The book that Kent Steffes and I recently published — Kings of Summer, the Rise of Beach Volleyball — wasn’t supposed to be released last Monday. It wasn’t supposed to be structured the way it is, with the narrative anchored by a single match, the 1996 Olympic quarterfinal between Karch Kiraly and Steffes, and Sinjin Smith and Carl Henkel. It wasn’t even supposed to be named what it is, and Steffes didn’t save it from its original name until roughly draft 15, which isn’t even an exaggeration.
And it certainly wasn’t supposed to be co-written by Steffes himself.
But books are a long process. Change, as I’ve discovered after writing a few of them, is inevitable. And this book is better for every change that came with it.
Really, this book was supposed to be published in 2018, as the first half of my previous book, We Were Kings. Ann Maynard, an editor I hired, saved it. The first half was too underdeveloped, she said. She was left wanting to know more — more about the characters, so rich in life and stories and personality. More about the sport. More about its volatile and brash history.
This, she decided, was two books.
And so it was.
I went ahead with We Were Kings, which has now been out, unbelievably, for nearly four years. As for what was intended to be the first half of that book? It collected digital dust and mothballs, waiting, waiting, waiting for the right opportunity. That opportunity came two years later, presenting itself in a now-well-known, all-capitalized word familiar to most everyone in the world: COVID.
Like you and everyone else, I was terribly bored during COVID. Aside from the three weeks of the AVP Champions Cup, there was little for me to do.
I don’t do well with boredom.
I needed something, anything to write about. The big project. Something to tackle. Anything to provide some sense of accomplishment. At some point during the pandemic, the thought occurred to me to revisit my old notes from We Were Kings, to take inventory of what I had, what holes needed filling, and how, or if, I could turn it into a prequel type of story. I knew I at least had a skeleton, a framework around which to build. Coincidentally, I discovered that, over the years, Tri Bourne and I had accidentally filled some of the holes via SANDCAST, when we brought on legends of beach volleyball’s past in Sinjin Smith, Mike Dodd, Randy Stoklos, Tim Hovland, and Nina Matthies, among a few others. There was information. Stories — so many stories. Stories I thought needed telling.
But how in the world to frame it? How to structure it? I don’t like leaving stories on the cutting room floor. I don’t like, as Hemingway once put it, to kill my darlings — the precious anecdotes that might not necessarily fit in the grand puzzle of a book, where the sizes and sizes of every piece are constantly shifting as more pieces are added.
No less than 10 times did I attempt to draft this book. It’s not that I hated them — I actually liked them very much. But there’s a certain sixth sense you have as a writer or creator when you know you’ve got it right. I hadn’t had that just yet. I took stock of some of the best sports books I’d read, re-reading many of them — The Boys in the Boat, gunslinger, Barbarian Days, Playing Through the Whistle, The Blind Side — inspecting them for clues on how to weave complex stories of complex individuals in a manner that made sense, was entertaining, and was smooth to read. I got nothing, until I found a slim little book that I had long since forgotten: Levels of the Game.
It had been three years since I read it for the first time. Finished it in a single pass, on a flight back from a NORCECA in Martinique. I remember Ben Vaught asking me, on the flight, what it was about.
“A tennis match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner,” I told him.
“The whole book is on just one match?”
It is and it isn’t. McPhee had done something I’d never seen done before, anchoring an entire book around a single match, building the contrasting narratives of Ashe and Graebner, fluidly flipping back and forth, from present tense to past, from Ashe’s relatively poor upbringing in North Carolina to Graebner’s wealthy childhood in Ohio. It was brilliant.
My sixth sense had the epiphany moment I’d been waiting for: That structure, difficult as it is to execute, was perfect.
It also meant I had to scrap nearly everything I had written. I’d have to rework every story, every narrative, every chapter, every transition, to fit around a single beach volleyball match: The 1996 Atlanta Olympic quarterfinals.
Why that match?
It’s the perfect foundation for a number of reasons. For starters, it’s widely considered the Match of the Century, an epic between Karch Kiraly and Sinjin Smith, two of the founding fathers of the AVP, two of the winningest players of all time, two men who were once the closest of friends and then — as the narrative spun by the media went at the time — the bitterest of rivals. Their paths traced similar roots yet diverged, allowing me to delve into opposite sides of the sport until they came to a head at the seminal Atlanta Games, the first to include beach volleyball in its programming.
They weren’t the only two characters in that final, of course. Kent Steffes and Carl Henkel played no small supporting role in that match, offering different storylines in their own right: Steffes the prodigy since high school, Henkel the UCLA Bruin turned four-man hitter turned law school student who became one of the more unlikely Olympians in the sport.
