Mango’s spiked with fun

It’s a warm Wednesday evening under a harvest moon and the barefoot, beach-attired crowd is going strong. They’re just a quarter of a mile from the low-rise office buildings and endless strip malls that line South Sherwood Forest Boulevard, but these guys and gals are as good as at the beach—jumping and lunging, spiking and bumping, drinking icy longnecks and playing beach volleyball on soft, white sand.

The venue is the unlikeliest of places—a little club on West Bricksome Avenue called Mango’s. It’s out in suburbia, smack dab in the middle of an asphalt sea. And yet, it’s a tropical paradise unto itself, a casual, beachy bar with well-worn stools and an inviting deck that overlooks nine volleyball courts on yards of shimmering sand.

The players come nearly every night from early March through mid-October. They are women and men from all walks of life and every corner of Baton Rouge. The youngest are in their early 20s, the oldest in their 60s. They come to play, get some exercise, make new friends and just duck out of the city, if only for a few short hours a week.

“A friend of mine told me about this and now I can’t get enough of it,” says 52-year-old Jeff Schwartzman, who’s been playing at Mango’s for two years. “I hate to use a cliché, but this place has a good vibe.”

When you play sand volleyball at Mango’s, you check your persona at the door. It doesn’t matter who you know or where you work, whether your kids go to private school or how many well-connected friends you have in your real life. Here, everyone is a barefoot beach bum in shorts engaged in the common pursuit of trying to get that white, leather ball over the net. It doesn’t even matter if you’re any good at the game. The crowd takes you on your own terms.

“People come for the volleyball, but also for the atmosphere,” owner Tim Bourgeois says. “It’s not really the bar scene, but it’s just as much fun, and the best part is you can really be yourself.”

Bourgeois should know. In the 13 years since he opened the club, at least half a dozen couples that met playing volleyball at Mango’s have ended up married. Some have kids now. It’s a good feeling. His wife Tina, with whom he runs the business, has a theory as to how and why this beach volleyball club holds such sway over its patrons.

“People don’t have to pretend,” she says. “They can just be natural.”

The couple opened Mango’s in 1995, when Tim was 28 and a frustrated techie coming out of the IT business in North Carolina. He played sand volleyball up there for fun, and after a little soul-searching decided he had found his calling. He moved with Tina to his native Louisiana and they opened Mango’s.

The club has since grown from three courts to nine. It’s now something of a regional hub for the competitive sport of sand volleyball. It’s open six nights a week during the season and hosts seven leagues, which are skill-based and range from very beginner to advanced. Dozens of four-person, co-ed teams play in the various leagues, and while some teams comprise veteran volleyball players, there’s always a spot on an open team for a walk-on or newbie who wants to give it a whirl.

“The first time I came and played I thought it was going to be hard,” says 30-something Linda Friedman, who didn’t play her first game until she was 28. “Then I played in my first tournament and I won—and I was addicted.”

Friedman plays three nights a week now, which is about average for the Mango’s crowd. She concedes the 9 p.m. games are tough on weeknights, but as one of the only adult team sports, she says it’s well worth it.

“It’s fun and you get to exercise and socialize,” Friedman says.

Mango’s is also the largest facility of its kind in the Baton Rouge area. Katrina wiped out New Orleans’ popular Coconut Beach on the lakefront, which featured 17 courts and more than 4,000 players on 460 teams before the storm. Coconut Beach’s owners have staged a spirited comeback, with league play continuing this spring.

“A couple of other complexes have come and gone over the years, but this is pretty much it,” Tim Bourgeois says.

Besides its tournaments and weeknight games, Mango’s hosts special functions. Companies rent out the facility during the day for retreats and team-building exercises. The club also hosts birthday parties, crawfish boils, tailgating gatherings, even wedding receptions.

“They come here straight from the church,” Tim says.

That’s all well and good, but what has made Mango’s something of a local institution is the regular crowd that returns night after night. People like Barbara Law, an accountant who played volleyball since she was 12. She’s been a Mango’s regular since the place opened, and she loves it because of the friendships she’s made there.

“It’s a good release at the end of the day,” she says. “And it’s like a big family. I used to run for exercise, but now I do this because of the socializing and the camaraderie.”