The hottest player on the men's pro beach volleyball tour dispatches opponents with cold calculation. In a sport once famous for its beach bums, Kent Steffes is a senior economics major at UCLA, a would-be investment banker, a Republican who retires early during tournaments to read the Wall Street Journal in his hotel room. "This isn't a party for me, it's a business," he says, sounding as dispassionate as a corporate raider. "I try to be like WalMart, taking on mom-and-pop stores and putting them out of commission."
At the maddeningly precocious age of 23, Steffes has pulled off a takeover that's as sudden as it is spectacular. Since he renewed his partnership with two-time Olympic gold medalist Karch Kiraly on May 2, the two men have won six of seven tournaments, including the last five in a row. The duo's latest triumph came on Sunday at the Chicago Open, in which they beat Tim Hovland and Mike Dodd in the finals, 15-10. During their run of victories Steffes deposed perennial tour leaders Sinjin Smith and Randy Stoklos to become the youngest player ever to top the Association of Volleyball Professionals' (AVP) computer rankings.
In less than four seasons, Steffes has vaulted to sixth on the AVP's alltime money list, with earnings totaling $505,043, and first on its alltime hit list. " Kent is neither a model prisoner nor a player tortured by doubt," says TV analyst Chris Marlowe, captain of the 1984 U.S. Olympic volleyball team. "A lot of players are jealous of what he has attained in such a short time."
"He's a very self-absorbed person who lives in his own private Idaho," says pro Brian Lewis. "He doesn't pay proper respect to the guys who paved the way for him to make all the money he's making."
Steffes says he has no idea what Lewis means by respect. "Am I supposed to respect how great they once were?" asks Steffes. "Do I have to revere them for hanging on? Hey, my job is to go out every week and beat those guys. But they act like I'm burning down their homes or swooping their girlfriends. Respect? How about them respecting me?"
In 1976, when the beach tour began, the two-man teams competed for six-packs and glory. Today the AVP runs a 24-event circuit that stretches from Fresno, Calif., to Fort Myers, Fla., with $2.8 million in prize money and millions more to be made in endorsements. " Steffes is the only top player without a major sponsor," says Lewis. "A lot of people don't want to be associated with him."
Particularly AVP people. Tour officials fretted over a Los Angeles radio interview in which Steffes demeaned Smith and Stoklos. And they gagged when Steffes complained that events look like beer commercials—maybe not the smartest play, considering all but four of the AVP tournaments are sponsored by Miller Lite. Worst of all, Steffes wants to outlaw the popular bikini contests held during tournaments. "It's not that I think they're degrading to women," he says. "It's that they detract from the professionalism of the sport. You don't see beauty contests at Lakers games."
Steffes is such a candid cannon that at a recent tournament in San Diego, two p.r. flaks were assigned to monitor his dealings with the press. He was even coached to spout clich�s to the media. "The tour, the sponsors don't want Mr. Talk-About to be Number One," says Mr. Talk-About. "They'd be happier with someone who'll tell sportswriters, 'I'm glad to be here and, god willing, I'm just glad to help the team.' If they don't like what I say, they shouldn't send me reporters. Yet they wonder when I'm going to get the message and play the political game."
The game the 6'4" Steffes plays is volleyball, and he plays it exceedingly well. Steffes sizzles across the sand, wearing orange Robocop shades and the faintest of smirks. A tweener, they call him, because, like Kiraly, he's both a superb blocker and a digger. " Kent's like a 6'8" guard in basketball who can post-up, dish and run the floor," says Steve Timmons, a three-time Olympian. That kind of versatility makes it difficult to attack Steffes. "I'm not overpowering," Steffes says. "I squirm my way through. I'm more like Phil Niekro than Nolan Ryan."
The 13,000 sun-blocked spectators at Sunday's finals on Chicago's North Shore gaped at Steffes's spectacular bump sets and flying jump serves that swerved like loose balloons in a stiff breeze. " Kent makes the impossible possible," says 1984 Olympian Paul Sunderland. "And the hard plays easy."