When I drove from Connecticut to California in the biggest move of my life, I knew I had a lot to learn about the unfamiliar Golden State I was about to call home. With only three visits out to CA before my 3,000-mile, one-way trek, I arrived in Los Angeles as a New England stranger in a strange SoCal land. I didn't know Hellman's from Best Foods or Hollywood from Highland. Since then, I've studied many a map and spent hours on CitySearch in an effort to figure out this beast.
It turns out, sports might be a more essential part of life in California than I used to sarcastically speculate. It's just that, like all things California, people do sports on their own terms. Today, six months into my new life out west, I've realized that all I really need to know about life in Los Angeles County I learned from the AVP Pro Beach Volleyball Tour.
I had this epiphany some point this weekend while attending The Manhattan Beach Open. The Manhattan tournament is the biggest, best-attended and most highly respected event on the AVP's 16-stop tour that passes through 11 states from coast to coast each summer. Beach volleyball is Southern California's bread and butter, and the Manhattan tournament is to the sport what Wimbledon is to tennis or The Masters is to golf. Thus, the weighty significance of sport and sand resting squarely on my relocated shoulders gave way to the following revelations:
• Beaches on the West Coast are public property. This was something I had to see to believe coming from Connecticut, where wealthy homeowners with old money and private beach community clubs box out just about every inch of prime shoreline real estate. Not the case in California. The beaches are so public that when the AVP Tour holds an event in one of its four California venues (Santa Barbara, Huntington Beach, Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach), it can't charge admission. At such California events, there are no ticket booths or admission gate lines to wait in; you simply show up and walk in. Pick out the seat in the grandstands you like best and it's yours for the taking.
Although the protection of a public coast is one of my favorite things about the left side, I never thought about the implications it bears for profit-driven businesses. The public property laws are the reason the AVP Pro Beach Volleyball Tour is in a dispute with the California Coastal Commission over admission charges to its California events. The biggest fans of beach volleyball show up in the largest droves at these events, but the tour is forced to swallow the enormous loss of ticket sales. The AVP has said it cannot continue to produce events in Southern California without charging admission because it's simply losing too much money ... but the Coastal Commission doesn't seem to care. It would be nothing short of a travesty if beach volleyball were cut from the historic sands of Southern California, but let the lesson be learned -- at the end of the business day, it's all about the Benjamins.
• Someone once told me that one out of eight Americans live in the state of California. I don't know how much stock to put in this astounding-if-accurate statistic, but I've surmised another from spending three days around thousands of Californians in scanty swimwear. By my calculations, I think it's safe to say that three out of every eight beach-going California women have a fake rack. I arrived at this busty thesis with my friend Ben, a transplanted Minnesotan who says in the land of 10,000 Lakes you can go months without seeing a spot of silicone. I laughed as Ben's eyes reached the size of salad plates when we walked around the AVP tournament site and its surrounding bars this weekend. When there wasn't a volley match going on, we were fully engaged in game after game of the classic California pastime, "Real Or No Real."
Ben later dubbed his first AVP tourney experience, "The best possible use of a summer Saturday, ever." Seems to me the nice folks in the Twin Cities need to embrace a beach VB tour stop next season. And they could even charge admission.
• I was thumbing through Beach Volleyball Magazine when I landed at the centerfold -- a horizontal spread of Amber Willey, who is described as, "model, actress and AVP qualifier." This solidified the notion that yes, everyone in Los Angeles is nothing if not an aspiring actor/model; it also upheld the idea that everybody is given a shot out here in this huge state of opportunity. Anybody (a-ny-bod-y) can try to qualify for an AVP tournament. Most attempters will be promptly bounced from the bracket, but thankfully, they likely have time on their hands and an acting career to fall back on.
• Speaking of models and volleyball ... I was lucky to be up in the media tent at one point Sunday when surf human man god Laird Hamilton walked in with little niblet Reece in his arms and sat next to me. Babe and dad were there watching mom/wife/o.g. supermodel/former It face of Nike and ambassador of U.S. women's athletics Gabrielle Reece play in an exhibition game on center court before the AVP men's final. After a few minutes, going-on-3-year-old Reece says, "Dad, where's mommy?" To which the Sultan of Surf replied, "Right there, honey, momma's right there," with a point in Gabby's direction. But looking down at the court full of six women, little Reece was still confused: "Which one, Daddy?"
