Interview with Paul Becskehazy

Rich Foster
Water Polo Planet

Paul BecskehazyThe United States did not qualify for the 1976 Olympics.  We had some very good players, and just four year earlier we won the Bronze Medal.  We lost to Mexico at the 1975 Pan American Games, which eliminated the U.S. team from the Olympics.  I knew there was a story there, so I called former UCLA great Paul Becskehazy (BES-KE-HA-ZY).


Paul’s parents moved from Hungary to Brazil after World War II, so Paul grew up speaking Portuguese.   In Brazil, Paul found the sport he loved—water polo.  His family uprooted for Southern California when he was 14.  With the move, Paul thought he had died, unaware that he would be moving to El Segundo, one of the more cherished water polo towns in the States.  When he walked into his first practice, he saw the high school team scrimmaging against the Olympic team.  “I thought I had died and then woke up in heaven.  I didn’t speak English yet, but I could sense that this was the place for me,” he recalled.


Paul was named to the first team All-CIF squad, at a time when there was only one division in all of Southern California, as opposed to the current seven divisions.  Because he was still learning the English language, Paul spent a year at El Camino Junior College, then earned a scholarship after a year to UCLA, where he led the Bruins to two NCAA Championships in 1969 and 1971.  Paul was named to the All-American three times, with the last two on the First Team.


Fellow Bruin, Bruce Bradley, remembers Paul as “aggressive, fast and tricky”.  Paul would have been given serious consideration for the 1972 Olympic team, but couldn’t try out because he wasn’t yet an American citizen.  Paul became a citizen in 1973, making him eligible for the 1975 Pan American Team, and the 1976 Olympics had the U.S. team won that tournament.


FOSTER:  During your time with UCLA, you won two NCAA championships and took second place once, losing to UC Irvine in Sudden

Death after two overtimes.  The UC Irvine game must have been a barn-burner.


BECSKEHAZY:  It was a really emotional game.  We were a tough team; you had to kill us to win.  UC Irvine’s coach, Ted Newland, led a very spirited team against us.  It was a big win for them.  After the game Newland stated that “he would rather beat the Bruins than the God-damned Russians.”


FOSTER:   In 1972, you made the Brazilian Olympic Swim Team.  How did you do?


BECSKEHAZY:  Missed out on a Bronze Medal in the 4 by 100 freestyle by four 100ths of a second.  I was basically a water polo player who could sprint teamed with three swimmers.  It was quite an experience swimming against Mark Spitz’ relay team.   One hundred meters was the shortest race in the Olympics, but it was about my limit.


FOSTER:  You had many friends on the 1972 U.S. Water Polo team.  Did you get a chance to see them play in the Olympics?Paul Becskehazy


BECSKEHAZY:  Yes as soon as I was done swimming, I spent all of my time with the U.S. team.  It was terrific to see them get the Bronze Medal.  The first U.S. medal in forty years.


FOSTER:  You played for some legendary coaches like Urho Saari at El Segundo High School, Bob Horn at UCLA and  Horn and the legendary Monte Nitzkowski at Phillips 66 .  What was that like?


BECSKEHAZY:  They were very different.  Saari was a very patient coach and the nice thing about playing in El Segundo was the ability to practice with so many Olympians.  Bob Horn was excellent in training and Monte was the genius on tactics.   We had some amazing players at Phillips 66 like Russ and Torrey Webb, Stan Cole, Jim Slatton, Tony Van Dorpe and Eric Lindroth.


FOSTER:  So, you became a U.S. citizen in 1973 and eligible for the 1975 U. S. Pan American Team and hopefully the Olympic Games.  What was the state of U.S. Water Polo in the early 70’s?


BECSKEHAZY:    Water polo in the United States began evolving in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Monte Nitzkowski, Art Lambert and Bob Horn revolutionized American Water Polo.  The style of play, tactics and conditioning were totally changing.  We were also getting some international respect with a good showing in 1968, and of course the Bronze Medal in 1972.  By the time the 1975 Pan Am team was selected, we were definitely a potential medal team.


FOSTER:  Okay, so the 1975 Pan American Games were in Mexico City.  I’m told that the Water Polo venue held 10,000 spectators.  To gain an Olympic berth, you had to win the tournament.  What happened?


BECSKEHAZY:  We should have easily won the Pan American Games, but we lost to Mexico, the host country.  Mexico had some good players.  They had a world class goalie and a great hole guard, but they shouldn’t have been a problem for us.  The crowd was very boisterous and loud; we could barely hear the whistles.  We lost by a goal and missed two penalty shots.  On one of the penalty shots, the crowd was so loud that our player shooting the penalty couldn’t hear the whistle and didn’t even get off a shot.  The crowd had a lot to do with the result, but there were other problems.


Paul Becs kehazyFOSTER:  I heard that there wasn’t much cohesion on the team.


BECSKEHAZY:      The coach was Pete Cutino from Cal.  He of course is a legend and a very nice man.  But, some of the Cal players on the team felt privileged because Pete was the coach.  They didn’t really welcome us as teammates.  We felt like outsiders.  We never really developed into a team and if you don’t mature as a team, you won’t do well.  We just never jelled.  Plus, we could have used some players with international experience, like a Bruce Bradley or Stan Cole.  Kevin Craig was the best goalie in the country, but he was left off the team.  A couple extra experienced players would have made a difference.


FOSTER:  Seeing Mexico on the victory stand, ready to go to the Olympics had to be hard to take.  How well do you think the U.S. team would have fared at the Olympics?


BECSKEHAZY:  Yeah, the 1975 game against Mexico is one that I would like to have back. Over the years I have lost a lot of the anger, but it was really tough to have our dreams taken from us.   As far as the Olympics, the Hungarians were very, very good and won the Gold Medal.  They would have been very tough to beat.  But I didn’t see the rest of the field as being that tough.  Italy took the Silver, but outside of Gianni DeMagistris, they weren’t that remarkable.  The Dutch team won the Bronze Medal and I think we could have handled them.  So, it was quite possible that we would have been in the medal round and a good chance we could have been in the Gold Medal match.


FOSTER:  After  your playing career, what did you do?


BECSKEHAZY:    I’ve been a commercial real estate broker for over thirty years.  I’ve also coached water polo in the Miami area.   I really enjoy coaching and presently coach the Miami Beach International Water Polo Club (formerly the F.I.U. Water Polo Club).  I used to coach the Miami Beach High School team and won two championships there.


FOSTER:  There seems to be endless tinkering with the water polo rules.  What do you think about the present state of the game?


BECSKEHAZY:  Unfortunately, under today’s rules, the crafty and athletic player is overwhelmed  by the gorillas.  The constant rule changes don’t seem to help.  The game is complicated and difficult for spectators to understand.  I think that the only way to change the game to be better for the public is to penalize the defensive players more.  Right now, it is advantageous for the defensive players to foul.  We need to penalize the defense more.  We should count all fouls like in basketball and give players five fouls and they are out.  I also like the idea of giving a penalty shot after a team draws ten fouls.


UCLA 1971
1971 UCLA Championship Team