Posts Tagged ‘IVA’
Deion Sanders entered the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame this month and it reinvigorated the eternal debate about the most enthralling two-sport athletes of all-time. Deion or Bo Jackson? Jim Thorpe or the late Bob Hayes? Reading the coverage, I realized that I had completely forgotten what a skilled baseball player Sanders was. Which is kind of weird since I was a college student in Atlanta during Sanders’ heyday with the Falcons and Braves. This is a guy who hit .533 in the 1992 World Series on a broken foot. And who led the Majors in triples that year despite skipping one-third of the season. But in my memory, unfairly as it turns out, Deion isn’t a real baseball player. He’s a cameo artist. A novelty act more in line with Charlie O. Finley‘s “designated runner” Herb Washington than a true two-sport prodigy like…well…like Bo Jackson.
ANYWAY, this got me thinking about the most intriguing forgotten two-sport athletes. Guys who were superstars in the mainstream sports world but who also hocked their wares on the gray market, moonlighting in the weird latitudes. John Lucas is hard to beat in this regard. The NBA’s 1976 #1 overall draft pick of the Houston Rockets was also a gifted tennis player. During the NBA offseason of 1978, Lucas signed on with the New Orleans Nets of the gimmicky World Team Tennis outfit. With the Nets, Lucas paired in mixed doubles with Renee Richards, until recently an early-middle aged male opthamologist who had become a semi-formidable women’s tennis star after sex-reassignment surgery (and a series of lawsuits) at the age of 41.
So that’s kind of awesome, but Lucas’ tennis career in fascinating mostly by luck of the draw. It’s the reflected notoriety of Richards that makes Lucas’ tennis adventures compelling. Wilt Chamberlain, on the other hand, took a more pro-active role as a player, executive and owner while pursuing his passion for volleyball with the International Volleyball Association of the 1970’s. The IVA started up in 1975, a five-team circuit in California and Texas started by entertainment executives impressed by the volleyball competitions at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Chamberlain invested in the Southern California Bangers franchise and suited up for five matches during the summer of 1975.
The Bangers were also rans, finishing 6-18 and tied for last place in the IVA’s first season. The league title went to the Los Angeles Stars, owned by the Hollywood producer and IVA President David L. Wolper. The Stars had a line-up of top American stars, including the setter Dodge Parker, IVA kill leader Jon Stanley, and female star Linda Fernandez, who later won two ABC Sports’ Superstars competitions in the late 1970’s.
The Stanley-led Stars advanced to the IVA finals in 1976 with a 25-15 record, despite losing Fernandez and Parker. Parker won the 1976 IVA Most Valuable Player award with the San Diego Breakers who defeated the Stars 3 games to 1 in the championship series. Chamberlain was nowhere to be found in 1976, having divested himself of the Bangers, who moved to Tucson, Arizona, and failing to play in any IVA matches either.
By the end of the 1976 season, Wolper and the rest of the celebrity owners had moved on as well. Forum Communications, publisher of Volleyball Magazine, took an equity stake in the league and imposed centralized cost controls of $150,000 per club in total annual operating expenditures. A California mortgage banker named David Whiting formed a consortium to purchase the Stars and relocate them out of the city to Irvine’s University High School for the 1977 season. Dodge Parker returned from San Diego to serve as player-coach for the re-branded Orange County Stars. Chamberlain, meanwhile, re-appeared in the figurehead role of IVA President and also signed a player contract to appear in select matches for Whiting’s Stars.
Former Star Linda Fernandez, now a member of the rival Santa Barbara Spikers, assessed the 7′ 1″ Chamberlain’s volleyball skills in a 1977 interview with People Magazine. “He’s huge, but he’s got a weakness. He’s not quick.”
With Parker as player-coach and Chamberlain appearing in 15 of the club’s 36 matches, the Stars returned to the IVA finals in 1977, defeating the El Paso-Juarez Sol three games to two. Parker, the 1976 MVP as a player, was named IVA Coach of the Year for 1977. In the league’s first three seasons, Parker’s team had now won the championship every year.
At the turnstiles, the Stars averaged 1,602 fans per game for 18 home matches in 1977, slightly below the league’s stated average of 1,902 spectators. Whiting rented out the larger Anaheim Convention Center for three of the home games featuring Chamberlain, expending the team’s entire advertising budget to promote these select matches. The club lost money, in line with the expectations of Whiting and his syndicate of twenty-odd investors who had each pumped between $5,000 and $20,000 into financing the Stars.
When the 1978 season arrived, the Stars had relocated to Fountain Valley High School seeking to draw a larger Inland audience than had come out to Irvine the year before. Dodge Parker’s wife Melody Parker joined the Stars’ 7-person roster. Chamberlain, still serving as IVA President in 1978, left the club to appear for the league’s expansion Seattle Smashers instead.
The Dodge Parker stranglehold on the IVA came to an end during the 1978 season. The Santa Barbara Spikers eliminated the Stars in IVA semi-finals on September 3rd, 1978 before 2,424 at UC-Santa Barbara’s Robertson Gym. This proved to be the final match in Stars history. Parker gave an eerily portentious summary of the loss to Elliott Almond of The Los Angeles Times:
“I believe things are pre-destined,” Parker told the reporter. “Our team has had a strange attitude all season. Don’t ask me why. I know my drive wasn’t as hard this year. I probably should have worked everyone harder in practice. It seemed like there was a big weight on everyone (in the finals) that wouldn’t let us let loose and go for it.”
