Chris Marlowe didn’t yield to pier pressure.
A stellar collection of former Manhattan Beach Open beach volleyball champions came together last Sunday for a “legends” game prior to the men’s and women’s final – Singin Smith, Randy Stoklos, Tim Hovland, Mike Dodd, Steve Obradovich and Jim Menges.
But Marlowe, who turns 64 next month, wasn’t the least bit tempted to budge from the umbrella-protected NBC TV booth as he prepared for the upcoming broadcast. Even if he belonged there as much as anyone, having partnered with Obradovich to win the ’76 event, and with Menges to repeat in ’77.
“I would play in that, but I have a bad knee, and it’s very difficult to run and jump,” Marlowe admitted. “For me, right now, I’m a little past the point of playing and I don’t want to embarrass myself. Maybe if I could be the designated server …”
Back to serving up this weekend’s Long Beach FIVB Grand Slam event for the NBC networks, including Sunday’s finals (Channel 4, 11:30 a.m.) and Saturday’s semifinals (Channel 4, 1:30 p.m.), Marlowe, a Southern California native who captained the 1984 U.S. gold-medal winning indoor team at the L.A. Summer Games, has re-engaged with the sport as he enters his 11th season calling Denver Nuggets games for Altitude TV.
He enjoyed a chance to reflect on where the sport has come since he played and broadcast its formative years:
Q: Part of this Long Beach celebration is marking the 20th year since beach volleyball entered the Olympics stage as a medal sport. You were there at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta. What do you remember about that moment when the sport went to this next level after all you’d been so close to it as a player and broadcaster the previous two decades?
A: When Paul Sunderland and I were there for NBC calling indoor volleyball, I don’t think anyone really realized how big the beach event would become from that particular tournament. It has certainly zoomed up the radar, especially internationally. The U.S. has fluctuated a little bit with the AVP tour, coming back strong lately with the new ownership and Donald Sun. But having beach volleyball in the Olympics has been a God-send to the sport in making it legit — uniforms, rules, officials, medals. NBC continues to make the volleyball an Olympic priority, so that still makes it an exciting time to be in beach volleyball. The advent of sand volleyball for women in the NCAA – now they’re going to start calling it “beach” volleyball – has been a boon to the sport. The only drawback so far is there is no men’s beach volleyball in college at a time when the American men are getting older and could use that pipeline.
Q: How do you gauge the momentum generated by this Long Beach event over the last several years?
A: I remember the first international event held in Los Angeles, putting sand on the UCLA tennis courts in 1997, it was about a half-filled stands and the organizers were somewhat disappointed. Leonard Armato and the organizers have promoted this event year around, making it a volleypalooza. It’s turned into a terrific event.
Q: Prime Ticket still shows a lot of the classic games from the ‘80s and ‘90s, where you and Sunderland called the matches. Do you think of that as a golden era of the men’s game because of the circumstances?
A: It was a fantastic time in the sport of volleyball. Not only was the U.S. up and coming in the indoor game with Karch and Dusty Dvorak, Pat Powers, Steve Timmons and Craig Buck, but the beach had a fantastic array of stars. I think that was one of the greatest groups of players the United States has ever had, indoors or outdoors. Indoor volleyball right now is at that same point it was then with great young players, and they’ll be good the next 10 years. The difference is they won’t be playing on the beach.
The reason why that was a great era of outstanding volleyball and personalities is you wanted to see Hovland and Dodd play Smith and Stoklos. The players didn’t get along. There were good guys and bad guys. It was Santa Monica against South Bay. The fans had people to root for. One of the only downsides of the beach volleyball today is the players travel together, they share sponsors and agents, and they all get along. Those rivalries don’t seem to be there today. Maybe some of the guys coming up will have that attitude – like the Crabbe brothers from Hawaii, or Casey Patterson. It’s just that others are more business-like. We could use a few more entertainers.
Q: How can you as a broadcaster inject some of the entertainment back into the game? You’ve always had your own lingo and terminology, like what Chick Hearn did for the NBA.
A: When I call matches, I try to investigate and find story angles, look for rivalries, maybe one player was dumped by another partner. In the international game, some U.S.-Brazil rivalries are as good as it gets in beach volleyball. Both have been premiere countries for talent going back to 1996. They teams may be cordial but they don’t like each other. When I talked to Kerri Walsh Jennings about Brazil teams, she will say, ‘Yes, they’re very good.’ But then she gets a big smile on her face and says, ‘But they’re beatable.’
Q: With Kerri coming back, how will her legacy be framed against some of the others of the past – longtime partner Misty May, Kathy Gregory, Holly McPeak?
A: If she stopped playing this weekend, she’s be one of the two greatest of all time along with Misty. They have the three gold medals on the beach. But Kerri has a chance to do something that only a few American athletes have ever done — only Carl Lewis in the long jump and Al Oerter in the discus are Americans who have ever won four gold in a row. If she does that, she’s definitely the greatest of all time and you could put her on that Pantheon with Karch Kiraly as the two greatest American players ever.
Q: Going back to the era of Von Hagen, Gene Selznick, Mike O’Hara, Kirk Kilgour, a time when some beaches didn’t have laws against alcohol and there was rowdiness in the crowd — could that have sold the game as a TV sport?
A: You know, there was a charm and a dedication about those players, and that would have made it a very good TV sport. It was fledgling at that time, much like surfing. You can compare the two sports in how they grew up together. Players then played as hard or harder than the guys do now, and without the money or Olympics. Everything was a little looser in the 1960s with partying, like in football or basketball. Back then, the competition was fierce. They just wanted win a trophy and be the mythical kings of the beach. There was something about that.
I remember one time in 1977, the Laguna Beach tournament decided to give away a Hobie cat boat worth $1,500 apiece. Menges and I just won three in a row we weren’t sure if we were going to play there. But I could say Menges was kind of a cheap skate and he really wanted that free boat. I’m nursing a bad back, we didn’t play well, and we lost the final to Obradovich and Gary Hooper. So as they’re going off with their new boats, we got $25 gift certificates to Miller’s Outpost. To this day Menges will never let me forget that: ‘Marlowe, you cost me the boat.’ To be honest, his setting was so bad that day not even Dalhausser could have won with him.
It was just a charming time for the spot. Not a lot of prize money but a great time when you got all the girls and set the stage for the sport to take off.
Q: Back in your playing days, they called you “The Lion.” Will there ever be another “Lion” on the court?
A: Well, they have “The Thin Beast” and “The Wooly Mammoth.” But “The Lion” sleeps tonight in the broadcast booth.
More on Marlowe: He talks about his acting career, his first TV sportscasting job with Bruce Jenner as his partner, and whether he could be still doing this if the Summer Olympics return to L.A. in 2024.