BEIJING (AP) In three previous trips to the Olympics, Lloy Ball rarely looked to the crowd and tuned just about everything out during matches for the U.S. men's volleyball team.
This time, he's taking it all in: the emotion, the excitement, the thrill from seeing his 7-year-old son sitting the stands. Perhaps it's no coincidence that the team's oldest player is having a blast in likely his final medal run, particularly with the Americans' surprisingly strong start to the Beijing Games.
"I came in with the best attitude I've had in any Olympics," the 36-year-old said after Friday's practice. "I think in the past, I put too much pressure on myself. I don't have to be the show or a great player. I told myself coming in, whether we finish first or we finish last, as long as we play as well as we play and I play as well as I can play, I'm happy with it.
"As much as I'd love a gold medal, I've come to a realization it doesn't define me or my career."
Ball, who said he's "99.9 percent" sure this will be his last go-around with the Olympics, has seen a little of everything in his time with the team. He was the team's youngest player at 24 in his debut in Atlanta in 1996, where they finished ninth. Four years later, the team went 0-5 and finished 11th in Sydney. But the Americans finished fourth in Athens in 2004, and now they're in position to contend for their first medal since winning bronze in Barcelona in 1992.
So far, they look like they're peaking at the right time. They won their first gold medal at last month's World League, where Ball was named MVP and best setter in the final round.
The U.S. entered the Olympics with a 21-5 record in international play, and is now the only unbeaten team in its pool (3-0) after beating Bulgaria on Thursday to earn a quarterfinals spot.
It's setting up for a memorable finish for Ball, who got his start as a 5-year-old playing 1-on-1 games against his father with a balloon in the living room.
"I think it put us on a course to perform well at the end," Ball said. "And obviously I don't know how all this is all going to turn out, but I am real happy of the fact that we haven't even played our best volleyball yet. But we've played much more consistent and with much more energy and heart than the other teams. That's what we have to pride ourselves on."