Steve Kelley: At the Olympics
Steve Kelley, a Seattle Times sports columnist for 25 years, is covering his eighth Olympics. He'll share news and tidbits as the Beijing Games unfold.
August 10, 2008 5:29 PM
Posted by Steve Kelley
Early Saturday afternoon, in the middle of his volleyball team's final practice before the start of their Olympic tournament, men's coach Hugh McCutcheon was told he had a phone call.
"We saw him leave practice, but didn't think it was a big deal," said USA player Lloy Ball. "That stuff happens all the time."
But McCutcheon didn't come back. And he may not return for the rest of these Olympics.
After practice, the team was told the shattering news that McCutcheon's in-laws had been stabbed.
His father-in-law Todd Bachman was dead. And mother-in-law Barbara was in critical condition. Barbara Bachman underwent eight hours of surgery Sunday and was listed in critical, but stable condition.
The players only were given the facts at the time and those facts were vague.
Imagine their horror.
Many of them had family arriving in Beijing on Sunday. Ball's wife Sarah and two children were coming. Was some terrorist group targeting Americans? Were they, their families, all Americans in Beijing, in jeopardy?
And then imagine their anguish.
The Bachmans weren't just part of their coach's family, they were the first family of volleyball.
"They are always around," said team captain Thomas Hoff
Their daughter Elisabeth played in the 2004 Athens Games. The Bachmans traveled to volleyball games, both men's and women's and brought gifts and food to the players.
"Hearing the news was tragic, stunning, words can't describe it," Hoff said. "All you can do is think about what the team could do to help. We knew the best thing we could do was to come out here and try to play volleyball."
Some three hours after the stabbings, the players were told that the acts appeared to be the random. The work of a madman.
They were assured this isn't the harbinger of another Munich. There was no evidence that Americans were being targeted.
It is impossible to make sense out of the senseless, to find meaning in something so meaningless, to find inspiration in such cruelty.
So the American volleyball team did the only thing it could do, it played a game. The players tried losing themselves inside the sport they love, their coach loves and the Bachmans have loved.
"I told the guys to go out and enjoy the game of volleyball," interim coach Ron Larsen said. "It is a game and we should love playing it."
Less than 24 hours after learning of Bachman's death, they were on the court, in front of the world, pursing a medal that still was desperately important, but this game, at least, had lost much of its Olympic magic.
"At times they played like they were a little bit sad," Venezuela's Joel Silva said.
Playing in spurts, the United States won a match it was supposed to win, but didn't play the way it had hoped, beating less-talented Venezuela, 25-18, 25-18, 22-25, 21-25, 15-10.
"The last 24 hours have been so hard. Obviously we're playing volleyball and that doesn't compare to the loss that happened to our team and to our whole family," Hoff said. "We all came here to do this and it's very hard to continue on, but our first and foremost thoughts and prayers are with their family."
McCutcheon, a compassionate, hard-boiled coach from New Zealand, called the team on Saturday night and tried as best he could to explain the situation. He said he wouldn't coach them in their opener and didn't know if, or when, he would return.
Suddenly, a team that came to China with so much to win, felt like it was losing everything. Its coach, part of its family, all of the momentum gained from the past four years.
But, still their coach, McCutcheon also offered his guidance.
"To hear his voice and get the leadership from the guy who has been leading our squad for the last four years, meant a tremendous amount to the guys," Hoff said. "He told us that we had to try and move on in our own way.
"This (Olympics) is what he's been building for. This is what he's expended so much passion and energy on. He told us it would be difficult, but together, we could be much stronger. We are completely cognizant of the situation that is going on and we are totally aware that we may see him and we may not."
After the pre-match introductions, the U.S. players made Olympic officials wait to start the match as they gathered in a circle on their side of the net.
They needed this moment together to try to put everything in some kind of perspective before the matches began. They bowed their heads and observed a moment of silence for their late friend and his grieving family.
"It was very difficult in an arena like this and with Olympic protocol and all, but we knew one thing, they weren't going to start the match without us," Hoff said. "We wanted a moment together, where we could gather our thoughts.
