It was 1961, and I’ve just started my medical school in Warsaw. Volleyball interested me since high school and since I wanted to have a physical balance to my book education, I’ve found a volleyball team at my university.
We had practices in a far away arena late at night. But since we didn’t have to start our classes before 8 am, I thought I could handle it. On the first get together, I’ve met my team. Our coach was young, barely thirty, just after finishing his career, in which he was one of the prominent members of the Polish national team. On the team we had a bunch of guys, medical students and doctors, one of us was past thirty. At seventeen I was probably the youngest. Many students tried out, quite few dropped off after a couple of months. I remembered admiring the thirty-year-old friend for showing on practices and promising myself that at his age I must be doing the same.
Then came the first national championships for the medical school teams. At that time, we had ten medical schools in Poland, and we competed against nine other teams. I remember our first outfits: red shorts and black, long sleeve tops. We received them on the train traveling to a city some one hundred miles from Warsaw. We had the first fitting in our hotel. I remember the moment. The rooms were old and had high, typical of the old, pre-war construction. After trying on our uniforms, we tried to jump high to touch the ceiling, but couldn’t, despite us being the volleyball players. Later on, one of my older friends tried to teach us how to listen to what’s going on in the next room: you placed a small saucer on the communicating door and put your ear to the saucer. We couldn’t hear a thing, though.
We took seventh place. But we did have an excellent time. In between the games, ten of us, or so, went for the walk on the city’s main street. There we found a pretty girl and started following her. She walked first and there were ten of us, one after another, in a row. She stopped at the window-shop, so did we. She crossed the street to lose us, we did the same. She entered the shop with cosmetics, we formed a line after her. When she left the counter, the saleslady asked us ‘may I help you?’ and we said ‘no, thanks, we are with this lady’. The girl couldn’t remain serious anymore and on the street burst with laugh.
Back to the gym
At home it was back to the practice. With summer vacations coming, somebody (was it our coach?) had an excellent idea: let’s take vacations together, as a team. The north-eastern part of Poland is famous for beautiful, serene lakes and narrow, lazy streams connecting them. We rented a bunch of kayaks, tents and sleeping bags. We cooked our own dinners. We ate freshly fried fish. We bought potato pancakes and buttermilk just cooked at the lock we were passing through. We sang the songs at the campfires. The friendships formed there lasted forever. Our kayaks held two people. The person I’ve traveled with became my best friend in that time, and we’ve lived close to each other and kept in touch through my entire career in California, almost until my retirement.
In three years there was another championship tournament and we took fourth place. We got better. Not only as a team, but also as a group of friends. There were more vacations together. Summers on the lakes and winters in the mountains, skiing. Trips on overcrowded trains. Sleeping in bunk beds. Little mountain hotels with cold water only, even when the outside got snowy. And New Year celebrations we probably should forget, but we really didn’t want to. And we talked about volleyball all the time. We kept growing as a team. During summers we had our now customary training camps, where else? At one of our lakes.
If I didn’t say that volleyball is very popular in Poland, I apologize. And in summer, it’s even more popular than soccer. One day during our camp at the lake, while practicing on a scorched court, a local man approached us, and after seeing us play asked if we can help him. Why not, we said, what can we do for you? Well, he said, we have this volleyball tournament coming and we can use your help. Our eyes sparkled and we asked for more details. The tournament was a train trip away, they will cover the expenses and supply shorts and shirts with numbers and a local team’s logo. And what about your names? No problem, he said, we will provide you with the new ones and there will be no names on the jerseys. We will also give you your new IDs.
It sounded like an adventure and we liked the idea. To make the whole story short, we won the tournament and brought the trophy home. And kept it for a day or so. It belonged to the local team, though.
And we had time still left for partying and silly dancing.
We were invited to many tournaments and traveled most of the country. There was no hazing, but the new members were initiated and nobody wined about it.
Three years after the second championships, our medical school got awarded a privilege to host the national championship tournament. A big honor, but a lot of work for our organizing committee. At that point, our team was at the peak of its abilities. With the help of the home court advantage, we took the first place, we won the national championship. There were three individual awards: for the best offensive player, the best defensive player, and one for the best all-around. We took two of them. A huge deal.
And that was our pinnacle. My friends graduated, some moved away, some just aged out. Six years together on the one team is a long time.
How did we go together that far?
First, we were lucky enough to have a core group of compatible guys, and we all had a common goal not only to play but also to socialize together. There was no phoniness, no one-upmanship, and the competition was in the name of bettering our team. If we weren’t compatible, during all the time spent together on vacations and social events – team would have exploded. We had several personalities on the team, which kept our team together. One was my buddy from the same kayak on our lake/river vacations. A gentleman, genuinely witty, descendant of the old Polish aristocracy, he knew how to make and keep friends. Every person loved him. Another had a look of a movie star, and girls came to our games just to watch him. There was another one with a passion for cars and good enough to participate in the yearly Monte Carlo Rallies. We had doctors, dentists and pharmacists on our team, since all three schools were parts of our Medical Academy.
But the gel for the team was provided by our coach. Not much older than us, had an uncanny ability to make the whole thing work. His demeanor, candor and experience from the lustrous career on the Polish national team bought him our respect and willingness to work hard under his guidance. All of that created the value of being together and the culture of achievement. Our winning of the national championship in 1967 was the well-earned crowning of our efforts.
I know that no team had achieved that before, and I am not aware if it’s been done since. So how did we get that far?
There is a book ‘The Geography of Genius’ by Scott Weiner. The book is a treasure and thought-provoking. The story deals with a question of certain regions becoming the centers of excellence in the history of civilization. Be it Athens, Florence, Hangzhou, Vienna or Silicon Valley. For some reason, in all these places there was a spike of the activity which created unusual progress, be it in the arts, architecture or science. He couldn’t find a single unifying factor. On the perennial question genes or environment, nature or nurture, the answer was ‘both’. The most important factor seemed to create a proper environment, a proper culture.
We’ve seen this culture of mutual respect and a drive to achieve in our volleyball team. There was no single factor, not one person could be pointed to as a creator of success. We came to play together not because we had to, not because of material rewards, but we wanted to. And we formed true friendships. I kept in touch with my friend. We went kayaking together still forty some years later, when we lived in the same Los Angeles area.
Next year there will be fifty years since we got our trophies. The rules in volleyball changed so much, that now I have troubles following the Olympic Games. It would be nice to bring all those memories back. Are we going to celebrate next year?