Ball must have thought that he was not wearing a jersey with the No. 1 on it, but with a big, blue X. In the third and fourth sets of a five-set match, it seemed that Russian opposite Maxim Mikhaylov was using him as target practice.
“Lloy looked at me like, ‘Please do something,’” said David Lee, who as a blocker, has the job of protecting Ball and other members of the US rearguard.
But Ball did not raise his voice. “Four or six years ago, I would have started screaming, and I would have dragged the team down,” Ball said after the 25-22, 25-21, 25-27, 22-25, 15-13 victory. “But we’ve learned as a team that we need to squash those feelings and do the basic things – serve, hit, dig, don’t let the ball hit the floor.”
In a word, Ball and his team have learned patience.
For a volleyball program nearly 16 years removed from its last medal – both for the men and women – patience has been the lesson of these Games.
Patience to believe in themselves, though the American men had not beaten Russia in a major international competition since 1993. Patience not to panic when Mikhaylov was raining down spikes like a hailstorm. Patience to wait 16 years for the right mix of talent and teamwork and dedication again to emerge.
The fact is, US volleyball players develop later than their competitors. While American volleyball players are in college, foreign players are playing professionally. Mikhaylov is 20, and he is already playing for Yaroslavich, a team in the Russian Super League, one of the top two professional leagues in the world.
The youngest player on the US men’s team, Lee, is 26. Ball is 36 and this is his fourth Olympics. Yet it is only now, he says, that he has understood fully what it means to be a team player. There is a tattoo on his shoulder. It reads: “Anger is a gift.” His volleyball today suggested the opposite was true.
In the end, it was the potential target of Ball’s anger, Lee, that won it for the US, with a spike at 13-13 in the fifth set and then the crucial, final block to win it.
Both the American men and the women – who have also made the final here – are led by a veteran core that has at last reached its international vintage.
Their two gold-medal matches – the women Saturday and the men Sunday – are not the product of two weeks of good fortune. They have been 16 years in the making.