As a broadcaster, Paul Sunderland is considered an expert on volleyball. But he was a late bloomer.
Notre Dame High didn’t even have a volleyball team when Sunderland was a student there from 1967 to 1971. Besides, he was busy playing basketball and football for the Sherman Oaks school.
Then a girl changed everything.
“I started dating a girl who played volleyball and I wanted to get good at it because I really wanted to spend time with her,” Sunderland said. “I started playing on the beach and fell in love with it.”
The girl eventually jilted him, but Sunderland became passionate about volleyball and it led him to an Olympic gold medal in 1984 and a successful sports broadcasting career.
Sunderland can be seen locally on cable’s Prime Sports Network, where he wears a number of hats. He is co-anchor of the nightly sports news show “Press Box,” hosts a college football program and the Lakers’ pregame show, does play by play for Pacific 10 basketball and, naturally, volleyball.
The broadcasting veteran recently returned from Atlanta, where he and longtime friend Chris Marlowe got rave reviews for their indoor and beach volleyball commentary on NBC.
Sunderland and Marlowe were teammates on the 1984 U.S. volleyball team that won a gold in Los Angeles. They have worked together as broadcasters for more than 10 years, which included the volleyball competition at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.
“I can ask Paul anything on the air, at any time, and he always has an answer,” said Marlowe, who helped launch Sunderland’s broadcast career in 1985. “Good chemistry is a crucial thing in this business and we definitely have it.”
Sunderland’s first assignment was an NCAA West Regional men’s volleyball match at San Diego State with Marlowe, who had been in the business for several years.
“God, I don’t even want to see a tape of it,” said Sunderland, who lives in Malibu with his wife and two children. “I had major butterflies.”
Having Marlowe with him was an added boost, Sunderland said.
“Chris has helped me so much and the fact that we’re such good friends really makes a difference in the broadcast booth,” he said.
Sunderland was an All-San Fernando Valley League wide receiver in football and forward in basketball for Notre Dame High. He never imagined how far volleyball would take him.
He was recruited to play football and basketball after graduating from high school in 1971 and ended up at Oregon on a basketball scholarship.
But he spent the summer between his freshman and sophomore college seasons playing beach volleyball and couldn’t get enough of the game.
“I didn’t even touch a basketball during that time,” Sunderland said.
After his sophomore season of college basketball, Sunderland joined a club volleyball team at Oregon and he loved the indoor game as much as the beach.
At 6 feet 5, he was a solid all-around player who caught the eye of a United States Volleyball Assn. official.
“He said if I was serious and dedicated myself to the game, I could play in the ’76 Olympics,” Sunderland said. “It changed my life. The Olympics were always one of the most vivid dreams in my life.”
Sunderland knew he had to get more indoor volleyball experience if he wanted to fulfill his dream. So after two seasons at Oregon he transferred to Loyola Marymount, where he could play both basketball and volleyball.
He developed into one of Loyola’s top volleyball players and in 1975 was invited to try out for the U.S. B team, a developmental squad for the American Olympic team.
Sunderland made the cut and when the U.S. didn’t qualify for the ’76 Olympics, many of the starters from the national team quit.
That opened the door for hungry players like Sunderland.
“Standing by were all the rookies on the B team,” he said. “It was a great opportunity.”
The U.S. boycotted the 1980 Olympics, but the U.S. men’s volleyball team wasn’t good enough to qualify for the Games anyway. The promotion wasn’t nearly as thrilling as Sunderland thought it would be.
The program soon suffered another setback. Many top players refused to move to Dayton, Ohio, for a training camp that coaches hoped would help the team become a medal contender by the ’84 Olympics.
Sunderland made the move, turning down a pro contract in a prestigious Italian league. The gamble paid off. By 1983 the U.S. squad was among the world’s elite teams. A year later it was Olympic champion.
“It’s something he really wanted and it was really neat to see that one of the oldest guys on the team was also the most excited,” said Karch Kiraly, a three-time volleyball Olympic gold medalist and the star of the ’84 team.
“He was more excited than anyone else and his enthusiasm helped the team.”
Sunderland was a versatile athlete who could play practically any position. In 1986 he and Marlowe were inducted into the USVBA Hall of Fame in Wichita, Kan. That year Sunderland was also inducted into Loyola Marymount’s Hall of Fame.
Shortly after the USVBA induction, ’84 U.S. Olympic Coach Doug Beal said Sunderland was “one of the smoothest, most powerful outside hitters to ever play for the USA.”
Winning the gold was extra-special for Sunderland because he had knee surgery in 1980 and thought his playing career was over.
It was also difficult to come back from the painful experience of not being good enough to qualify for the Games in ’80, Sunderland said.
“That’s why the moment for me was the opening ceremonies in ’84,” he said. “Just making it there with the world’s greatest athletes. Winning was just . . . I can’t even describe it.”
It was tough for Sunderland to watch the U.S. men and women perform poorly in Atlanta. Both teams failed to medal for the first time since the 1980 boycott.
“I feel a great deal of compassion because the work and dedication hasn’t changed,” Sunderland said. “I know what it’s like to put your heart and soul into something and fail.”
At least Sunderland got to see the United States win gold and silver in beach volleyball’s Olympic debut.
Among the highlights of the Atlanta Games for Sunderland was working the gold-medal match between Kiraly and Kent Steffes and fellow Americans Mike Dodd and Mike Whitmarsh.
“It was a great venue and a big hit with spectators,” said Sunderland, who never competed on the pro beach tour.
The worst part of his trip to Atlanta was seeing huge numbers of vendors and advertisers.
“To me it cheapened the appearance of the Games,” Sunderland said. “I look at the Olympics as something sacred and it looked like a flea market.”
But he was glad to be there, involved with the sport he picked up years ago to impress a girl.