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The Americans get spiked


Beloved in Poland, Cuba, Japan, the U.S.S.R. and a dozen other countries large and small, volleyball is pretty much a neglected foster child in America, the land of its birth. The game was invented in 1895 by William G. Morgan, physical director of the Holyoke, Mass., YMCA, where for years the only commemoration of the fact was a moldy plaque over the water fountain in the gym. Spalding turned out the first volleyball in 1900, yet today America's official ball is made in Japan.

Volleyball became an Olympic sport in 1964 in Tokyo, where volleyball is almost as popular as raw fish. That year the U.S. teams were embarrassed to finish far down the list, as if, instead of their own native game, they were playing field hockey against Pakistanis. Much the same thing happened four years later in Mexico City, and in the last two Olympiads neither U.S. team could even qualify.

Last week the sad story continued. Men's and women's teams from the People's Republic of China were touring the U.S. Their slogan was "Yu-i-Ti-i, Pi-sai-Ti-erh," which their translators said means, "Friendship first, then spike the ball down their throats."

The Chinese warmed up by smashing lesser American teams in Dayton and Fairfax, Va.; then last Saturday night in Pasadena, Texas, a suburb of Houston, they went against the best amateurs America could offer. Playing three-game matches, the Chinese women won 15-7, 15-4, 15-11. The Chinese men won 7-15, 15-6, 15-10.

The Chinese tour, which continues this week with matches in El Paso, Berkeley, Calif. and Honolulu, is the latest round of the Ping-Pong diplomacy that started with the U.S. table-tennis team's much-publicized visit to China in April of 1971. Since then there have been seven sporting trips across the Pacific in one direction or the other. China's table-tennis team visited the U.S. in '72, their gymnasts in '73, their experts in martial arts in '74 and their women's basketball team last November.

The current trip by the Chinese was made despite the death Sept. 9 of Chairman Mao Tse-tung and the month of official mourning, which did not end until last Friday. Because of the mourning period, the tour's co-sponsors, the U.S. Volleyball Association and the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, eliminated parties, banquets and fetes. Still, the athletes did not give up eating ice cream, which they dearly love. Accompanied by special security personnel, they went almost everywhere as a group, their friendly smiles contrasting sharply with their drab, dark-gray uniforms and topcoats.

Although they continually stressed the "friendship first, competition second" credo, the Chinese were anything but dialectic-spouting Red Guards or grim automatons. At their Friday-afternoon workout at a Pasadena junior college, the men laughed and capered like schoolboys as they threw balls at each other in an agility drill. No one minded when some translators and members of the U.S.-China committee started an impromptu game on an adjacent court. Several of the leaders of the Chinese delegation loosened the mandarin collars on their tunics and joined in.

In Dayton Monday night an inexperienced group of U.S. women, the East All Stars, were overmatched against the Chinese women, a strapping bunch who seemed to be huskier than the Chinese men (all were 5'7" or taller). The Americans were mostly college students and four of them were still in their teens. Many had never seen an international match, much less played in one, and they were wiped out 15-1, 15-5, 15-5.

The Midwest All Stars, mostly inexperienced college men from Ohio State, Ball State and Kellogg (a junior college in Battle Creek, Mich.), had one veteran among them, Doug Beal, 29, a good setter who has played on numerous U.S. national teams. The Chinese men won almost as one-sidedly as the women.

Thursday night it was much the same in a big high-school gymnasium in woodsy Fairfax, Va., outside Washington. The same U.S. women lost by a bigger margin, and the same men's team managed to win the first game 17-15 before losing the next two, 15-9, 15-9.

The Chinese, who have wisely borrowed strategy and technique from the Japanese, used all sorts of tricky maneuvers. It used to be that the middle man in the front row would set the ball high to one side or the other for a spiker. The quick but small Japanese invented various plays in which the setter would sometimes gently push the ball just above the net in the middle, where an alternate hitter was already at the top of his leap waiting to strike. The idea, which has been picked up by teams all over the world but rarely timed and executed in the Japanese manner, is to confuse the blockers and get a one-on-one hitting situation or maybe even one-on-none instead of the normal one-hitter trying to go over, around or through two blockers. The Chinese—tall, powerful and quick enough to use either style—worked the quickset plays very well, and the most important defenseman, the center blocker, didn't know where to turn or hide, like a man being attacked by three swooping falcons at once.

