What if I told you that men and women played together in a professional volleyball league in the 1970s? That they wore short shorts and some sported fabulous sideburns? That Wilt Chamberlain played in the league and Berry Gordy owned a team?
What if I told you the owners of the Denver franchise were arrested at halftime of a game for their roles in a massive marijuana distribution pipeline?
Would you spare 15 minutes?
The International Volleyball Association is but a memory, and not a strong one. It’s one of those defunct sports leagues consigned to fading game programs and scattered minutes of video footage. But the IVA is making a minor comeback, thanks to Bay Area director Michael Jacobs. His short film “Bump and Spike” will screen at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater on Sunday afternoon and again on Tuesday evening as part of the 16th San Francisco Documentary Festival, better known as SF DocFest.
“There wasn’t any comparative league to emulate. And so we just created what we thought was professional volleyball,” one of the interviewees, Rosie Wegrich, says in the film.
“Bump and Spike” is a lively romp that runs briskly through the IVA’s birth, heyday and demise. It’s part of ESPN’s 30-for-30 series, and the third piece directed by Jacobs, who also made “The High Five,” which recounts the birth of that celebratory gesture, and “The Pittsburgh Drug Trials,” a lurid tale of Pirates and cocaine.
After the latter aired, ESPN came to Jacobs and asked if he had any more good drug stories to tell.
“And of course I said yes,” Jacobs acknowledged by phone this week, “but I didn’t have one.”
He literally started googling “sports drug scandals 1970s 1980s,” because he wanted to keep to the era of his other 30-for-30s. Jacobs soon found himself on FunWhileItLasted.net, a website devoted to bygone teams and leagues. There he discovered the IVA and decided it was worth plumbing.
Jacobs flew or drove his interview subjects to a strange set near Palmdale, where a previous production designer had constructed a phony motel in the desert — complete with gas station, restaurant, pool and individual rooms. Jacobs and his photography director, Michael Gioulakis, felt it was perfectly imbued with a 1970s vibe. They shot every interview in two days and relied heavily on programs, photos and newspaper clippings provided by former IVA players and executives.
The original edit was 22 minutes — “broadcast half-hour” length. Jacobs felt parts were redundant and convinced ESPN to let him trim it to a little over 15 minutes. “Bump and Spike” is supposed to debut on ESPN.com this summer.
The league it portrays was the brainchild of David Wolper, the Hollywood producer who at that time was best known for projects like “Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory” and “Chico and the Man.” Future credits would include “Roots” and “The Thorn Birds.” Wolper had worked on filming the 1972 Olympics in Munich, and had become enthralled by volleyball.
So he gathered up friends like Paramount Pictures chairman Barry Diller and Gordy, the Motown Records impresario who dazzled San Diego Breakers fans by bringing Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye to games. They bankrolled five teams in 1975. It would later grow to seven, based largely in California and exclusively in the West. In 1979 and 1980, a season that ended prematurely in insolvency, there was a team in San Jose called the Diablos; they played at the City National Civic.