This led me to my next California life lesson: Where else could children not be able to pick out their bombshell mom? Only in SoCal is Gabby Reece just another face in the crowd.
• For what it's worth, I learned a thing or two from Laird, as well. I learned that you must walk your bike -- even while on the strand's bike path -- when there is any kind of high-traffic event going on. And what if you don't? Well, then you'll get a ticket ... even if you happen to be the King of Surf. This was evidenced by Hamilton's acquisition of a written citation in front of the masses at Manhattan Beach. He was riding along unassumingly when he was asked to stop, dismount and hand over his license, then was scribbled a ticket for pedaling in an area where there was a sign demanding bikes be walked. When the crowd stopped to watch, wave and boo the LAPD, the regulating police officer looked at Laird confused and said, "Should I know who you are?" The humble Hawaiian simply shrugged and said, "No. Not really."
So, it doesn't matter who you are or who your father is (Laird is the elder son of '60s surfing legend Bill Hamilton), or how hot you and your wife are together, the LAPD doesn't discriminate! Uhh. Well, scratch that. But they will whack everybody who happens to be anybody with a misdemeanor if they have the chance.
• There were also alleged reports that the police were out combing Manhattan Beach for the folks who made off with Logan Tom's ass, which appeared to have been stolen right off her perfect little bod. Now, I jest here only because for all the times we at Page 2 have run photos of the 25-year-old World Championship silver medalist/Stanford alum we so adore, I've never seen her in person until this weekend and I was struck by how much she resembles beautiful Hilary Swank from the front ... and SpongeBob from the side.
• This transitions nicely to beach parking, which is as as slim as the Toms, Wacholders and Walshes of the world. I arrived in the city of Manhattan Beach about 6 a.m. Saturday and still had to shark around town for a parking spot. This phenomenon is the biggest cluster-bust of California beach cities. If you live here, you know it, you hate it and you just deal with it. About 4 million more people live in the state of California than in all of Canada and you might well have to park in the Great White North and shuttle it down here if you want to be anywhere near the sand on a summer weekend.
... Unless you've already learned perhaps the the most important Cali lesson of them all ...
• Valet parking is one of life's most worthwhile indulgences. Before moving out here, I think I had valeted a car about three times in my life. I thought it was a waste. After five AVP beach weekends and a few months of living in Venice, I fully understand the value of pulling up, hopping out and flipping your keys to the kind gentlemen at the stand. It's worth every penny. The frustration it saves puts hours back on your life. To you folks who dare to dream, insisting on fighting the good fight knowing full well you most likely will partake in an incidental 5K before arriving at your destination, you're better people than I.
• Everything is a status symbol in California and nowhere is that put into practice better than in the crowds at an AVP Tournament. Things that serve a simple purpose anywhere else in the world are some of the most deliberately displayed items in Land of the Label. The three most obvious examples on the summer sands are sunglasses, flip-flops and bottled water. Anywhere else in America, the average Joe probably would drop about $25 total for these sunny staples. In Cali, you're looking at at least 200 bucks for a polarized pair of shades, a cool/comfy pair of sandals and a bottle of Fiji water. How they afford it all, I'm not sure, unless they made off with one of Kerri and Misty's big cardboard checks (the AVP goddesses have earned $139,400 total in the 11 tournaments so far this year).
• In other AVP auto news, I learned this weekend that Jesus drives a black Jaguar. Yes folks, James Caviezel was in attendance at the Manhattan Beach Open showing some support for Todd Rogers and Phil Dalhausser (the tandem who ended up winning the men's title). Turns out Todd, Phil and the acting messiah are all represented by the same agency. Now, the bigger Los Angeles lesson here (other than it's not what you know but who your agent is) is that, no matter where you go in these parts, there is bound to be a celebrity or two kicking around. Famous faces in attendance this weekend included Heather Mitts, Ali Landry, Rachel Hunter, Antonio Sabato Jr., Smush Parker, Bob Iger, the U.S. swim team and the USC football team. How very California.
• USC coach Pete Carroll takes his football team to an AVP Pro Beach Volleyball tournament each season. This weekend, the Trojans' caravan of three coach buses turned out for the afternoon in Manhattan between a morning practice and an evening scrimmage. Note: Coach Carroll told me he is "a huge fan of the AVP and the sport of beach volleyball." If not for his telltale Rose Bowl polo shirt, the San Fran native blended right in with the rest of the Cali crowd, sporting a hip set of Maui Jim shades (about 200 beans) and Rainbow sandals (about $50).
