Who Is The Best Volleyball Player Ever?

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Actually that depends on who you ask, but if the person you ask is Marv Dunphy, the answer will go something like this…

“If we were on the plane to go to the Olympics, and they were just about to shut the door, and Karch Kiraly called me to say that he wanted to play, I would stop them shutting the door until he could get to the plane.  Then I would cut someone, and Karch would be a starter.  He was that good.”

I have heard versions of this story before, from a variety of different origins, but this one was attributed to Dunphy about 8 or 9 years ago and reported on TheNetLive.

If you ask many Italians many they would say Lorenzo Bernardi, as he was named with Karch the Co-Best Player of the 20th Century by FIVB.  Recently I had a chance to ask someone who knew players who had actually played with both of them.  The story goes that among players who have played with both… Karch is still the best.


  1. I heard a funny discussion on The Net live where they discussed who in the ’88 team would be able to make the US team now given how the modern game has changed. The two guys couldn’t work out if Karch would start or not.

    How could we define the greatest ever? is is in the context of their era? how they dominated? or does the question pop up about how they would compete in the modern game?

    Back-to-back olympic gold medals in indoor, a world champs and world cup gold, and an olympic gold in Beach. first player to make $1M. And he didn’t suffer the indignity of appearing in the film “sideout”. You couldn’t look past Karch!

    Isn’t Lorenzo Bernardi the “player of the century”?


    1. The Bernardi/Kiraly story. I always had the idea that they were announced co-Players of the Century by FIVB. And Bernardi is always described in the Italian media as ‘Mr. Century’. But doing a little search, it seems that Karch was the best player by himself and Bernardi wasn’t even a finalist. Which is a little puzzling.
      To complicate matters a 1995 FIVB publication celebrating 100 years of volleyball named Russian Aleksander Savin as the best player of the first 100 years of volleyball. But four years later, he wasn’t a finalist in the best player of the century. I guess those 1896-1899 years were decisive.


      1. Versatility doesn’t make someone the best player in the world. Bernardi and Kiraly both started as setters, Bernardi only became a hitter after he was 18.
        Good player, yes. Best of all time? No.


  2. Has to be Karch. As an all round player/athlete playing at 190cm on a good day, he could do it all. Indoor, Beach I cant remember seeing a more ferocious competitor. At the age of 40 trying to qualify for the 2000 games on the beach I remember watching him go through a 45 minute warm up routine pre training session which at the time was just unheard of on the beach. I also remember him popping his shoulder at the final qualifying event in Belgium which ultimately cost him the chance to hold his position ahead of Blanton Fonoiomoana as the 2nd US team for Sydney. Clearly The other guys took advantage of the opportunity! Winning on the AVP at age 45 or 46….crazy. Think he came second to a nfl player in one of those battles of the athletes back in the mid eighties. He trained himself to jump goofy footed on the beach v natural footed indoor as he felt this helped him to hit better on the beach and could switch between both techniques when needed….that is not the easiest thing to do.

    Going on a bit here but its gotta be KK by a mile then the rest.

    ps. managed to beat him at a world tour event about 10 years ago, still up there with my favourite playing memories, didnt serve him much if I remember right.


    1. That 45minute warm up story is one of the reasons I find it incredibly ironic that he is no promoting the beach volleyball lifestyle. Back in the day, he wasn’t ‘living’ beach volleyball, he was training his arse off to smash everyone.
      That is not meant to detract from his qualifications as the best player ever. On the contrary. One interesting thing for me is the similarity between the stories about Karch and the stories about Bernardi. Some of them, you could switch names and noone would be able to tell the differnce. I once saw Bernardi wildly berating himself during pepper during a random Saturday training… when he was 37! Just both absolutely driven guys.


      1. Did Bernadi ever rip a net system down because he lost? definately driven individuals!!


      2. Promoting the lifestyle tour thing was a weird choice given his role as US womens assistant coach…..$$$$$$$.


      3. Bernardi was definitely a big enough sook to pull a net system down. My personal experience of him is beating his team and him going straight to sit in the bus without showering or changing and waiting there until everyone else was finished.


