KENT STEFFES IS THE NO. 1 MONEY-WINNING beach-volleyball player in the whole tanned world, but he's about as popular among his fellow pros as a jellyfish sting on a sunburn. Steffes, it seems, has not shown the proper respect for beer and bikinis, two items found in close proximity to the game.
Steffes complained recently that the 24-event tour, largely sponsored by Miller Lite, was beginning to mimic a giant beer commercial. Then he suggested abolishing the bikini contests that often accompany tournaments. "The girls were coming in with G-strings and nothing else," says Steffes, a 24-year-old bachelor who prefers to pass his time in the player's tent reading The Wall Street Journal (he's a senior economics major at UCLA with a 3.4 average). "I'd like to see our sport progress to the situation of the NBA and NFL, where the sport can survive on its own merits," he says.
Steffes gets away with his heresies because he is the best. This year, in winning a record 13 straight tournaments in a season with his partner, Karch Kiraly, 31, Steffes has earned over $180,000 and eclipsed Sinjin Smith and Randy Stoklos, the two who dominated the sport in the 1980s. Smith, 35, whom Steffes described with an obscenity on a recent radio show, is one of those who wishes Steffes would play more and talk less. "He deserves to be where he is," says Smith, "but I don't understand why he says the things he does. Instead of promoting the sport, he puts it down."
Kiraly is quick to defend his partner. "Certain guys resent him for having so much success so young," he says. "Kent just leapfrogged to where others have been working for years to get."
Not that Steffes, a Los Angeles native who now lives in his own two-bedroom condo in Santa Monica, hasn't worked hard too. "When he was little, he played only with balls," recalls his mother, Sandra. "It was weird." He began college in 1986 on a volleyball scholarship but turned pro in 1989. His goal now is to win enough money to sock away $2 million and retire from any kind of work by the time he's 35. His current $200,000-a-year-plus pace puts him right on track. Ain't life a beach.
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