In part 1, I just assumed that LeBron decided that becoming the best handball player in the world was his new mission in life. In this part, I address the impossibility of that ever happening for LeBron and the unlikelihood it will happen for the would be LeBron Lites out there.
Identifying and Recruiting the Cross-Over Athlete
Unsaid, but obvious in the hypothetical question of LeBron James becoming the best handball player ever is that convincing James to take on such a task is pretty much impossible for a number of reasons.
- Money. Fresh off an NBA title James resigned with the Cleveland Cavaliers for a 3 year, $100 million contract. The entire USA Team Handball annual budget is currently around $500,000. Athletes training with the U.S. currently even have had to pay some of their own travel expenses. That wouldn’t be a problem for James, but why would he walk away from $100M?
- Desire. James has been playing basketball all his life and it’s still his primary focus. He surely wants to win some more NBA titles and he hasn’t even ruled out a return to Team USA for the 2020 Olympics. Why would he give that up?
- Life Issues. The rigors of an NBA career are hard enough, but transitioning to handball would be pretty disruptive. Right now that could mean a move to Auburn, AL to train with the U.S. National Team or a move to Europe. