He Wants to Be the Next Wave in Volleyball : Colleges: Dain Blanton could have played basketball in college, but he decided that volleyball was his game. The Pepperdine junior is hoping to become a force on the pro beach tour.
Dain Blanton never thought about breaking any racial barriers back then. All he wanted to do was get good enough so the big boys would let him play.
Anyway, there didn’t seem to be anything so unusual about a black kid playing beach volleyball. Certainly not this one. He had been born and raised in Laguna Beach--where beach volleyball courts rank with art galleries and ocean-view restaurants as hallowed civic institutions--and grew up watching two other black kids reign over the local beach game.
“I started playing at Main Beach with my older brothers when I was in sixth grade,” Blanton said. “When you’re a little rat, your only motivation is to get better just so you’ll be accepted to play.
“You take things for granted as a kid, but now I realize that growing up in that small-town atmosphere, where everybody knows everybody, was a great experience for me. I was fortunate to be born and raised in an area where volleyball was so easily accessible, and now I’m just trying to take advantage of it.”
Blanton, a junior outside hitter for Pepperdine’s volleyball team, has been focused on making the most of his opportunities since his days at Laguna Beach High, where he was The Times Player of the Year in volleyball and a first-team Southern Section selection in basketball.
He helped lead the Waves to the NCAA title in 1992, and Pepperdine is back in contention again. But Blanton’s roots, and his future, are in the sand. He has held a triple-A beach rating since he was 16, maintaining it by finishing among the top teams each year. And next summer, he hopes to become the only black pro beach volleyball player.
“I’d really like to see that happen,” he said. “Hopefully, I can get to a certain point where I can be a role model for some of those kids and get more black kids involved. This is such a great sport, I’d like to see more people exposed to it and more minority kids getting involved.”
Blanton believes that athletics can be a great outlet for underprivileged or troubled youths, and he wants it known that the world of sports goes beyond the tomahawk dunk.
“In the United States, volleyball isn’t a sport that’s easy for black kids to get in to,” he said. “Most of volleyball is centered in Southern California, on the beach. A lot of black kids are from the inner city, and there’s always a basketball hoop around somewhere, but the equipment for volleyball isn’t. There’s no opportunities to experience the game.”
Blanton understands why most young black athletes would rather be like Mike than, say, be like Karch. OK, so Jordan makes more money than Kiraly, but they’ve both won gold medals, and they’re both millionaires.
The point is, a kid who can’t attack like Shaq might be able to spike like Kiraly and not even know it.
Blanton knows the lure of the hoop. After all, he was recruited as a basketball player as well as a volleyball player after his senior year at Laguna Beach, when the Artists’ basketball team advanced to the section Division II-A finals.
“The money in the NBA is huge, and college games are on TV all the time,” Blanton said. “But absolutely everyone is playing, so, let’s face it, you’ve got to be very, very special to be anything in pro basketball.
“I played both sports in high school all four years, and when it came to scholarship offers, there were a lot more for volleyball. With Laguna Beach being known for volleyball, there were a lot more people scouting the volleyball team.
“Oregon and a few smaller schools expressed interest in me as a basketball player, but the offers were much better in volleyball. Plus, I just felt that I was way ahead of the game in volleyball. In volleyball, I thought I had a chance to become somebody.”
He has already passed the somebody category. Blanton, 21, is a key player on the defending NCAA champion and is poised outside the ropes of a bright future on the beach courts.
Last season, Blanton was third on the Waves with 313 kills, second with 176 digs and had 64 blocks. This year, he’s first in digs, third in kills and among the top four in blocks.
“I’ve never seen him play on the beach, but you can tell during drills that he’s well suited for that game,” Pepperdine Coach Marv Dunphy said. “Dain is an independent player. Some players can maybe do a couple of things well, like hit and block, but can’t pass or receive serve. He can do it all. And he’s as good a defensive player as there is in the league.
“He also has great court intelligence, and he’s very spontaneous. He just has great athletic qualities, both physically and otherwise. Like many gifted athletes, he’s very pro-active and very sensitive to what works and what doesn’t.
“He’s the complete package.”
It wasn’t like the volleyball fairy snuck into his bedroom one night and sprinkled pass-block-hit-and-dig dust. Blanton learned early that you had to pay to play. A guy can earn a lot of praise with a diving dig and a mouthful of Main Beach.
His brothers--Everett, 27, and Kurt, 26--might have been the first to make him understand the importance of an all-around game. Blanton’s high school coach, Lance Stewart, now coach of the Corona del Mar girls’ team, also stressed the fundamentals.
And Blanton was gifted with the will to work.
“Last year, Dain’s passing wasn’t as good as we wanted it to be, so he went to work with our assistants,” Dunphy said. “He kept improving and improving until, by the end of the year, his passing was very good.”
If Blanton ever does become a beach hero, maybe the shoe company can do a spin on the commercial: Just Do It . . All .
“I’ve always thought it was important to become as well-rounded as I could,” Blanton said. “That’s the way to judge a volleyball player. The game has become very specialized. There’s a setter and a big 6-10 guy at middle blocker and the outside hitters who usually receive serve the whole time.
“But that’s the thing about the pro beach game. If you can’t do it all, you can’t compete on that level. There can be a player who’s considered a great player in the indoor game, and you put him on the beach, and he’s terrible.”
There’s not much chance of that happening to Blanton, who many figure will hit the beach running if he lands the right partner.
For now, he’s staying in tune with the Waves as they shoot for another national championship.
“That was so exciting,” he said. “I would love to do it all again. This year, (the NCAA championships) will be at UCLA. I would much prefer it was back in (Muncie) Indiana like last year. We had almost 8,000 people at the finals, and probably a lot of them were being exposed to the game for the first time.”
Coming soon to your local beach: Dain Blanton, volleyball ambassador. “I don’t know about being an ambassador for the sport, but if I go out there and do well as a professional and get some exposure, who knows?” he says. “I’ll just concentrate on working hard and playing well, and those things will fall into place.”
If they do, beach-goers will see a lot of Blanton falling on his face . . . but he’ll get up smiling.