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Above the Rest : Karch Kiraly, Perhaps the Greatest Volleyball Player Ever, Returns to UCLA on Sunday to Have His Jersey Retired

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Westwood will welcome home one of its heroes Sunday.

Karch Kiraly, who led the UCLA men’s volleyball team to three national championships from 1979-82, will have his jersey No. 31 retired before the final match of the UCLA tournament Sunday at Pauley Pavilion.

Most sports fans know Kiraly as the Olympic volleyball star who led the United States to two gold medals in the 1980s.

But at UCLA, where Coach Al Scates’ teams have won 13 NCAA championships, Kiraly is a favorite son.

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Scates has coached several Olympians, dozens of NCAA All-Americans and as many professional beach players. But none as revered as Kiraly.

A passage in the UCLA media guide on Kiraly is titled, simply, “The Greatest Ever.”

“Nobody had the impact on UCLA men’s volleyball that Karch did,” said Greg Giovanazzi, who led UCLA to a national championship in 1976 and was a UCLA assistant coach for 10 seasons. “I think that’s why UCLA had continued success even after Karch left, because he was the role model.”

Kiraly’s will be the third men’s volleyball jersey retired by UCLA. The others were worn by Sinjin Smith, who became the premier player on the professional beach tour in the 1980s, and Kirk Kilgour, an All-American who was paralyzed in a training accident.

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“There have been a lot of great players through the years who have played at UCLA,” Kiraly said. “I hate to be singled out while other guys are being left out of that kind of group.”

Still, there is only one Kiraly.

He is known as “the Computer,” so focused and technically flawless is he on the court.

Off the court, Kiraly is much the same. He graduated third in a class of 800 at Santa Barbara High and earned a 3.55 grade-point average as a biochemistry major at UCLA.

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One of the strange twists in Kiraly’s career is that he was recruited by only two schools, UCLA and USC. Kiraly speculates that Scates circulated a letter that Kiraly had written to Scates as a high school junior, in which Kiraly expressed an interest in UCLA.

“I don’t know if Al let copies of that letter slip out to all the other coaches or what,” Kiraly said. “But somehow, I think a lot of the other coaches just thought that they had no hope of recruiting against Al.”

Marv Dunphy, Pepperdine’s coach since 1977 and coach of the U.S. national team coach from 1985-88, said he knew of Kiraly at the time, but didn’t recruit him because Pepperdine, the defending national champion, had all six starters returning in 1979, the year Kiraly was a freshman.

At USC, Coach Ernie Hix told Kiraly that there would not be room for him in the Trojans’ starting lineup as a freshman.

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So, Kiraly joined Sinjin Smith at UCLA and a new era of volleyball began.

Kiraly’s ability to pass serves on the back line when he was in the front row revolutionized the sport.

“He just started doing it, and I said, ‘Wow, this works really good,’ ” Scates said. “They couldn’t believe that a man in the front row would move all the way back and pass the ball and then move up and hit the ball. Of course, he had been doing this at the beach all of his life.”

Kiraly led the United States national team on a four-year sojourn at the top of the world. The United States won the 1984 Olympic gold medal, the 1985 World Cup and the 1986 World Championship before winning its second Olympic gold medal in 1988.

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During that time, Kiraly was named the best player in the world by the Federation of International Volleyball in 1986 and was selected the most valuable player of the 1988 Olympics.

Kiraly retired from the national team in 1989. He and Steve Timmons signed $1-million contracts to play in an Italian professional league for Il Messaggero.

Last year, Kiraly wanted to spend more time with his wife Janna and their sons, Kristian, 2, and Kory, almost 1, so he came home and played on the pro beach tour.

He was named most valuable player in the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals after he and partner Kent Steffes won 16 tournaments, 13 in a row.

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Kiraly, 32, and Steffes won two AVP preseason tournaments last month and will compete in the season-opening tournament at Ft. Myers, Fla., March 27-28.

It is expected that he and Steffes will dominate beach volleyball for the next few years, but that seems to be of secondary interest to Kiraly.

The most important thing in Kiraly’s life is “definitely” his family, he said.

During a phone interview from his home, which overlooks the ocean in San Clemente, Kiraly switched phones so he wouldn’t disturb a napping Kory.

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Even for the strongest of players, there comes a time to move more softly.


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