The hottest player on the men's pro beach volleyball tour dispatches opponents with cold calculation. In a sport once famous for its beach bums, Kent Steffes is a senior economics major at UCLA, a would-be investment banker, a Republican who retires early during tournaments to read the Wall Street Journal in his hotel room. "This isn't a party for me, it's a business," he says, sounding as dispassionate as a corporate raider. "I try to be like WalMart, taking on mom-and-pop stores and putting them out of commission."
At the maddeningly precocious age of 23, Steffes has pulled off a takeover that's as sudden as it is spectacular. Since he renewed his partnership with two-time Olympic gold medalist Karch Kiraly on May 2, the two men have won six of seven tournaments, including the last five in a row. The duo's latest triumph came on Sunday at the Chicago Open, in which they beat Tim Hovland and Mike Dodd in the finals, 15-10. During their run of victories Steffes deposed perennial tour leaders Sinjin Smith and Randy Stoklos to become the youngest player ever to top the Association of Volleyball Professionals' (AVP) computer rankings.
In less than four seasons, Steffes has vaulted to sixth on the AVP's alltime money list, with earnings totaling $505,043, and first on its alltime hit list. "Kent is neither a model prisoner nor a player tortured by doubt," says TV analyst Chris Marlowe, captain of the 1984 U.S. Olympic volleyball team. "A lot of players are jealous of what he has attained in such a short time."
"He's a very self-absorbed person who lives in his own private Idaho," says pro Brian Lewis. "He doesn't pay proper respect to the guys who paved the way for him to make all the money he's making."
Steffes says he has no idea what Lewis means by respect. "Am I supposed to respect how great they once were?" asks Steffes. "Do I have to revere them for hanging on? Hey, my job is to go out every week and beat those guys. But they act like I'm burning down their homes or swooping their girlfriends. Respect? How about them respecting me?"
In 1976, when the beach tour began, the two-man teams competed for six-packs and glory. Today the AVP runs a 24-event circuit that stretches from Fresno, Calif., to Fort Myers, Fla., with $2.8 million in prize money and millions more to be made in endorsements. "Steffes is the only top player without a major sponsor," says Lewis. "A lot of people don't want to be associated with him."
Particularly AVP people. Tour officials fretted over a Los Angeles radio interview in which Steffes demeaned Smith and Stoklos. And they gagged when Steffes complained that events look like beer commercials—maybe not the smartest play, considering all but four of the AVP tournaments are sponsored by Miller Lite. Worst of all, Steffes wants to outlaw the popular bikini contests held during tournaments. "It's not that I think they're degrading to women," he says. "It's that they detract from the professionalism of the sport. You don't see beauty contests at Lakers games."
Steffes is such a candid cannon that at a recent tournament in San Diego, two p.r. flaks were assigned to monitor his dealings with the press. He was even coached to spout clichès to the media. "The tour, the sponsors don't want Mr. Talk-About to be Number One," says Mr. Talk-About. "They'd be happier with someone who'll tell sportswriters, 'I'm glad to be here and, god willing, I'm just glad to help the team.' If they don't like what I say, they shouldn't send me reporters. Yet they wonder when I'm going to get the message and play the political game."
The game the 6'4" Steffes plays is volleyball, and he plays it exceedingly well. Steffes sizzles across the sand, wearing orange Robocop shades and the faintest of smirks. A tweener, they call him, because, like Kiraly, he's both a superb blocker and a digger. "Kent's like a 6'8" guard in basketball who can post-up, dish and run the floor," says Steve Timmons, a three-time Olympian. That kind of versatility makes it difficult to attack Steffes. "I'm not overpowering," Steffes says. "I squirm my way through. I'm more like Phil Niekro than Nolan Ryan."
The 13,000 sun-blocked spectators at Sunday's finals on Chicago's North Shore gaped at Steffes's spectacular bump sets and flying jump serves that swerved like loose balloons in a stiff breeze. "Kent makes the impossible possible," says 1984 Olympian Paul Sunderland. "And the hard plays easy."
Even as a kid in the suburbs of Los Angeles, Steffes had a strong sense of himself. His father, Jackson, maintained order at the dinner table by scowling at his two sons. That ended one night when Kent was five. Jackson quieted Kent's older brother, Byron, with a hard scowl. Then he scowled at Kent. "Little Kent looked at Byron, looked at his mother and scowled right back at me," says Jackson. "The scowl never worked again."
