Eugene Selznick, Beach Volleyball Pioneer, Dies at 82

The New York Times
June 16, 2012

Gene Selznick, a beach volleyball player who pioneered the sport in Southern California and twice coached U.S. teams in the Olympics, died last Sunday at Kindred Hospital in Los Angeles. He was 82. (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles Times / June 11, 2012)

Eugene Selznick, a celebrated volleyball innovator who helped raise American players’ game to international caliber in the 1960s, and whose shrewdness in drafting Wilt Chamberlain for a 1970s exhibition of beach volleyball helped make Californians’ beach-party game an Olympic sport, died on June 11 in Los Angeles. He was 82.
The cause was pneumonia after a series of illnesses, according to USA Volleyball, the sport’s governing body.
Selznick, who never got to play on an Olympic volleyball team, was widely considered one of the two or three best American volleyball players.
He was captain of the United States men’s national volleyball team from 1953 to 1967, leading it to world championship titles in 1960 and 1966. He coached women’s volleyball teams that won numerous national titles, twice coached United States teams in the Olympics, and personally coached the Olympic beach volleyball players Misty May-Treanor and Holly McPeak.
Beach volleyball, with two players on a team, is to Los Angeles what stickball once was to Brooklyn, and Selznick’s devotion to it made him a well-known figure in Southern California, where the beach is a dominion with an aristocracy of its own. Selznick was known there as the First King of Beach Volleyball.
He is also credited with almost single-handedly reinventing the American game of indoor volleyball: he lobbied unrelentingly in the early ’60s until the United States Volleyball Association agreed to run American tournaments according to the same rules used in international competitions. The rules changes transformed the game (played with six members on a team) into a faster, more power-driven sport and helped American players begin winning consistently against foreign teams.
Doug Beal, the chief executive of USA Volleyball, which succeeded the Volleyball Association, said Selznick’s battle helped American volleyball but may have hurt Selznick.
“The association was slow to make the change, and Gene wasn’t very diplomatic about it,” he said in an interview.
When indoor volleyball became an official Olympic sport in 1964, at the Tokyo Games, Selznick was denied a spot on the United States team — a major disappointment in his life — and volleyball people connected the dots. “His conflicts with the organization may have had something to do with his not being selected,” Beal said. “Most people feel he should have been on it.”
As a player, Selznick was not overwhelmingly athletic. But he was known for uncanny reflexes, an ability to anticipate where the ball was going and a level of concentration that made his game nearly error-free. “He brought footwork and speed to the game no one had ever seen before,” said Arthur Couvillon, author of “Sands of Time” (2002), a history of beach volleyball.
Chamberlain, the 7-foot-1 N.B.A. star, was near the end of his basketball career in the early 1970s when he took up beach volleyball to help rehabilitate his battered body. Selznick proceeded to cajole Chamberlain into joining him and other top players for a nationwide exhibition tour in the summer of 1973, the year he retired from basketball.
The publicity generated by the Chamberlain tour, as it was known, brought a new generation to volleyball and laid the groundwork for a boom in popularity that began in the ’80s. Beach volleyball became an official Olympic sport in 1996. Selznick coached the men’s Olympic beach volleyball team of Sinjin Smith and Carl Henkel to a fifth-place finish in Atlanta in 1996, and the women’s Olympic team of May-Treanor and McPeak to fifth place in Sydney in 2000.
Eugene Selznick was born on March 19, 1930, in Los Angeles, and began playing volleyball seriously soon after graduating from high school. To earn a living, he managed parking lots and restaurants on the Sunset Strip.
His survivors include three sons, Dane, Bob and Jack.
On his 75th birthday, Selznick told an interviewer how he had become interested in volleyball, and beach volleyball in particular. “I liked all sports,” he said. “But volleyball was much nicer, because we played on the beach, and there were lots of girls in bathing suits. Those other sports didn’t have that.”