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The Legendary Don Ho
Vol. 6, No. 4
August/September 2003

 

Welcome to Volleyball Paradise 

story by Liza Simon
photos by Dana Edmunds


The University of Hawaii Warriors
huddle for a pre-game pep talk
 

It’s still early in the first game of post-season play for the 2002 National Champion University of Hawaii Warriors volleyball team, and suddenly the unthinkable seems almost possible. The University of the Pacific has come on strong in the first of three games, and almost before the Warriors know it, they’re down 6-1. Could they lose this one?

No way; not from where I’m sitting. Here in the UH booster section, a Warrior loss is simply not an option. Here, we wear green. We hold up homemade signs that tell the world “Grrr—Tony the Tiger” (for Tony Ching), or “It’s Greek to Me” (for Costas Theocharidis). We nervously twist makeshift pendants of Saran Wrap—a nod to the especially quirky head-band material adopted by Warrior middle blocker Brian Nordberg.

Sure enough, the Warriors battle back, and now it’s game-point time. Everyone in the booster section jumps to their feet, as they always do for the “Aloha Ball.” Apparently, the sympathetic magic works: Team captain Eyal Zimet passes the ball to Ching, who blasts away a kill that hits too fast for the opposing team to even think of reacting. The crowd goes crazy—but, then, Hawaii volleyball crowds always go crazy.

 

Welcome to Volleyball Paradise. For some reason—actually, for a variety of reasons—Island folks have adopted this “good fun kine” game as their very own. In many ways, the growth of volleyball in Hawaii is the story of the “little sport that could.” Never mind that volleyball lacks the exposure and promotional push of a major-league sport; Hawaii fans still go nuts for every serve, set, dig and kill. Just ask the visiting teams who are routinely bowled over by the size and passion of the record-setting local volleyball crowds. Or, as Warrior coach Mike Wilton puts it: “Hawaii has definitely been ahead of the curve when it comes to appreciation for this game.”

Hawaii’s love affair with volleyball goes far beyond the college arena. Cruise any Island park on the weekend and you’ll soon see that volleyball nets are as essential to the local group picnic as rice pots, hibachis and horseshoes. And fierce competition at the high-school level helps ensure that there’s always plenty of hot talent coming up.

No doubt, Hawaii’s ideal weather plays an important role in Island-style volleyball mania, allowing for year-round outdoor practice and offering perfect conditions for bikini-clad beach ball. And the Islands’ cultural climate of ‘ohana (extended family) plays a big part, too. “We always told our kids that they should play this game because it keeps them off the streets,” UH booster Cathryn Sparlin laughingly explains. “So they played, and we got involved. Then they graduated, but we stayed involved. Now it’s keeping us off the streets.”

As the buzz of Hawaii’s volleyball culture has spread, the Islands have grown into a major center for the sport, producing a bevy of top pros and winning scholastic teams. In women’s volleyball, the UH Rainbow Wahine have established nothing less than a dynasty under head coach Dave Shoji, including four national championships. And last year, the men’s team also brought home the NCAA title—the first-ever national men’s championship for any sport in UH history. In addition, the state’s smaller college teams—BYU-Hawaii, UH-Hilo and Hawaii Pacific University—have also shone, winning national championships in their own divisions.

 
Rainbow Wahine
coach Dave Shoji

According to Wahine coach Shoji, one of the best aspects of Hawaii’s volleyball ascendancy is that an increasing number of talented local high-school players are being selected for volleyball scholarships at Division One colleges. “There’s a special quality that players from Hawaii have,” Shoji says. “It’s as if they have this very natural understanding of the game, and they are very comfortable with it. We hear from Mainland volleyball coaches all the time who say if they could get just one or two athletes from Hawaii, they’d be all set for a good season.”

Like all UH volleyball players, Wahine star Lily Kahumoku lives in the spotlight of Hawaii volleyball mania. And, at 6' 2," the twenty-two-year-old outside hitter is hard to miss. Over a cup of coffee at a local restaurant, she shrugs and flashes a disarming smile as she talks about learning to take the celebrity in stride—like the time she was pulled over on her moped by a cop, who promptly walked up and blurted out, “So how’s the team looking for next year?”

Kahumoku grew up primarily on the Mainland, where her Hawaiian father had a military career. He often talked up the thrill of the volleyball he remembered from his own Island childhood, and steered Lily and her sisters toward the sport. In those days, Lily admits, “I wasn’t sure I would ever fit in. When we lived in Texas, people thought I was a too-tall Mexican with a weird last name.”

All that changed, however, when she moved back to Hawaii and attended Kamehameha Schools. Her highly decorated UH career includes twice being named an All-American—an honor shared by Wahine senior Kim Willoughby, and quite an accolade in an NCAA league that includes women’s teams from over 300 schools.

