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The Beach People's Game 

Volleyball is different in the sand. So is life.

For the third time George set the ball perfectly, it hung for an instant two feet above the net on the North Avenue beach--and for the third time his partner, Hoover, came out of the sand in long strides and a jump, swinging his arm like a baseball pitcher, snapping his wrist over the top of the volleyball to put topspin on it, hitting it crosscourt. And for the third time Ivers got down, knees praying, feet spraying sand behind him, and dug the hit, stopping the force of it with upturned forearms and passing it toward the net and his partner.

There is a steady two-second beat to beach volleyball that you can count as the day and the play wear on: A thousand one, a thousand two, slap of the ball. From serve to bump pass: a thousand one, a thousand two, the smack of leather and skin. From bump pass to hit (never say spike on the beach): a thousand one, a thousand two, the pop of fist into the ball. A thousand one, a thousand two, another slap smack of leather and skin as the ball is dug and passed, a thousand one, a thousand two, slap.

There is no beach music--beach party movies are just movies. It is quiet. The rhythmic slapping changes only as a second game adds another two-second beat. And the rhythm of two courts syncopates with a third like three metronomes keeping slightly different beats.

It's the best that can be done in the sand, in the sun, with the wind. No one could move in fast motion constantly on the sand, so the slow motion has become part of the game. Tremendous amounts of energy are spent moving in the sand. The soft, sensual cushion of the beach becomes exhausting and frustrating. Feet struggle to find something to push back against. Every quick step leads to a slide. Every slide must be stopped to start a push. Every push moves the sand and causes a slide. The best players hammer their feet into the sand, stomping across court as much as running, knees always bent. Quick bursts of speed are used to jump and hit. Then a team falls back waiting for the response.

Cheers--rare and odd--interrupted the quiet as Hoover hammered his hits at Ivers during the quarter-final round of the Miller Qualifier, the Super Bowl of Chicago beach volleyball. The cheers came from under the willows on the North Avenue beach--from the beach people. Jimmy, who with Hoover had been pelting tournament players earlier in the day with peanuts blown through a two-foot-long blowgun, was dug in nearest the court. A blond woman in a bikini, worn out from wine coolers and 90-degree heat, was cradled between his legs. Another woman in the beach chair next to him, wearing a safari hat and bikini, led the cheers.

Not everyone cheered. Not the "tournament players," those athletes who were volleyball players first and foremost, who played "sixes" indoors all year, and came to the beach just because it was where the best competition could be found. They sat silently in the sand, or stood and crouched just outside the court, caught the action and drifted away: three hard hits, all of them dug by Ivers--they knew it was all but over for Hoover and his partner.

The beach people, though, stuck with it. Those who played in the qualifier, who were also players, knew that George and Hoover were the best they had to offer. They sat facing into the sun, many under beach umbrellas advertising beers and tequila. They had been out there running, jumping, diving, and digging in the sand, heat, and wind all day until they were eliminated. They saw George and Hoover's game beginning to come apart, but unlike the tournament players, they weren't giving up on the game to get ready for the next game, dinner, or party.

George Tkaczuk and Brian Willcoyen--Hoover--were what good volleyball players need to be: tall and quick. George was experienced, pushing 30, with a hint of thinning in his curly hair. Hoover was younger at 25, explosive. He played much taller than his six feet. Both George and Hoover were beach people. George, a former professional indoor volleyball player from Chicago's near west side, had run the beach volleyball clinic earlier in the summer. Hoover was, well, Hoover: a shock of blond hair, a beak nose, a wild thing.

Their opponents were Matt Franciskovic and Keith Iverson, an uneasy alliance. Matt is known as the best volleyball player, in terms of skills, in the midwest. He has also been called the Jimmy Connors of the beach. His partner, Ivers, has been, with different partners, a member of the best beach doubles team in the midwest over the last five years. Ivers is well liked, but people seem to hold back from him because of the way he gets along with Matt.

Matt is the power at the net, someone who can come out of the sand and hit with hard accuracy. Ivers is shorter, thinner than his partner. He plays a rangy defense, often digging in the sand to get balls no one else would try for.

Everyone respects Matt and Ivers's ability to play beach doubles. But the beach people are the kind of crowd that always roots for a wild thing.

When George Tkaczuk talks about volleyball, his eyes are too wide and happy to be an adult's. He is fully animated: a hand flies out to describe a hit or block, his fingers replaying the point in the air. But drag him back to the everyday of living and his shoulders crunch in against his chest; his arms seem clipped to his side. You suddenly see age in his face and his thinning, curly hair.

You couldn't find George on the North Avenue beach at the middle of the summer. He was blacktopping driveways and parking lots for a living, despite his promising partnership with Hoover--and a medical degree.

