The People's Court

The community that plays together, stays together. Tracing nearly 50 years of 4-man volleyball tournaments in the South Bay.

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    Rich Thomas

From the first lifeguard tower at the top of El Porto to the Chart House in South Redondo, there are approximately 200 volleyball courts lined up across the shores of the South Bay. On any given weekend, they’re populated by a motley crew of beachgoers that set up shop at the crack of dawn and don’t pack it in until the sun sets and the cooler has been emptied, refilled and emptied again.

But a few times each year the courts near 16th Street, 22nd Street, 28th Street and 9th Street in Manhattan Beach swell to incomparable sizes with locals of all ages. They arrive with their favorite chairs and blankets. They share stories and old photographs. Some carry the same umbrellas they’ve planted in the sand for nearly 50 years.

They are Olympians, former mayors, NBA stars, NHL legends, restaurateurs, bartenders, bar-backs and barflies, and they all come to honor a South Bay institution that has spanned generations: the 4-man volleyball tournaments. 

“We have multimillionaires, and we have people that are barely making it and just want to live here. But everybody is on the same playing field,” says Annie Seawright-Newton, organizer of the Seawright Tournament, which was founded in 1968 by her grandparents Roy and Bunny. “Everybody respects each other; they all get along. This is our common bond.”

Discuss the tournaments with enough people, and you’ll start hearing words like “tribes,” “tradition” and “family” passed around. From Knob Hill to Rosecrans, players claim streets like gangsters claim sets. Costa/ Redondo rivalries from decades past are reheated on the hot sand and served fresh with playful jabs from former classmates. 

Former AVP tour teammates find themselves on opposites sides of the net, flanked by someone they grew up with or maybe someone they’ve just met. The bathing suits and the hairstyles may have changed, but the foundation stays the same.

Back in the late ‘60s, a $5 entry fee to the Seawright bought you a tank top, all you could drink and a home-cooked meal. Teams were drawn up the night before, and on game day Roy and Bunny would open their yard at 2806 The Strand for access to kegs and porta-potties. The Seawright continued that way for 23 years until Roy’s passing in 1991, when various friends and family members began to help the tournament along for the years following.

In 1997 Annie returned from flight attendant train – ing in Chicago to find that Bunny, now in her late 80s, had sent back everyone’s admission fee. The event had simply become too much to organize. When the summer of ’98 came and no word of the tournament had surfaced, Annie’s longtime friend and Seawright regular Chris Brown reached out.

“I told him my grandma just couldn’t do it anymore, and he was like, ‘It’s gotta keep going; it’s part of our culture. I’ll do what I can to help,’” she remembers. “So we regrouped and put it together in three weeks, and we held it at 22nd Street. It wasn’t as big, but at least we kept the momentum. We totally owe those guys. They helped bring the Seawright back to life.”

“Those guys” she’s referring to are Chris Brown, Tome Baldocchi, Chio Baldocchi, Chris Druliner and Andrew Kastigar, who run the Solstice Tournament. Started in 1976, the Solstice was originally referred to as the 22nd Street Tournament before Brown and his friends took it over in 2000.

If the Seawright is a good-time family reunion complete with a junior tournament for the kiddos, the Solstice is its slightly NSFW younger brother. For Chris Brown, the bawdy nature of the Solstice is something that’s meant to harken back to beach days gone by.

“It was pretty wild back in the ‘70s and ‘80s,” he says. “I laugh now when I hear people who move here from other areas and see 4th of July, which is a big party holiday, say, ‘Wow, it was out of control and wild.’ But what today is termed ‘wild’ would have been just a Tuesday afternoon in the ‘70s. We pride ourselves on maintaining that party atmosphere. We don’t want to morph into some old, boring, quiet day at the beach.”

Just up the road on 9th Street in Manhattan Beach, a different type of 4-man tournament takes place in the middle of July. The BarryBob was started in 1999 by the children of Barry Walmer and Bob Cleary, two lifelong friends who passed away from cancer. Though there are usually fewer teams than the Seawright or the Solstice, the BarryBob features a who’s who of current and former pro players and Olympians, and according to organizer Kevin Cleary serves as “the unofficial old-timers day” for beach volleyball.

But when it comes to pageantry and old-school street cred, all 4-mans tip their visor to the granddaddy of them all, the Labor Day tournament, founded in 1958 by Lee Campbell, Gil Malin and Bob Courtney on 17th Street in Hermosa. Though it started as a 2-man event, Labor Day set the formula that has powered the heart and soul of every tournament that’s come since: a carefully curated dance card based on an A-through-D player ranking system that ensures maximum competition as well as camaraderie. 

Luke Walton playing alongside a diehard Laker fan from South Redondo; fathers, grandfathers and grandsons repping their family name on center court; Scott Ayakatubby and Brent Frohoff facing off in an epic 16th Street versus Marine Street battle for the ages … every year a different storyline unfolds, and new names are added to the list of winners. Sometimes the names aren’t new at all.

“His last year, when he wasn’t running the tournament anymore, his team won first place and he took the whole family out to dinner at the Seafarer,” says Kevin Campbell of the first and only win of his father, Lee. “I’ve never seen my dad happier. The irony is that six months later, at 50 years old, he died of a stroke on vacation down in Mexico. He won on the last year he ever played. I’ll never forget that.”

But time-honored traditions—and the unforgettable moments they create—aren’t galvanized without a healthy amount of struggle— whether that manifests itself in the form of a city council measure, an uppity neighbor or a younger, more idle generation that hasn’t fully grasped the true relevance of the events. Everyone knows that a storied past doesn’t necessarily guarantee a future.

Solstice’s former director would walk out of his house with a tray of shots, stop a game and order the team that was ahead to drink. “Property values were less and rents were cheaper, so it was very easy for people to bartend a few shifts a week and hang out all day everyday. As property values have changed and rent has skyrocketed, it’s made it harder and harder for people to have the time and relax, and that’s a big part of why these tournaments have become so important to the community. It’s a handful of times out of the year where it really forces everybody, even if they’re busy and very successful, to set aside a whole day and hang out. We have a history of being a community that really celebrates the beach lifestyle, and the 4-man tournaments are backbone of that.”

“People in the sports world will train here in the summer, even if they’ve never played in LA,” says former LA King and longtime South Bay resident Marty McSorley, who met his wife at a charity volleyball tournament. “They’ll come down and spend their summers here because they love the culture, and part of the culture is these tournaments. Everyone is familiar with everybody. They look out for each other, their families grew up together, partly because of he relationships they’ve made at those 4-man tournaments and what that represents.”

The arrival of summer means the tournaments aren’t far behind— starting with the 30th anniversary of the July 4th event—and the committees begin the unenviable task of paring down their massive lists to 32 teams. Veterans pass the torch, sometimes B’s become C’s, and players start campaigning for good pairings over morning coffee at Java Man. 

But like Annie says, everyone ends up on the same playing field—literally and figuratively. Everyone has a chance to contribute to the legacy.

“When you peel back the onion and we’ve all got our board shorts on, nobody’s better than anyone else,” says Kevin Campbell. “In the end, we’re all 68% water.”