"We wanted a moment of silence to honor the Bachman family and Hugh's family. It's tough to change (protocol), but we wanted to do it."
The grieving and the moments of silence will continue through this tournament. The U.S. volleyball team lost part of its family Saturday, in a murder that can't be explained.
And the only option left now for the players, is honor their friends by playing these games with the same kind of passion and affection that the Bachman family has always shown them.
August 10, 2008 10:37 AM
Posted by Steve Kelley
Carmelo Anthony threw the ball away and China had its first possession of its home Olympics. Then, as the shot clock ticked down, Yao Ming wandered freely at the top of the three-point line, got the ball and hit the first three-pointer on home soil in Chinese Olympic history.
And the crowd, which was buzzing with anticipation before the game like an old Vegas crowd on a big-time fight night, went wild.
Thus began the most entertaining 31-point blowout I've ever witnessed.
As the reviled (at least in our hometown) commissioner of the NBA David Stern knows all too well, China loves basketball. If he wants the league to capture some of its old pizzazz, he should move Memphis to Beijing. The Griz finally would have a home that loved them.
This was the kind of full house that would warm the hearts of every NBA capitalist. If Clay Bennett was watching, he'd probably already be planning to move his team out of OKC and situate it right here in the new Olympic Basketball Gymnasium. This Glitterdome has a capacity of 18,000 and even has luxury suites. It was made for the NBA.
But back to the game, which was won by the U.S. 101-70. In front of the world's most appreciative audience, China hung with the Americans for 15 minutes. The Americans are still having trouble hitting any shot besides a dunk, which helped keep it close.
China was able to take an 11-7 lead and still was tied with the faster, stronger U.S., 29-29, with six minutes left in the half. And for just a moment, this was beginning to feel like Lake Placid in 1980, kind of a miracle on hardwood.
(Before I forget, after the player introductions, the crowd lustily sang along with the public address version of the Chinese National Anthem and it was absolutely stirring.)
At times this crowd was a little schizophrenic, rooting for both teams at the same time. (In the player introductions, Kobe Bryant, not Yao Ming, got the loudest cheers.) They love their basketball here and they obviously were thrilled that their country's first game was against the best collection of basketball players in the world.
Eventually, the Americans' smothering defense wore down China's weak-handled backcourt. Dwayne Wade, another Beijing favorite (heck, this crowd would love Calvin Booth), created havoc and ignited fastbreaks.
The U.S. transition game is so good it makes the court seem like it's about 60-feet long. These young Americans looked to run every time they touch the ball, They have point guards -- Jason Kidd, Wade, Chris Paul and Deron Williams -- who can deliver the ball. And this is the best set of finishers in the history of the sport.
China still only trailed 49-37 at the half, but LeBron James, Bryant, Wade and Chris Bosh led a 14-3 run that ended the third quarter with a 74-48 lead. The run was so spectacular that the fans didn't know whether to feel elated or depressed.
The truth is, this crowd could leave its beautiful new home happy with the knowledge this is the best Chinese National Team ever. Its goal is to make it out of group play and into the quarterfinals. It's a difficult, but reachable goal.
But the crowd also can be excited about the way the United States, the home of their real hoop heroes, played. Since China won't win Olympic gold, I get the feeling the fans would like nothing better than to see the U.S. reclaim its championship.
And now the kiss of death.
I think the U.S.is going to cakewalk through this tournament. Defending Olympic champion Argentina is a shell of itself, already 0-1. Spain in the only reasonable threat to the United States' redemptive run to gold.
In some games, the U.S. still might need Michael Redd or Bryant to punish a team from the outside. But the Americans' defense is the best in the world. And it is playing together like no team since the Dream Team.
This team is so athletic, powerful and deep. In the fourth quarter, when coach Mike Krzyzewski cleared his bench, his "scrubs" were Redd, Carlos Boozer, Tayshaun Prince, Willians and Paul.
But the real story in Sunday's opening game was the great affection China showed for the game. Beijing deserves to host this tournament. For that matter, it deserves to host the Griz, or the New Orleans Hornets, or the Minnesota Timberwolves, or any of a half dozen foundering NBA franchises.
Aug 10, 08 - 05:29 PM
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