and staring at the neophytes, arms akimbo, a look of supreme annoyance in their collective expression. “First thing you should know about league volleyball, as well as the principles that apply, is that you receive a service with your arms outstretched like this, hands clasped together in some fashion.” She revealed the”passing” technique, tossing a volleyball to each in turn so that they might learn the proper arms and hands configuration. “And when you set the ball to your hitter, you might not catch and throw the ball, but instead… well, allow me to show you.”
None of them remembers that first outing with any feeling of joy or satisfaction, as they were destroyed, unremittingly. They expressed thanks to this kind and patient referee, then to the opposing team members, as they slunk away from the court that first, fateful evening of league volleyball. They might not have scored one point, unless their opponents made an error. Even that chance is lost — likely by design — into the element of memory that protects one’s fragile psyche.
“Set Two” — The Birth of “Poet’s Pride”
Steve met brothers Mike and Jimmy Keegan in a day camp long ago. The four of them — two sets of brothers — were all close in age, and a lasting friendship between and one of them started almost instantly. Little did they know, then, how volleyball would bond their friendship even more closely.
At 8:00 PM or so the following day, Thursday, the phone announced its summons, adding as always to Steve’s ears a tone of urgency, possibly fomenting unpleasantness. As usual, he remained unmoved. Gigi raced toward the repulsive instrument.
Gigi’s perceptible half of this dialogue was as usual provocative, causing Steve to put aside a novel. She started,”Hi Mike. They are? You’re kidding. I didn’t understand that. Wow, that’s great. And they’re willing to work with us? When? Saturday! Where?”
“Huh?” Steve asked. A rare response, not known for laconic discourse.
Returning to the living room, the echoing “Huh” and Steve, Gigi said, “Jimmy and Carol are excellent volleyball players. They have been playing league volleyball for years. That’s what Mike called to inform us.”
“They’re prepared to coach us, teach us how to play, how to bump and set. Drills. We are meeting them (a west side Middle School) on Saturday at 11:00 in the morning. The six people… and Jimmy and Carol of course. This is just great!”
“I am calling Joan,” said Gigi, as she walked away from his unheeded start of a protest, a questioning of any Saturday programs they may have made, duties. Steve’s mouth remained open, silent and ineffectual, his hand raised, index finger pointing upward, a mime hailing a taxi.
Saturday arrived. Steve and Gigi, having donned shorts and sweat pants, T-shirts and sneakers, motored off to the school, named for a famous poet. There were eight gathered on the ground of the”borrowed” gymnasium. They greeted one another. The women chatted. The men were eager to start”the lesson,” more so the physical exercise portion of”volleyball camp 101.”
Jimmy captured everyone’s attention without preamble. In a commanding voice he began,”First let me show you the ideal way to bump-pass a volleyball. You can practice this with one another, or against a wall. It’s a great drill. I suggest you do this a lot.” He demonstrated. “Here’s how you receive a serve. It’s really important to pass the ball correctly to your setter. Remember, it all begins with the pass. I mean, if you pass the ball correctly into the setter, she, or he, can then put to one of your hitters. If you do it right, if you start with a good pass, the rest flows easily. You’ll score points.”
They passed to one another, passed against walls . For Steve — the wall, a garage roof, the side of a building, his wife, Gigi — became frequent training partners.
Carol was, nevertheless is an exceptional setter. She demonstrated. “Frame the volleyball in this way.” She put to herself, hands just above her head, framing, head tilted toward the ceiling. “In a way you sort of grab the ball with mainly your thumbs, index and middle fingers. Bend your knees slightly when doing this. Your body sort of acts like a torsion spring. Your arms and hands — in one fluid motion — meet the ball and send it up to the batter. No, no,” she coached, responding to one who tried the technique badly. “Flex your wrists like this. They too get the ball in a sort of spring action, like catching and passing in the same motion.”
The remaining novices practiced the method. Drilling and setting and passing to one another, back and forth, over and over. “OK,” said Carol. Let us try to play a match. Jimmy and I will stand the six of you.”
Said Steve, responding in shock amazement. That’s not fair.” It was. They murdered the”new children,” the two of them, beating them easily, embarrassingly so. “Good god,” Steve said to Gigi and their four partners. “They’re really great. Unbelievable.” Trite, but the only words that seemed able to escape Steve’s flabbergasted brain. Only the pair of them!”
The practice sessions went on for months, stretching into months on a series of Saturdays. They practiced and drilled and practiced some more. Eventually, they, both novices, began to”get it,” to understand and then implement the passing, setting and hitting techniques. And then they practiced the overhand serve, or the underhand or sidearm service, and, of course, receipt of support. They practiced”digging” the ball, or getting and sending aloft a hard-driven serve, or a hitspike or kill, the latter term now used most widely in volleyball circles, especially by professional announcers. They all truly wanted to learn how to play, the right way — not like”backyard” hacks who”carry” the ball or receive service with feckless, against-the-rules open-handed lifts — but like”real” volleyball players, Olympians and college varsity players and beach volleyball pros. They never stopped playing and practicing, until — like so many who have fallen in love with the game — all six were hopelessly hooked.
