The story of Karch Kiraly begins with his father, whose own story is even better.
That’s not to say there is little interesting about the life of Karch Kiraly, acknowledged as the world’s best volleyball player on the world’s best volleyball team. It’s just that even the younger Kiraly can’t top the old man’s journey.
Becoming the best in the world at what you do is remarkable, but what Kiraly’s father did in escaping the failed Hungarian revolt of 1956 at least bordered on the heroic.
And those who know them say that the son is a lot like his dad–an intense, driven perfectionist who doesn’t like to lose, at anything.
“Nobody who has ever coached Karch is going to tell you his dad didn’t influence him,” said Doug Beal, the former Olympic coach who led Kiraly and his U.S. teammates to the 1984 gold medal. “It’s just ridiculous to think anything else.”
Laszlo Kiraly, 53, was a university student when he took up arms in the 10-day revolt of October, 1956. When Soviet troops and tanks crushed the uprising, he fled Budapest, leaving behind his parents and sister. He hid out for a month, then crossed the border into Austria, carrying nothing but a duffel bag and his rifle strapped across his chest.
Once safely in a refugee camp, he found the West “so ridden with guilt for not having done anything to help the (revolt), they wined and dined us, and gave us the royal treatment.”
That led to passage to the United States, where he received one of the scholarships set aside by the University of Michigan for Hungarian refugees.
He earned degrees in engineering and medicine at Ann Arbor–and fell in love. He married his college sweetheart, Toni Iffland, a graduate student in library science from the New York suburb of White Plains. They had three children, a boy and two girls, and eventually moved to Santa Barbara, where Laszlo opened a practice specializing in rehabilitative medicine and Toni started selling real estate.
There, on the beach, he taught the intricacies of volleyball to the oldest of their children, Charles Frederick, nicknamed Karch, a rough version of Karcsi, which is Hungarian for Charles. Las, who had played the game as a member of the junior national team in Hungary, drilled and prodded and even sometimes berated his son, all in hopes of making him a better volleyball player.
Toni Kiraly says she sometimes wondered if her husband didn’t push their son too hard, but Karch never seemed to complain. From those early lessons and parental drive developed a player who has been called by Ruben Acosta of Mexico, president of the international volleyball federation, “the prototype of what a volleyball player should be.”
Or as Beal described Kiraly: “He is a hell of an athlete and even more than an athlete, he is a hell of a volleyball player. I don’t know if Wayne Gretzky is the greatest athlete who ever skated, but I bet he is the best player. That’s the way I view Karch. He combines all the skills better than anyone else. When you put the total package together, he is the best.”
Volleyball was invented in this country, yet for years the United States was one of the sport’s international doormats. Handicapped by inadequate training facilities and a restrictive budget that made the game a part-time sport for national team members, the United States had sunk to 19th by the 1978 World Championships.
When Kiraly–pronounced Keer-EYE–joined the team in 1981 as a UCLA junior, a new era was dawning for U.S. volleyball. Beal and the U.S. Volleyball Assn. had just moved their training center from Dayton, Ohio, to San Diego, nearer to the Southern California schools and beaches where the game flourishes.
The switch attracted players such as Kiraly and Steve Timmons of USC, who became the most valuable player of the 1984 Olympics. They helped form the holdover nucleus of a team that has revived the sport in this country and lifted the United States to a sweep of volleyball’s triple crown–the 1984 Olympic, 1985 World Cup and 1986 World Championship titles.
In doing so, Kiraly, 27, achieved something his father couldn’t gain with a rifle in his hand: He beat the Soviets. And next month at the Olympics in Seoul, he wants to do it again. This time with the world, including his grandparents in Budapest, watching on television.
“It’s always good to beat the team that is on top,” Laszlo Kiraly said. “The fact that it had been the Soviets made it a lot more fun for me.”
To call this an expatriate’s sweet revenge, though, to equate winning a volleyball match with losing an armed revolt, would not only trivialize the cause but fail to acknowledge that little, even in the world of sport, is that simple.
Politics, satellite transmissions, marketing strategies and friendship mix in international sport, forming a strange coalition.
