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.’