The People’s Court
"Where the fuck is he? Did you text him?" That's Sam, a 24-year-old bike messenger from the Inner Sunset. He's querying about a half-dozen mostly twentysomethings huddled on the Dolores Park tennis courts. Cuffed skinny jeans abound, and everyone, it seems, rode a fixie to the park. The late-night air smells of pizza and marijuana; it's cool, calm, and breeze-free for the most part.
It's 15 minutes past the hour before finally, to a chorus of cheers and jeers, Danny walks through the gate. The slender 22-year-old from the Western Addition has impressively floppy hair, a Civil War–caliber beard, and most importantly, the ball. Danny pulls a rubbery red mass out of his bag along with a foot pump and starts inflating.
He goes at it for almost three minutes before giving way to Sam, who siphons air into the ball with one hand in his pocket while the other brings a can of PBR to his lips. He's immediately, and deservingly, applauded for his seasoned foot-pumping technique. Sam eventually places his palm on the top of what turns out to be a 65-centimeter yoga ball, tests its bounce-ability, and almost scientifically assures us, "It's good."
At this point, our numbers have swelled to almost 20, and now include Olivia, a 23-year-old web designer/barista. "Don't be shy," she says. "Jump on the court."
It's time to play Volleybonk.
Volleybonk is a combination of volleyball, tennis, kickball, and, well, Fight Club.
We rotate service games similar to volleyball, except there's no maximum or minimum number of players (they've had as few as two and as many as 36).
The goal, like tennis, is to hit winners or force errors, except unlike tennis, our team can volley among ourselves as many times as we want after the first bounce in order to get the ball across, as long as the same person doesn't hit it twice in a row. We can strike the ball with any part of our bodies, so kicking, punching, heading, kneeing, or clotheslining are all on the table. Oh, and we don't keep score.
I decide I'm going to try anyway, not realizing that by the time we're done, we'll have played close to 300 points. I eventually lose count. The first serve of the night skies 20 feet in the air — serendipitously, right at me. I grip my hands volleyball-style and as the worn rubber violently slaps against my face and forearms, I realize a) I haven't compensated for the size of the ball compared to a volleyball, and b) this is unbelievably fun.
In between points, I take notes with a pen and pad I have tucked in my back-left pants pocket.
Note #1: In a T-shirt, jeans, and Converse sneakers, I'm somewhere between under- and overdressed. Game attire ranges from a leopard-print Russian ushanka and pink boots to a V-neck sweater/button-down combo and a dark blue leather hat that reads "Hammer Time."
Note #2: Playing with a beer in one hand makes things considerably more complicated, and inevitably leads to puddles on the court.
Note #3: Don't attempt to write notes in between points.
"You're gonna get hit in the face if you keep doing that," Olivia says, staring me down from the other side of the net.
"That's part of the game, though, right?" I ask.
"It's part of my game," she says, pausing far too long before laughing. I'm now slightly uneasy.
Olivia is one of the longest-tenured Volleybonkers. She's been coming for almost three years now, along with Sam and his roommate Jessie, a 24-year-old full-time student who shows up almost 45 minutes late.
As much as it looks like hitting a beach ball around in an aisle at Walmart, there are skills to master in this game, the most crucial of which is serving. During our first two rotations, I attempt both the drop kick and the hammer throw. The drop kick seems like the most popular technique (it earns Danny the moniker "Giant Serving Monster"), but it also yields the most erratic results. My first service game lasts just two points.
The hammer throw requires that I cock the ball back, torque my body à la Timmy Lincecum, and hurl the ball over the net, aiming for the weakest returners. I reel off 10 straight points this way, one of the longest streaks of the evening, not that anyone (other than me) is keeping track. Sam and Jessie, meanwhile, both tee up the ball on the ground and implement a running kick, a move I decide is best left to the professionals.
There are also return techniques. Both sides applaud prodigious rallies, finding a sort of comfortably uncomfortable middle ground between competition and niceties — so being able to keep the ball alive with any number of moves is key. In addition to the volleyball/kickball classics, other maneuvers I gradually add to my arsenal include the double-fisted punch, the forearm and fist thrust, and the extended-arm battering ram (I try this just once and my arm almost snaps in half).
"The first time you play, you're gonna be sore," Jessie later tells me. And I am, for days later, particularly in the battering-ram-arm region. Soreness is one of a handful of 'Bonk hazards I uncover. The scariest: anyone can play. Sam estimates maybe 1,000 people have graced these courts in three years, including Sunday drinkers walking back from the bars, people tripping on mushrooms and acid, and a homeless-looking gentleman who spilled an entire bottle of pills across the court.
"Whenever we rotated, there was a huge gap between that guy and everyone else," says my new intermission drinking buddy, Kyle, who's a dead ringer for Danny Bowien from Mission Chinese Food. Thankfully, none of these characters show up on this Sunday evening.
I finish my beer and slide back onto the court. There's maybe 30 minutes left to play, and to be honest, I sort of don't want it to end. And certainly not on Danny's next serve. The GSM booms a kick that slices left and careens off the top of the oh-so-sharp fence. Jessie is the first responder — he sprints out of the gate, snags the rock, and tries to kick it back over the fence. His angle is horrible, though, and after three attempts, two of which again pound the top of the fence, the ball sails over.
Sam rushes to it medic-style. They've popped six balls in three years on bike axles, slivers of glass, and this very same fence top. According to Sam, "You can't patch them; we've tried."
The ball is battered and bruised, but not leaking, so we push on. With five minutes to go before lights out, it's time for the "Lightning Round." This is a no-holds-barred version of Volleybonk; basically anything goes. The only rule is that you have to scream "Lightning Round" every time you make contact with the ball until the lights go out.
And after a chaotic five minutes that seem more like 10, they finally do. We line up along the net and walk in circles around it, high-fiving each other enough times that I lose count. The ball is deflated. But no one leaves for a good 20 minutes. Conversations are carried on in the darker-than-usual darkness. Olivia finds her way over to me. "Tonight was a really good game."
"It was?" I ask. "How do you even know if you don't keep score?"
"That's easy," she says. "Did we get to run and laugh a lot? Did we get to hit the shit out of a giant ball? Then it was successful."
Want to hit the shit out of a giant ball yourself? Barring rain, Volleybonk is played every Sunday at the Dolores Park tennis courts in the Mission from 8 to 10:15 p.m. Or, buy your own ball at Sports Authority and head to SFTennisCourts.com to find a place to play. Wherever you end up, just make sure you bring your own beer, practice your high-fives in advance, and please, don't take notes between points.