BARCELONA — If one of the reasons the U.S. men's volleyball players shaved their heads was to make the International Volleyball Federation look bad, the joke was on them. The only people who looked really bad Tuesday were the players.
"Silly" was how one of their Canadian opponents described them.
Even the U.S. players confessed that they couldn't look at each other without giggling.
If another reason they shaved their heads was to motivate themselves to rise above adversity, they almost failed there, too. They came close to creating more of it for themselves in the Summer Olympics by blowing a two-game lead over lightly regarded Canada before rallying to win, 15-12, 15-12, 10-15, 11-15, 16-14.
The two-time defending champions had a similarly close call in their opening match Sunday against another supposedly outmanned opponent, Japan, before coming from behind in five games to win.
Or so they thought.
Twenty-four hours later, the FIVB reversed the outcome because the referee had failed to award the Japanese a technical point that would have given them a 15-13 victory in the fourth game and the match.
The federation ruled that the referee was required to give Japan the technical point when he issued a second warning in the game for unsportsmanlike conduct to a U.S. player, Bob Samuelson of Playa del Rey.
Samuelson, 25, is an excitable former Cal State Northridge player who eight years ago contracted alopecia universalis, a rare condition that causes its victims to lose their hair.
After learning of the federation's decision Monday, the U.S. players held a team meeting at the athletes' village to discuss potential forms of protest.
"I think it was Timbo who came up with the idea of shaving heads," Samuelson said, referring to Steve Timmons of Newport Beach. "He kind of threw it out as a joke. My eyes lit up, and everybody began to look at each other. The rest is history."
So, soon was their hair.
It was hardly a joking matter for Timmons, whose distinctive hairstyle is as well known in his sport as Don King's is in boxing. It even helps Timmons earn a living: He uses a drawing of a flaming red crewcut as the logo for the beachwear company that he co-owns.
At first, some players were reluctant to cut more than a few locks. But when they saw Timmons sit down in a chair for his shearing, they followed.
"When we saw the flat-top go, hey, we were going for it," team captain Scott Fortune of Laguna Beach said. "That's his trademark."
Samuelson did the honors.
The least enthusiastic player, everyone agreed, was Brent Hilliard of Dana Point.
"I don't think he's ever had his hair less than five inches long," Timmons said.
"My love life is gone, totally gone," Hilliard said. "I'm serious. I'm afraid to even call home."
Coach Fred Sturm appreciated his players' display of solidarity. He did not, however, join them.
"I considered it, for a millisecond," he said.
Thus bonded, the U.S. players ran onto the court at the Sports Palace on Tuesday to a rousing ovation from their fans.
Their opponents were less impressed.
"I think it's a joke," Canada's Kevin Boyles said. "It means nothing. It makes them look silly. That's all it does."
But Timmons said it unified the team. Six members are veterans of the 1988 Olympic gold-medal squad team, while six are playing in their first Summer Games, and sometimes the team has seemed as if it were split along those lines.
"This brought us together," Timmons said. "I feel like we're all the same now."
The team, however, continues to struggle. For a while, it appeared that Tuesday's victory would be easy, but then, just as against the Japanese two days earlier, the U.S. began having difficulty putting the ball away. Without all-everything Karch Kiraly, who is playing on the pro beach circuit, this does not appear to be the supreme team that it was in 1984 and '88.
"They're used to teams folding after they get up by two sets," said Canada's coach, Brian Watson. "But we didn't. I give them credit, though. They responded when they had to at the end."
And if they hadn't?
"I was thinking the eyebrows would have to go next," Timmons said.