Shhhhhhhhhhh. we are about to look in on an exceedingly rare bird, Steve Timmons, in his natural habitat. Note the magnificent orange plumage. Observe the huge wingspan and, above all, the uncanny instinct for swooping in on smaller flying objects, like volleyballs. We're quite lucky: The carrot-crested ball hawk hasn't been spotted much in the U.S. lately.
Last Saturday night, at the San Diego Sports Arena, Timmons played his first match for the U.S. volleyball team in almost three years. If he was feeling his 33 years, he didn't show it. The team's veteran opposite hitter had 14 kills and four blocks to lead the U.S. to a 15-3, 15-7, 15-12 rout of Japan in a World League match. The next night, at UC Irvine's Bren Events Center, Timmons had a team-high 19 kills and the U.S. again beat Japan, 15-7, 15-7, 15-12.
These games were the first for several members of a newly reconstituted U.S. team that will attempt to win a third straight Olympic gold medal. Of course, last week's one-sided wins don't say too much about the team's chances. The Japanese were reedier, weaker and—if you'll trust the opinion of a guy who doesn't so much brush his hair as recharge it—worse dressed than their opponents. "Right now they are probably as bad as their uniforms," said Timmons, citing Japan's ghastly green outfits. He named Italy, Cuba and the Commonwealth of Independent States as far more formidable potential foes in Barcelona.
Timmons was a key member of the U.S. team that dominated volleyball in the 1980s; besides prevailing at the '84 and '88 Olympics, the U.S won the world championships in '86. He quit in July 1989 and signed to play in the Italian pro league for Il Messaggero, which paid him a reported $1 million last year, the same as it paid his old friend and teammate Karch Kiraly.
The departures of Kiraly and Timmons gutted the American team. Left behind were players who were talented but inexperienced. In 1990 the U.S. was 1-11 in World League matches and finished a dismal 13th at the world championships. The team improved its World League record to 6-10 last year and was third at the World Cup. But the message was still clear: If the U.S. wanted to win a third Olympic gold medal, it would need help.
Coach Fred Sturm let it be known that he would welcome back any former Olympian who wanted to try out, and he named April 27 as a rough deadline for reporting. Timmons, outside hitter Bob Ctvrtlik and setter Jeff Stork returned. Kiraly, considered by many observers to be the best volleyball player of his generation, did not, primarily because he wanted to spend more time with his family.
Though Kiraly would obviously be an asset, this team is developing young stars. One is middle blocker Bob Samuelson, who is 25 and a rugged 6'5", 218-pounder. He suffers from alopecia, a disease that causes hair loss, and he is completely bald. At last fall's World Cup, Samuelson was named to the all-tournament team despite coming off the bench as seventh man for the U.S. "He's quick, explosive and strong." says Sturm.
Samuelson demonstrated all those attributes last Saturday night, making a team-high 16 kills, four blocks and umpteen gestures of triumph and joy, all of which endeared him to the crowd. Once, he chased a ball up and over the announcer's table, sending microphone, water and papers flying. "Actually," said Timmons later, "he was mellow tonight."
The evening ended with a delightful flight of fancy. Timmons, who had been given a tennis racket for being named his team's MVP, enticed Japan's MVP, Masafumi Ohura, onto the volleyball court for some imaginary tennis. Back and forth they darted, lobbing and smashing as the crowd roared its delight. Timmons won the point, but he did not leap over the net. That's one feat beyond the talents of even this rare bird.