I have a special attachment to water polo. I had success with it, made lifelong friendships playing it, but I recently discovered it helped lay the foundation for everything I stand for today.
My discovery came during a difficult time when I was unable to sleep. The details of my water polo days kept coming back to me, making me smile. I was even having vivid dreams about them. It’s like they wouldn’t leave me alone! I became convinced there was something there for me to uncover, dots that needed connecting. I decided to write it all down...
The year was 1987.
U2 released The Joshua Tree, The Princess Bride was in theaters, I knew every lyric to the Licensed to Ill Album by the Beastie Boys and I remember screaming down the pool two body lengths ahead of my defender at the start of my first water polo game at Los Amigos High School.
I wasn’t thinking, just swimming my tail off and that yellow ball landed perfectly in front of me. A great pass I didn't even have to turn my head for. I gained control.
Now it was only me and the goalkeeper. He looked nervous, all alone with no help in sight. A feeling I would soon understand, but for this go-round, I was the one pulling the trigger.
I remember my initial water polo training from practice: "Always, Always, ALWAYS pick up the ball from underneath the water!". Attempting to grab the ball from the top is like bobbing for apples for a young polo player.
I was on the left side of the pool with the ball up, ready to be fired. I sized up the keeper was playing square in the middle of the goal and pretty close in. I shot low and to the wide-open corner closest to me (we call that a “strong-side” shot).
Clapping, incoherent shouts, and "Nice goal Douglas!" from my surprised teammate resonated in my ears, except it didn't end there.
My buddy Jason made another goalie save I anticipated and again I was off to the races in front of my defender. He led me with another pinpoint pass. I remember thinking, “Nice pass, dude!”. I was all by myself and looking for my other teammates to pass the ball to, but they were well behind me covered by their defenders.
Their goalie was too far back and in the middle of the cage (again), giving me another inviting strong-side shot. I hammered it home for my second goal within the first few minutes of the game.
Rinse and repeat.
My poor defender was having a tough time keeping up with me and his coach called a time out as they were down two quick goals. I remember the rush of being welcomed back to our bench showered with high fives. We huddled up but didn’t hear a thing our coach said. We were far more interested in the girls cheering in the stands.
After the whistle, we lined back up to resume the water polo game. Right out of the gates my opponent was attempting to grab hold of me to keep me in check, instructions undoubtedly given to him during the time out.
I was able to outwrestle him and was off to the races with Jason getting me the ball once again. Now their goalie had switched up to heavily guarding against my strong-side shot. He did this by coming out of the cage at me a bit more in order to cut down my shooting angle. Again, more adjustments made by the opposing coach.
My preference was to pass and share the wealth with my bros, but finding myself alone with yet another straight shot on goal with no help defenders, this was my shot to take. (We call this a “one-on-nobody”.) I sent my third attempt across the cage to the opposite side of the goal's upper corner, out of the reach of the lunging keeper.
High fives, smiles, more shouts from the home crowd.
I am able to look back at this moment with affection, and a certain amount of insight given I now have a lifetime of water polo experience. I enjoyed a successful collegiate playing career, spent plenty of time coaching and conducting goalie clinics. I have even done time as a referee for the sport. (I didn’t particularly care for that.)
From my perspective, three major things jump out at me that prepared me for this moment:
First, the instinct to transition off a turnover. My dad’s passionate basketball training drilled this into me long before I touched a polo ball.
I'll call him "The Coach".
The Coach was enamored with running the fast break and insisted we were properly drilled in the art. From fourth grade on I was taught to anticipate a turnover or rebound, and sprint down "filling a lane" to one of the sides of the court. Hours upon hours of basketball practice, drills and demanding whistles prepared me with high court awareness that translated nicely over to water polo.
Ha! Most kids had the incentive to score as many points as they could in these basketball leagues; this would determine how many scoops of Thrifty Ice Cream they got after the game. Not me.
The Coach's reward system was based solely on rebounds, assists, and blocked shots. It didn't matter if I scored 30 points; he wanted me relentlessly defending, hitting the glass and making that extra pass.
In fact, the Coach would give me a complete box of Sees Chocolates if I ever got a foul on defense by being too aggressive boxing out and protecting our own glass. My home-piece I nicknamed “Much” would also earn such a box.
