THE 1987 PAN AMERICAN GAMES : Volleyball : U.S. Outlasts Cuba for Gold Medal

Times Staff Writer

For more than three hours Sunday, Karch Kiraly and Joel Despaigne battled across the net. It was a subplot to the United States vs. Cuba match for the gold medal in men's volleyball.

The best player in the world on the best team in the world against a rising star who may be the best young player in the world on the second-best team in the world.

They yelled at their teammates, they screamed at each other, they rose the level of play to a crescendo that brought the estimated crowd of 15,000 at Hinkle Fieldhouse to its feet cheering almost every crucial point.

It seemed only fitting that the last point in the deciding fifth game, the one that would determine the 1987 Pan American Games champion, would come down to these two players.

Faced with the first match point of the game, Despaigne took the set of teammate Mannual Torres and launched a screaming spike. Kiraly was ready. He leaped high and made the block, the ball fell at the feet of Cuban hitter Leonardo Sillie.

The match was over. The United States had scored the last eight points to take a 15-12, 15-7, 15-17, 10-15, 15-7 victory. It was the first Pan Am gold medal in men's volleyball for the United States since the 1967 games in Winnipeg, Canada.

When it ended, Kiraly exulted in victory, his screams bellowed above the din of applause, his blonde hair soaked with sweat, his hands clenched, his arms raised high above his head. All that remained was to place the gold medal around his neck.

Across the net, Despaigne dropped to his knees and buried his head. A teammate offered his hand for support, but Despaigne waved him off. The last point of the last game of the last sport of the 10th Pan American Games was over, and Despaigne wanted his moment alone.

"I wanted to win so badly," he said through an interpreter. "I did all I could, but we still lost. It was (as if) everything collapsed around me."

Despaigne finished with 38 kills. Kiraly had 33. After he scored the final stuff block of Despaigne's spike, Kiraly was the first in line to shake the hands of the Cuban players.

At age 26, with an Olympic gold medal among his trophies, Kiraly figures he should command some respect from Despaigne, a baby of international volleyball at age 21.

"It's like the young upstart playing Arnold Palmer and Jack Nickalaus in golf, shooting an eagle and then screaming in your face," Kiraly said. "You just don't do that."

For much of the match, it appeared Despaigne and his teammates would have little to scream about.

The United States seemed on its way to its first three-game sweep of the Cubans in a year. It won the first two games, scored the first three points of the third and later led, 9-6, before the Cubans came alive. They scrambled back to tie four times, scoring the last three points of the game to win, 17-15.

It was early in the third game that verbal exchanges between Kiraly and Despaigne escalated to the point that Kiraly was cautioned with a yellow card by first referee Claude Huot of Canada. The call brought Kiraly to the chair complaining loudly to Huot that "He (Despaigne) is doing it, too. He is yelling just as much."

The warning brought boos from the crowd, but nothing more than a signal to start play from Huot.

"I don't know if he (Kiraly) meant to intimidate me, but my style of play is a lively style of play," Despaigne said. "When I hit the ball I like to yell. It seems that this may have irritated him a little bit, and he began to shout at me."

The United States again squandered a 3-0 lead in the fourth game, losing six of the last seven points as Cuba evened the match at two games with a 15-10 victory.

The fifth game started almost like a repeat of the previous two as the United States took a 4-0 lead only to allow Cuba to crawl back to a 7-7 tie. Then suddenly the game and match changed.

Kiraly served four consecutive points, the first three ending with Cuba hitting into U.S. blocks. The Cubans never recovered. The United States scored the next four points and in a 10-minute blitz, the 2-hour 36-minute match rushed to its conclusion.

"Whichever team gets to eight or nine points first, wins the game," Despaigne said. "It's a psychological thing. When you get to that point you know that you've got a chance, and it really inspires people."

It also helped to have that large crowd cheering behind them. But it was a bit of strategy that set Kiraly up for the final stuff block.

"He had been angling his kills the whole game," Kiraly said. "I didn't care how much I gave him to the right, I wasn't going to give him anything to the left. I knew right where he was going."

The stuff was so clean and so decisive, it appeared to catch Sillie off guard. He stooped for the ball but had no chance of a play. Despaigne could only watch in desperation.

But if Kiraly took any pleasure in seeing his nemesis on his knees, he wouldn't say. The gold medal now secure around his neck, the nobleness of the battle seemed more important than the glares and heated words exchanged on the court.

"Actually I feel kind of sad for him," Kiraly said. "It wasn't his fault. His teammate should have made the save. He made too many good plays to feel bad about the last one."

The words were sensitive, but it is clear not all is settled in this personal and team rivalry.

When Kiraly took the victory stand to accept his gold medal, he thrust his arm into the air and waved a finger to the crowd, signifying that his team was No. 1.

The crowd cheered his showmanship wildly. Despaigne had a different reaction. He turned to a teammate, his look of disgust needed no words. There will be time for that again the next time they meet.

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