If you saw Christopher St. John Smith on a panel show and were asked to figure out how he made his living, your first guess would be that he did it wearing a wing collar and a black tie--and not much else--at a women-only Hollywood nightclub. He has that hard, firm body, the sculptured, chiseled good looks, the eyes of Paul Newman blue, the color of the Mediterranean at first light.
Or, you might figure he was an actor, or that he modeled Jockey shorts or tank tops in men’s magazines.
You’d take in the tan cheeks, the light brown hair, the wide smile and you’d know this guy never spent more than an hour a day indoors in his whole life.
Well, St. John Smith is practically all of the above--he’s not a male dancer--but what you might not guess is that you were looking at one of the world’s great athletes, in fact, the world’s best at what he does at the moment.
Singin Smith--the first name is the British pronunciation of St. John, although it’s usually spelled Sinjin--is the world’s best outdoor volleyball player. He’s not bad indoors, either, having been the MVP in the NCAA tournament when he was at UCLA in 1979. He would have been on the United States Olympic volleyball team at Moscow in 1980 if there’d been one there.
Singin Smith excels at the seaside version of the sport that is such a popular variation of it at the moment that it is almost overshadowing the standard six-man, hardwood version of the game. The sport, which was historically confined to an area of three linear miles along Santa Monica Beach, has now spread to Florida, New Jersey, Massachusetts and the shores of the Great Lakes in three states.
Like basketball, volleyball was a sport invented in Massachusetts around the turn of the century in protest against the violence of that other bladder-ball sport that was given over to the flying wedges and flying tackles and was running neck-and-neck with the Boer War in terms of battlefield casualties.
No one is quite sure when it became a beach sport. It was probably the first time a spiker looked out the window of the gymnasium and saw the sun sparkling off the blue waters of Santa Monica Bay and wondered what they were doing batting an inflated ball around in a dank cavernous auditorium when the surf was up, the sun was out and the trade winds blew across the sands outside.
Smith and his partner--beach volleyball is ordinarily a two-man game--have brought the sand game to its highest peak of proficiency since, littering the littoral with defeated foes and winning an unbelievable 63 beach titles, 3 world championships and more money than any other volleyball player in history has ever amassed, more than $50,000 so far this year.
Singin and his longtime partner, Randy Stoklos, will be defending their professional beach championship on the strand at Redondo Beach this weekend in a 32-team double-elimination tournament that will carry heavyweight sponsorship by a convenience store chain and a light beer conglomerate, and will pay nearly $30,000 in prize money.
Outdoor pro volleyball is a 23-stop tour nowadays, a yuppie enthusiasm that may be replacing weekend golf or tennis as the new sport of the young upwardly mobiles of our society, the only sport you can arrive at by surfboard.
If Singin Smith is the Babe Ruth of beach volleyball in one sense, he’s the Wee Willie Keeler or Pete Rose in another. Singin hits ‘em where they ain’t. He’s a junk pitcher, a knuckler. He can do more with a bunt than a home run. “He’s got three eyes,” a rival once complained after a beach tournament in which Smith spent the day making him guess which shell had the pea under it, so to speak.
Volleyball is a cross between tennis and basketball in which points are only scored off the serve and the object is to slam a 10-ounce volleyball to the ground over an 8-foot net before the guys on the other side of the net can get their wrists in position under it.
Most people go up in the air like human pile drivers and attempt to smash the ball into the core of the earth so deep under the shoreline that colonies of sea life come to the surface and it takes two strong men to excavate it. Singin Smith prefers to go up in the air, hang there like a hummingbird while he sizes up the defensive tendencies of the opponents, then dunk the ball softly in a corner of the court he sees they have left unprotected.
He’s the best in the world at that and it’s frustrating to opponents, like being struck out by a 59-m.p.h. fastball or losing a pot to a pair of fours.
Even Singin’s serve is not the cannonball affected by most of the other beach players. Smith’s hangs up in the sky like a paper moon and floats down like ticker tape, or something dropped from a passing airplane.
Smith does not play a power game but a control game. He puts a hop, a curve, a slide on the ball. He is like a wily old pitcher with an 0-and-2 count on a rookie batter.
“He can make the ball sing ‘Carmen,’ ” said one of his admirers.
He can also make the ball seem to disappear. On defense, he is like Lon Chaney, a master of disguises and at drawing a spike where he’s going to be rather than where he has just left.
Sand volleyball is not for everyone. For some, it is like slogging through the Yukon without snowshoes, or treading water in rapids. Singin Smith is as at home in sand as a grunion. It is the fun way to play volleyball.
He does not expect beach volleyball to catch on at the shores of the Moscow River, but it is already making inroads in places in the world where you don’t need a fur hat to go outdoors in the summer. He expects it will leave the sands of Santa Monica for the cabanas of Ipanema, the reefs of Australia and the umbrellas of Nice and Cannes.
As long as it’s played at sea level and in temperatures you don’t need a scarf for, it should continue to grow. Wherever it’s played, Singin Smith expects to continue to be the best that’s playing it.