As March Madness (the end of season knockout tourney for college basketball for those not living in the States) gears up the local paper here in Colorado Springs has a short feature article on a local product with some very strong genetics. Canyon Barry is the son, Rick Barry, of one of the top 50 NBA players all time and his mother Lynn was an All-American in college. Despite the genes and 3 half brothers that played in the NBA he was lightly recruited out of high school and played his first 3 years at a smaller school, the College of Charleston, before moving to Florida for his last year of eligibility. The article highlights how his parents wary of the pressure having famous parents might bring didn’t push him to basketball and actually encouraged him to try other sports… like team handball.
Indeed, back in 2009, Canyon Barry, tried out for an U18 team that USA Team Handball was putting together for a trip to Germany. Just 15 years old and according to the newspaper article, only 5’11’’ and 98 lbs, I’m thinking he didn’t make a huge impression at the time. Eight years later, he’s now 6’6’’ and 215 lbs and would surely be a player that could work his way on to a USA handball roster. Problem is, though, is that he has a professional basketball career if he wants one. Maybe not the NBA, as his dad thinks, but one in Europe. Most likely he will bounce around for a couple of years in the NBA Developmental League and then get a shot at the NBA. And, if that falls through he could head to Europe or pursue other ventures. He had a 4.0 GPA undergrad and is now studying nuclear engineering so he’s got options. Perhaps, he could eventually be enticed to pursue handball with the prospect of a 2024 Olympics in Los Angeles. Possible, but more likely I suspect as he would be in his mid to late 20s he will decide to pursue other goals.
Projecting Future Talent: A Futile Task?
In reading this article about the tryout from 2009 I was struck at how comments projecting a bright future for the U.S. then are so similar to comments I’ve read more recently regarding the latest youth and junior teams that are gearing up for competition later this spring. In hindsight, there’s little validity to the 2009 comments. It looks like there were some quality athletes and from this report it appears they were competitive against the German club sides. But, the reality is that out of the 28 athletes that made the trip only a handful still wear a U.S. uniform. Of that men’s team, not a single athlete is listed in the player’s pool and I suspect most haven’t played handball in several years. On the women’s side a handful of players remain. Abou Zeida Farida has been at Auburn for the past few years, but has seen only limited action in national team competition. Sophie Fasold, a dual German/American citizen continues to play club handball in Germany and for the USA. Several other players played for a few years and contributed to successful PANAM Games qualification in 2011, but have since left the program for a number of reasons. Most notably, Taylor Proctor, after a successful collegiate career at the Univ of San Francisco was highlighted last year as a potential returnee to the U.S. program. For the time being, though, she has opted for a professional basketball career in Sweden.
Analytically, if one wants to focus on how national youth and junior teams have led to improved U.S. senior national team performance you’ll be hard pressed to find much historical data backing up such a claim. And, this is true for a number of reasons.
- A very, very small talent pool. It depends on how you want to define “the talent pool” but, rest assured, it’s a really low number. Tryouts for these teams have often been simply about showing up. Or, showing up with a willingness to pay for your own travel.
- A talent pool that is not handball focused as their primary sport. Not only is the talent pool really small in most cases the athletes at these ages are just checking out this handball sport as an opportunity. As soon as the trip is done it’s back to their primary sport.
- The “too good” athlete. This might seem crazy to a European, but athletes like Proctor and Barry are problematic. They’ve had good basketball careers and can make a living playing the sport if they so choose to. Whereas, if they had been just a bit more mediocre they might be looking at playing handball right now or even a bit sooner. Instead, if they do play again it might be in their mid to late 20s. Where, I would project that they could become good enough to play for the USA at a 2024 LA Olympics, but not good/young enough to merit playing handball professionally.
- Natural attrition. Regardless of the unique challenges handball must overcome, all sports have a significant number of athletes that don’t make the jump from Jr to Sr level representation. In some respects the Jr competition serves as the testing ground to identify the future stars. In other respects, it just points out to the challenge in projecting future talent.
All of these factors have contributed to a very modest return on investment in terms of future Sr Team contributions. Olympian wise it’s surely a really small number. I’m not sure about the Women, but I think Denny Fercho (96) might be the only male athlete to play as a Jr and Sr. We didn’t compete in those events very often in the 70s, 80s and 90s, though, so that factors in. But, even if one looks at any Sr National team athlete who’s played for the U.S. I’m guessing the percentage of prior Jr participation is around 10% or less.
But, just because we’ve got little to show from past Youth and Jr National Teams doesn’t mean future outcomes couldn’t be different. In Part 2, I will look at the current Youth and Jr teams gearing up for Pan American competition and how they may be different from the past.