"He's the best partner I've ever had, at least in terms of potential," George said. "Early in the summer we played in three tournaments and wiped everybody but Matt and Ivers out. But I ran out of money," he said and shrugged. "So I took this job."

George learned to play, really play, beach volleyball when he was 18. He went out to California to qualify for the Junior National indoor team, a team he played on the year before. Only that summer he didn't qualify.

"I was really upset," he said.

Instead of playing for the national team he discovered the Santa Monica beach and stayed the summer out there.

"There were these two old guys out there who could just whip your ass. And they showed me how the beach worked, the different levels of play, how to get on a net. People came in shifts out there. There were the morning, afternoon, and evening shifts. It was kinda neat because I got to see them all. Every day I played beach volleyball. At night I played indoor."

In what would become a steady pattern, George returned to Chicago "when I ran out of money." And in another kind of pattern he went back to the Santa Monica beach twice, in 1977 and 1981. "There were the same set of guys on the beach each time," he said with respect.

In college he played one year at Georgetown University when that team won the NAIA championship. He dropped out when Georgetown discontinued scholarships for volleyball. He ended up receiving a degree from a Caribbean medical school, but has failed twice to pass the test to receive an internship in the United States.

He spent a year, after medical school, practicing volleyball with the dream of playing professional ball in Europe.

"I had a great year," he said of that time. "I'd go to the gym, put up a net, and just find someone to set me. Then I'd just practice hitting. I lifted weights, ran. I'd be out there practicing and I'd just say to myself, 'You gotta do this. You gotta do this.' 'Cause being a pro player is like the ultimate thing for a volleyball player. All you have to do is play volleyball. Everything else is taken care of."

After his year working out, the telegram "out of nowhere" came inviting him for a tryout in Germany. "It was just this team in Germany who heard about this American guy wanting to play," George said, his voice still tinged with disbelief.

At the tryout he was promised a salary and housing if he came for the season. But when he got to Germany, "The story turns out to be not so good," George said. "I'm having problems at home from my wife--going off to play volleyball at my age." The money promised wasn't being paid. "For a volleyball player this is the ultimate thing," George repeated. "So I'm wondering. Should I blow this thing off?"

The decision, he said, turned on "a matter of principle." He felt he couldn't keep playing for a team that didn't keep its promises to him. He returned to Chicago. "Even then," he said, "I wasn't sure it was the right decision."

George got off from his blacktopping job to play in the Miller Qualifier. It was his first tournament in over a month. "All the people at work, and some of my friends were saying, 'Oh no. Here goes George again, back into his volleyball.' It's the same thing with the people who I went to medical school with, who are already working. They say "George you've got to stop this volleyball thing and get to work.'

"Everybody," George said, referring to the people on the beach, "would like to see us beat Matt and Ivers. They are cocky. They're sorta, 'You people are peons. We're the beach gods.' Hoover and I are more down-to-earth. We like to party."

"For a lot of people out here their ranking in life is their level of volleyball," Barry Perlin, an open-level player, said on a rainy, cold Saturday on the North Avenue beach. Two dozen teams were playing a tournament through a drizzle so cold players were diving into Lake Michigan to warm up.

"Some places it's money," concurred T.C., another open player, "some places it's looks. Here it's courts."

"I grew up in California," Barry said. "And everyone's better than you. There are only 40 people or so in Chicago playing on the open level. It's easy to get a big head. The level of play in tournaments is like a club pro in racquetball. He's a bigger little fish. In beach volleyball we just happen to have a very small pond.

"It's nothing to rank your status in life by," Barry said.

"But people do," T.C. added.

Barry Perlin is tall and dark and at least one woman player described him as "pretty to watch." He is about to start work as a dentist. He is a bartender now. It is, he says, his "last summer to be a bum."

In the rain on the beach and in the extreme heat on the beach, his conversation turns to how beach volleyball is no longer that important to him.

"It just seemed like I was playing in tournaments every weekend," he said. "I only played in four tournaments this summer. Which between weddings and whatnot, really were all the free weekends," he said, puzzled by his own admission. "But, hey, what can you say? I really haven't been out here as much."

The beach volleyball players say it's the sun, the sand, the competition, the exercise, and the fit bodies in bathing suits running, jumping, and diving that keeps bringing them out to the beach. They say it in the worst rain, or when there's no swimming due to sewage overflow. They say it when the wind is so strong volleyballs are uncontrollable, and players are gagging on blown sand.

The scene is always there in the worst weather, in the best weather: being at the beach, being with other volleyball players. The workout of running, jumping, diving, and rolling in the sand is always part of the scene: exhaustion that drains the mind quicker than the sun. Beer, wine coolers, and marijuana to ease whatever pain might be left. And the game that defines where you fit into the scene.