The Dayton and Fairfax warmups over, the tour moved on to Pasadena, where the competition figured to be stiffer. Pasadena is the training site for the U.S. women's team, coached by Israeli Arie Selinger. And brought in from California for the men's team was a group of college and ex-college stars thought to be the nucleus of America's 1980 Olympic team, the very same fellows who beat the Suntory team of Japan in September.

With possibly two exceptions, however, the U.S. women did not belong on the same floor with the Chinese. Patty Dowdell, 21, 6'1", a chemistry major at the University of Houston, spiked with power and accuracy, even from 10 feet behind the net, and Janet Baier, a six-foot Missourian, made some marvelous diving digs. But nobody else could compare with the Chinese, who were led by a textile worker from Hang-chow, Ch'en Chao-ti.

"They're good, period," said Selinger. "That's all there is to it. When they start moving, the only way you can beat them is to play quietly and put them to sleep."

He complained about the fact that 6'5" Flo Hyman, on a volleyball scholarship at the nearby University of Houston, is not allowed to compete with the national team.

"It's a lousy decision," said Selinger. "Dowdell was the only one who could put the ball down. With Hyman in there, too, we could compete against China. Maybe not win, but compete."

The U.S. men's hopes rested largely on the superb hitting of 6'5" Paul Sunderland, an ex-basketball player for Oregon and Loyola-Marymount, and the center blocking of John Zabriskie and Ted Dodd, both of whom had blocked beautifully against the strong Suntory team.

Dodd had not planned to participate. He did not want to take time off from his job as a waiter at a Malibu restaurant, and he was annoyed that during the training for the Suntory match the players had to pay all their own expenses except for a postmatch victory dinner. Coach Marv Dunphy persuaded him to travel to Texas by a method quite appropriate considering where the opposing team was from—he was shanghaied.

Dunphy, also head coach at Pepper-dine University, where Dodd was an All-America, got Dodd's parents and boss to approve his plan, then went with a girl friend and two players to the restaurant Friday night. Using a pair of riot handcuffs borrowed from a sheriffs deputy, they "arrested" Dodd and hauled him away to the decking outside his Malibu apartment, where his ankle was manacled to a railing for the night and a mattress provided for his comfort. Saturday morning he was taken to the airport in handcuffs like a criminal being extradited.

The first game went well, with Sunderland spiking strongly and Gerald Gregory and Mike Cram making some good digs and UCLA's Dave Olbright setting nicely. The U.S. won 15-7 and it looked fairly easy. But as the match wore on, China started blocking more and more of the U.S. spikes and America's vital center blocking fell apart. The U.S. lost the last two games, giving China 16 wins in 18 games on the tour's first week.

Not so terrible, really, considering that the Olympics are four years away, but it was another in a long line of U.S. setbacks in international competition.

There are, however, faint signs that volleyball might not be a mistreated foster child too much longer. The pro league, the International Volleyball Association, is hanging on by its fingernails and probably will not survive another season, but college volleyball, especially in California, is growing stronger and more popular each year.

For international competition, and especially the Olympics, the USVBA has launched four-year plans for both the men and women, plans that include fulltime coaches and permanent training sites. The women will probably continue to train in Pasadena, where the city of slightly more than 100,000 population comes up with about $40,000 a year by way of contributions from individuals and businesses and from gate receipts. Jobs and free apartments are also provided. The men's training center will be in Dayton, a site that has not enthralled California players. That state has provided the overwhelming majority of talent in the past. Much depends on the coach the USVBA picks. A Pole, a Korean and at least three Americans have already applied.

"Yes, Dayton is a long way from California, a long way from the experience," said one of the applicants, Mick Haley, at present the head coach at Kellogg Community College. "But talent is everywhere. We need to go after the best athletes, not just volleyball players. We need to train quality athletes. We can't do any worse."

His thoughts were echoed by Beal, the veteran setter, who used to coach Ohio State: "We were in the top 10 in the world with a haphazard program, so with Dayton we could be great."

William G. Morgan, wherever he rests these days, would like that.