Handball and Basketball at the Beach

Venice Beach Handball (foreground) and pickup basketball (background)

The Ryan family was vacationing in Santa Monica for a few days and one day we decided to take a stroll south towards Venice Beach.  Venice Beach is an iconic location featured in numerous movies and TV shows for its skateboarders, weightlifters and Southern California ambiance.  Also part of that scene are the Handball and Basketball courts near the pier.  While watching those two sports being played simultaneously a couple of whimsical thoughts crossed my mind….

1) What’s funnier, a) the fact that many Europeans are puzzled and somewhat insulted that most Americans have no clue as to what their “handball” is or b) the fact that most Americans have no clue about the Handball the rest of the world plays?

It never fails to amuse me the confusion that almost always ensues when an American and European meet and the topic of conversation turns to Handball.  As one who has witnessed and participated in this comedic dance I’ve seen it play out in a number of different ways.  I’ve seen Europeans absolutely bewildered; even angered that their beloved sport can’t even be comprehended by an American who can’t figure out how 7 people get in such a tiny space.  I guess if they traveled to Venice Beach and seen the hundred or so people watching and playing this version of Handball they’d get the picture.  Not to mention the several thousand casual observers who stroll by and witness this sort of spectacle here and in other regional locales around the U.S.  Team Handball has an increasing awareness quotient in the U.S., but it should be readily apparent to all, that there’s a reason why to most Americans our “Handball” is at best “the other handball” and more likely, the “unknown handball.”  It shouldn’t be this way, but make no mistake that’s the way it is.  There are a lot of folks to pin the blame on in regards to this reality, but it stands to reason that no one would benefit more from a campaign to change this reality than the Europeans trying to make a living playing, managing and promoting the sport.  So yes, the answer to my question is that it’s funnier that Europeans are puzzled.

2) It’s not practical to play pick-up Handball and the fact that you can play pick-up basketball has inevitably led to its ever increasing popularity.

As a middle aged athlete with diminished skills I watched the basketball games being played and immediately assessed that I could step right in and play.  One of the games I’d probably have dominated and in the other I’d been a role player.  I wasn’t about ready to step in and play, but if I wanted to I could.  Which, of course, is the beauty of pick-up basketball?.  Just about anywhere in the U.S and increasingly the rest of the world, it’s possible to find a game at your level in which you can just walk right up and start playing.  Whereas, as far as I know, there’s nowhere in the world that you can do that for Handball.  There are a number of reasons why that’s true.  Here’s a few:

– Handball’s a rough game.  Accordingly, you generally don’t want to play with just anybody.
– Handball’s a young man’s game.  Once you get north of 40 years old Handball gets to be pretty hard in terms of recovery.  This is true in basketball, as well, but based on personal experience it’s manageable.
– You got to have 14 people to play the game the way it’s meant to be played.  You can sort of make do with 12 and you can scrimmage on a half side of the court, but it’s a poor, unsatisfactory compromise. And 2 of those 14 better be legitimate goalies.  Whereas in basketball, even 2 on 2 can be fun.
– “Call your own” officiating in basketball is problematic; in Handball it’s even worse.

This whimsical thought is not meant to validate the concept that basketball is a superior sport.  No, just to merely point out the obvious:  The great sport of Handball has got some limitations when it comes to casual, spur of the moment participation.