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BEIJING 2008

Stellar play in tragedy's shadow

After murder mars tournament, American men's volleyball team will play Brazil for the gold medal.

August 23, 2008|K.C. Johnson | Chicago Tribune

BEIJING -- David Lee's block landed safely on match point, securing the first U.S. medal in men's indoor volleyball since 1992 and dispatching the vaunted Russian team in five nerve-racking games.

Late Friday afternoon, U.S. players tried to make sense of it all, a seemingly impossible task given the tragedy that had infiltrated their ranks and that the unlikeliest of gold-medal matches against Brazil awaited on Sunday.

Nothing will ever explain the murder of coach Hugh McCutcheon's father-in-law, who was stabbed to death here on the first day of Olympic competition by a Chinese assailant who later committed suicide.

Yet setter Lloy Ball, the four-time Olympian who will ride into the sunset in style with either a gold or silver medal, offered his own tribute. Asked how the U.S. team's unexpected play -- and 25-22, 25-21, 25-27, 22-25, 15-13 victory over Russia -- had brought back memories of glory days that featured back-to-back gold medals in 1984 and 1988, Ball didn't hesitate.

"I'm going to attribute that to Hugh," Ball said. "When he came in as coach [in 2005], he decided we weren't going to settle for being maybe a contender. He got the guys into good training facilities and good teams overseas. He instilled a new philosophy of working hard and together with no superstars and picking each other up. Everyone bought into it."

Indeed, the U.S. is riding the consistency of Ball, the power of Clayton Stanley and the versatility of Lee and Ryan Millar to unexpected heights. Granted, the Americans lost a bronze-medal match to Russia at the 2004 Olympics and entered these Games off the high of defeating world No. 1 Brazil in a tuneup match.

But seven straight victories and a berth in the gold-medal match seemed a longshot. "This team represents what's good about team sports," McCutcheon said. "The sum of our parts is much greater than any individual. This team is doing it the right way."

That will allow Ball to realize a dream that began when he sat with his father in Indiana and watched those Karch Kiraly-led 1980s teams, steering him from basketball to volleyball.

"I can't do this justice with words," Ball said. "Winning or losing isn't going to affect how I feel about myself as a player. But it sure is going to be nice having a medal in the house."

As it will be for McCutcheon, whose mother-in-law continues to recuperate from serious stab wounds suffered in the attack.

McCutcheon missed his team's first three matches as he attended to his family.

"One of the reasons I'm here is because I know so many more lives are invested in this than just my own," McCutcheon said. "Given that responsibility and that I'm the leader of this team, there's some accountability on my part to be here and do my job. I wouldn't be here if I wasn't ready to give them everything I've got.

"I also need to get back to my family. This is wonderful and I'll embrace it and enjoy it. But as soon as we're done, I have to get back to where I'm needed."

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