U.S. men's volleyball carries on without coach McCutcheon
BEIJING -- The U.S. men's volleyball team saw coach Hugh McCutcheon abruptly leave the middle of practice Saturday afternoon, unsure where he was going, but assuming that he was off to deal with some ticket or logistics issue or perhaps an interview with reporters. A full day and one match later, the Americans still hadn't seen him again and weren't sure when they would.
"We talked with him on the phone and we're completely cognizant of the situation," team captain Tom Hoff said. "We know his schedule and whatever he can provide is all right, whether that's calling and talking on the phone or what. Obviously, there are several things he needs to take care of right now with his family. We may see him or we may not see him, and that's completely all right with us.
"We know he has other priorities right now."
McCutcheon's father-in-law, Todd Bachman, was brutally murdered on Saturday while touring the Drum Tower cultural site in Beijing. His mother-in-law, Barbara Bachman, was so seriously wounded in the knife attack, she required eight hours of surgery and was in critical condition on Sunday. His wife, Elisabeth, was with her parents when they were attacked, but was unharmed. McCutcheon sat out his team's opening game in the Olympics on Sunday to be with his wife and the team did not say when he might return to the court.
"You can't put a timetable on something like this," Riley Salmon said. "He knows we need him and I'm sure he's conflicted. He'll be back when he's ready. As soon as he can get back, he'll be back."
Elisabeth Bachman McCutcheon played in the 2004 Olympics and was on the national team for several years. Her parents provided loyal support for both the U.S. men's and women's teams -- Logan Tom of the women's team described them as "volleyball nomads" -- and the players were well acquainted with Todd Bachman.
"They're huge volleyball people. And good people," Lloy Ball said. "When Hugh and Elisabeth got married, it was two great families coming together. Elisabeth was always at practice with us and her parents were always around. It's a shame to happen to anyone, but to have it happen to Todd -- he was such a great guy, it's a tragedy."
Salmon said the team was assured the murder was a random act of violence and not targeted at Americans. He added that U.S. security told the team it should not change its plans or restrict its activities. "We feel safe," he said. "We feel as safe as we can."
"I talked with my wife for an hour [Saturday] because she had not left the States to come here and we talked about whether she should come," Ball said. "And she's a lot stronger than I am, so she got on the plane. You have to live your life. You can't live your life in fear or anger. You just send your prayers to the families and try to do what you set out to do, and that's win the gold medal."
Can the team medal without its coach? "I hope so, but it won't be easy," Salmon said. "But it wouldn't be easy with him."
The women's team had to play its first game on Saturday night just hours after it learned of Bachman's murder. The men had to play theirs on Sunday and the few extra hours didn't make things any easier.
"Yesterday at this time, we were given horrific news about someone that we love and care about whose family was attacked," Ball said. "Our knee-jerk reactions were like any human being's would be. We were upset, we were angry, we wanted to talk to our friends and family who are here or back home and figure out how we felt about everything.
"We had a team meeting. As a male sport, men's volleyball, we tend to hide our feelings a lot, but it definitely was a time where guys let out their feelings about the situation, how we felt about Hugh not being on the bench. It was a time just for guys to open up and get their feelings off their chest and hopefully refocus on what we came here to do."
Assistant coach Ron Larson filled in for McCutcheon in the game against Venezuela. "I'd rather be sitting on the bench telling him what I think we should be doing and him telling me, 'I don't think so,' rather than sitting where I am now," Larson said.
The players gathered together just before the match in a moment of silence for Bachman and their coach. It was a break in routine but, Hoff said, "We knew they weren't going to start the match without us."
"It must be very hard for them," Venezuela player Joel Silva said. "They don't have their coach on the court. We talked to them and said we were sorry about what happened. It breaks down your heart. But they played well."
They did at times, winning the first two sets handily, 25-18, 25-18. But Ball said they might have relaxed a bit with the commanding lead and lost their focus while the Venezuelans regained theirs. Venezuela rallied to win the third set (25-22), won the fourth set (25-21) and took an early lead in the deciding fifth set before the U.S. team recovered and rallied for the 15-10 victory.
Neither Salmon nor Ball said the lapse was due to the murder, but it would certainly be understandable if it was. They certainly looked like they had been tired by more than a volleyball match.
"I'm 36, so I'm exhausted all the time," Ball said. "I feel as a guy who's played 15 years and been married 11 and has two kids that I'm pretty much prepared for anything, but nothing can prepare you for something like this."
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net.