It was fascinating, all of it. And close to the end of 2021, I was just about finished. I had only one man left to track down.
Steffes has fascinated me for as long as I’ve been in this sport. Not that it’s a particularly long time, but my intrigue was deep. Here was a man who was the most dominant player not just in beach volleyball, but, in my mind, all of sport. He won nearly half the tournaments he played. He raked in millions. He cemented his name on the Manhattan Beach Pier. He won an Olympic gold medal.
And then disappeared from the sport before his 30th birthday, at the height of his powers.
It wasn’t exactly his choice to do so — the AVP went bankrupt, and Steffes had other interests he wished to pursue anyway. Had there been a sport to play, he’d have kept playing; but the AVP, until Leonard Armato resurrected it in the early 2000s, was essentially done. So he walked away from the game before the game forced him to do so.
I can think of no other athlete who was the unquestioned best in their sport who walked away in their prime, leaving little trace. We didn’t see Steffes suffer the long, humbling road back to mortality in the way we have with the alphas of so many other sports. We didn’t see the equivalent of Steffes suiting up for the Jets, as Brett Favre did, or Jordan donning a Wizards jersey. We didn’t see him limping down fairways, as Tiger Woods is currently doing, or missing entire seasons but still in the search of one more Grand Slam, like Roger Federer.
He left the game invincible.
For years, I’d been trying to interview Steffes, both for the book and for SANDCAST. He either politely declined or just didn’t respond. I get it. Still, more than two decades after winning his Olympic gold medal, Steffes gets dozens of interview requests per year. Documentaries. Netflix series. Books. None of them ever get made, of course, which is why Steffes set a firm boundary: He’d be the last interview for their project.
Nobody ever finished the project.
I didn’t know of this rule when I sent him the manuscript for the book. I just felt it, using a subtle little tactic I learned in journalism school: This book is going to be published with or without you, but it would be far better and more fair if it had your input.
He emailed the next day: He loved it.
A day later, before I had time to think of a response — I was, as you might imagine, quite excited — he emailed again. He’d read it once more and loved it even more.
When could we chat?
We could chat an awful lot, it turns out. Soon Kent and I were on the phone for hours. Reading the book had served as a time machine, transporting him back into the wonderful, chaotic, magnificently wild and untamed days of the beach volleyball world from the late ’80s and early ’90s. We combed over the manuscript, over and over, Kent pointing out errors and inconsistencies. He had Delaney and I over for dinner with Sinjin and Patty Smith, and we ate pasta and drank wine late into the night, talking about the book, what I wanted to accomplish with it.
On the drive home that night, it occurred to me that maybe I should just ask Kent to help me write the dang thing. He’s a fabulous writer, as you may have seen from his Facebook posts. And he certainly knew more about the world about which I was attempting to write than I did. He lived it, after all. He felt the highs of winning and the devastation of losing (this did not happen often, but it did happen). He felt what it was like to compete with and against Karch, what it was like to attempt to outwit Sinjin, to swing around Stoklos, to outsmart Mike Dodd. He could bring a level of authenticity to the project I never could.
I also just loved talking to him.
For months, then, we talked frequently. Kent began corroborating stories as we followed up with Dodd, Hovland, Sinjin, Karch, Pat Powers, Adam Johnson, Jose Loiola, Stoklos, Doug Beal — all the biggest names of the game’s past. The book, once a sloppy mess of stories, began to look cleaner, read sharper, even if, on many occasions, the memories of the aforementioned men didn’t line up, or even come close to it.
One day, however, we had a final draft.
Six drafts after that, we had a book, Kings of Summer.
Michael Lewis, the author of moneyball, has a rule when it comes to writing books: He only writes the ones in which he believes he is the only one who could write it. For years, I believed that about myself and this project, but I was wrong: I couldn’t write this book. Not alone. Not without the help of Kent Steffes.
It is not a perfect book. Such a thing is, in my mind, impossible, especially when many of the stories are decades old, and we were relying on the recall of proud men. But I do believe this is the best book we could have written on the topic we chose: Beach volleyball’s rise from a rebellious, untamed, antiauthoritarian sport into the most popular at every Summer Olympic Games. It’s a project that was saved, over and over and over again, by a number of people, from Ann Maynard to Sinjin — I have a deep debt of gratitude to Sinjin for his patience and time — to Kent and Hovland and Dodd and Karch and everyone else.
It wasn’t supposed to be published this way, and for that, I’ll be forever thanking my lucky stars.
Because this is exactly how it was supposed to come out.
Editor’s note: Kings of Summer is available on Amazon. Click here to order.