HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — There was only ever one choice for the photo on the cover of Kings of Summer: The Rise of Beach Volleyball (which you can buy on Amazon here!) I’d looked at it every single day I was at my house in Hermosa Beach, looking on as Chris Marlowe and Steve Obradovich competed against Mike Carey and Bob Jackson for the 1976 Manhattan Beach Open title.
I wasn’t the only one hooked by the photo. That photo, taken by Robi Hutas, is iconic, you see. It’s the same one that hangs in the home of Marcio Sicoli, the head coach of Pepperdine whose wall is also the home to a pair of Olympic medals, won in 2012 and 2016. Tour the home of Jake Gibb, and it is the only indication that a beach volleyball player lives there. Pop in Granny’s Grocery, a mini-mart on sixth street on Hermosa Beach, and that’s the photo you’ll see hanging above the door on your way out.
It grabs you, that photo, in a way that’s inexplicable. No matter how many times I look at it, I still find myself mesmerized by it, drawn to it. I never even asked Kent Steffes, my co-author on the book, if he was ok with using it as the cover. I simply sent the photo to the designer and sent Steffes the cover.
He loved it.
It sounds simple, choosing a cover. And in a way, it is: You find a photo fitting the narrative and theme of the book, you put words overtop, and you print away. Choosing the actual photo was the easy part. Tracking it down, on the other hand?
That was a bit of an adventure.
I never met Robi Hutas, the man behind the lens. Never spoke a word to him. Couldn’t tell you what he looks like. But from what I gather, he’s as emblematic of the culture of this sport as any of us playing, past or present.
“Describing Robi Hutas as a unique photographer would be an understatement,” Jon Hastings wrote for DiG Magazine in April of 2020. “Unconventional is a magnificent compliment for an artist and one of the reasons Hutas belongs on the Mount Rushmore of volleyball photographers.”
He took thousands of photos for free, just because, and gave them away to players and any organization who might like them. In fact, when he died in March of 2020, at 85 and after a long bout with cancer, he gave away his entire collection to the Hermosa Beach Historical Society.
Took me months to find that out. Then it took months further to track down the person to contact for the rights to the photo. It was a team effort, truly, this book. Steffes added layers and layers of depth and knowledge to the narrative I never could have. A pair of Hermosa locals, Chris Brown and Mark Pa’aluhi made the attaining of the photo possible. They had the number of Jamie Errickson, whom I needed to contact to get the rights to the photo, and it took the Historical Society a few weeks to find the exact one I was seeking (Hutas donated well into the tens of thousands of photos).
When she emailed me, she requested I pay a nominal fee for the rights. Honestly, I had no idea what a nominal fee might be for the right to a photo for a book, expecting a number in the hundreds, potentially even the low thousands.
In the end, it was 20 bucks.
I was more than happy to pay.
It is, I think, the perfect photo. While the book revolves around the 1996 Olympic quarterfinal match between Steffes and Karch Kiraly, and Sinjin Smith and Carl Henkel, that photo speaks far more than the proverbial 1,000 words it’s supposedly worth. It shows the wild, untamed nature of the sport at its zenith. There are no stands — but there are folks climbing poles to get a better view. Spectators sit within two feet of the court. They are almost all completely engaged in the match at hand. It was rugged, unprofessional, gritty — as is the photo, a sepia-toned shot that speaks to the manner in which the game was played and the book written.
It’s rare that one chooses the cover of a book before beginning to write the actual thing. It is said that we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover. But in a strange happenstance of reverse engineering, the cover, in this case, actually laid the foundation for the book.