On March 8th, 1979 Parker collapsed and died of a heart attack while jogging. He was only 29 years old. Four days later on March 12th, 1979, David Whiting closed down the team, merging his Stars with the San Diego Breakers to form the Salt Lake Stingers. Whiting kept a minority interest, but the club relocated to Utah under new controlling ownership. Chamberlain, meanwhile, explored an NBA comeback in late 1978 and his IVA playing appearances for obscure clubs outside the California volleyball culture like the Seattle Smashers and the Albuquerque Lasers attracted little attention and became increasingly sporadic.
The IVA lasted a little more than a year after the Stars shut down, folding in the middle of its fifth season of play in July 1980
“Linda Fernandez Plays Where The Boys Are In The Only Co-Ed Sport In America: Volleyball”, Bill Bruns, People Magazine, July 18, 1977
“Whiting: County’s Mr. Volleyball”, Elliott Almond, The Los Angeles Times, October 5, 1977
“Foreign Stars Bolster Volleyball Association”, The Associated Press, June 18, 1978
“The ‘Parker Years’ Over For IVA”, Elliott Almond, The Los Angeles Times, September 5, 1978
“Breakers Are All Washed Up”, Elliott Almond, The Los Angeles Times, March 13, 1979
The International Volleyball Association (IVA) launched in 1975, seeking to capitalize on the popularity of volleyball at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The 1970’s saw an explosion of team sports concepts – from World Team Tennis to indoor soccer – all seeking to establish themselves as the sport of the future and challenge the NBA and NHL for space on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The hijinks of the Denver Comets ownership, however, seemed better suited for the pages of High Times.
The league was the brainchild of Hollywood producer David L. Wolper, who owned the Los Angeles Stars franchise. Celebrity ownership was the rule of the day in 1975, with Motown Records impresario Berry Gordy backing the San Diego Breakers and co-ed sports enthusiast Wilt Chamberlain owning (and occasionally playing for) the Southern California Bangers.
By the time Denver joined the IVA as an expansion franchise in 1977, the celebrities had mostly lost interest and moved on, although Chamberlain remained as league President and occasional guest star on the court. Following the 1976 season, Volleyball magazine publisher James L. Bartlett III invested in the league and imposed centralized cost controls on the franchises. For the 1977 season, total operating expenses were capped at $150,000 with a $55,000 player salary cap. The IVA decided to showcase its new Denver club by awarding it the league’s All-Star Game on July 17th, 1977, which would feature an appearance from Chamberlain and a national broadcast on CBS Sports.
On the court, the Comets signed 1968 and 1972 U.S. Olympian Jon Stanley as player-coach. Stanley led the Comets to the best regular season record in the IVA in 1977 at 22-14, although the club would fall to the El Paso-Juarez Sol in the first round of the playoffs. Over the next several seasons, the California-based clubs dominated on the court while Denver and the Tucson Sky had the most success at the turnstiles. The Comets’ announced attendance hovered near 3,000 fans per game at the Denver Auditorium Arena.
On July 14th, 1979 the Comets defeated the Albuquerque Lasers at the Auditorium Arena. Following the match, arrest warrants were served at the arena on Comets President Robert Casey, general manager, David Casey, ticket director James Killingsworth and concessions manager Barry Beard. Simultaneoously, investigators seized 200 pounts of marijuana from the home of a Comets administrative assistant. The grand jury indictments and arrests marked the culmination of a 16-month investigation into a multi-million dollar international cocaine and marijuana trafficking ring run by the Caseys. The Colorado Organized Crime Strike Force dubbed the sting as “Operation Spike”. Members of the investigative team reputedly made up their own custom “Operation Spike” Comets t-shirts.
In all, 23 men and women were indicted by the grand jury. By the time the trials began in November 1979, 13 defendants had pleaded guilty, including the Casey brothers and Killingsworth. The prosecution’s case alleged that the Caseys served as major marijuana and cocaine importers and suppliers to dealers throughout the American West and British Columbia. Supporting evidence included 780-hours of phone wiretaps recorded between March and May 1979 at the Comets’ offices and the homes of the Caseys and Killingsworth. An unnamed IVA player told Molly Ivins of The New York Times that rumors had circulated within the league about the Caseys’ drug ties: “I think it was fairly common knowledge around the league.”
Remarkably, the Comets returned in 1980 under the new ownership of Bill Johnson. But the IVA was in very wobbly shape. IVA owners voted to terminate the Seattle Smashers franchise just days before the season opened due to insufficient funding. As in the similarly precarious Women’s Professional Basketball League, league investors were demoralized by U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s decision to boycott the 1980 Moscow summer Olympics, denying the sport a major platform of exposure that IVA proponents had been counting on for years.
The Comets played matches throughout May and June, but by July the league was on its last legs. In mid-July, the Salt Lake Stingers refused to fly to Denver for a scheduled match. Calling the demise of the league “inevitable”, Stingers GM Tony Lovitt told the Associated Press there was no point in paying for the airfare.
The Comets hosted the final match in IVA history, hosting the San Jose Diablos on July 15th, 1980. No record of the outcome remains online. The league quietly folded the next day without completing the 1980 season.
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