  3. what about Giba? would he make a poll? Giani would definitely have to be up there.

    Interestingly, a guy you wrote before Tetyukhin wouldn’t make a shortlist, even though he’s been the one constant player in a Russian team that sat near the top for years.

    You just can’t go past Karch. I’d love it if one day we had someone who became an international icon of the sport that people outside of volleyball knew too.


  4. If you made a list now, you would likely include Giba, Miljkovic, maybe Nikola Grbic. Giba might have a chance to knock Karch or Bernardi off, but the others probably not.
    Tetyukhin was just a really, really good player for a long period of time. When I say ‘just’ I don’t mean that as an insult.
    And regarding icons… we do, don’t we?
    Kerri Pottharst and Natialie Cook are both known outside the sport and probably not much less than Karch is.


    1. just wish as many people knew who karch was as much as someone like wayne gretzky.

      I bet if i asked most of the kids i coached who Karch Kiraly was, most of them wouldn’t know. Guess that’s my fault though. And i bet a lot of americans wouldn’t know who Karch was.


      1. If you can get your hands on a copy of the 1/4 finals of the atlanta olympics beach event kiraly/steffes v smith/henkel check it out. Karch v Sinjin to make the semis, AVP v FIVB 2 beach legends who would sell their grandmothers to win and had some serious animosity towards each other at the time…….epic.


      2. I heard about that match and I know the whole backstory. At least about AVP and FIVB. But i don’t actually know how they fell out in the first place. I also remember well Karch’s grudging recognition of Sinjin’s performance.


      3. Not sure about the falling out either although I think they have reconciled somewhat. It may have been good for business to have to guys who used to play together, went to the same college then tried to murder each other each sunday on
        NBC. Back in the late eighties early nineties these guys were cleaning up on the AVP however there was some serious prize money discrepancy. Was not uncommon to have 100k for winning an event and 20k for second trailing down from there, this could have had some bearing on how you may play/distract/try to kill, your opponent and lead to a possible falling out??
        On a side note I think the going rate to buy the now bankrupt/defunct AVP is about 2.6 million.


    1. I don’t really feel like I’m qualified to answer that question. Or the indoor one for that matter.
      I would guess it would come down to those two, Karch and Emanuel, unless you went really old school. I also guess the decisive point would be how much each of them won and in what context. On that basis Emanuel ‘only’ winning one Olympic Gold Medal might tip the balance towards Karch.


      1. Hmmm… not sure about that. Emanuel has three Olympic medals, one of each colour, Karch has only one (talking beach here, indoor is a different sport). Karch had only 3 FIVB wins against Emanuels 70 odd. Obviously Karch had 140 AVP wins, but I couldn’t find the stats on Emanuels domestic record. I think to call Karch the all time greatest, you would need to argue that the AVP is (or at least was) a stronger tour than the World tour…


  5. Further more, you would probably need to claim that the AVP was also stronger than the Brazilian tour during the time Karch was dominating. Again, need Emanuels domestic record.


    1. I think it is pretty tough to hold it against Karch that he doesn’t have a silver and bronze 🙂
      The narrative of Karch’s story and the essence of his greatness is that he always won. At every level on every surface. In the absence of it actually having happened, the narrative would say that Karch would never have gone into an Olympics as favourite and left without a gold medal. Essentially Emanuel did that twice, with 2000 being particularly notable. If you’re talking about a great player who won ‘a lot’ and a great player who won ‘always’… ‘always’ wins.
      I am very confident Karch’s supporters argue that during the largest part of his career, the AVP was clearly and indisputably the best competition in the world and that a large number of Emanuel’s FIVB wins took place precisely because Karch wasn’t playing.
      But I am just looking at it in a vacuum based solely on reputations and heresay.


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