North Avenue Beach is where the best players come. Volleyball Chicago, which sponsors tournaments, has planted four-by-four standards there, and the players bring their own nets. The play is all doubles (except for a little weekend six-man play and a Tuesday-Thursday league that plays mixed fours), and it's all "A" and up. The "B" players are there--they just never get a court.

The scene spreads off the beach to include indoor players who don't play on the beach, Lincoln Park players who play on the grass. The scene always spreads to the bar. The bar, never the same from year to year, is the mixing bowl for the beach players, indoor players, and grass players. This year it's P.J. Wells.

"It's like living in a small neighborhood where you're going to know somebody," said Denise Philips, who has played in the beach league for three years. She is in her twenties, blond and sturdy. "Everybody knows you by how you play. You go down to the beach. The beach is like that. It can be real social."

"It's so bad it's a soap opera," Barry said. "Let's face it. I wouldn't have been doing this for so long if it weren't for the social life. One week someone's going out with someone on one court. Next week she's engaged to some guy on another court. It's pretty sleazy. It's a lot of fun."

The scene is structured as tightly as your worst high school nightmare or as benignly as an "extended family." Whatever the interpretation, it is all based on levels of play. "B" players are the beginners. "High B" players have some set of skills together. "A" players are the upperclassmen and "open" level players are the college guys hanging out on the corner. You get an official rating if you sign up for one of Volleyball Chicago's tournaments, but that just confirms what everybody already knows.

Men and women players date at their level of play, or out of the scene.

Barry, for one, won't date a volleyball player now. The story he told about the woman moving from one court to be engaged to a player on another court was the story of his old girlfriend.

"If you stop going out with a volleyball player, you're doomed to see her for the rest of your life at volleyball events. You always have a lot more ex-girlfriends than friends. I don't think I can deal with a lot of different ex-girlfriends running around here."

The higher the level of women volleyball players, the less interest they seem to have in dating the men. The better women come from a collegiate background where volleyball was the scholarship sport for women.

Cathleen Connolly, who sells microcomputers and software for a distributor, and has been teamed with Sue Labay at the women's open level for three years, dismisses the open-level men. "They're 35," she said, "and their emphasis is still volleyball. It's pretty weird."

But Denise Phillips contends that "the girls think they gain prestige by going out with the very best volleyball players. Running into ex-boyfriends in Chicago is unusual. In volleyball that is common. It's very cliquey. 'A' people like to hang with 'A' people."

"The social structure is based on gossip and competition," said Rinda West, a handsome 40-plus women's "A" player. She has played indoors, on the grass, and on the beach. She has two kids at home. And from playing all day at the beach "the best tan at the college" where she is in charge of an honors program. "There's not a lot of social contexts where a single woman can go by herself to a party given by someone she doesn't know that well, and feel comfortable.

"There is an edge of anxiety in trying to belong. If you're at the lowest level of your skill group you're worried about fitting in. So that when you do belong there is a relief there. The comfort level is doubled.

"There is a feedback loop where the better you play, the more you're invited out to play, the better you end up playing. After a while you can find a level at which you're comfortable as a player, or socializing."

George and Hoover were in trouble. Their game was being beat at the net. They were serving to Ivers to keep Matt from hitting at the net, but every time George got to the net to block Ivers's hit, Hoover was out of position in the back court. Ivers was hitting at will into their court. Hoover was losing complete control of his own hits at the net, pounding the ball out of bounds or right at Matt or Ivers.

Ivers made yet another dig of a hit and he was yelling back at the crowd and to himself. "Way to go Ivers! Way to dig! Yay Ivers."

Matt watched passively as Ivers did a little dance in celebration of himself.

The view of the world from the beach is about knee-high--eye level for somebody sitting in a beach chair. A day at a beach volleyball tournament is a day dedicated to watching the sky. Whether you're sitting in a chair looking up, or out on a court running under the volleyball, your eyes are in the sky all day long. At the Miller Qualifier clouds rolled in all day, breaking to a clear blue to make it sunny, humid, and 90 degrees by mid-afternoon. The lake, which functions as a huge cooling pond, was closed because of a sewage overflow. Rain had been predicted, so there was no one on the beach but the volleyball players and lifeguards.

Barry Perlin was reduced to a reluctant fan. He and his partner, Steve Sidich, were eliminated in the third round. It is the first time Barry has not qualified to play in the Miller open. He was constantly talking about how he could leave and do something else as he watched the next match.

He joked about how his current girlfriend, Jody, ranks beach volleyball "right up there with bowling."