The new group of six continued to play at the Wednesday night league, actually beginning to win games, not a lot, but a few. They learned a whole lot of trivia regarding volleyball, the net and the court, its measurements. The net is all about 8-feet high, or to be exact, 7′ 11-5/8″ for men, 7′ 4-1/8″ for women. The court is approximately 60-feel long, 30-feet wide.
As they started to acquire skill from hours of training and drilling, their confidence grew, along with a certain degree of bravado. They chose to name that first team. Due to the learning experience, and because the school’s name seemed to some of these remarkably obvious, they dubbed themselves,”Poet’s Pride.”
Steve doubted whether the namesake would have been proud; more importantly, they were proud of these, a pride of lions ready to challenge rivals and to pursue their quarry relentlessly. They’d become emboldened, fearless, a band of big cats, powerful and proud. The new team wanted a symbol of hard-won dedication and skill, an emblem of collective pride. “Wait! T-shirts! We must have team uniforms,” announced John with authority.
Soon they’d team jerseys, white and green”uniforms” with the recently adopted name emblazoned on left chest position in white lettering. Each had a number on the back in eight-inch high print, using heat-sealed numerals. They were magnificently attired for battle. Now they not only had the training, the acquired skill, the chutzpah and heart, they had the look. Uniforms, unity of purpose, precision and a keen sense of momentum, a bravado that continued until the next time they were roundly trounced by an opposing group.
The team that vanquished theirs, on one memorable event contained a remarkable oddity. All were aware of it, but it was Steve, always bright and observant, who had been willing to give voice to his group’s collective astonishment. “See that guy? His name is Milan, I think. Do you know how old he is?”
“Uh, no,” John replied. “But he’s definitely a heckuva lot older than the rest of us.”
“He’s in his mid-forties,” Steve continued.
“Come on,” said John. “I mean, he looks a lot older than us, but mid-forties. Can someone that old actually still play league volleyball. I mean, he is their best player. He’s exceptional.
“He is about 46,” said Steve. “That’s what one of his teammates told me.”
“Holy jumpin’ up and down,” said John. “That’s incredible. Do you think we will still be capable of playing volleyball at his age? I mean, that guy plays like he’s 26, not 46. Good god!”
Steve pulled a quizzical face, shrugged and shook his head. “Who knows,” he said, as we both turned to stare at and respect that”old man,” perhaps the best player either of them had ever seen, live and in person. And he and his team had just beaten Steve’s team flat, making it look way too simple.
But then, in the next week’s match,”Poet’s Pride” rebounded. They recovered confidence, momentum and the winning side of the ledger. Such is the up and down, the ebb and flow of league volleyball play. Win or lose, it didn’t matter as much as playing, becoming better, gaining expertise. In the end, of course, to most who play competitive sports, winning DOES matter, and in time they began to win championships. And they won a lot of these, together with useless trophies, eventually replaced by T-shirts, a much vaunted and far more desirable symbol of volleyball achievement. Not one of them recalled or even cared about the win / loss record of the first pivotal season. It launched most of these — some of them — into a lifelong love affair, an innamorata, a secondary love perhaps, but real, consuming and enduring.
“Set Three” –“Sand and Unusual”
Not satisfied with indoor volleyball, exclusively, usually played on hardwood courts, the newly formed team of six decided to venture into spring / summer sessions, outside court play, and eventually onto the sand of”beach volleyball,” well, to be accurate, sand volleyball, as most courts available for league play were — and are increasingly now — in back or side enclosures of tavern and bar properties. It started in the Summer of 1975.
Amusingly illustrative of her growing passion for the sport, Gigi had asked her pediatrician,”Can I play volleyball without jeopardizing my baby in the first trimester? What about the second? The third? Can I dive onto the court for hard-hit spikes?” The doctor, while judicious in his guidance, in the end gave into Gigis demand for honest answers and undermine.
Gigi continued to play until a week before she delivered the couple’s first-born child, a daughter. Their teammates bought their newborn daughter a tiny T-shirt. It was green and white, and imprinted on the left side of the front were the words,”Poet’s Pride.”
In one of their outside playground seasons, teammate, John, caught an out-of-bounds hit by the opposition, simultaneously shouting,”Time!” They were locked in a tie, but the timed session was running short, and John thought his team could re-group and win that season-ending championship game. The thing was, nevertheless, if one contacts a ball hit out of bounds, that is, any contact of that nature results in a point for the opposing team.