 
Rainbow Wahine
Lily Kahumoku

Lily says she’s close with all her Wahine teammates—which is a good thing when you spend four hours a day practicing with them, five days a week. As a senior, Kahumoku now joins a roster of UH players who are contemplating the increasing number of pro opportunities, including international league play in places like Italy, Japan and Brazil—all of which have touted UH grads on their pro rosters. Whichever way she heads, Lily says, she’ll always treasure playing for Island crowds. “Fans here have a serious stake in this game,” she tells me. “I mean, you get out there on the court and hit the ball, and ten thousand people go wild? Playing volleyball in Hawaii is just pure joy.”

No one is quite sure how volleyball came to Hawaii after it was invented in the late 19th century by a Massachusetts physical-education expert intent on combining the best elements of basketball, handball and badminton. Some say Mormon missionaries spread the sport throughout the Pacific; others credit a handful of local veterans who returned to their Island homes from military duty touched by volleyball fervor.

One early center for the game in Hawaii was the Haili Hawaiian Church in Hilo, where Thomas Lindsey and other church members set their minds on helping kids excel at sports. Remembering her dad as a “real Waimea cowboy who practically lived on his horse,” daughter Lyndell Lindsey says her father joined forces with a friend and fellow church member, Hilo fireman Eli Moluo, who collected books on volleyball. “We were his guinea pigs,” says Lyndell. “He’d try out all kinds of new things on us—like having boys and girls play on teams together. But mostly he urged us to use the game to learn how to think for ourselves.”

Forty-six years ago, the determined, self-styled coaches of Haili Church decided to stage the first-ever statewide volleyball tournament, which garnered around twenty registered teams. Nearly five decades later—and still organized by the Lindsey family—the annual tournament accommodates upwards of 150 teams from throughout the Hawaiian Islands, the U.S. mainland and the Pacific—enough to turn sleepy Hilo into bustling Volleyball Central for a week each year.

 
Pick-up game
at Waimea Bay

The success of the Haili tournament has ignited statewide interest in amateur indoor competition, known as club volleyball. Local club tournaments serve as a gateway to annual U.S. Volleyball Association championships on the Mainland, where Hawaii teams have consistently placed in the top ten. According to George Ehia, who runs Kalihi’s Onipa‘a Volleyball Club along with his three brothers and two sisters, club play provides a special opportunity for Hawaii coaches to include disadvantaged youngsters in large-scale athletic competition. Ehia says he particularly appreciates the way positions rotate in volleyball, enabling even the novice to undertake keys roles. “There’s room for aloha in this game,” he ventures.

Growing up playing volleyball on the sand court at Oahu’s storied Outrigger Canoe Club, Mark Haine used to look at pictures on the clubhouse wall of Duke Kahanamoku playing in volleyball matches and figure that this was the game of heroes. After all, Mark’s father Thomas, a local banker known affectionately as “Daddy” Haine, had been captain of the fifth-place 1963 U.S. Olympic Volleyball Team, and he later buddied up to play ball with Tom Selleck during shooting for Magnum P.I.

 
The Outrigger has helped galvanize local interest in beach volleyball by launching the careers of stars like Kevin Wong and Stein Metzger. Meanwhile, increases in purse money have made the beach game an attractive career option for college standouts like former Wahine Heidi Illustre and UH-Hilo alumna Tanya Fuamatu. Haine, who recently started a beach-volleyball marketing company, thinks it’s pretty obvious why the fast-paced pairs competition has caught on so big in the Islands. “Beach volleyball in Hawaii is bound to make any gym look hopelessly stinky,” he points out. “People play in their bathing suits, right at the edge of a beautiful ocean. What more could you want?”

As a recreational pastime, casual beach volleyball in Hawaii seems to have as many faces as there are beaches. At the longstanding pickup game down at the Fort DeRussy end of Waikiki, I meet a young mother from the Philippines named Thelma who says she’s still learning the etiquette and “politics” of how—and with whom—to sign up and play. But once the action gets going, she says, language and cultural barriers disappear.

According to another courtside observer—a local “cable guy” named Dennis—the DeRussy game has a long, if somewhat checkered, past. “Until the military finally put an end to it,” he confides, “this was the only portion of the beach where public drinking was allowed. So it was win, lose or booze.” On some days, Dennis says, hundreds of people would be milling about, either waiting to play or just watching the action amid a big beach party.