It is in this world of contrast, and sometimes contradictions, that Kiraly not only lives but thrives.
Why else would the son of a Hungarian refugee, whose father once shot at Soviet troops, grow up to party with the Soviet volleyball team in a Tokyo hotel room? But there, in a photograph on his refrigerator door, are Kiraly, his U.S. teammates and their Soviet opponents happily toasting one another.
Why else would Las Kiraly, fervent anti-communist, turn his satellite dish to the Cuban feed to watch his son help beat the Cubans in the Pan American Games in Indianapolis last August?
How else could Kiraly, who before a recent match with Sweden stood quietly singing the “Star Spangled Banner” while his teammates were fidgeting, explain stepping out of his house and into his company car, the official car of the U.S. volleyball team–a red, white and blue Yugo, a car made in communist Yugoslavia?
The irony of it all is hard to ignore. So are the elements that make the tale of the Kiralys a great American success story.
But the new chapters are being written by Karch.
As a senior, he helped lead the Santa Barbara High School volleyball team to an unbeaten record and state championship before graduating third in a class of 800.
At UCLA, he again distinguished himself as both an athlete and a scholar. The Bruins won three consecutive National Collegiate Athletic Assn. titles during Kiraly’s stay and he earned a 3.55 grade-point average as a biochemistry major.
Since joining the U.S. volleyball squad, he has helped push the team into world prominence for the first time since World Championship play began in 1949. He also has three world beach championships to his credit, even though he plays only part time.
Such success has turned Kiraly into a one-person cottage industry for the sport.
He writes articles for volleyball magazines in Italy, Japan and the United States. He is working on an instructional book for publication in Japan. He endorses sunglasses, watches and volleyball wear. He plays on the potentially lucrative beach circuit when his schedule permits. And last year received more than $65,000 from the U.S. Volleyball Assn.
All of this, Kiraly estimates, should bring him between $150,000 and $200,000 this year. All is supervised by his agent, Jerry Solomon, chief operating officer of Washington-based ProServ, the same organization that advises Michael Jordan.
Volleyball is moving up in the world and so are the Kiralys.
Karch lives here with the former Janna Miller, his wife of nearly two years, in a modest ranch home on a corner lot on a quiet street in Pacific Beach. The neighborhood is a family oriented beach community bordered by the bay, the beach and La Jolla. They share their home with Timmons, Kiraly’s longtime housemate.
“I’ve lived with Steve longer than I’ve lived with Janna,” Kiraly said. “We’ve gone through a lot together. He lived with us before we got married, and we saw no reason to change that when we did get married. Janna gets along great with Steve. We love having him around.”
But after the Olympics, that will change. Karch and Janna will move into an ocean-view home under construction in San Clemente, Janna’s hometown. The new location will make for a long commute to practice in San Diego, except for those days when Kiraly can shorten the trip by staying overnight at Timmons’ new condominium in Del Mar.
Plans are for both places to be finished in time to rent out the old house in the fall. “We’re keeping it for an investment,” Kiraly said.
Careful financial planning is the Kiraly way.
“I wouldn’t call him miserly,” said Aldis Berzins, a former U.S. team roommate of Kiraly. “But he is a careful spender.”
When some of his teammates, including Timmons, rushed out to buy expensive new cars with the bonus money they received from the U.S. Volleyball Assn. for winning the Olympics, Kiraly carefully shopped for his current car–a more modest subcompact.
“He took his time,” Janna Kiraly said. “And we had to drive 100 miles to get the best deal.”
Still, Kiraly has come a long way from the days when he and several of his U.S. volleyball teammates spent their early nights in San Diego sleeping on the floor of an unfurnished condominium.
“It was a different mentality then,” Kiraly said. “We were just into being at the beach all the time. (After practice) we’d play games until dusk and drink a few beers.
“We would have parties in the condo because it was unfurnished, and there was nothing to break. Or we would just throw a ball around the apartment. It was pretty much a no-brainer existence.”
For all their good memories, though, those days also had their moments of conflict. Once again, his father played a central role.