“Point,” the referee shouted. The match and the championship were lost in that instance. Deflated but ever optimistic, Steve’s team resolved to learn by their mistakes. “There is always next season.” The words were spoken with faint confidence and without a lot of enthusiasm by some of the six as they retreated from the court, heads bowed and shaking in disbelief.
As summer surrendered to fall and fall to the invasive chill of winter, the prideful group of ever-improving volleyball combatants played in a variety of places, high school and middle school gymnasiums — such as one that has been part of a religious order’s facilities in suburban St. Francis — grade school gyms, everywhere that was dedicated on a weekday evening to league play. They played in an indoor sand facility, built especially for co-ed team volleyball. Wherever league play and obsession beckoned, they’d enjoy the usual three game set, and then repair to a host’s tavern or a sponsoring centre’s bar for post-game beverages and apparently endless conversation about the day’s play, teams and the skill, or lack thereof, of individual players. Players were philosophical and analytical, endlessly fascinated. Volleyball became, if not actually”their lives,” at least a significant and crucial element of these lives. And volleyball — it was Gigi who observed the obvious –“is like life itself. A microcosm of the human experience.”
As if calculated to show the assertion, teammates would come and go. Some lost interest and dropped out of the game. Partners, husbands and wives divide and eventually divorced.
Personalities in volleyball are as varied as the teams and individual players themselves. Fond of these as Steve especially was — certainly more than most — nicknames were attached to certain players and their idiosyncratic behaviors. John, the first catalyst to start playing the grand game, was a lefty, became an fantastic hitter, or master of the”kill,” and consequently was dubbed,”Captain Southwind.” “Florence of Arabia” was famous for her dramatic dives onto sand courts in her valiant attempts to dig hard-hit spikes, producing little sand storms as she landed and then rose up triumphantly. “Sasquatch Sam” had enormous feet and was always imperiling opponents. He would jump, land unceremoniously and regularly commit”foot fouls,” sometimes wounding feet and ankles in the process, causing opposing players to howl in pain and issue loud, often obscene protestations.
“Did you see that?” Someone would call time and launch a harangue in the referee. “He might have broken my foot. Pay attention to the (expletive deleted) game, fer crying out loud!” Referees, like the players , were sometimes well trained and excellent, in tune with the game and its rules, or fair and occasionally downright inept. Needless, possibly, to add, player protests and complaints would often assault the ears of individual referees, and very often players could be cautioned or even threatened with expulsion, at times ejected from the match.
Steve and Gigi’s involvement has gone on and on, despite injury, pregnancy and the proclivities of a great variety of teammates and fellow fans. After some 20 years, or so, into their team volleyball experience, having gained and lost their first and many subsequent teammates, they eventually reunited with their mentors, their first”teachers,” Jimmy and Carol.
Gigi and Steve encountered Carol in a social function, possibly at a coffee shop, might have been a grocery store. “Are you two still playing volleyball?” Carol asked.
Gigi replied. “We’ll play until we’re can’t play any longer.”
“Maybe’til we’re dead,” Steve added, aiming to get a touch of comic drama.
“Jimmy and I’d love to have you two join usas a group, the four of us,” Carol said. “What do you believe?”
Like a pair of stereo speakers, obnoxious twins doing a gum commercial, they responded almost in unison,”We’d really like to. Where, when? … ”
“Set Four” — Four Decades and Counting
In Waukesha, Wisconsin in 1994, there was a centre built almost exclusively for volleyball and the co-ed league play phenomenon it had become in the late 1980s, into and during the decade of the 90s, and well beyond, obviously. That fine sports complex was a comparatively long drive for the four newly reunited teammates, but they’d share the driving duty, each couple alternating months. They began their”four-pack” experience soon after the volleyball venue in Waukesha opened its doors.
They were four players at a six-person league. The center contained six complete volleyball courts; it was and remains an excellent facility. The floors were made of a”forgiving” rubberized material, easy on the knees, simple on aging bodies diving to dig”kills” delivered by talented opponents. The four-person team won, perhaps, eight of ten championship rounds in as many seasons or sessions of play. The four of them had”aged gracefully” to the great sport. If they’d lost a bit of speed and quickness, they made up for it in”smart play” Jimmy was possibly the best placement hitter among legions of fellow players, in fact one of the best many players had ever seen, and many remarked on it with incredulity. He had been the master of the”long dink,” a method of sending the ball to the far opposite side or corner of the courtroom, an”uncovered” space. Carol and Gigi were and are still excellent setters, great occasional hitters and adept at defense, placement and”drop shots.” Steve was and still is a competent defensive and back row player, and a consistently competent hitter.
Within a brief period of time during its history, the volleyball center in Waukesha added an enclave of sand courts in its own”backyard,” and the four-person team won summer-league championships on this venue as well. They frustrated opponents, many if not most of them half of their age at the time. They’d be warming up, passing, setting and spiking the ball to one another as opponents appeared on the court. The four”more seasoned” players could see, and often hear younger competitors snickering, commenting without pretense or disguise.