This definitely fostered a team-first attitude. Sure I liked scoring points, but we were living in Southern California during the Magic Johnson Showtime Lakers era, so passing was cool. My pop’s intensity for basketball helped to fuel me with the determination unquestionably needed to play water polo at a high level.
The second reason I was comfortable with water polo out of the gates, was because I was a surfer. Polo is not a swim meet. It gets ugly. Battling a strong current in the ocean or paddling like mad to get over a wave starting to curl, helped me in getting clear of my defender.
Looking for the ball over my shoulder was like I was out at Huntington Beach River Jetties tracking down an oncoming wave: elbows high, heavy kick, arched back, with my arms pumping and face out of the water. Almost the exact stroke used to paddle a board in surfing is used in polo, and I had plenty of practice those three summers leading into my freshman year.
However, my first endeavors at surfing were abysmal. I would wait for the already broken wave to propel me forward, then strain to stand up in the whitewash as it was dying out.
I was comparable to a Utah tourist with a rented foam board and a farmer tan attempting to surf for the first time. Not a pretty sight.
During my early days out surfing, I was encouraged by some old dude to, “PADDLE HARD LITTLE MAN!”
I needed to charge after it and not wait idly for the wave to do the work. I attempted to paddle into the wave before it would break, but was too clumsy in my footwork and the wave would break on me. It sent me crashing and my two-ton, 80s board flying into the air landing on top of my head. Twice in a row.
Hottest thing on the beach, let me tell ya.
Hurt back then, but I am grateful now for those rough lessons in the surf. I never did give up on riding those waves.
Lastly, my love for wrestling prepared me for polo. I had hours and hours of improvised WWF Wrestling on the family trampoline under my belt. This kicked in when the kid was grabbing hold of me anxious to slow me down. I distinctly remember being confused at first thinking:
“You could never get away with this blatant holding in basketball. If you wanted to keep a guy in place, you did it by boxing him out with your butt... Oh, it is so on!!”
My favorite wrestler was Dino Bravo, known for his epoch smackdowns with the Junkyard Dog. Even today my longtime friends call me “Brav”, taken from Dino Bravo and shortened a bit.
[My man Dino Bravo would get involved with smuggling cigarettes into Canada after his wrestling days, and was allegedly killed in a hit by the Canadian mob. So kids DO NOT attempt the "Sidewalk Slam" on your trampoline, or aim to profit from duty-free cigarette sales.]
Another pro wrestler, Sal “Chavo” Guerrero, lived down the street from our Fountain Valley home and I went to school with his kids. A complete legend in the neighborhood. Watching him mow the grass one day, and turn on the TV Saturday morning to witness him slap his chest and throw Roddy Piper into the turnbuckle was awe-inspiring. Wrestling was huge with the neighborhood kids and being the only family around with a trampoline, our backyard was often the wrestling venue.
Imitating the antics of my favorite wrestlers was second nature and I was able to use the skill set right away in the pool. Making water polo even more endearing.
Almost seems impossible one sport could put to use all of these abilities I had already developed years beforehand. My Dino Bravo moves, grappling with the waves, and filling the lane for The Coach all came together to give me a powerful introduction to the world of water polo. I used to believe it came effortlessly to me, but my observation is that was not the case. I came equipped for the game.
I couldn’t sleep that night back in ‘87. My mind was wide awake reliving the events of the day, thinking over and over:
“Dude, this sport rules”.
“You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?”
I Discover Polo
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Son of an Athlete and an Actor
“That’s a beautiful name. It’s Scotch-Romanian. That’s an odd combination.
So were my parents.”
A less favorable nickname of mine growing up was "The Embellisher". I have had tons of nicknames, and I love giving them out even more.
My favorite embellishment was telling two dudes from Wyoming that Nicole Eggert went to my high school. Okay, Nicole Eggert didn’t go to my high school… but her sister did!
Today I make sure I have plenty of people corroborating my tales because truth really is a matter of perspective and mine can surely be a bit off at times. In my defense, I did inherit this penchant for flowery storytelling from one of my parents, but I won't tell you which one because she might be reading this book.
