The common refrain is that Southern California is the mecca for beach volleyball. Perennially good weather and nearly unlimited availability of courts, people have an idea that going there would mean hours and hours of easy play. But the truth is more complicated: with the abundance of beach and court space, the limiting factor in SoCal are people. Visitors are unlikely to get into a game just by walking up to a local court. Beach volleyball can be a notoriously cliquey sport, driven in part by the external reputation for being so “easy” to play. Bold novices tend to dive into a game among veterans, and not realize what kind of danger he presents. Besides, locals play with limited time on the beaches there – they bring their equipment, do their games, and go. Unaccounted intrusions just disrupt the plans.
But there are pockets in SoCal where newcomers (actually, any lone players) can find a game. Near Santa Monica Pier are four beach volleyball courts with a sign up system. Unlike other locations, the lines and nets here are already set up, and paper pads on each court allow players to write their names to challenge the winners of that court. Here, one is likely to be able to pick up a partner. And it’s here that I met Bobby Barber.
When I met him, Bobby was already in his 80s, but he was a regular on those courts. He played every day, and would actively seek out newcomers to the court, explaining the system, but never imposing or demanding. I learned a lot from him that day. While not having the presence of a strapping 20 year old up and comer, he had no shortage of partners from athletes seeking to hone their skill. From there I learned that you learn a lot more from who you play with that who you play against, despite how most training systems are built around combative scenarios. And perhaps above all, I realized that his legacy will far outlast the temporary victory. Bobby passed away at the age of 89 a few years ago, and was recognized by his community – but there are similar ambassadors in other communities, some just as hardworking, sport loving, but more unsung. These volleyball ambassadors could be the role models in the game, and we should be encouraging younger generations to take up their mantles. Though we may celebrate the spotlight on an Olympic medal, each one does not represent the potential generations of beach volleyball that a Bobby Barber brings forth.
It’s not the tallest tree that sustains the forest, but the soil underneath.