Gene Selznick: He Turned a Game Into a Sport

You might think of beach volleyball as something to pass the time while the burgers are grilling and the beer is getting cold in the ice chest. But competitive beach volleyball is anything but leisurely. To the contrary, it's one of the most exciting, fast-paced sports imaginable. You've got two lithe, tan athletes in neon swimsuits and wrap-around sunglasses on either side, leaping and diving acrobatically in the sand to keep the ball flying back and forth across the net. Pit two evenly matched teams against one another and you'll see frenetic rallies that seem to go on forever. No wonder it's been part of the summer Olympic games since 1996.

Nobody seems to know exactly who first invented competitive beach volleyball, but  Gene Selznick was its Babe Ruth - the sport's first great superstar, whose thrilling play and fierce will to win helped elevate a leisure pastime into a professional sporting spectacle that's seen today on TV. "He kind of set the pace for a lot of what today's players are enjoying - Olympic gold medals, lucrative paychecks," Selznick's son Dane, who also became a famed player and coach,  told an Associated Press interviewer.

The Los Angeles native, who passed away June 11 at age 82, was a Hall 0f Fame-caliber player in the conventional six-person indoor game, serving as captain of the U.S. men's national team from 1953 to 1967 and leading his teammates to world titles in 1960 and 1966. He's credited with pushing American players to play a faster, more power-driven game. But the two-person version of the sport on the beach at Santa Monica, in many ways, was a better showcase for Selzick's lightning reflexes and uncanny ability to anticipate where the ball was going. According to the 1988 textbook Winning Volleyball, it was Selznick who first introduced the powerful spike - the equivalent of basketball's slam dunk - to the beach game.

Selznick's biggest coup in promoting beach volleyball was persuading NBA superstar Wilt Chamberlain to take up the sport as a way of rehabilitating injuries that he'd sustained in his career on the hardwood. Selznick even talked Chamberlain into joining a 1973 nationwide exhibition tour, which helped introduce the nation to competitive beach volleyball, and ultimately paved the way for it to become a professional and Olympic sport.

Growing up in L.A., Selznick was good at other sports as well. But once told an interviewer that he concentrated on the beach volleyball "because we played on the beach, and there were lots of girls in bathing suits. Those other sports didn't have that."

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Photo Credit: Volleyball Hall of Fame

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