HOLYOKE - It's a long way from this aging mill city to the beaches of Malibu and Waikiki, but the fast-paced game of volleyball was born in Holyoke's YMCA in 1895.
William G. Morgan, the Y's "physical director," invented "mintonette" as a less strenuous alternative to basketball - created next door in Springfield - that middle-aged businessmen could play on their lunch hours.
American soldiers and sailors spread the game around the globe during two world wars, and volleyball has blossomed into a sport played by more than 800 million people. But its heart still lies in Holyoke, home to the Volleyball Hall of Fame.
Even though the modest museum lacks the interactive pizzazz of Springfield's Basketball Hall of Fame, it does a good job tracing the history of the sport that John O'Donnell, who helped found the hall, calls "the greatest game in the world." O'Donnell began his career in the organized sport in 1969, when he served as commissioner for the New England states, and later turned to refereeing.
The Volleyball Hall of Fame dates from 1978, and began inducting honorees in 1985, including local star Karolyn Kirby. Brookline-born Kirby won a gold medal in the 1992 Olympics, and held the record for most wins on the women's professional beach volleyball circuit.
Plaques and memorabilia honor other stars from around the world. The game's simple requirements - a volleyball, a net, and willing participants - helped its spread. The museum's displays include a half-regulation court with silhouettes of players to explain the six rotating positions.
Over the decades, the game has evolved into two forms: indoor volleyball, played six against six on a hardwood court, and beach volleyball, played two-on-two in official competitions but also with varying numbers of players in casual matches. While O'Donnell considers the indoor version the purest form of the sport, he understands the attractions of playing in the sand, and of watching players clad in swim togs.
"Everybody says Wilt Chamberlain really boosted the sport," he says of the basketball legend who took up volleyball with a passion after retiring from the NBA in 1973. "But with Wilt, it was all about the girls."
The game achieved Olympic status in 1964, when indoor volleyball became a medal sport in Tokyo. O'Donnell officiated the men's gold medal match in the 1984 Olympics, when the United States narrowly defeated Brazil. When the match was over, O'Donnell seized the ball for posterity and donated it to the hall. He got all the team members, including honorary captain Tom Selleck (an amateur player for Honolulu's Outrigger Canoe Club), to sign it.
Beach volleyball joined the Olympics in 1996 in Atlanta. But O'Donnell says the sport remains true to its roots as a friendly competition dreamed up in a small-city Y more than a century ago.
"Volleyball people," says O'Donnell, "know how to leave it on the court. They compete hard but afterward they go out for a pizza and a beer."
David Lyon, a Cambridge-based freelance writer, can be reached at Harris.firstname.lastname@example.org.