Professional volleyball players will do just about anything for their fans. They'll sign whatever they're handed, they'll hang out and party after tournaments, and -- if they're three-time Olympic gold medalist Karch Kiraly -- they'll even propose for you.
"There was a couple from Phoenix who came up to me last year between matches in San Diego. The guy asked me to sign a ball and write 'Will you marry me?' above my signature," says Kiraly. "Then he asked me if I would take the ball to her. And so I went into the stands with him and said, 'Here, I signed a ball for you. You should read it.' Of course, she said yes to his proposal, and the crowd went wild."
Kiraly says he hopes to see that couple when he plays in the AVP Nissan Series Tempe Open at Tempe Beach Park this weekend. The volleyball legend is one of a slew of notable players in a tournament that includes Olympic gold medalists Misty May, Kerri Walsh, Dan Blanton and Eric Fonoismoana, Olympic bronze medalists Holly McPeak and Elaine Youngs, and 2004 Tempe Open MVP Mike Lambert.
Lambert, who partnered with Kiraly to reach the finals in last year's Tempe Open, says the East Valley hub stacks up well against other tour cities like Fort Lauderdale, Chicago and San Diego when it comes to parties. "Each city has its appeal. The appeal of the Tempe event is it's right next to ASU, so it's got that kind of party atmosphere," says Lambert. "Volleyball kind of has that atmosphere, too, coming from the whole California beach scene. So it's a good match vibe-wise between what we bring and what's already there."
"It's a great crowd," says McPeak. "Very young and enthusiastic, and they seem really receptive to the sport."
The crowd is also receptive to the tent parties, live music, amateur volleyball games, and hot, half-naked bods that surround the event. And while many people would bemoan a three-day party in the Valley's soaring temperatures, the players rather like it.
"I love the great, warm weather," says Kiraly, who's played everywhere from Indian School Park to Mesa Community College over the years. "It's never humid like Chicago, Florida or New Jersey."
"We come in early enough when it's warm, but not deadly," says McPeak. "It's best for the fans, too, because you don't want them baking in the sun while they're watching the matches."
With average April high temperatures ranging in the upper 80s and lower 90s, top local players like Pat Brown, Tom Witt, Vikki Moran and Shonnie Hodges might hardly break a sweat. And while all the players look to break into the winner's stand, Kiraly predicts that Walsh and May -- who swept all five matches at last year's tournament on their way to a record-breaking 86-game winning streak -- will dominate the women's side. "The only thing I can tell you for sure is that Kerri and Misty will win," says Kiraly. "I don't see them losing much. On the men's side, it's impossible to predict."