For 14 years, Lloy Ball has been the Barry Sanders, Charles Barkley, Pat Lafontaine, Alex Rodriguez and even Dan Marino of the United States men's volleyball team. He's been the team's unquestioned leader and is recognized as the best player at the world's toughest position, setter. He's done everything but win an Olympic medal, and as he enters his fourth Olympics, the Woodburn native also has the wisdom and perspective to know why.
“I think we have high expectations of ourselves, but the expectations are not necessarily to think about the final results,” Ball said. “I think in the past myself and the teams have gotten caught up in that. When you think every play is a gold- medal play, you end up putting added pressure on yourself, and you try to do more than each individual is capable of doing. The worst thing a player can do is try to do more than he is capable of doing. I know for sure that's happened to me in the past, and I think our teams.”
How good do you have to be to get a fourth Olympic shot after not earning a medal the first three times? Ball is the first American male to compete in four Olympics in one of the major team sports.
Partly that experience is why U.S. Coach Hugh McCutcheon wanted Ball to come back, though the setter told everyone he was retiring from national team play after the 2004 Olympics in Athens. The crazy thing is that Ball has gotten better as a player since then, winning several European pro league titles.
“When you are coaching the USA National Team, part of our charter is to get the best players you can to represent our country,” McCutcheon said. “It was clear that Lloy was still playing volleyball at a very high level and having success, so I thought it was incumbent upon me to make that phone call.”
McCutcheon believes Ball is a better all-around player and a better setter now than he has ever been, partly because he is so experienced. Ball has seen and tried anything that can be accomplished on a volleyball court. He has no fear of failure, so he's not intimidated by a big moment, as he showed in late July when he led the U.S. team to the World League title and earned tournament MVP honors.
“His ability to contribute in the critical moments of matches has been really a nice addition,” McCutcheon said. “For us it's wonderful to have a guy who is going to be a four-time Olympian to be part of our group so we can draw on those experiences. There was some good, but mainly some disappointments there that we can say, what can we learn from those previous negatives so that we can make sure we don't repeat those this time?”
McCutcheon sold Ball on making another Olympic run because this time he didn't have to be the best or the boss or the leader.
“I didn't want him to be anybody but Lloy,” McCutcheon said. “I didn't need him to rah-rah, I don't need him to do anything but side us out. I think in the past the expectations that have been placed on Lloy ... I guess I'm not saying they were unrealistic, but they've challenged him in ways that I think probably aren't the right fit for his personality. I think the role that we have for him on this team is the right role.”
Though he has set U.S. standards by playing in more than 400 international matches and being the team captain for 10 years, Ball is relishing his new role as just one of the guys. He just goes and plays, something he hasn't done since he was a freshman at IPFW.
“The setter is such an intellectual role for the team that to have even more stress added to it by having to deal with off-court issues kind of jumbles up the work sometimes,” Ball said. “Now just being allowed to think about how to get the team to side out, I think has benefited the team and myself.”
Now middle hitter Tom Hoff is the team captain who deals with all the news conferences and serves as the buffer between the players and the support staff. He's fine with the role.
“Lloy does some things with our team that nobody else in the world can do,” Hoff said. “That's why he's such a great advantage to have on our team.”
For his part, Ball is very relaxed on the court, partly because he feels so much less pressure.
“Lloy shouldn't have to feel like the whole squad is resting on his shoulders,” McCutcheon said. “I know he doesn't, whereas in the past sometimes I think it was kind of like, ‘Hey, Lloy, it's up to you to win us a medal,' and that's just not volleyball. Volleyball is a team game. We've tried to develop some depth with this group, and some commitment one through 12, to help each other succeed on the court.”
But what about those expectations? Will Ball feel even more pressure if the U.S. gets close to a medal in what will now obviously be his last chance?
“I think we all know if we can go in and do the best we can, if we compete at a high level in every match, we have a chance to win every match and to be honest, in most cases to probably be the best team on the court in every match,” Ball said. “I think you see … confidence with us on the court, even in adverse situations.
“I'm just really enjoying being a part of this team. No matter how much money you make or how many European titles you win, wearing your country's colors is always a very special thing. I think a major draw for all of us is to get on the podium and be able to have the USA flag behind us as they play the national anthem.”