A couple of months ago, Mike O’Hara was invited to be flown half way around the globe to Qatar and give a half-hour speech to the leaders of nearly a dozen Middle Eastern countries about the value of sports to their cultures.
International diplomacy through athletics was hardly a new concept for O’Hara, a two-time UCLA All-American on two national title teams in the 1950s and a member of the winning tandem for the first five Manhattan Beach Open volleyball tournaments.
After commandeering the first U.S. Olympic volleyball team that went to Tokyo for the 1964 Games, O’Hara, who got his business degree from UCLA and an MBA from USC, created of his own international sports management company that has sent him all over the map in search of opportunities like this.
It’s just that, coming up on his 79th birthday, O’Hara might not have been sure who was going to listen to him anymore.
“I wanted to speak freely about the subject,” he said. “I wanted them to know if they didn’t spend capital now for the improved health of their younger ones, they’d spend twice as much for it later.
“I told the position I’d be taking. They needed to hear it.”
He didn’t even have to show them the self-published book that he recently wrote on the subject — “Volleyball: Fastest Growing Sport in the World! The Basic Guide to the Sport Challenging Soccer.” (linked here). O’Hara found it in three bookstores in Qatar while he was there, which is likely why officials from the country contacted its closest U.S. university affiliate, UCLA, to see if he was up for the journey.
He not only seized the moment, he spiked it clean. Through the gospel of volleyball.
That group of high-octane officials, which also included representatives to more than 30 Western and Eastern European countries, and 11 more from Asia, were at this annual think tank to discuss economic reform for their gas and oil industries, but O’Hara fueled a different discussion.
Profit from having more youths involved in volleyball, he said. Allow more girls to play, too. And do it in the schools already built in places like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, Egypt and Yemen that are already established.
O’Hara couldn’t help but feel like one of the missionaries who years ago helped establish volleyball in poorer countries by stringing a rope tied to two trees and drawing lines in the dirt to mark off a court.
“A big-time missionary,” O’Hara said with a laugh. “Or more like Johnny Appleseed.”
If you weren’t sure about volleyball still emerging as one of the fastest growing sport on the planet – beach or indoor — O’Hara has a plan to remind everyone of where it’s been and where it can still go. And grow.
Mike O’Hara, far right, with partner Mike Bright, pose with Miss California after winning their first Manhattan Beach Open tournament against another beach legend, Gene Selznick, second from left, and Mike Higer.
Never resting on the five plaques that are still on the Manhattan Beach pier to commemorate his historic run from 1960-64 with partner Mike Bright (“he was a surfer dude who could really jump”), O’Hara’s post-beach resume after winning 38 open championships in the sand took him from coach and referee to broadcaster, commissioner and consultant on things such as:
== A co-founder of the American Basketball Association, supporting the introduction of the 3-point play in 1969-70.
== One of the architects of the World Hockey League (which signed teenager Wayne Gretzky to his first deal).
== Peter Ueberroth’s right-hand man in negotiating an overseas TV rights deal for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
== Launching a professional track and field circuit.
== Teaming with Jerry Buss to start the World Volleyball League in 1990, after creating a Team Cup league years earlier.
== Creating a sports called Wallyball – a version of volleyball to be played on indoor racquetball courts, that introduced the concept of rally scoring that was eventually adopted for the pro beach and Olympic beach game.
O’Hara’s induction into the Volleyball Hall of Fame in Holyoke, Mass., more than 20 years ago seems the most appropriate accomplishment to secure his legacy.
But he’s far from throwing in the beach towel.
“I’ve been trying to help volleyball all my life; it’s been real good to me,” said O’Hara.
The 51st edition of the Manhattan Open, which begins with elimination matches Thursday morning, gives O’Hara another chance to spread some seeds as he watches what he believes is the rest of the world passing up the Americans in volleyball superiority.
Most of the top U.S. teams, as a matter of fact, aren’t in Manhattan Beach this weekend, but overseas playing in FIVB events as the 2012 Olympics near.
“The rest of the world has made volleyball their own,” said O’Hara, who lives with his wife Arlen, in the Pacific Palisades. “When I found that out, I was shocked. Soccer, you’d think, would be less expensive than volleyball, but it requires so much real estate, a level field.
“I told the oil rulers: You’re not even going to spend a lot to make volleyball big in your countries. You administer it. You build it. You design it. It makes so much sense to them because they have such tremendous resources.
“The problem is so many affluent countries have the same problem getting their kids away from the computers and video games, and fighting childhood obesity issues.”
Paul Sunderland, a member of the U.S. men’s Olympic gold-medal-winning team in ’84 and longtime broadcaster of the beach game, says O’Hara’s legacy is “as one of the great players — forget about putting him in any generation. And he’s been a remarkable businessman as well, a real visionary. He’s incredibly smart, a hard worker and a super-competitive guy.
“I can see how his business background could get the gulf nations to see his point of view. If Mike sees a way to promote it, he can be a catalyst.”
The goal of O’Hara’s 176-page easy-to-tote paperback is both to record the history of the game from his perspective, and introduce the philosophies of others who still have a powerful voice about its future – like Doug Beal, the USA Volleyball CEO; beach legend Singin Smith; former women’s star Gabrielle Reece; Dr. John Kessel, the USAV director of membership development; assistant USA men’s national team coach Gary Sato, and Dr. Jonathan Reeser, a former FIBA medical commission member.
“I want people to know that volleyball is still a big deal, and I’m hoping there are a lot of groups who can still learn about the sport – from the kids, who need to get out of the TV room and do something healthy, to the parents; from coaches to college students, and even senior players on the beach,” said O’Hara
“There are an awful lot of audiences out there to enlighten. I don’t think this book will be finished until 10 years from now.”
It might take O’Hara shining his light on it for the seeds to keep growing.
== More on Mike O’Hara:
= The website volleyballmike.com