Why do we stink at handball?


LONDON - I watched a sport here Monday that included the following: A ball. A net. Passing. Catching. Dribbling. Shooting. Scoring. And things that clearly resembled the North Carolina fast break and Syracuse zone.

My first reaction: And we stink at this why?

Team handball was developed near the end of the 19th Century in Northern Europe. The Danish and Germans and Swedes and Dutch led the way. It was played by people named Holger. The best player in history is named Ivano. Guys named Joe don’t seem to be very good in handball. Guys named LeBron and Kobe would be super stars.

Some nice young man from Great Britain tried to convince me that the British invented the game, that King Henry VIII made his people stop playing it so that he could make room for an archery range. The Brits love to take credit for pretty much everything. Al Gore should live here.

I had also just witnessed Great Britain lose to Iceland 41-24. If this nation invented handball, its players didn’t receive the memo.

England only re-formed its national team in 2008 and qualified for the sport in these Olympics because it is the host nation, which I suppose gives America hope if we are ever again chosen to welcome the world and its athletes. Short of that and naming a lot more of our children Holger, I don’t like our chances.

It’s an old story: For a nation to grow and develop and produce a competent national team in a sport like team handball, it needs support (mostly financial) from its Olympic committee. That hasn’t happened in the United States, where the answer from those controlling the checkbook has been to cut more than spend.

I have to believe the USOC is more intent on growing the planet’s next great trampoline power.

“Team handball is a fascinating sport with a lot of action and incredible athleticism,” said Steve Pastorino, who resigned as general manager of USA Team Handball last November after holding the position since its inception in 2008. “But it would take an investment of around $1 million a year, and that’s the low end, to really get it going. It requires a lot of money and time.”

With both, we could be great at this. I saw more back-door cuts Monday than an entire season of Princeton basketball. There were give-and-goes and post-ups and run-outs. Iceland cherry-picks better than any out-of-shape guy in your local pickup game. There would be an issue, however, with any fading professional basketball players trying to make the switch. Too much defense in handball.

I don’t buy the argument not enough skilled American athletes would play given there isn’t the money in it that football and basketball and baseball offers. Only a minuscule amount of those players ever sign pro contracts and there are plenty of Olympic sports where money isn’t the primary motivation for those who spend years and years working for and dreaming of a gold medal.

Iceland has a population of 320,000.

New York has one of 8.2 million.

We have the numbers to compete.

Europe wants us like nobody’s business. The world knows that when the United States is good at something, coverage expands and sponsorships tend to grow and everyone benefits.

“I wish with all my heart the States would come to the handball market as a legitimate team,” said Iceland player Arnor Atlason. “Handball as a game would be better for it. More people would start playing it. It’s perfect for them. Action. A little fight. Quickness. Strength.”

Pastorino doesn’t believe it realistic for the U.S. to qualify a men’s or women’s team for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. He thinks 2020 might be, with the right coaching and players and financial backing. The last part will be toughest to secure.

It’s too bad. He says there are terrific male and female players in New York and Los Angeles and Miami that would offer a good base from which to begin, but you have to bring them together, train them together, travel them to tournaments around the world, make the sort of commitment needed to be good.

Or to at least compete with the nation that supposedly invented handball as a way to upset Henry VIII over field space time.

“It is perfect for the United States,” said Christopher Mohr of the British team. “They would start from near the bottom, but if you look at their athletes, they could eventually be amazing.”

I can see it now: Leading the gold-medal winning handball team from the United States at the 2036 Olympics … Holger James and Ivano Bryant.

Ed Graney is a sports columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He also is writing an Olympics blog at www.lvrj.com/blogs/graney Follow him on Twitter @edgraney He can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com