SEATTLE, AUG. 3 -- Bill Neville, a man who never met a quote he didn't like, didn't have to try hard to think of ways to motivate the 12 men on the U.S. volleyball team tonight.
They were playing Italy, generally viewed as the second-best team in the world to Cuba, for the opportunity to play in the gold-medal game Saturday night at the Goodwill Games. The euphoria from their stirring victory over the Soviet Union Tuesday had long since worn off. They ended up losing in four games, 15-5, 13-15, 15-12, 15-8, and will play Cuba for the bronze medal, but it wasn't due to a lack of effort on the part of Neville. For him, it was time to talk the international language they all understood. It was time to talk money.
There is one place in the world where men get paid handsome sums to play volleyball: Italy. The pro volleyball league in that nation courts American players, pays them six-figure salaries, and then doesn't allow them to come back and play for the U.S. national team, Neville said. Meanwhile, the Italians allow their professional stars to play for the national team, including here at the Games.
"There will be at least 2 million in salaries staring at us from across the net," Neville said. "The entire budget for U.S. volleyball in 1990, including player support, is 500,000 dollars. They have two guys who I hear each make 800,000.
"I'll milk that for all it's worth: 'One way or another, guys, you should be entirely focused on Italy. Either you want to look good to try to get into their league, or you want to beat the daylights out of those guys.' "
After years of playing against professionals in Olympic and international competition, U.S. athletes in many sports are finally getting paid to focus on their sports year-round. Well, kind of. Neville said Uvaldo Acosta, 25, who played at George Mason University and has become one of the stars of this team, receives $100 a week. He trains full time with the team in San Diego.
"Do you believe that?" Neville said. "I've got to do something about that. I'd like to have a sugar daddy. I love the stuff about playing from your heart, for your country, but that's not the way things work today."
When last we left the U.S. men's team, they had won their second consecutive Olympic gold medal at the 1988 Seoul Games. Of that 12-man squad, only four are here, and only one was an Olympic team starter, 6-foot-8 Craig Buck, nearly 32. The two biggest stars of the Olympic team, Karch Kiraly and Steve Timmons, were lured by six-figure salaries to Italy.
So this year a rebuilding U.S. team was 5-25 in international play before this tournament. Here the Americans were a surprising 3-0 before tonight's game with Italy. If they won, they would again face the Soviet Union in the gold medal match. The Soviets, down two games to none, came back to upset Cuba in the first semifinal tonight.
But it's not just the big names who leave the U.S. team for the big money: Adam Johnson was on the U.S. national team just one year when he signed a one-year deal for more than $100,000 in Italy.
Doug Beal, senior director of the U.S. Volleyball Association and the coach of the 1984 Olympic gold-medal-winning men's team in Los Angeles, says the issue of money "clearly impacts" his ability to put a competitive team on the floor.
"Ten years ago, there was no pro beach volleyball or pro league in Italy," he said. "We simply need more money. I don't care where we get the money, but if the United States wants to have the best teams -- and it's not just volleyball, but basketball too -- you can't just put a team out there from the collegiate ranks."
This week in San Diego 15 young players were training in hopes of becoming the next U.S. national team.
"My total budget for that was 14,000 dollars," Neville said. "For development, 14,000. Italy has raised the stakes. We need millions. We need a sponsor."