Time Magazine: Thanks for promoting Team Handball, but save us your naïve solutions

Time Magazine’s Sean Gregory is in Beijing covering the Olympics and wrote a nice article about his discovery of the great sport of Team Handball: “Hey America, what about Handball?

Unfortunately, as is often the case in these sorts of articles, the second half of it self destructed into a very naïve and implausible solution for turning around the recent performance of the US Men’s National Team. Gregory, who played college basketball at Princeton, is undoubtedly smart enough to know that at least some of what he proposes is just plain unrealistic, but I’ll deconstruct the article at face value for those that might not see the dry humor. In short, his proposed solution has no chance of either being implemented or succeeding.

How about this: before the qualifying tournaments for the 2012 Olympics, corral a mix of solid ex-college basketball players, and recently retired NBAers. Ideally, you’d get current NBA players, but qualifiers would happen during the NBA season so they wouldn’t be able to break free.

1) Mr Gregory is a little confused on the the qualification process for the Olympics. The USA has two paths for qualification: The World Championships and the PANAM Games and there are qualifying matches just to get to those tournaments. The World Championships route is much more difficult, so the PANAM Games would be the focus for this proposed strategy. The good news, though, is that the PANAM Games are in the summer: All those ex-NBA players eager to play Handball would be available!

2) I could be wrong here, but I think it would be tough sell to get a retired NBA player to attend a month long training camp to learn a new sport. I’m sure these retirees would also appreciate the more physical nature of Handball.

3) In general, “solid” ex-college basketball players still harbor aspirations of becoming an NBA player. If they can’t make it in the NBA directly, there are numerous opportunities to earn decent salaries in Europe. And there are enough feel good stories about players playing in Turkey, Russia, Venezuela, the CBA for several years and then breaking into the NBA that ending that dream to learn a brand new sport is a very tough sell. But there is a segment of decent college basketball players who have transitioned to playing Team Handball. As opportunities to play basketball overseas have increased, however, the number and the quality of athletes willing to make that transition has declined.

Put the college players and pro retirees in a camp for a month. Bang, the U.S. should be in the Olympics. Handball players and the USOC will tell you the game is way too technical, and it takes years to learn all the tricks. I’m not convinced that’s the case. Who dribbles better than American ballers? The goal on defense it to shuffle your feet and keep your man in front of you. Basketball players practice this in grade school. On offense, it’s “work to find the open man.”
Sound familiar? Even the world’s best admit handball is fairly straightforward. “It’s not a difficult sport to practice,” says Victor Tomas of Spain. “It’s not a difficult sport to learn.“”

4) Team Handball is an easy game to learn, but a difficult one to master. Dribbling, is actually challenging for former basketball players to learn due to the fact that “palming” the ball is called very closely. The timing and the techniques for shooting and passing takes years to master. Mr Gregory does hit on one point accurately, though. Defensive tactics in Team Handball and basketball are very similar. New players have often very quickly become good defensive players.

“Once the U.S. is the Olympics, take that group of NBA players who’ve always wanted to be Olympians, put them in a summer camp before the Games, and bang, you have a medal contender. For an Olympic medal, you need the absolute best pros possible.”

5) If it’s a tough sell for middling college hoops players, it, of course, would be a tough sell to the very best professional athletes. In fact, many of the best NBA players, don’t even want to play basketball at the Olympics

6) And even if you got those very best players and they agreed to commit with 100% dedication to a month long training camp with the World’s best coaching they would not compete for a medal. The World’s best Team Handball squads are a notch or two below the NBA in terms of athletic ability, but they would not be overwhelmed athletically. Their years and years of experience would be enough to compensate the athletic shortcomings. Hmm… Come to think of it, aren’t the European basketball teams also athletically inferior? And our NBA all-star team sometimes loses to those teams in basketball—Now we’re going to beat them in a game we’ve only played for a month— Why, that’s ridiculous.

That’s ridiculous, you say. What sports executive would let a multi-million dollar investment play some silly sport in the off-season? Well, if basketball general managers let their guys play Olympic basketball in the summer and hockey bosses permit their stars to play in the Olympic tournament during the season, why wouldn’t they let them hurl the handball? They’re much less likely to get hurt in a sport that every kid in gym class can play. Plus, it’ll keep them from crashing motorcycles during the off-season.

7) Less likely to get hurt: Tell that to Pascal Hens and Ivano Balic, two top players recently injured at the Olympics. Serious injury is a definite risk. In fact, some Mark Cuban like noises are starting to be made by the top Handball clubs in Europe about all the National Team competitions.

And what happens to those poor guys who qualified for the Olympics? If they know they’re not going to play in the Olympics, why play hard in qualifying? Well, we never said the U.S. should publicize this plan. Cruel? Sure. But this is an arms race. Plus, have you seen those Chinese sports schools? Next to them, this strategy is saintly.

8 ) Well, here’s an interesting side note for you. Shortly before the 1996 Olympics USA Team Handball was approached by NBA star Sean Kemp’s agent about the possibility of his player, playing Handball for Team USA in Atlanta. Sean Kemp would fulfill his Olympic dream and USA Team Handball would get some much needed publicity. The only downside was that some player who had trained for several years for his Olympic moment would have to be bounced. To USA Team Handball’s credit Mr Kemp was told that he was welcome to try out, but that he would have to earn a roster spot. To the best of my knowledge, Mr Kemp never found his way to a National Team Tryout.

But that’s just the quick fix for 2012 — anything is better than what the U.S. has now. Around, say, 2011, find a group of committed athletes who have no options in other pro sports, house them in the USOC’s Colorado Springs training center for weeks at a time, and start shooting for 2016. Give them stipends. Offer them the Olympic dream. The USOC does this in minor sports like wrestling and rowing. Why not do it for handball?

9) Uhh. Been there, done that. This was the model that was used in the 1980’s through 1996, and it did bring the USA some marginal respectability. As the sport has become more professionalized in Europe, this model, however, has struggled to produce decent results. It might still qualify a team for the Olympics, but it won’t create a team that can compete for a medal.

If funding is a problem, steal money from the budget of insane sports we’ll never be good at. Modern pentathlon? Ski jumping? Biathlon? What’s the point? It’s so much simpler for Americans to throw a little ball around than shoot stuff after skiing. Cede that to the Nords.”

10) Well actually, those sports have had better results than Team Handball. I’m all for the USOC contributing to Team Handball at the expense of other sports, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon. In fact, the USOC has been pretty clear in stating that they will be more inclined to fund sports that have a good chance of medaling as well as multi-discipline sports where more medals are awarded.

What’s more, the handball world wants the U.S. to succeed. In fact, France plans to hold a tournament for its club teams in Miami next year, in order to promote handball in the States. “America is a great country,” says French player Jerome Fernandez. “Look at baseball, basketball, American football. The U.S. knows how to build a sport.” Christophe Kempe, another Frenchmen, gets a bit whimsical. “It was always my father’s dream to have handball become big in the U.S.,” he says. “Maybe I’ll become a trainer in the U.S. one day.” Remember, these are French guys saying this.
The rest of the world knows an Olympic sport is ripe for an American invasion. “I tell people all the time that if the U.S. starts playing team handball,'” says David Davis of Spain, “‘it’s over for the rest of the world.'” It may be too late for Beijing. But it’s time for the U.S. to give itself a hand.

11) No problems here for me. Although I will say that while the rest of the World might want the U.S. to succeed, they haven’t done much until recently. I’ll save that diatribe for another posting.