Sunday, May 27

Kuwait disappoints volleyball alum

After a frustrating international experience, player returns to train for U.S. national team

Standout Bruin alumnus Tony Ker returned to the United States after a difficult experience playing professional volleyball for the Al-Jahra Sporting Club in Kuwait.

Standout Bruin alumnus Tony Ker returned to the United States after a difficult experience playing professional volleyball for the Al-Jahra Sporting Club in Kuwait. Daily Bruin file photo

After graduating from UCLA last summer, Tony Ker set out to see the world.

The former men’s volleyball standout finished his four years as a Bruin with a national championship, four All-American honors and the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year award, among a host of other accomplishments.

Ker was ready to step outside of UCLA and dive into a professional volleyball career.

But his experiences with the Al-Jahra Sporting Club in Kuwait let him down as Ker encountered everything from late paychecks to a quickly deteriorating team.

Soon after he returned from his time overseas, Ker’s perspective on the world of professional sports, his future and his value system got turned upside down.

“While I was out there, it was very frustrating for me to deal with the unprofessionalism in the management in my club,” Ker said. “We lost three of our best players and became a very sub-par team.”

Ker’s journey to find himself in Kuwait began with a simple text message from former teammate Damien Scott.

Scott, the senior captain of the 2006 national championship squad, has played internationally since graduating and is now a top player on Al-Kuwait Sports Club.

Because the nine-squad Kuwaiti Volleyball League allows only one international player on each team, Ker could not join Scott’s team. So, the Al-Jahra coach asked Scott if he knew any American players who would want to play in Kuwait.

Ker, a former libero turned outside hitter, was training with the U.S. Olympic team in Anaheim when he got his invitation.

Ker said he was happy to sign with an international squad not only to earn more money but also to experience another part of the world.

In Anaheim, the Olympic training squad had its living expenses covered as well as daily lunches. But Ker said despite the fact that his basic accommodations were being paid for, playing in Kuwait for three-and-a-half months for about $25,000 was a tempting offer.

“I was like, “˜Yeah I would love to play,’ especially because down in Anaheim we don’t get paid as much money as people overseas do,” he said.

Ker left for Kuwait on Feb. 17. Al-Jahra promised a furnished home, but from the start, the club failed to honor its agreements with Ker.

After living in a hotel for the first two weeks, Ker moved into the apartment, but when he arrived, he found an empty room with just a couch.

Following repeated attempts to have the coaching staff and management furnish his apartment, Ker was still without basic amenities such as a phone, bed or washer and dryer.

“I said, “˜Alright I’m sitting out of the game until you give me my stuff,’ and two days later I had all my stuff,” he said. “Stuff like that happens all the time overseas.”

Ker explained that in leagues as small as Kuwait’s, team management is significantly less professional, and players frequently report difficult experiences with management.

Eventually, Ker settled into his new home and his problems with the club team subsided. He practiced with his new squad for the next six weeks to prepare for its April 1 season opener.

It was during the course of this training that Ker saw his competitive squad slowly crumble.

“The (Kuwaiti) national team setter was on my team and he actually got traded to Damien’s team,” Ker said. “(Our) best middle (blocker) was 34 years old and he decided he didn’t want to play anymore … and our other outside (hitter) ended up hurting his shoulder and couldn’t play by the time of the beginning of the season.

“So we went from being a pretty decent team to being absolutely god-awful.”

In Kuwaiti volleyball, each squad has a professional volleyball team as well as various younger teams. With three of its top players now gone, Al-Jahra’s professional team had to draw from its 19-and-under team.

Suddenly, Ker found himself playing professional volleyball with high-schoolers.

In mid-April, with Al-Jahra’s hopes of contending in the Kuwaiti league already gone, the management approached Ker offering a settlement. They wanted to cut their losses by buying out part of Ker’s contract and releasing him from the team.

“They gave me a ridiculous offer,” Ker said. “I said, “˜No, I don’t want to do that, if I stay a month and a half longer, I can get my full payment.’”

The following week, Al-Jahra had practices where as few as four players showed up. And Ker continued to receive late paychecks.

“The manager made an appointment with me and just didn’t show up,” Ker said. “He did that for five days in a row.”

Used to the reliability of the U.S. Olympic team’s management, Ker was shocked at Al-Jahra’s lack of professionalism.

After another week, Ker finally decided to settle with his team. Through negotiations he increased his buyout to $15,000, and the team agreed to pay for his travel home.

But Ker’s difficulties with the team did not end there.

“Even after (settling), I had to push them along,” Ker said

He ended up handling his own travel arrangements back to the United States and arrived two days after the settlement on May 5.

And he was certainly relieved to be back. The upcoming Sunday was Mother’s Day. His mother’s 50th birthday and his brother Jamey’s 19th birthday were just two weeks away.

His parents are celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary on May 25. Ker’s other brother Kevin turns 20 on May 30.

“A lot of big days were coming up and I was like, “˜Alright, I need to get out of here. There’s no reason for me to be wasting my time out in Kuwait when I can go home and be with my family,” Ker said.

“You’re always going to have time to make money in your life, but you’re not always going to be able to celebrate those events with family.”

Despite having to deal with the shortcomings of Al-Jahra’s management, Ker said he took positives out of his time abroad.

He said he enjoyed learning about the culture and even traveled with Scott a few weekends, including taking a trip to Dubai.

And there was another positive that came out of Ker’s experience.

“I was out there and had a whole lot of time to think,” Ker said.

Occupied only with practices and games, Ker spent his free time video-chatting with friends and reflecting on his future in volleyball.

“I came to the conclusion that I don’t really want to make indoor volleyball a money-making profession,” Ker said. “My ultimate goal is to make the Olympic team, but going somewhere that is not going to get me towards the goal is not something that I want to keep doing just for the money.”

UCLA’s men’s volleyball coach and Ker’s coach of four years Al Scates said that Ker could play libero in a high-paying league, but he has been eyeing the outside hitter position for several years now.

“Tony always wanted to be a hitter,” Scates said. “He did the regular hitter drills at practice and always worked hard in the weight room.”

Now back in the United States for good, Ker will make the change back to his natural position of libero to compete for a spot on the national team.

He is focusing on rejoining the training squad with the eventual goal of playing in the Olympics.

Playing his former position back in Southern California, for Ker, there’s no place like home.

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