Ball savoring the moment for US volleyball team

Aug. 15, 2008, 4:29 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) In three previous trips to the Olympics, Lloy Ball rarely looked to the crowd, tuning 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. The team's oldest player is having a blast in what is 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 has seen a little of everything in his time with the Olympic team. He debuted as the team's youngest player at 24 in Atlanta in 1996, where it 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, the team looks like it's peaking at the right time. It won its 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.

"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."

Ball has left the past two Olympics planning not to return to the U.S. team, only to come back and help it qualify for the next games. This time around, his experience has proven to be stabilizing for a team that has played through anguish and without head coach Hugh McCutcheon, whose father-in-law was killed at a popular Beijing tourist site last weekend. McCutcheon's mother-in-law was also badly wounded, and he has not been with the team for Olympic play.

Ball has taken on more leadership by working with the remaining coaches to help prepare for practices without their leader.

"He definitely stepped up in a role where he's talking a lot more and I think put a little bit more of himself out there for the team to use as an example," said middle blocker David Lee, a first-time Olympian. "It's great to have a guy that's been to four Olympics. He's played volleyball for such a long time and he has so much knowledge that I couldn't even imagine at this point in my life."

Ball, who said he's "99.9 percent" sure this will be his last go-around with the Olympics, played two seasons in Greece and one in Russia after the Athens Games in 2004 before rejoining the U.S. team last year. But he didn't come back just to win a medal.

His son, Dyer, was too young to remember him playing in Athens, so he wanted to play again so his son could see his father in a match and remember and understand.

Ball's wife, Sarah, and Dyer attended the team's last two games, and Ball can get teary just thinking about it. It's easily his favorite memory from here - so far.

"He doesn't critique me too much," Ball said. "More than anything, he wants me to come back with him so we can go play action figures. It makes you appreciate what's real important in life - not necessarily playing in the Olympics, but that your son thinks you're so cool that he shares his action figures with you."