Deion Sanders entered the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame this month and it reinvigorated the eternal debate about the most enthralling two-sport athletes of all-time. Deion or Bo Jackson? Jim Thorpe or the late Bob Hayes? Reading the coverage, I realized that I had completely forgotten what a skilled baseball player Sanders was. Which is kind of weird since I was a college student in Atlanta during Sanders’ heyday with the Falcons and Braves. This is a guy who hit .533 in the 1992 World Series on a broken foot. And who led the Majors in triples that year despite skipping one-third of the season. But in my memory, unfairly as it turns out, Deion isn’t a real baseball player. He’s a cameo artist. A novelty act more in line with Charlie O. Finley‘s ”designated runner” Herb Washington than a true two-sport prodigy like…well…like Bo Jackson.
ANYWAY, this got me thinking about the most intriguing forgotten two-sport athletes. Guys who were superstars in the mainstream sports world but who also hocked their wares on the gray market, moonlighting in the weird latitudes. John Lucas is hard to beat in this regard. The NBA’s 1976 #1 overall draft pick of the Houston Rockets was also a gifted tennis player. During the NBA offseason of 1978, Lucas signed on with the New Orleans Nets of the gimmicky World Team Tennis outfit. With the Nets, Lucas paired in mixed doubles with Renee Richards, until recently an early-middle aged male opthamologist who had become a semi-formidable women’s tennis star after sex-reassignment surgery (and a series of lawsuits) at the age of 41.
So that’s kind of awesome, but Lucas’ tennis career in fascinating mostly by luck of the draw. It’s the reflected notoriety of Richards that makes Lucas’ tennis adventures compelling. Wilt Chamberlain, on the other hand, took a more pro-active role as a player, executive and owner while pursuing his passion for volleyball with the International Volleyball Association of the 1970′s. The IVA started up in 1975, a five-team circuit in California and Texas started by entertainment executives impressed by the volleyball competitions at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Chamberlain invested in the Southern California Bangers franchise and suited up for five matches during the summer of 1975.
The Bangers were also rans, finishing 6-18 and tied for last place in the IVA’s first season. The league title went to the Los Angeles Stars, owned by the Hollywood producer and IVA President David L. Wolper. The Stars had a line-up of top American stars, including the setter Dodge Parker, IVA kill leader Jon Stanley, and female star Linda Fernandez, who later won two ABC Sports’ Superstars competitions in the late 1970′s.
The Stanley-led Stars advanced to the IVA finals in 1976 with a 25-15 record, despite losing Fernandez and Parker. Parker won the 1976 IVA Most Valuable Player award with the San Diego Breakers who defeated the Stars 3 games to 1 in the championship series. Chamberlain was nowhere to be found in 1976, having divested himself of the Bangers, who moved to Tucson, Arizona, and failing to play in any IVA matches either.
By the end of the 1976 season, Wolper and the rest of the celebrity owners had moved on as well. Forum Communications, publisher of Volleyball Magazine, took an equity stake in the league and imposed centralized cost controls of $150,000 per club in total annual operating expenditures. A California mortgage banker named David Whiting formed a consortium to purchase the Stars and relocate them out of the city to Irvine’s University High School for the 1977 season. Dodge Parker returned from San Diego to serve as player-coach for the re-branded Orange County Stars. Chamberlain, meanwhile, re-appeared in the figurehead role of IVA President and also signed a player contract to appear in select matches for Whiting’s Stars.
Former Star Linda Fernandez, now a member of the rival Santa Barbara Spikers, assessed the 7′ 1″ Chamberlain’s volleyball skills in a 1977 interview with People Magazine. “He’s huge, but he’s got a weakness. He’s not quick.”
With Parker as player-coach and Chamberlain appearing in 15 of the club’s 36 matches, the Stars returned to the IVA finals in 1977, defeating the El Paso-Juarez Sol three games to two. Parker, the 1976 MVP as a player, was named IVA Coach of the Year for 1977. In the league’s first three seasons, Parker’s team had now won the championship every year.
At the turnstiles, the Stars averaged 1,602 fans per game for 18 home matches in 1977, slightly below the league’s stated average of 1,902 spectators. Whiting rented out the larger Anaheim Convention Center for three of the home games featuring Chamberlain, expending the team’s entire advertising budget to promote these select matches. The club lost money, in line with the expectations of Whiting and his syndicate of twenty-odd investors who had each pumped between $5,000 and $20,000 into financing the Stars.
When the 1978 season arrived, the Stars had relocated to Fountain Valley High School seeking to draw a larger Inland audience than had come out to Irvine the year before. Dodge Parker’s wife Melody Parker joined the Stars’ 7-person roster. Chamberlain, still serving as IVA President in 1978, left the club to appear for the league’s expansion Seattle Smashers instead.
The Dodge Parker stranglehold on the IVA came to an end during the 1978 season. The Santa Barbara Spikers eliminated the Stars in IVA semi-finals on September 3rd, 1978 before 2,424 at UC-Santa Barbara’s Robertson Gym. This proved to be the final match in Stars history. Parker gave an eerily portentious summary of the loss to Elliott Almond of The Los Angeles Times:
“I believe things are pre-destined,” Parker told the reporter. “Our team has had a strange attitude all season. Don’t ask me why. I know my drive wasn’t as hard this year. I probably should have worked everyone harder in practice. It seemed like there was a big weight on everyone (in the finals) that wouldn’t let us let loose and go for it.”
On March 8th, 1979 Parker collapsed and died of a heart attack while jogging. He was only 29 years old. Four days later on March 12th, 1979, David Whiting closed down the team, merging his Stars with the San Diego Breakers to form the Salt Lake Stingers. Whiting kept a minority interest, but the club relocated to Utah under new controlling ownership. Chamberlain, meanwhile, explored an NBA comeback in late 1978 and his IVA playing appearances for obscure clubs outside the California volleyball culture like the Seattle Smashers and the Albuquerque Lasers attracted little attention and became increasingly sporadic.
The IVA lasted a little more than a year after the Stars shut down, folding in the middle of its fifth season of play in July 1980.