I always feel a certain sadness as spring approaches, for my volleyball game is no more.
My adult volleyball days began on a sunny May afternoon in 1986. As I strolled around Central Park’s Great Lawn near the Delacorte Theater, I spied a woman and a group of men in the midst of what seemed a low-key, thoroughly enjoyable session of volleyball. They invited me to join them and I did … for six or seven years. Many of the regulars were performers who had originally met through Summer Stock and a good number were gay.
We met every Saturday from May through September. Our game was far from textbook volleyball. For example, we had a cherished tradition of letting newcomers serve a few times till they got it over the net. Even for the rest of us, any serve that hit the net and went over led to a second serve—again in defiance of normal volleyball rules.
The rules, in fact, were a constant subject of derision. Anyone calling out a minor infraction would have been mocked unmercifully, and it wasn’t hard to see why. Although some of our regulars were terrific athletes, many of us—female or male, gay or straight—had been childhood victims of callous jocks and gym teachers. It was generally unspoken, but you could feel it.
Our most memorable volleyball moment came on a hot summer day. Although about a third of our regular players were female, that afternoon only men were playing when two women wandered by and stopped to watch. As usual, someone encouraged them to join us, but they insisted they simply wanted to observe. It was obvious that this wasn’t true, that they were dying to play but were nervous about entering our male enclave. We kept asking, they kept declining.
Finally, one of the men yelled out: “Listen, you have to understand: this is the kind of game you’re only allowed to join if you’re the kind of person who was always picked last!” The women exploded in laughter, as we all did, and they immediately entered the game. And one of them proved a far better player than any man there.
In its early years, our volleyball game had a consistently wonderful, playful feel. In that spirit, we held a raucous annual winter party where each participant was assured of receiving some outrageous award. Indeed, my friend Dick, who had visited one summer from London and had played volleyball for the first time in his life, was later thrilled to receive an award for “Best Player from a Monarchy.”
There were sad times as well. On one Saturday in the late 1980s, Gordon and I were the only players who showed up. Since there was no game, I walked him back to his subway stop and we had a really nice talk. Only weeks later, I was stunned to hear that Gordon was in the hospital, gravely ill due to AIDS. When I visited him, he could barely see or hear me, and he died soon after.
As the 1980s ended, our game began to change. New players joined, more serious players. The level of volleyball improved, but the atmosphere deteriorated. Now people talked endlessly about their volleyball leagues and complained when we didn’t enforce standard rules. Soon our tradition of giving a player an extra serve came under fire and then it was gone. I eventually had to face the truth: this was no longer the volleyball game I’d loved. It was turning into exactly the kind of game I’d always avoided.
Like many of the original regulars, I began coming less often. Soon our game officially died. Sometime later, I went to an informal volleyball game at a neighborhood school—supposedly open to newcomers—where I found myself in trouble right away. As an example, they always passed from anywhere in the middle line to the center person on the front line, but no one had the decency to explain this. They simply glared at me until I figured it out.
I left in disgust and thought back to that day in Central Park when those two women joined us. I guess I miss volleyball, but what I really miss is being part of a game that genuinely welcomed everyone—including those accustomed to being picked last.
Reprinted by permission from Bob Lamm, An Uncommon Life: A Memoir in 50 (Short) Scenes (Amazon, 2021).