Saturday, August 23, 2008

BEIJING | He remembers who he was with in the family room (his dad), the type of television (Zenith), the lack of a luxury item (no remote control) and the year (1984).

Lloy Ball recalls with great detail the U.S. men’s volleyball team’s gold-medal win 24 years ago because that’s when he made it his goal to reach the same pinnacle. Now in his fourth Olympics at age 36, Ball is one step away from owning a gold medal.

The Americans clinched their first Olympic medal since 1992 with a 3-2 win over Russia in Friday’s semifinals. Led by Ball, the U.S. can win its first gold since 1988 with a win over defending gold medalist Brazil. The match starts shortly after midnight EDT Sunday.

“This is Lloy’s fourth shot so it’s about time,” teammate David Lee said. “He’s due to win one and it’s great to be a part of it with him because he’s such a great player.”

Ball has played on U.S. teams that finished ninth, 11th and fourth. He rejoined the national team last year because he embraced coach Hugh McCutcheon’s team-first philosophy and he wanted another shot at a medal.

“When Hugh came in, he decided that we weren’t going to settle for being middle of the road or maybe a contender,” Ball said. “He got guys into good training facilities and good teams overseas. He had a philosophy of working hard together and having no superstars.”

Ranked third in the world entering the Olympics, the United States gained momentum after winning the World League title late last month in Brazil.

“You could see something change in the team after that,” Ball said. “We went from pretty sure we believe in ourselves to absolutely believing in ourselves. You’ve seen that in this tournament. Beating Serbia in five. Beating Russia in five. I’m not sure four years ago that we wouldn’t have folded.”

The U.S. squandered a 2-0 lead to the Russians, which put the partisan Russian crowd of more than 12,000 into a tizzy. Down 12-11 in the fifth, the United States scored four of the final five points, including a spike and two blocks by Lee.

Ball represented the steadying force during the emotional match.

“He’s been through a lot and his volleyball career has been up and down, up and down with the national team,” teammate Riley Salmon said. “He fought his [butt] off [Friday]. He was very, very, very composed under pressure.”

Maintaining composure is Ball’s on-court modus operandi, but the magnitude of Friday’s win proved a little much for him.

After the match, he used his 6-foot-8 frame to reach up and give high-fives to wife Sarah and 7-year-old son Dyer. Ball’s parents and best friend also made the trip to China. Lloy and Sarah’s daughter, Mya, 2, stayed home with relatives.

When he spotted Sarah and Dyer, the tears were triggered.

“I can’t do it justice with words,” he said. “I’ve been dreaming about this since I was 4. This is why I chose volleyball over basketball. This is why I brought my kid halfway around the world. It’s why I’ve come back to this team two different times. It’s going to be sure as hell nice to have a medal in the house.”

Volleyball was a part of the Ball house in Woodburn, Ind. Lloy’s father, Arnie, coached at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. Lloy declined an offer to play basketball for Bob Knight at Indiana so he could play for his father. He ended his NCAA career second in assists (6,526).

Ball has won titles in Greece, Italy and Russia during his 13-year professional career.

“They still think I’m an idiot [for not playing basketball],” Ball joked of his hometown friends. “I couldn’t have drawn it up better. I remember the conversation like it was yesterday, choosing to play for my father instead of Coach Knight. But it’s panned out just the way I hoped.”

Ball left the national team for the first time after the 2000 Olympics but returned a year later. Following the Athens Games, he was away for three years. But his return paid dividends right away.

The Americans are on the cusp of the biggest dividend. Their tournament started with the stabbing death of McCutcheon’s father-in-law and also included losing Ball because of injury.

McCutcheon, whose wife and mother-in-law (who is recovering from injuries in the attack) returned to Minnesota last week, said the U.S. sports fan is missing something if they don’t watch his team. NBC isn’t too interested judging by the midnight EDT start times for the semifinal and gold-medal matches.

“This team represents what’s good about team sports,” McCutcheon said. “The sum of our parts is much greater than the individual aspects. They want to be part of something bigger than doing something individually and volleyball is the mechanism they chose. …There’s unity and strength in this group. I don’t know if that’s of much interest to America, but that’s who we are.”

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