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The Sunshine Boys

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LENA PARKS, 25, HER CUTOFF jeans hanging open three buttons’ worth, sips a beer and dances slowly in place on her blanket near the players’ tent as loudspeakers thump out Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Suzie Q.” When volleyballer Eduardo Bacil strides past, Parks flips back her blonde hair.

“Hi,” she says.

“Hello,” says Bacil noncommittally. Parks ogles him as he continues into the tent, then peers around at other scantily clad spectators grooving to the tunes. “Whew!” she says. “What a party!”

Spreading beyond Southern California—the cradle of volleyball civilization—to points as far east as Philadelphia and Atlanta, two-person beach volleyball is more than a party, it’s a phenomenon. No beach? No problem! On this Saturday afternoon, 2,200 tons of sand trucked in from a local quarry have created a beige oasis within the Mesa Amphitheatre, 15 miles east of Phoenix. Parks and 4,500 other spectators—some sprawled on blankets, others milling around drinking beer from plastic cups—are basking in the desert sun. The mood is mellow; the only thing heavy is the sweet, greasy smell of suntan lotion.

Courtside, a woman sitting in a beach chair gingerly lifts the strap of her bikini top and checks for a tan line. In the shade 20 yards away, 27-year-old Bill Cheevers, a Phoenix accountant, and three buddies gape as the world’s top-ranked beach volleyball player, Karch Kiraly, taking a setup from partner Scott Ayakatubby, leaps high above the net and rockets the ball to the sand between two opponents. “Oooh!” cheers the crowd.

“Awesome spike!” Cheevers roars. “Did you see that?”

“Yeah, dude,” says a friend, reaching for a high five. “Totally unreal.”

As they say back in Pacific Palisades, Calif., the sacred ground of beach volleyball, the fans are stoked. And with $100,000 in prize money up for grabs, including $20,000 for the winning two-man team, so are the players. For Kiraly and the 63 other members of the 12-year-old Association of Volleyball Professionals, it’s a handsome payday. Players once used to compete in tiny beach enclaves north and south of Los Angeles for a handshake and a six-pack. But that was the ’70s. This year, between February and September, male players will bump, set and spike in 29 tournaments across the U.S. An unaffiliated women’s tour is holding 15 meets in many of the same cities but at a fraction of the prize money. Next year beach volleyball will make its debut as a medal event at the Atlanta Olympics.

It has come a long way. “In the old days, everyone would crash together in a VW van or on somebody’s floor or on the beach and then get up and play,” says Kiraly, 34, who helped the U.S. indoor volleyball team win Olympic gold medals in 1984 and 1988. “It was a party, but the competition between us was fierce.” Last year, Kiraly, with his Captain America looks and penchant for stuffing the ball down opponents’ throats, took home nearly $1 million in winnings and endorsement money.

“Suddenly, everybody wants a piece of the lifestyle,” says former player Chris Marlowe, now an NBC commentator. “Twenty years ago guys were broke, and winning meant getting a free pair of shorts and impressing the girls on the beach. Now it’s a full-time job, and the top players are driving Jeeps and Porsches and worrying about the stock market.”

Things began to change in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when marketers for Jose Cuervo tequila and the Miller Brewing Co. saw a potential profit spike in the sport’s combination of bare-chested hedonism and fierce competition. They began offering tournament prizes upward of $10,000 in exchange for conspicuous display of their logos at tournaments along the California coast. By 1983 there were 13 venues. This season, Nestea, PowerAde and Coppertone logos proliferate courtside, while players sport personal sponsors on shorts, shirts, visors and even (thanks to removable tattoos) the skin.

In 1986 TV caught the wave. This year all 29 of the men’s tournaments, plus 14 of the women’s, are being telecast by NBC, CBS, Prime or ESPN.

Money has turned the tour into a movable feast. A new generation of so-called volley dollys follows the players from tournament to tournament, young men show up to ogle the volley dollys, and some older fans travel to competitions in their RVs. Adding to the carnival air are a couple of tour employees: 260-pound referee and part-time deejay Marvin Hall, 39, who descends from the judge’s ladder before championship games to dirty-dance for the crowd; and pony tailed Rodney Grove, 25, who heads a convoy of three splashily painted semis that carry equipment to each tournament site. “It’s crazy on the road,” says Grove. “We’ll show up at a truck stop, and all these beefy dudes see ‘Volleyball’ on our trucks and want to know if we’ve got girls and beer in the back.”

Back in Arizona, five volleyballers who have been eliminated from the weekend tournament try to put their social lives in play at a Tempe club on Saturday night. Nick Hannemann, 22, spots a young blonde woman in a clinging black dress. “Hi,” he calls out. “Would you take your picture with us?” The woman poses briefly, then disappears toward the dance floor. “That,” says fellow player Curtis Griffin, 25, “would never have happened to one of the top guys.”

On Sunday the top guys are still playing. The sound system blares “Sweet Dreams Are Made of This” by the Eurythmics, and a 30-foot-high balloon painted like a volleyball sways in the breeze as Kiraly and Ayakatub-by, 30, warm up for their match against hulking Randy Stoklos, 34, and straw-haired Adam Johnson, 30.

A woman wearing a Coed Nude Beach Volleyball T-shirt closes her eyes and smiles as a male friend aims a cooling mist from a water-bottle sprayer in her direction. Nearby, Jennifer Bluestone, 28, of Phoenix, confides giddily to a friend, “I root for whoever has the best bod—and I can’t make up my mind.”

Between matches, Kiraly and Ayakatubby repair to the players’ tent for rubdowns. “Karch, please!” pleads an autograph-seeking 30ish woman, leaning over the cordon. “I love watching you—I mean watching you play.” Karch grins sheepishly and signs her visor.

Kiraly and Ayakatubby win the weekend tournament and return to L.A. for midweek drills. On the Pacific Palisades State Beach, where the game has been played for more than 50 years, Kiraly and a half-dozen others practice setting and spiking. Several yards away, a 10-year-old boy chases down a stray ball for all-time beach tournament winner Sinjin Smith—still an Olympic hopeful at 37. Later he and former great Bob Vogel-sang, 54, accept a challenge from two college players.

On this day the scene is joined by basketballer-turned-beach-volleyball-fanatic Wilt Chamberlain. “The game has gotten too commercial,” complains Wilt, gazing out at the ocean. “It isn’t like it used to be, when winning was for itself. It’s lost its innocence.”

There’s no disenchantment 20 miles south at Sloopy’s in Manhattan Beach, a sandwich shop a few blocks from the surf where volleyball pros are local legends. Heads turn as five towering volleyballers, dressed in baggy shorts and tank tops, take a table. “Don’t stare,” says a man in a business suit to the middle-aged woman dining with him. “I can’t help it,” she responds. “I’m only human.”