But honestly, I did score three one-on-nobody goals in my first home water polo game at Los Amigos during the first quarter of play.
However, my fairytale was short-lived. They neutralized me the rest of the game by switching a talented freshman to guard me. (It was clear I had the miss-match.) He shared the same skills of good speed and high instincts for polo, making it quite the battle royale from then on. We held on for a hard-fought 10-9 victory. Celebrating with my teammates was a thrill I hadn’t quite experienced before in competition. This sport demanded so much exertion that it brought a different type of emotion out of us. We bonded as teammates in a way few sports can.
The second, more talented, defender I later came to know quite well because he was my collegiate teammate. We reminisce with much affection about our first game against each other, as well as other showdowns we battled within the Garden Grove School District. Man, I love reliving a story.
I do have somewhat of a short-term memory as to who I have told so you may be forced to hear it over and over, a characteristic some might find taxing. I could very well be called “The Absent-Minded Reminiscer”.
Fortunately, I have not been as obsessed and trapped back in time as some might be, like good ol’ Uncle Rico, (Jon Griese's classic portrayal of Napoleon Dynamite's eccentric, jock uncle, haunted by the regrets of a blown football championship back in '82).
Although admittedly, I do have some Uncle Rico to me.
I bring up even in casual conversations I played polo and am quick to recall ‘87 as a formative year for me. I even played in a water polo tournament a few years back with a group of college guys and we would scream "1987!" coming out of time outs. They loved my war stories and thought it crazy that was the year I started playing. (Most of them weren’t close to being born yet.)
However, I have a confession to make: I wasn’t wired like the typical jock...
I was actually quite a bit odd.
The result of love bringing together a rebounding machine with sharp elbows and a pro stage actor. They turned out one strange duck for a firstborn son.
Kids are typically forced to do certain chores like practicing the piano, cleaning their rooms, etc, but early in my developing years, I was forced onto the stage.
My mom sacrificed time away from the beloved theater when we were all too young to leave at home. She got back on stage once we were old enough and traumatized her young children as she was thrown down a flight of stairs and killed portraying Victor's mother in Frankenstein. My little sister started to cry in the audience and I'm amazed my mom was able to stay in character.
My mom taught me the art of staying in character is vital to any performance, especially in comedy. Take the classic SNL “More Cowbell” skit for example. Everybody loses it, except for the stone-faced, deadpan Walken. He is the real reason the skit is a legend. (“I’ve got a fever!”)
I had no desire to follow my mom to the stage at first but got the bug after my first taste. My brother Drew calls this era of my life the time of "Drama Brav".
Drew hated Drama Brav.
Claimed he was obnoxious and forced the family to listen to the soundtrack to the musical theater production of Cats over and over on long family trips bellowing out melodramatically as the "The Rum Tum Tugger".
I certainly didn't view myself as an athlete, even when I got some early clues in the middle of fourth grade.
I went to school with this kid who today is the epitome of a Huntington Beach local surfer. Over the years if I'm talking with dudes out in the lineup I know are longtime HB guys, I'll throw his name out there and the response is always an excited, "You know that clown!!??".
Funny guy, but back in the fourth grade he was the stocky kid you wanted to stay clear of whilst playing the classic 70's school ground game: Smear the… well, Smear the Guy with the Ball.
Dude loved the game, and I can't say I was too aggressive in being the guy with the ball he was trying to run down while screaming, "STICK 'EM!!".
He was challenging our entire class to arm wrestling matches while we were stuck inside on a rainy day, and I cowered to the back of the room. He breezed through everybody, but the frenzy eventually died down and there were no longer kids circled around him cheering as he was puttin’ fools down.
My man wasn't done yet. Saw me standing idly around and said it was my turn. I thought I might as well get it over with. Yet I was determined to give at least a decent showing in case any of the cute girls I went to elementary school with were still watching. I was long and gangly, not viewed as much of a threat.
I slammed his hand down as fast as he had plowed down others in our class. "I hope nobody saw that!" The kid was in complete shock. "Let's go again!" ― same result. At this point, I was just as surprised and kind of confused. I pretty much wrote it off... he was probably tired from arm wrestling all afternoon.
