We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, nearly 1.5 million people used their mobile devices to visit our sites.
Already a subscriber?
Wow! You read a lot!
Reading enhances confidence, empathy, decision-making, and overall life satisfaction. Keep it up! Subscribe.
Already a subscriber?
Oops, you're out of free articles.
Until next month, you can always look over someone's shoulder at the coffee shop.
Already a subscriber?
We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, we posted 390 stories about the fire. And they were shared nearly 137,000 times.
Already a subscriber?
Supporting the community that supports us.
Obviously you value quality local journalism. Thank you.
Already a subscriber?
Oops, you're out of free articles.
We miss you already! (Subscriptions start at just 99 cents.)
Already a subscriber?

The "Follow This Story" feature will notify you when any articles related to this story are posted.

When you follow a story, the next time a related article is published — it could be days, weeks or months — you'll receive an email informing you of the update.

If you no longer want to follow a story, click the "Unfollow" link on that story. There's also an "Unfollow" link in every email notification we send you.

This tool is available only to subscribers; please make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.



Please note: This feature is available only to subscribers; make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.


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.

From the start, it was the coed arrangement that got the publicity.

They played traditional indoor volleyball, with one major exception. The players did not rotate around the entire court. The two women on the floor for each team at any given time were assigned defensive/passing positions in the back row.

A Sports Illustrated story from June of 1975 quoted a player named Tom Madison thusly: “It’s great to turn around after a great play to slap and catch some skin and see this super chick standing there. Much better than patting some sweaty guy.”

The women were paid less than the men (shock!), and were subjected to indignities like the “six-pack”; according to the Sports Illustrated story, any guy who spiked a ball into a woman’s face would be awarded a six-pack of beer for his manly triumph.

Partying was involved, though different players disagree on how much. In any case, the work was seasonal. The players would train in May and compete for three months in the summer before ducking into other jobs.

“I started out making $3,250 a year,” said Larry Benecke, who played for the entirety of the IVA’s existence. “My last year I made $12,000, I think.”

The league got immediate legitimacy from Chamberlain, the NBA legend who had taken up beach volleyball late in his career while rehabbing a knee injury. (He called his beach team the Big Dippers.) Chamberlain bought a stake in one of the teams and played for several during the IVA’s run. At 7-foot-1 and close to 300 pounds, he was a giant among men.

“He was a decent beach player. He wasn’t very mobile, but he hit a very heavy ball,” said Benecke, who now runs an advertising and design shop in San Diego County.

Attendance was promising in 1975, and people began to wonder whether volleyball might be America’s next big sport. The IVA’s first major blow came soon, however, when Wolper suffered a heart attack and was directed by doctors to pare down his activities. That included his volleyball team, the Los Angeles Stars. He got out, and so did the league’s other entertainment-biz owners.

The league survived, but new ownership groups had neither the glamour nor the financial clout of their predecessors.

The IVA was already on shaky ground in July of 1979 when agents of the Colorado Organized Crime Strike Force raided a game to handcuff Robert and David Casey, co-owners of the Denver Comets, as well as the team’s ticket manager. This followed an 18-month probe into weed trafficking dubbed Operation Spike.

Jacobs’ only major regret regarding “Bump and Spike” is that David Casey finally called him back after the film was fully edited.

The Caseys’ arrest, followed by President Jimmy Carter’s decision to boycott the Moscow Olympic Games, accelerated a cascade of setbacks that ultimately killed pro volleyball. The league folded halfway into the 1980 season.

“The last one or two home matches were ‘get in free and make a donation on the way out if you liked it’ as a PR angle to draw a crowd — and to pay the players,” said Benecke, who was with San Jose that year. “Worked pretty well, but not enough to save the franchise.”

Or the league. The IVA barely rates a footnote now. Fortunately for us, Jacobs has revived its memory. And fortunately for him, he will probably never run out of good, druggy sports stories to tell.

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

Show Comment