When Jody finally showed up at the beach for the qualifier she deadpanned, "Actually I like bowling." It was unusual for her to be at the beach. She was there to watch Barry play, but he had already been disqualified. "I don't play volleyball. It's boring to me to sit on the beach. I'd rather be doing something else."

Barry has not been cured of the beach by Jody. "You live in the city, you're used to just doing something, snap, snap, snap. You think in the city you always have to be moving. You wonder if we're like little hamsters running around and around. You have a tendency to schedule everything from hour to hour. I was going to school from 8 to 4:30, working 5 to midnight, and maintaining relationships during the half hours in between.

"I think this, the pace of the beach, is a much more normal pace for people who live out of town. These people who live at this slower pace, make mortgages, buy furniture. It's like when my mother was in town she asked me, "Do we always have to be doing something?'

"But I love the city. The pace is what makes it fun. So on the beach I'm living at this other pace for a while."

"Matt tends to be a jerk on the court," Keith Iverson, his partner, said. "And that's fine because he provides the intimidation factor."

Ivers has had unprecedented success in the midwest on the beach. With various partners, he has been at the top of the beach heap for five years. On the court he looks larger than he is, less than six feet tall and surprisingly thin. His hair, like most of the open players', begins to reveal his age. He is a teacher at Morton East High School in Cicero.

"I always wanted to be the best," Ivers said, "but I never claimed to be. I see all the things that Matt can do. Jump, hit, serve. And I have to say he is the best player in the midwest. A lot of people question his attitude, how hard he tries. And who knows why that is. Maybe he's frustrated playing with a lower level of player than he is. While I'll never say I'm the best player, I do say nobody tries harder than I do."

The benefits of being the best include a sponsor for his and Matt's tournament play. (Nick Nicholas, the restaurateur, gives them a couple free meals a week and has them wear his patch--it's an unheard-of arrangement in Chicago, though common enough on the west coast.) It also means people are interested in him.

"I can go into a bar after the tournaments and I know a lot of people. I can dance with the girls. If it were just me, who knows?"

It is late and drunk: Shots of tequila, pitchers of beer, and don't-know-where-it-is drunk. Hoover is standing in the corner of the bar. The Miller Qualifier is over. A redhead in her mid-twenties is checking him out, teasing up tight near him.

Hoover's platinum hair is short, punkish in front and longer down the back. He is not handsome, his features are too rough-hewn. He is not well built in the decade when bodies are compared to Arnold Schwarzenegger's. He works for his friend and volleyball mentor Mike Porritt doing general construction. The woman flirting with him is an MBA candidate at one of the best schools in the country.

Hoover is teasing back. He lets a hand flirt by his ear. And is suddenly towering over her, looking down his chest into her shirt, smirking. She is laughing, admonishing him with a schoolmarm's finger. Back and forth they go, dancing the dance.

A table of volleyball players does not seem too concerned. Or too interested. They yell about teams and contests, and games that should've, might've, and would've been. Whatever happened to . . . if it only had been . . . the time we were so blasted . . . never saw anything like it . . . they played the game of their lives . . . had such a great ass . . . the tournament was the worst . . . he fell down flat on his face in the sand . . . so drunk . . .

It's four o'clock, the second last call of the night, when Hoover breaks away and comes by the table of players. The redhead is apparently packing up to go. Hoover pours himself a beer from the pitcher at the table.

"Brutal," Hoover says, downing the beer in a couple of gulps. "Totally brutal." She is suddenly grabbing his elbow and leading him out.

George was too tired and Hoover too rattled by Matt and Ivers for a rally. The final points came on mistakes--a deep hit, a missed block. Matt and Ivers won, but the cheers at the end were still for George and Hoover.

"They win," George said. "You can't take that away from them. But they don't do any better against the pro players. If me and Hoover had practiced, we would have beat them.

"A long time ago," George said, "it seemed if you played beach volleyball you were a weirdo. Now it seems kinda neat. If they had beach tournaments and a bar right there it would be the best thing. The idea of leaving the beach and going to a bar . . . everybody seems to get lost.

"I'm kinda thinking about going to Germany. From what I've thought Florida is another place. They have another pro beach volleyball tour. Smaller money, but enough. I've played against the Florida players, and they're not that great.

"My wife is not a volleyball player. She gets kinda upset about the whole scene. She thinks it's too degenerate. Too childish. She says, 'Grown men going out playing all day and then drinking all night.'

"Do I worry about growing up? No. I've been working all summer. Thinking, 'I gotta work, I gotta work.' The times are too easy for that. Our parents were through the war and all that. Now, if the volleyball's good, what else matters?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Merideth.

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Agenda Teaser

Galleries & Museums
Brick by Brick Museum of Science and Industry
March 10
Galleries & Museums
Thirteen Laughing at Each Other Art Institute of Chicago
April 28

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