Across the island at Waimea Bay, the early morning sun sparkles off the golden sand of this beach famed for its giant wintertime waves. Like clockwork, Richard Lau arrives as he does just after dawn every Sunday morning to set up a net and wait for his buddies, some of whom have made the volleyball scene here since Lau first got it going back in 1973 as part of a birthday celebration. A high-school basketball standout who later turned to volleyball as a way to stay fit, Lau says his casual effort to organize volleyball Sundays at Waimea Bay caught on with the help of some heavyweight surfers. “For these guys, summer on the North Shore spells b-o-r-i-n-g, so they use beach volleyball to condition and build up their lung capacity,” he says, adding that Waimea lifeguard and venerated big-surf kahuna Eddie Aikau was among those who got into the sport during summer months.

 
Mike Wilton

Oddly enough, both of the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s winning volleyball coaches, Dave Shoji and Mike Wilton, played college sports themselves—but not volleyball. Shoji, who went out for baseball, and Wilton, a basketball player, both took up the game for personal conditioning after being plagued by athletic injuries.

Shoji, who worked out at the Outrigger Club and began his local coaching career at Punahou School, took the UH job in 1974. Like all volleyball coaches back then, he was part-time, and his limited resources included having to share a practice court with the basketball team. There were no lockers for women either at the poorly ventilated Klum Gym, dubbed “the world’s biggest sauna.” To dramatize the fetid atmosphere, UH swim team members would sometimes even show up for games in their swim gear.

The cramped, funky Klum quarters notwithstanding, there seemed from the beginning to be some special chemistry between UH volleyball players and their fans, who took to showing up with painted faces (in UH Rainbow green, of course), homemade placards and a slew of good-luck rituals meant to boost home-court morale.

Beth McLachin, a Mainland transfer student who started playing for UH in 1973 under coach Allen King, says the first team she played for under Shoji was small in height but big enough in spirit to make it to the NCAA finals in Portland, Ore. There, they faced a Minnesotan team of all six-footers—to whom they distributed pineapples during the pre-game handshakes. Perhaps it disarmed the opponents; clearly it pleased the spectators. “A full house was cheering for us,” McLachin remembers, “and it fired up our defense until we were digging out balls right and left. We lost the game by a slim margin, but we got a standing ovation.”

From the very beginning, Shoji says, his strategy was to emphasize the technical side of the game and the required conditioning. When the Wahine rose in the ranks to take on league champ USC in 1978, the game venue was moved to the Blaisdell Arena, which sold out. At that point, Shoji recalls thinking to himself, “Maybe this will turn into a full-time job.”

 
The Rainbow Warriors'
"Man of War" has a word
with the opposition.
 

Shoji finally did become full-time in 1981, and the fame of the Wahine and the Rainbow Warriors—then under Alan Rosehill—continued to grow. A major milestone came in 1984, when local TV station KHNL decided to begin broadcasting UH volleyball games live. This proved particularly successful as viewers responded to the longer rallies and more refined aesthetics of the women’s game. “There’s no doubt,” says Shoji, “that UH’s efforts at bringing out the beauty and grace of the women athletes has done a lot for the entire sport of volleyball.”

On the men’s side, telegenic success came in the early 1990s after Coach Mike Wilton began recruiting players from foreign volleyball powers. Among his finds were the charismatic, record-setting Yuval Katz from Israel, whose dyed orange hair and equally outgoing personality sparked fan mania. Although the Warriors were never a particularly tall team, fans were often treated to high-flying acrobatics, thanks to the special interest of Wilton, who did his master’s thesis on plyometrics—the study of human jumping moves.

The KHNL telecasts helped put to rest once and for all the notion that volleyball didn’t have a following, a lesson that was confirmed when the 10,000-seat Stan Sheriff arena opened in 1994 and promptly began setting national attendance records, putting UH volleyball on a par with “big name” sports like football and basketball. “The story I always like to tell,” says Dave Shoji smiling mischievously, “is about the time I was walking down the street on vacation in Lahaina with UH football coach Bob Wagner, and people started shouting and pointing—‘Oh look, there’s the volleyball coach!’”

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Shoji says that the live TV coverage actually helped boost attendance at the gate, while KHNL general manager John Fink says the match broadcasts often beat out prime-time network programs for ratings. “It’s like, is this sport dramatic enough for people?” Fink enthuses. “I think we can safely say yes.”

 
On a recent afternoon at Queen’s Beach in Waikiki, the players on the sand courts span multiple generations, ethnic groups and skill levels. Lily Kahumoku pulls up on her moped, while tourists stop to watch. Many linger, drawn in by the obvious enthusiasm of the game. It’s shaping up to be one of those sunsets that can wash away the urban woes of Honolulu city life. Rainbows seem about to burst forth everywhere.This is no doubt the kind of picture Dave Shoji has in mind when he says that the best thing volleyball has brought to Hawaii is not the glamour, but the relationships it builds between people. “Volleyball has helped athletes all over understand the importance of training and its impact on everyday life,” he says. “Even more than all the notoriety, it’s the bonding experience of the game as a way to encourage health and fitness—that’s what’s really important.”
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