• Even though folks out here are willing to drop a significant chunk of change on Ray-Bans and designer H2O, they'll go above and beyond the bikini call for free stuff. Walk through sponsor village at an AVP tournament, and you'll see regular, solid citizens laying out for a free packet of sunscreen, a granola bar, a key chain, a fake tattoo, a mini stick of deodorant, a plastic shot glass of green tea -- anything they can get their mitts on, as long as it's free. At one point during a commercial break in Sunday's action, AVP Tour sponsor Jose Cuervo held an entertaining game of musical chairs on center court. The two female finalists literally had to be broken up after an ultimate fighting scene ensued and a body slam about knocked the lights out and bikini off contestant No. 2. I was OK with the cutthroat competition when I figured the winner would take home a bottle of the Cuervo family reserve agave, but I was little disturbed when I learned it was just for a free XL Beefy-T T-Shirt!
• The most serious and seemingly successful relationships can come to abrupt conclusions. Sure, you can study the Brad&Jens of the world for this lesson but, c'mon, that's yesterday's newspaper. These days, the breakup buzz that surrounds midseason player partner splits is adding much drama and excitement to the beach volleyball bracket. Elaine Youngs and Rachel Wacholder parted ways last week and played with new partners for the first time in more than a year. Rachel and E.Y., who were the No. 2 team on tour and the only pair to defeat AVP dominators Kerri and Misty (twice this season), are history. In the AVP, if you feel like you're better off with a different partner, you can jump ship and go at it next weekend with someone else. (Try that with your other half.)
This is one of the coolest things about the AVP to me -- admittedly a prototype commitment phobe. What happens in AVP land, much like in life, is that when one couple breaks up, there's a shakeup among those couples around them as pairs become singles and singles swap spots. In the wake of Rachel and E.Y., Holly McPeak (winningest woman on tour) and partner Nicole Branagh (2005 Rookie of the Year) will split so E.Y. and Branagh can try their luck together while McPeak taps Tom and Wacholder couples with Jen Boss, who left partner Nancy Mason. All in all, after the dust settled, about seven of the highest-seeded pairs on the women's side called it quits while No. 1 tandem Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor sat atop the standings and watched the scuffle from their sea of calm.
I asked Kerri's husband, Casey Jennings (who finished in fifth place on the men's side with partner Matt Fuerbringer), what his wife's player fidelity says about her as a marriage partner. He smiled and said, "Kerri's been with Misty for six years and I've been with Matt for four, so I think we're both pretty good at sticking it out. You just have to find who you fit best with, you know? If you do split up with your partner, you've got your reasons. Our job is to win tournaments and find the best player to do that with, so sometimes it's best for teams to break up, but we've been really lucky in finding partners who we fit with really well. You do what you have to do with your partner so that you both can do your job and be successful on the tour, and in life you stick with the person that makes you happy." That said, I think Kerri, Misty, Casey and Matt should hold weekly partner/marriage counseling meetings in the sand for all of us.
• The VIP suites at Dodger Stadium make for an especially sweet baseball fan experience. What does this lesson have to do with beach volleyball? Well, the kind folks at AVP Team Nautica invited me to my first Dodgers game, and athletes May-Treanor, Youngs, Mike Lambert, Dax Holdren and Sean Scott were honored in the first-pitch ceremony before the Tuesday night game. I was along for the ride and was lucky enough to wash down my first Dodger Dog with a few free beers in the super-cushy suite (my first time sitting in a stadium suite, and I must say with regret, it's going to be hard to go back to general admission). Regardless, it was courtesy of the AVP that I had the privilege of watching Greg Maddux throw six solid innings in his Los Angeles home debut. Quite a goose-bumped moment during the welcome ovation for The Professor.
I wonder how the new guy is adjusting to LaLa Land. Greg, if you're reading this, I highly recommend enrolling in the beach volleyball orientation to life in Los Angeles. Misty May can give you a great tutorial on the intricacies of the 101, 134 and Ventura Freeway, and I still have my notes if you want them.
Good luck, old man, it's a jungle out here.
Mary Buckheit is a regular contributor to ESPN.com and can be reached at MaryBuckheit@hotmail.com.