More character traits were revealed in a standardized test Kent took in the fourth grade. "He scored best in logic and concrete reasoning," says Jackson. "So I figured he'd be good at arguing and talking back."
At 12, Kent began playing the stock market—Dad bankrolled him for $1,000—and coaching a baseball team made up of eight-year-olds. He managed the money as well as he did the boys. "That $1,000 is now worth $17,000," he says. When the kids made the league final, the father of one of the players installed himself as coach. Over Kent's protests, the father made a lineup change, putting his son in as pitcher and changing the batting order, which ended up costing them the championship. "I was very upset," says Kent, "but the experience taught me to look for the motivation behind other people, and maybe myself."
Steffes started playing volleyball in the seventh grade, but he didn't hit the beach until 1984, when he was 16. By his senior year at Palisades High, he was named the 1986 National High School Player of the Year. Steffes then accepted a volleyball scholarship to Stanford but soon wished he hadn't. The northern California beaches were cool; the Cardinal offense, cooler. Steffes was not the most beloved player on the team. "I'd been taught aggressive, loud-mouthed, obnoxious volleyball," he says. "You try to humiliate the other team because they're trying to humiliate you. I didn't go out to win, I went out to destroy."
Before his teammates could destroy him, Steffes transferred to UCLA as a sophomore. But his career as a Bruin ended before it began. Because Steffes had played in beach tournaments, he violated an NCAA rule that renders a college player ineligible if he has teamed with someone who accepts prize money. Never mind that one of his beach partners was the Bruins' assistant coach. "Not only didn't UCLA fight the ruling, but they took away my scholarship," says Steffes. "It just shows that if you're not a football or basketball player, you're a second-class citizen." Devastated, Steffes turned to the beach full-time.
From the start, he had a pulverizing self-confidence. "Whenever the older guys rousted me," he says, "I'd roust them back." Few rousted him more than Smith and Stoklos, the sport's alltime winningest team. "You —— punk!" Stoklos yelled at Steffes during a tournament in 1990. "You'll never be any —— good!"
Steffes replied with a volleyball facial. "I really roofed Stoklos in the melon," he says. The shouting match that ensued in the players' tent escalated into a shoving match in Steffes's hotel room. A security guard had to break it up.
Steffes's pugnacity apparently impressed Kiraly, who had quit the national team after years of being the dominant U.S. player and was looking for the perfect beach mate. He and Steffes paired up in the summer of 1990. The arrangement lasted only 10 weeks. Though Steffes and Kiraly won two tournaments and were runners-up three times, they were 3-9 against Smith and Stoklos. Kiraly decided to dump Steffes for his old mate, Brent Frohoff. "I was impatient to win," says Kiraly, "and I guess I handled the situation poorly." While Kiraly mulled the move over, word of it reached Steffes. "Karch was the fifth caller," Steffes says. "I was bummed. I was bitter. I knew he was the best partner for me." The pain of separation subsided two weeks later when Steffes and his new partner, Dan Vrebalovich, beat Kiraly-Frohoff in a double final.
After the 1990 season Kiraly left the U.S. for Italy, where he reportedly made $500,000 playing in an indoor six-man league. When he got home last summer he had a change of heart about Steffes. "Kent was a totally different player," he says. "He was physically stronger, mentally tougher and had better ball control." Reunited, he and Steffes stormed the beach, winning six of the final 11 events.
This season, with Kiraly back in Italy through the start of the beach tour, Steffes teamed up with Adam Johnson to win two of the first five tournaments. Kiraly, meanwhile, turned down an invitation to rejoin the national team and try for an unprecedented third Olympic gold. "I'm not hungry anymore," says Kiraly, who's 31 and has two infant sons. He also doubts the partnership with Steffes will last very long. "I'm going to try it as long as I can, but Kent's eight years younger," says Kiraly. "When I'm not holding up my end anymore, he's going to dump me, just as I once dumped him."
As Steffes well knows, volleyball is one tough business.
Since Kiraly (with cap) rejoined Steffes, they have spiked their way to wins in six of seven tournaments.
At least to some of his admirers, Kiraly is still the king.