Upset with the living and training conditions at the newly established San Diego base in late 1981, Las Kiraly helped organize a group to oust Beal as coach.
“I saw kids living on peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, sleeping on mattresses on the floor,” Las Kiraly said. “I didn’t see it as Olympic-level training. That really got my ire up.”
Conditions soon improved, though, and after a few tense months, the movement to dump Beal died. The attempt strained Las Kiraly’s relations with Beal, but that did not stop Beal from calling Las a few months later when he became concerned about what he considered Karch’s unadvisable drinking habits.
“A couple of mornings he would come to practice looking as if he hardly slept, hung over, his eyes blurry,” Beal said. “Or after a match, we’d go to restaurant and he would set up a little gaggle of beer bottles and down them all.
“It was never a serious drinking problem, and it never affected the way he played, but it was inappropriate behavior.”
Beal said that Kiraly never argued the point with him and that after a discussion with his father, such behavior ceased.
“Each guy on the team had to make a decision about what life style he was going to live down the road,” Kiraly said. “I made the choice to get better and more responsible. Now it has paid off.”
What’s more, Kiraly could be doing even much better financially if he would quit the U.S. team to play on the beach and in the Italian indoor league.
When the Italians last came bidding in 1986, they offered him $125,000 for six months’ work. Combine that with the endorsements and the six-figure income Kiraly said he could earn playing on the beach circuit the rest of the year, and he said he could nearly double his earnings. But that would mean quitting the U.S. team–a choice Kiraly has rejected for now by agreeing to stay with the team through 1989.
He chose to stay despite family advice that his interests might be better served abroad. Janna said that she argued strongly for Italy after becoming upset with the tense contract negotiations with the U.S. Volleyball Assn.
“I was so mad, so insulted, so depressed about the way it was handled, I was for getting out of here,” she said. “When Karch made the decision to stay, I was a little disappointed. I get a mean streak in me. I wanted to let them see how they would do without Karch. Luckily, Karch doesn’t get that way. He’s real level-headed.”
Since Kiraly made his decision, his price has only gone up. He estimates a current offer could approach $180,000 a season.
“I’m losing money by being here,” he said. “But in the long run, we’re happy we chose to stay. I would not be helping American volleyball if I was over in Italy.”
Making volleyball a popular spectator game is important to Kiraly. With the prospect of another Olympic gold medal a month away, this is a crucial time in the possible development of the sport. Kiraly and his agent figure that by staying in the United States, he can be a more effective spokesman for the game. To that end, he plans to eventually get a master’s degree in business administration.
“Karch has the opportunity to be instrumental in taking volleyball from one level to a much higher level,” Solomon said. “It is an important time for the sport historically. (Popularizing volleyball) is something he could go down in history for, and that is a lot more important than the difference in dollars, even though the difference was substantial.
“In his heart, he wanted to stay. He just needed someone to tell him that.”
This is not to say that volleyball, especially the six-player indoor game, has been an easy sell. In fact, there are many reasons to be discouraged. The team regularly tours the country, playing in sparsely attended events. For example, the June final of the USA Cup against the Soviets drew only 4,881 in the Forum at Los Angeles.
Even here, the team’s home base, the support can be less than overwhelming. A recent match with Sweden, the team’s last in San Diego before the Olympics, drew an announced crowd of 3,479 to San Diego State’s Peterson Gymnasium.
“At times, I feel there is little hope to go beyond the small pockets,” said Dave Saunders, a top reserve on the U.S. team and Kiraly’s teammate since their days at UCLA. “I look up in the stands and see the same people year in and year out.”
Kiraly has his doubts, too. Although he is enthusiastic about trying to make volleyball a mainstream sport, he is not blind to the obstacles.
“I had four people come up to me after the game at San Diego State and ask, ‘How long have you guys been in town?’ ” Kiraly recalled. “Well, it just so happens we’ve lived here for seven years and most people don’t know that we’re one of San Diego’s teams.”
Although such experiences cast doubt on the potential success of Kiraly’s mission, the growth of the beach game–with its corporate sponsorship support and ESPN contract–has helped fuel his optimism.
