AP Sports Writer
LONDON (AP) - U.S. coach Hugh McCutcheon paid quite the tribute to Destinee Hooker while talking about her path to volleyball stardom.
Hooker was a last-minute cut from the Beijing Games team that won a silver medal. But instead of pouting over the slight, Hooker emulated NBA great Michael Jordan _ who was cut from his high school basketball team _ by returning more determined.
"Sounds like Michael Jordan getting cut as a sophomore, right?" McCutcheon said after Hooker's team-high 24 points helped the Americans beat South Korea on Thursday to advance to the gold-medal match.
"She just loves the moment of competition, and that's the great thing to have in an athlete, a person who relishes that moment, who wants to be out there."
The 24-year-old Hooker, a wing spiker, was promoted to the national team two years ago.
"I don't think she's been off the court since then," McCutcheon said.
Hooker's athleticism has never been in question. She played basketball and was a high jumper on the track and field team at the University of Texas before switching full-time to volleyball.
But her ability to overcome adversity had been in doubt.
The 24-year-old Hooker broke into tears while recounting her past struggles trying to live up to the expectations created by sister Marshevet, who was on the 4x100-meter relay team that won gold in Beijing.
"When I was younger, being told I cannot do some things and now I'm at this level that I never thought I'd be, it's truly a blessing," Hooker said while wiping away tears. "Having people in my life who are there with you, they know you can do it and they want to push you through it. It's a lot but when you have people like that in your corner you can get through anything."
Hooker pursued her volleyball dream after being spurred on by her family and McCutcheon, who said Hooker has worked hard to improve her footwork, blocking and technique to add consistency to her natural talent. Coming from an athletic family _ both her parents played college basketball _ certainly helped her mental stamina and physical development.
"She's incredible. She's playing like a vet right now and it's very easy to play with her," captain Lindsey Berg said. "And I'm lucky that's who I have to set up because she makes my balls look good."
Hooker has become one of volleyball's premier players after overcoming those struggles plus knee surgery last year, when she was also the MVP of the World Grand Prix. Perhaps the biggest obstacle was the constant comparisons to her sister, although she learned to channel that into a positive, too.
"That's what really pushed me as an athlete, I saw my sister succeed, I saw her do so much and I thought I wanna be just like her," said Hooker, who likely will finish second in scoring at the London Games. "And now I'm in that spot and I'm doing this for her and my family and I'm glad I didn't give up."
Hooker hopes to compete with her big sister in Rio de Janeiro in four years. The U.S. is hoping to enter those games as the defending champion, with a second straight final rematch against Brazil standing in the way.
"She's spectacular, she's got every attacking shot you need and is a great blocker," Brazil wing spiker Jaque said. "We're going to have to be ready for her, she's the U.S.' top player."
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