The 1978 and 2002 USA Men’s Basketball World Championship Teams. The 78 team was composed mostly of players from “Athletes in Action.” The 2002 team was composed entirely of NBA athletes and the Championships were played on U.S. soil.
Trivia Question 1) Which team placed higher?
Trivia Question 2) Even though the 1978 team had no NBA players, they did have a future Olympian on their roster. Can you spot him? (Hint: It’s a relevant, trick question)
This is part of a series of commentaries which seeks to explain why a Residency Program at Auburn is the best way forward for USA Team Handball. In the last segment I used some personal experience to illustrate how a professional athlete can make short work of an amateur. While relevant this experience still doesn’t tell the whole story because it happened nearly 24 years ago when handball was only “somewhat professionalized”. The reality is that the pros now populating the world’s best national teams today are better athletes, better trained and even better equipped. In other words, amateurs stand no chance whatsoever.
I’ve briefly highlighted on a number of occasions that the game of handball is more “professionalized” today, but I‘ve never offered a full explanation as to why this so. I think most folks who’ve been around awhile and follow today’s game will acknowledge this. But, it’s a little more complicated to come up with data that supports this notion. It’s a simple truism that it’s pretty challenging to compare different eras. Tactics change, rules change, training regimens change, the overall talent pool changes, etc., etc. All those changes can make it pretty difficult to compare the teams of today to the teams of yesteryear.
Add in the biases one might have for either the good old days or the modern era and it can get even more complicated, heck maybe impossible for any definitive analysis.
A Basketball – Handball Comparison
All those caveats aside, what has transpired at the professional club and international team levels in the sport of basketball the past 40 years or so provides by proxy a window as to how handball has changed as well.
Let me be upfront: It’s not a perfect comparison. The sports have a number of similarities, but also some significant differences. Still, if one were to compare major and even not so major team sports you’ll be hard pressed to find any 2 other sports with so many similarities. Both are indoor court games that are generally played by tall and physical athletes. The pacing of the games are also similar with an offense to defense transition and fast breaks.
In Europe, the sports are very similarly organized at the club and professional level. In some countries basketball reigns supreme (Italy and Spain). In other countries handball takes precedence (Scandinavia). And, in some (France, Germany) the sports have similar popularity. We could argue about what metrics to use to determine primacy, but that’s not the point for this article. No, my point here is to simply point out how the organization and structure for the two sports is remarkably similar in Europe.
Outside of Europe, though, there is no parity between the two sports. And, in the U.S. the difference in popularity, structure and organization is dramatic. Basketball in the U.S. has a level of popularity and organization that approaches soccer in Europe. While handball is mostly an unknown sport in the U.S. The difference could not be greater.
Historical U.S. Basketball Performance
And, because basketball is treated in the U.S. roughly the way the rest of the world treats soccer, the U.S. has had unparalleled success on the world stage. Arguably, no nation has dominated a team sport the way the U.S. has dominated the sport of basketball. There are some reasons for this. For one, we invented the game. Two, we place way more emphasis on the sport. And, three, the USA is a huge country and when you couple that with the emphasis placed on the sport it creates an enormous talent pool of players. The result is a slew of gold medals and a general consensus that anything other than first for an American team at the Olympics is a failure. Why, even an embarrassment.
And, for sure there’s been some embarrassment over the years. Here’s a condensed history of USA Basketball at the Olympics.
1936 – 1984 Olympics: U.S. takes Gold medal at every Olympics except 1972 (controversial loss to the Soviet Union) and in 1980 (U.S. boycotted) U.S. teams consisted of college athletes, age 22 or younger, who would first come together as a team for the very first time a few weeks before the Olympics. Why we could have sent 10 teams and probably taken spots 1 to 10, especially early on.
1988 Olympics: Soviets beat U.S. in semifinal. Fair and square this time.
1992 – 2000 Olympics: U.S. starts sending NBA athletes to the Olympics. Take that rest of world. You might be able to beat a bunch of college kids, but you’ve got zero chance against our pros.
2004 Olympics: Team USA loses 3 games on the way to a bronze medal.
2008 – 2016 Olympics: 3 straight gold medals. USA Basketball revamps its national team planning. More effort is placed on ensuring top pros and key role players participate. Gone are the days of the U.S. team convening a few weeks before the Olympics. Summer training camps are conducted each year and rosters now have a level of continuity.