“My god,” one would begin,”look how old those guys are. Is that their entire team? This will not take long.” And they would grin and snicker and chortle into cupped hands.
After the four beat their”six-pack” opponents handily, opinions, expressions of surprise and post-match banter were often remarkably similar. Too polite, on most occasions, to question ages directly, they would always ask,”How many years have you guys been playing?” Or,”How long have the four of you’re together, I mean, playing volleyball for a team?”
And like experienced, aging warriors, with dignity and aplomb, the four could answer their questions respectfully, even paying compliments, as elder states-persons or teachers might offer to young students or callow youths who have come into newly acquired knowledge with a sense of wonder and astonishment. A secondary goal was to keep the younger players interested, motivated and encouraged to increase their skills.
They have a fantastic friend and fellow volleyball player, Gene, who is 70-years-old. Gene is master of the”pancake dig” a method of diving level for a spike and getting a hands under the ball as it reaches the floor, causing the ball to pop up, ideally, to the setter. Abie is in his late sixties. Many of their current, fellow players are in their late thirties or early to mid-forties. Many are younger, twenty-somethings. In 72, Steve says he expects to play”until I’m dead, or very nearly there.”
Jimmy and Carol, Steve and Gigi ended their four-person team and league play at the conclusion of the 2008, maybe it was 2009. It was their final sand-court season at a tavern in the industrial center of Milwaukee’s”River West” neighborhood. That team encounter ended for diverse reasons, but they all still talk about their”seasons in the sun,” their championships on sand.
Gigi and Steve haven’t given up the game, not by any stretch, but found, not another league, instead a”co-ed volleyball recreation program” for adults. Gigi, Steve and Carol are, as far as they know, the only three active players one of their first cadre of fellow volleyball devotees. As with heavy sweaters on a warming spring afternoon, they shrug off the admonitions of those who indicate,”You are all nuts for continuing to play league volleyball at your age.”
Each reply to those who question their sanity is usually remarkably similar:”If I feel good, if my body reacts to the physical demands of volleyball, why should I quit playing? If I’m still able to compete with the younger players, there’s no reason to quit. I’ll play until I am physically unable to get and pass, set, dig a hard-hit kill attempt and hit the ball with some authority over the net…”
Many — the truly seasoned players that are also avid audiences — understand the game’s finer points, such as the fundamental 4-2 serve – receive system or rotation, or the 5-1 rotation normally found in school campuses. Their current corps of players, however, eschews the more complex systems and concerns itself, with a simplified discussion over whether to perform”center up” or”center back,” meaning the court position of the number two player, back row center, and that player’s responsibility for”kills” or well-placed long shots. In Steve’s age, at this juncture in his”volleyball career,” he just wants to play well enough, skillfully enough to give the opposition a competitive competition.
On his 70th birthday, he played in his usual Monday night volleyball session. Many fellow players noted that Gigi executed a spectacular dive to dig the resistance’s kill, Carol hit the floor with a dig and a roll. Both regained their feet in time for another play. They are 68 and 71 respectively. Remarkable! On that very occasion, a group of young audiences witnessed the game. With stunned looks, their hands flew to their faces. Are you hurt?” Gigi is almost offended by such reactions to her”floor ”
“I wouldn’t be playing competitive volleyball if I couldn’t dive to get a kill,” she says in response.
As for Steve, he dove, rolled, scored a few kills himself, dug a number of attempted kills, served a few aces and played a respectable game. “What a perfect way,” he remarked,”to gain entry through the septuagenarian gate.” Steve has always been rather poetic.
After passing through that gate and playing rigorous volleyball for two solid hours on a Monday evening — a session that starts after 7:45 PM! — he strutted like a proud young rooster out to the high school’s parking lot and into his car for the drive home. But soon after climbing inout of sight and earshot of his fellows and driving homeward, he groaned in the aches and pains of this session’s combat, then as soon as he struck the door of his home and managed to wrestle the cap off the bottle, swallowed three ibuprofen! A weekly and quite necessary ritual.
In many ways, volleyball is its own ritual, a kind of religion to those obsessed, even after 40 years. Through it and their history as enthusiastic participants — not just as players but as spectators of college, Olympic and shore volleyball — Steve and Gigi have appreciated its various stages of development, made lasting friendships, reveled in its society and its camaraderie and gained hugely from its health-enhancing, vigorous exercise. Quit? Not yet. Their new purpose, they say emphatically, is to play with until Gigi reaches age 70. “Then, who can say? Eighty? Eighty-five? Stay tuned. Maybe we’ll start a blog, perhaps film a documentary,” says Steve. The obsession continues to hold and enthrall, and will, both insist,”until something unexpected comes along and breaks the spell.”