A Tough Guy of The Block : Craig Buck Has Been a Tower of Strength in U.S. Volleyball Team's Rise to Power

Times Staff Writer

Craig Buck is more than happy to talk to reporters. And there is plenty to talk about.

His position as senior member of the U.S. national volleyball team?

Fine. Glad to talk about it.

The nearly 500 international matches in which he has competed? The importance of the upcoming Pan Am Games in Indianapolis?

Ask away.

His teams, which include the 1984 gold medal winning Olympic squad, the 1985 World Cup champions and the 1986 team, victors at the World Championships?

Whatever you want to know.

His age?

Now, wait a minute, Buck will protest, a nerve obviously struck, not that again.

Buck's sensitivity about his role as the Grand Old Man of the U.S. team is understandable. He's only 28.

"Hey, Steve Timmons is only a couple of months younger than me," Buck says. "The headline in one paper said I was still playing despite my age. Despite my age ?

No, Buck hasn't been around forever. It just seems that way.

The year 1981 is considered the dawn of the modern age for American volleyball. Up to that point, it had been strictly in the Dark Ages.

Oh, a few shafts of light had broken through. In 1968, the U.S. volleyball team qualified for the Olympics for the first time. Although the squad left Mexico City without a medal, that was the high-water mark.

In the late 70s, a training center was set up in Dayton, Ohio, but it fell apart after the Americans failed to qualify for the 1980 Olympics.

When the U.S. boycott of those Games was announced, the Dayton facility closed its doors and it appeared the darkness was about to set in again.

But in 1981, someone got the bright idea of setting up a volleyball training facility in California, of all places, where the game had long been a staple on every beach.

Things got really serious really fast.

Under Doug Beal, the 1984 men's Olympic volleyball coach, the U.S. players began year-around training in San Diego. Serious training.

The results have been phenomenal.

In just six years, the U.S. team has won a triple crown with its victories in the Olympics, World Cup and World Championships.

That is tantamount to the Soviets taking up football next year and winning three consecutive Super Bowls by the early 1990s.

Craig Buck was there from the beginning.

First-team All-City at Taft High in Woodland Hills in 1975 and '76, Buck, who grew up in Tarzana, went on to Pepperdine where he was an All-American in both 1979 and '80.

And in '81, he was part of that first class in San Diego.

"People think in terms of him being a blocker," says Marv Dunphy, Buck's coach on the national team as well as one of his coaches at Pepperdine. "And he is good. I think he's as good a blocker as there is in the world right now, if not the best. But what people sometimes forget is that he's a good all-around volleyball player. He does a lot of little things well, like handling the ball, serving, setting and playing defense."

Buck is an imposing figure on the court, a 6-8, 205-pound specimen with excellent jumping ability.

In the 1984 Olympics, he had the highest hitting-efficiency rating and was the leading American blocker. The following year, he was MVP of the USA Cup and America's top player at the Savvin Cup in the Soviet Union. Last year, he was selected Best Server at the World Championships and was on the All-World Team.

And with all those matches and all that glory behind him, he's still happy working at his game four hours a day, five days a week, just as he has been doing since his undergraduate days.

"Athletics provides," Buck says, "a certain high, a release of an amount of adrenaline that nothing else can produce."

Even so, in February of last year, he decided he'd had enough. This Buck stops here, he told Dunphy. Owner of a marketing design firm, Buck felt it was time to devote himself to his business interests, to begin to work for life after volleyball.

Dunphy thought Buck was making a mistake, but couldn't talk him out of it.

For Buck, however, life after volleyball only lasted a few months.

"I was sitting home watching the Goodwill Games on TV," he

recalls, "and I was wondering, can I sit home and be satisfied watching the '88 Olympics on TV? The answer was no."

So Buck decided to come back. But it wasn't quite that simple. Now it was Dunphy's turn to say no.

"As the man in charge of this ship," Dunphy says, "I have to hold the line. I just couldn't allow him to come back on his schedule. It had to be on mine."

Buck was furious.

"I gave six years of my life to this team," he told his coach. "I take three months off and you're not going to let me back on the team?"

Dunphy was worried about setting a precedent. He couldn't have players taking off for other opportunities and then returning around Olympic time. There could be no open-door policy on his team.

After several months, though, he relented and Buck was back in uniform for the USA Cup last August.

"The situation remains," Dunphy says, "that a player can't go to a foreign country, say in Europe, try to make millions, and then come back. But in this case, Craig went off to do things in business in his other life. I still think he made a mistake, but we allowed him to come back."

And back he was, playing in the comfortable and familiar surroundings of Pepperdine on Wednesday night. The U.S. team beat the Canadian national squad in an exhibition match, 15-2, 15-7, 15-5, in a final tuneup before bext week's Pan Am Games.

Beyond that are the '88 Games and then Buck finally can retire and stop listening to those old man jokes, right?

Not quite.

They may have only just begun. Buck hopes to have to put up with the kidding for four more years.

"I'd like to play through 1992," he says. "My long-range goal is to win three gold medals. Age hasn't set in yet. Even by then, I'll only be 33. The Russians have a setter who is 34.

"I still feel like I'm improving. When the time comes when I feel I'm not improving anymore, I'll quit."

Don't hold your breath.

The Valley connection runs deep on this national team.

In addition to Buck and Dunphy, who has long lived in Topanga Canyon and coached Pepperdine for six years before assuming his current post, there is setter Jeff Stork.

Stork first came to Dunphy's attention at an amateur championship event in Texas five years ago.

Dunphy approached Stork, expressed interest in getting him to come to Pepperdine and asked for his number.

"He gave me a 213 number," Dunphy says. "I asked him if this was the number of a friend or what. He told me, no, it was his home number. Turns out he lived in Topanga Canyon, about five miles from me."

It also turned out that Stork was a Taft graduate as were Buck and Dunphy.

Dunphy made a good choice. Stork was a three-time, All-American for the Waves, was all-tournament at the NCAA Championships in 1983 and '84, and was MVP of the '83 Collegiate Classic.

"He gives us an extra dimension as a left-handed setter. He can set and hit," says Dunphy of the 27-year-old Stork, now a starter for the U.S. team.

Dunphy sees the Pan Am Games as more than just a dress rehearsal for the '88 Olympics.

For one thing, Brazil will be there, hungry for revenge after its defeat in the gold medal game against the United States in the '84 Games.

Also there will be Cuba, a rising volleyball power. The Cubans beat the Americans in five games two months ago.

"This is the biggest thing going," says Dunphy of the Pan Am Games, "between now and '88."

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