Of course, this is just Olympic basketball history. That’s all we Americans really care about anyway when it comes to International basketball. But, the U.S. has been sending teams to the Basketball World Championships every time it’s been played since 1950. Never pros until recently and at times USA basketball just sent whatever players they could find. Check out this link for a history of the eclectic teams that were sent over the years: Link
Trivia Question Answers and Why this is all Relevant to Handball
Now back to the photo. The 1978 team was composed mostly of, Athletes in Action, a team of former college athletes that used basketball as a platform for Christian Ministry. “Mostly composed” as the lone holdout was future 1984 Handball Olympian, Tom Schneeberger. Scheeberger is one of USA Handball’s all-time greats, easily one of the top ten players to ever wear a USA uniform. Also, an outstanding college basketball player at Air Force where he was a two time MVP and is 11th on the all-time scoring list: Link
This 1978 team was able to place 5th in the tournament, which was better than the worst ever ranking by a USA Team at the 2002 Men’s World Championships in Indiana. That team featured an NBA roster, but lacked stars and could finish no better than 6th. What the heck happened in those 24 intervening years?
So, here’s the answer and a parallel comparison with handball.
With, basketball, the U.S. could for many years win Olympic Gold with its best college athletes and could field a top 5 World Championship team with some decent former college players that weren’t good enough for the NBA.
With handball (in roughly the same time period), the U.S. could field respectable teams with athletes similar to the ones used to field those World Championship basketball teams. (Or in the case of Schneeberger, the actual same athlete) The Handball National Teams that were put together with only a few years of training in a sport that was entirely brand new to them. Despite this enormous handicap solid teams were put together. Teams good enough to even take top European sides down to the wire at the 1984 Olympics.
From the context of today, some might ask how that was even possible. Here are some top level reasons why the U.S. achieved a measure of respectability:
- With few options outside of the U.S. Professional leagues (e.g. NBA) a sizable talent pool of athletes was available to choose from. In terms of raw physical ability the U.S. was rarely outmatched and often had an advantage.
- Many of the athletes on the U.S. teams had played college sports which although amateur were more organized and professional than many club sports in Europe. Handball was new to these athletes, but they were experienced athletes used to playing on the big stage.
- The residency programs while not perfect provided a quality training program where athletes could progress rather quickly.
But, the “good times” didn’t continue to roll for either USA Basketball or USA Team Handball. With basketball, the wakeup call was the embarrassing 2002 WC on home soil. USA Basketball learned they could just send any pros with little preparation. It took 6 years to right the ship and since the 2008 Olympics the U.S. hasn’t lost an international match since.
Today, the U.S. is clearly on top of the basketball world again, but the domination isn’t as overwhelming as it used to be. What happened? Well, in simple terms the rest of the world caught up. The U.S. can no longer just put any 5 players on the court and expect to win. Coaching, training, tactics, player skills, and the level of play in European pro leagues have all improved. The U.S. still has the edge with its enormous talent pool, but the gap is not so huge anymore. And, the number of foreigners now playing in the NBA is a stark indicator of that reality.
And, why is this all relevant to USA Team Handball? Well, just as European basketball has improved dramatically, European Handball has done the same. Handball and basketball are different sports, but the organization, training and professionalism have all marched forward at roughly the same level. Good pro sports teams learn about what works in other sports and apply it to their sports. Club teams like Barcelona even are structured with multiple sport disciplines all under one roof.
There’s very little doubt in my mind that if you took the top 16 International teams of 2016 and had them face off against the top 16 International teams of 1984 that you would have a clean sweep 16-0 victory for the 2016 teams. And, this is true for either basketball or handball.
USA Team Handball’s Slow Adaption to the Changing Reality
USA Team Handball has been slow to adapt to this changing reality. Heck, it’s pretty clear to me that most key decision makers are unaware that the reality has changed. That the competition isn’t about at the same level or maybe a bit better, but that is a whole lot better than it was before.
To a certain extent it’s understandable. Since the 1996 Olympics funding for USA Team Handball has taken a dramatic nosedive. And, with that drop in funding the U.S. could no longer afford to train athletes with a quality residency program. The U.S. wasn’t able to recruit and train the same types of athletes and this has been assessed as the primary cause for our dip in performance.
For sure the drop in funding didn’t help, but that shortcoming has obscured many from fully recognizing the steady improvement in our competition. Many think that the problem of uncompetitive national teams can be solved by bringing back a residency program. And, that if we improve upon the residency program model we could even do better than has been done in the past.
This, however, is simply wishful thinking that does not recognize the improvement in our competition, both in Europe and in Pan America. The gap that could at one time be overcome with a superior talent pool and quality training is now a chasm. The reality is that even if we could properly fund a residency program it couldn’t create a national team that could beat the top teams of today any more than USA basketball could still win Olympic Gold with a bunch of college kids.
This concludes my assessment of the premise that we should use a residency program model because it got us the best results in the past. In the next installment I switch gears to take a closer look at the platform a residency program can provide to build sponsorship and grass roots development.