The injury-riddled U.S. men's indoor volleyball team traveled half a world away to Sydney in September 2000 only to finish in 11th place with a 0-5 record. It was the worst showing ever by a U.S. team in an Olympics.
Immediately after their final match with Italy, the questions began. Who would return to play in Athens? Who would be welcomed back? Would the U.S. ever win another Olympic medal?
But there wasn't any question about Lloy Ball, the team's captain and starting setter since 1994. He wasn't coming back. All the hard work and sacrifice, coupled with a ninth-place showing in Atlanta in 1996, had gotten to be too much. He'd have surgery to repair his ailing knee and join his club team in Italy. He had played his last Olympics.
Ball's plan lasted two years.
"I just wasn't able to get the game out of my system," he said. "I did need some time off, though, and I think it helped me."
Once referred to as a G-rated Dennis Rodman for his body art and free-spiritedness, Ball has mellowed over the years and has developed into a valuable and respected leader.
The United States -- armed with the most talent it has had in years but playing a limited preparation schedule -- will need Ball's recently developed skills in Athens.
The 2004 Games will be played under the rally point scoring system, where a point is awarded on every rally regardless of which team is serving. As a result, matches practically fly by, leaving little time for teams to recover from poor starts. Coach Doug Beal has reduced the length of practices and ratcheted up the intensity.
"It's like a baseball game ending after the fifth inning, or a football or basketball game ending at the half," Beal said. "The team that gets the lead is the team that usually wins. Upsets are normal. The room between the best eight (teams) is pretty small."
That is where the new Lloy Ball fits in.
Long considered one of the best setters in the world, Ball can see the next couple of moves well before his opponents and often ahead of his teammates. It's a gift that proved frustrating and created conflict. Since his marriage and the birth of his son, Dyer, three years ago, Ball has developed a balance between his personal life and his on-court intensity that has allowed him to provide Team USA with the type of leadership it needs.
"He's learned that he can't scream and yell at players and expect them to respond. Some will, but others have to be massaged," Beal said. "The best job I've ever seen Lloy do was in the Olympic qualifier against Cuba."
After finishing fourth in the 2003 World Cup in November and missing their first chance to qualify for the Olympics, the Americans entered the NORCECA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Caguas, Puerto Rico, in January as the favorite. That is until they found themselves trailing Cuba 8-5 in the fifth set, which is played to only 15 points instead of 25 like the other four sets.
"He encouraged and prodded in the right tone, the team responded and played well," Beal said. "I thought he did a wonderful job. His best skill is he's a wonderful verbal leader on the floor."
Led by Reid Priddy's team-high 16 points and Clay Stanley's 15, the Americans stormed back and took a 14-13 lead. Ball, serving for match point, gathered his teammates in the huddle and told them where his serve was going to go, how the Cubans were going to handle it and how the Americans were going to win.
"Sure enough, Reid and I went over and blocked the ball," middle blocker Tom Hoff said. "That kind of stuff, when a guy speaks up and says 'I'm going to do it' and it happens, you look at him a little bit different the next time."
That recovery -- from trailing 2-1 as well as from the three-point deficit in the final match -- has Ball looking at the team differently, as well.
"It's been a long time since I've been on a USA team with so much heart," he said. "I'm not really sure the team four years ago would have been able to come back from that."
There were a few things the 2000 team couldn't do -- the biggest was adapting to different situations within a match due to injuries and a lack of depth. This time around, Beal said, they can put any of their 12 players on the floor. That flexibility takes the pressure off of individual players, especially Ball, and allows the team to change its look during a match.
"One good thing is we do not completely depend on him as in other years. We have better backups. As a result, we can afford to rest him, change the tempo or the rhythm of the way the team plays," Beal said. "Each setter has a different release, different players he likes to set up. You can have two setters who are both talented, but the team has to have confidence in both of them."
It's not going to get any easier for Team USA. In Sydney, three of the four teams in the medal round were from the same pool as the United States. In Athens, Team USA is grouped with Brazil, the top-ranked team in the world; Italy, the second-ranked team and a 2000 bronze medalist; fifth-ranked Russia, which finished second in Sydney; the Netherlands and Australia.
Beal is hoping that eight matches in Texas during the next two weeks -- three against Russia in Houston and a four-team round-robin with Russia, Argentina and Tunisia in Austin -- and three more in Serbia in late July will be enough of a warmup.
"Before Sydney, we played too much. Before Athens, we won't be playing enough," he said. "We don't have much control over that. But the games that we do have are against very important opponents."
And they have one very important player.
"(Ball) is the one guy on our team who can lift our team from here to here," Hoff said, moving his hand from his waist to almost as high as his 6-foot-8-frame extends.
"If I play on the team, I lift it this much," he added, stopping his hand in the middle of his chest.
"If (Ryan) Millar plays it's this much," he continued, stopping his hand at his shoulders.
"(Ball is) a huge factor that allows us to do the best we can. … You can take any guy away from our team, but if you take him away, we're in some serious trouble."