A Look Back—Memorable Moments in USA Men’s Olympic Volleyball History

As the team prepares for its first Olympic match tomorrow versus Serbia, let’s take a look back at one of the most memorable moments in USA Olympic Volleyball history.

Teamwork

Athens, Greece, August 25, 2004

The Quarterfinals of the Olympic Games in Athens matched USA vs. Greece in what would become one of the most dramatic volleyball matches in Olympic history, and the greatest comeback in USA Volleyball history.

For the back drop let me take you back to the World Championships in Argentina two years earlier—2002.  After advancing past the first round, USA found itself in a tough pool with Yugoslavia (the defending Gold Medalists from Sydney) China, and Greece, the up-and-coming soon-to-be hosts of the 2004 Games.  Playing in front of a decidedly partisan Argentine crowd that threw themselves behind the Greeks (Argentina was bitter that the USA/World Bank did not help them during their most recent financial crisis), USA was upset in a 5-set thriller, 15-17.  The ensuing celebration by the Greek team played to the crowd, and was one that would not be forgotten by the Americans, who waited patiently to shake their opponent’s hands while the Greeks dog-piled center court and threw their jerseys into the adoring public’s cheering arms.

Fast forward to Peace and Friendship Stadium in Athens, 2004.  In their first official encounter since that devastating loss, USA won the 1st set, but lost the 2nd and 3rd,  the 3rd in overtime, 25-27.  The 4th set was close only for a short time before Greece opened up a huge lead, which grew to 12-20.  USA was in the grave and the Greeks were shoveling dirt on our coffin.  As the huge Greek crowd waved their flags and sang their anthems, USA continued to play as if they had a sliver of a chance to actually come back and win.  Little by little the tide turned, and as it did the Americans grew more confident and the Greeks began doubting themselves and the volleyball gods in whose hands their fates lay.

The most memorable aspect of that match for me started in the first half of the 4th set when the match was slipping away.  Doug Beal had a decision to make; stand by and watch the ship sink, or do something to try to bail his team out.  He chose to act.

Although USA’s woes on the court could not be attributed to any single player, Beal decided to make a change where the biggest impact could be made; he substituted his setter—one of the best, most experienced players in the world, Lloy Ball—out for the younger, less-experienced Donald Suxho.  The fact that USA was about to be eliminated from the 2004 Olympics was not Ball’s fault—he was just one of the seven players on the floor who couldn’t find an answer to Greece’s run of points.

In hindsight, what we were watching was what was likely to be Lloy Ball’s last appearance with USA on his back.  Athens was his 3rd Olympics and all indications were that it would be his last.

Instead of looking perplexed, throwing the substitution paddle or pouting on the sidelines, Lloy accepted the decision, gave an encouraging pat on the back to Suxho and came off looking hopeful that his coach was making the right move.  He began playing a role that was very unfamiliar to him: supporting his team from the sidelines.

Ball not only put on a good face, he was actively involved in helping his team make the greatest comeback in Olympic volleyball history.  He was engaged during timeouts, offering feedback and encouragement to his teammates, and came in as a serving sub in the 5th set, getting a crucial dig that resulted in a point and serving an ace, two plays that made the difference in completing the comeback with a 17-15 win in the 5th.

Lloy played the supporting role as if it were scripted.  I will never forget how this volleyball superstar helped his team win an epic match by being the ultimate team guy in a very difficult situation.

The story was perfect for the USA, coming full circle from the bitter defeat at the 2002 World Championships where they lost 15-17 and were made to stand and watch their opponent celebrate, to the sweet victory and the poetic justice that was the unforgettable comeback in front of a packed house at Peace and Friendship stadium.

Thanks to Lloy Ball and his commitment to the team’s goal, we know that being a team-guy when it is hardest is not just for kids; it is an ideal that reaches the highest pinnacle of our sport.

Match #1 Tomorrow

Tomorrow we play a very good Serbia team.  When the men met Serbia in the quarterfinals Beijing it was one of the most difficult matches of those Olympic Games, with the USA winning in 5 sets and moving on to its epic match with Russia in the Semis.  This one should be just as tough.  Stay tuned!

Be sure to watch the women versus Korea today!

Go USA!!!

Rob Browning