Volleyball can be an exciting sport, with its 100-m.p.h. serves and crushing play at the net. It would also help to sell the game if everyone could play the game with the intensity and the skill of Kiraly.
“He is a role model in a sport that needs visibility,” said Marv Dunphy, the Olympic coach who will return to coaching at Pepperdine University after the Seoul Games. “Every sport needs someone to look up to and, in volleyball, that man is Karch.”
Dunphy said that young volleyball players can be seen clutching the hems of their shorts while awaiting serve, just as Kiraly does. Or going without kneepads, just as Kiraly does. He has even noticed the most sincere form of imitation, players who won’t give up, no matter what.
That unflagging determination is Kiraly’s true mark on the game. There is nothing fancy about it or about him.
At 6 feet 2 inches, he might often be the shortest player on the court. But his well-toned 190-pound body and his 41 1/2-inch vertical leap let him play much taller, and his impact on the game is undisputed. When Kiraly went in against Sweden last month, the Swedish coach immediately called a timeout. It didn’t help. After losing the first game with Kiraly on the bench, the United States won the next three, and the match.
Kiraly is animated on the court. He screams and cusses and yells, often at himself, sometimes at his teammates.
He has names for his antics, all slight variations of a self-inflicted smack upside the head. There are the head splitter and the head rattler. Against the Swedes, he preferred what one might call the chest thumper.
“He is almost computer-like in the way he approaches volleyball,” said Saunders, his longtime teammate. “He is like a machine. Sometimes he gets too much that way, and we have to loosen him up.”
Even for Janna, that can be a difficult assignment. She finds Kiraly wanting to win at everything.
Janna, a nutrition major, played volleyball at Pepperdine and occasionally used to team with Karch in co-ed beach tournaments. Janna said the partnership ended when she realized Karch did not enjoy losing and preferred to avoid co-ed tournaments.
“We’d finish third or something and I’d be all happy,” she said. “But Karch wanted to win. I’d love to play as partners again, but we decided to stop. It just didn’t work out.”
Playing volleyball at the beach used to be how Kiraly relaxed. But now he finds the demands on his time more restrictive.
“I sit at the beach and I keep thinking there is something more I could be doing,” he said.
Getting her husband to relax is even difficult for Janna. “He wants to learn all the time,” she said. “I’ll be giving him a massage, and he will reach for a Scientific American to read. I’ll grab it and make him put it down: ‘You can’t read and enjoy this massage. Now just relax.’ ”
But none of Janna’s efforts to humanize the Computer, as his teammates call him, had the impact of a recent family crisis.
After 29 years of marriage, Las and Toni Kiraly separated last fall. The breakup lasted only a few months, and they are back together again, but it deeply affected Kiraly.
“I had been on Karch to relax, then that all came to a head with his parents,” Janna said. “Toni just couldn’t live with Las anymore. He was too intense. It made Karch realize, ‘Hey there is this other side to my personality that I have to develop or I’m not going to be able to communicate with another person.’ ”
Janna said she saw a change in Karch. He became closer to his younger sisters–Kati, 20, and Kristi, 14. And he began to more fully express the role his mother played in his development–a contribution so often missed in the recounting of how his father launched his volleyball career. Today, Kiraly talks about being a mix of his parents.
“I have been lucky enough to inherit the patient, loving and nurturing side from my mother, and the organizational and productive side from my dad,” he said.
The other side of Kiraly hit home when Las saw his son in a recent television interview. Kiraly talked on camera about the importance of his marriage.
Janna was with Las when he watched the show.
“He started crying,” she said. “He wondered, ‘How did my son get all this emotion, and I didn’t?’ ”
Las Kiraly was so moved that when a subsequent interviewer failed to raise the question with him, he telephoned the reporter to make the point.
“That show was so special,” Las Kiraly said. “Karch talked about how volleyball used to be his life, but now if he plays poorly that day, he comes home to Janna. Hearing that, I felt something in my heart.”
Finally, the father who had taught so much to his son, was able to learn from that son.