Another early indicator I was a future athlete came when it was time for kid pitch on the baseball field. I was a feared little league pitcher for years. I still remember The Coach's visits to the mound: "How's your hammer feeling?", or "You losing your hammer?".
At times my sensitivities as an actor conflicted with the hardened attitude my dad was trying to instill within me on the mound. I remember one instance I was forced to pitch against my long-time friend “Bear”. He was hesitant to step up to the plate to face me while I was mowing down batter after batter.
Bear was an athlete, but baseball was not his thing.
Conflicted, my first offering was a cream puff, barely anything on it right over the plate. Swing and a miss. My second, another softy right down the middle. Again, he swung right through it with his long arms.
Bear, you're not helping me out here.
The Coach picked up on what was going on:
"Brandon!! Brandon!!!@#$", he bellowed out of the dugout.
"Pitch to him!! Pitch to him!!" I touched the brim of my ball cap, a signal to him I understood.
I bore down and put on my best bulldog face to go after him… and I just couldn't. All I saw was my Star Wars buddy who would take turns with me being Han Solo, (while the other served a stint as Chewbacca), manning the Falcon together in the backyard downing imaginary enemy tie-fighters.
I served up one last meatball and Bear finally belted it into right field. No Thrifty’s Ice Cream for me that day.
Whenever I see a skinny starting pitcher and people wonder how he can be throwing the ball so fast without the bulging biceps, I get why. Still today I will get comments in the weight room from the perplexed bulky dudes: "You are putting up some weight!". Translation: “You're slim but strong.” I tell them I'm a swimmer and they say that makes sense.
The Coach started me off in organized basketball around fourth grade and he ended up coaching all of my teams until I was a sophomore at Los Amigos, along with baseball through Jr. High. My dad also had a flair for the dramatic, which frequently came out in his coaching efforts to motivate us. My favorite was when my sophomore team was giving a bit of an uninspired effort during the first half of an away game. The Coach burst into the visitor’s locker room and flung a chair across the room. You should have seen us jump.
But before high school, I still viewed myself more of a drama dude. In fact, I started to get the big roles in the Orange County Children's Theater productions. My favorite was portraying Mr. Beaver in our rendition of The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe.
Probably because I was in love with Mrs. Beaver.
We were good together with amazing on-stage chemistry, always improving and feeding off of each other. We also sang a duet together.
By the end of each production, we had stolen the show. There was a line of little kids outside waiting to meet The Beavers and to get our autographs; we stayed in character complete with cockney accents.
(My brother Drew is cringing right now reading this part of the book.)
My first kiss was not during a stolen moment alone with a girl, or on a dance floor while “Lady in Red” was playing. It came at a rehearsal on stage in front of an entire community center room full of teenagers, giggling pre-teens, my parents, and my grandparents… with Mrs. Beaver.
When I first read through the script and saw the words jump off the page, "Mr. Beaver kisses Mrs. Beaver", I thought it would be something we would work around.
The directors made sure the production was “children’s theater” friendly. It was common to sanitize the original scripts from any adult language or questionable content. I honestly didn't give it a second thought.
There was no room for that type of smut.
I was safe up until we got a few rehearsals in, and the director made it quite clear — she wanted the kiss in the play and it was time to rehearse. I was squirming trying to figure a way out of this tight spot I found myself in, while the entire cast put the real pressure on with their catcalls. Mrs. Beaver stood there poised, beautiful, and a year older than me. A real professional.
I gave into peer pressure, but kept screwing it up! The director helped guide me into the kiss she was envisioning with my face turning more and more beet red. Not only did I have to kiss this person I had a serious crush on, I was terrible at it!
I can still hear my folks and grandparents belly laughing all the way back to the car.
(Years later in college, I remember Drew confessing his jealousy and infatuation with Mrs. Beaver as a young man one night after watching Spaceballs. A small victory and vindication for Drama Brav.)
Yes, the Orange County Children's Theater was good to me, and it was there I met Jason and two other teammates. They were in the summer of '87 play The Great Cross Country Race. I had been in seven straight plays through junior high and took the summer off from the tireless rehearsals to surf and goof around with Much who lived around the corner from me. Come production time, however, I was back for the fun times hanging out with the cast backstage and with Mrs. Beaver who helped with the makeup.
I hit it off with these guys immediately and we had a blast ending out the summer. I found out all of my new pals were going into their sophomore years at Los Amigos. Jason and the boys asked me if I was going to play any sports at school. I only had basketball in mind, but they encouraged me to join them on the polo team. I responded, “They have a Marco Polo team???”.
“Dude... just show up to the pool deck. Practice starts next week.” I was game.
My first lesson was discovering the art of the “egg-beater”. Water Polo 101. Eggbeatering is the technique we used to maintain and lift ourselves high out of the water. It consisted of pumping our legs up and down like riding a bike, but with our ankles jutted out and at the same time moving them in circles simulating an egg-beater motion. Jason was patient with me and forced my legs to do it correctly while holding his breath under the water, grabbing my feet.
It was nice befriending these guys who were both highly athletic and talented artistically, a rare combination for sure. They were more my speed than a bunch of typical jocks, (although we wouldn't be singing musical theater in the shower.)
We sure did run into that machismo dynamic in the locker room. My drama bro almost had his head taken off by some angry football player. He was able to duck away as the swing missed high and the attacker most likely broke his hand on the locker he hulk smashed. Big dude, but we stood by our guy.
Having polo skills got me in with these up and coming guys at “Los” (the school’s nickname). They were tough athletes, funny, outgoing, and good-looking dudes. I mean, Jason could have blended in seamlessly as an extra on the Beverly Hills 90210 campus. Freshman girls in my classes were always wanting to know the inside details of what it was like playing on a team with them.
My freshman year was one to remember. I was like a puppy dog following Jason and the fellas around campus and incredibly grateful water polo and acting united us all together.
Yes, quite the beginning to my water polo career. I had no idea at the time how much of an impact this sport would have on me. The Coach took Drew and I all over California going to college basketball games; it was my plan to play for one of our local universities on the hardwood. I always loved dad’s stories about his playing days in high school and college as an undersized rebounder/enforcer.
However, I would find my college success in the pool.
I was the state MVP for Golden West College Water Polo my sophomore year which got me highly recruited from all the universities in California fielding teams. My favorite was being heavily recruited from my beloved UCLA, and local favorite UC Irvine was even willing to provide housing.
USA Water Polo had me on their radar as well. My Golden West coach said they ranked me as the #5 collegiate goalie back in ‘92 given my dominance at the Jr. College level, and from all the buzz I was getting from the top universities.
And don’t worry, I didn’t write this book with narcissistic intent to wow everyone with how great my athletic career was. Nevertheless, it is important to establish and give you the bird’s eye perspective as you continue reading, at one time I could really play. Especially for a drama dude.
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Okay, you found someone who will listen to your boring stories. Everything's not an anecdote. You have to discriminate. You choose things that are funny or mildly amusing or interesting. You're a miracle. Your stories have none of that. They're not even amusing accidentally. Honey, meet Brandon Douglas... he's got some amusing anecdotes. And here's a gun so you can blow your brains out! You'll thank me for it. I could tolerate any insurance seminar. For days, I could listen to them go on and on. They'd say, "How can you stand it?" And I'd say, "'Cause I've read Keeper. I can take anything." You know what they'd say? "I know what you mean. The digital marketing guy?" It's like going on a date with a Chatty Cathy doll. There should be a string on your chest that I pull out. Except I wouldn't pull it out, you would! Ah!! Ah!! Ah!! Ah!! By the way, when you're telling these little water polo stories, here's a good idea. Have a point. It makes it more interesting for the reader.
April 5th at 2:05pm
"A complete barrage of 80s imagery."
November 19 at 10:51am
"Actually...I rather liked it.. Um...some of the words I didn't understand, but I found the 80s imagery quite effective. And, um, interesting rhythmic devices which seemed to counterpoint the surrealism of the underlying metaphor of the humanity (Vogonity)... of the writer's soul, which contrives through the medium of the verse structure to sublimate, er... whatever it was about."
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All reviews and testimonials were given without pay or prompting and are also being made by fictional characters.
Teacher - Gross Pointe High
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Sergeant Nicholas Angel
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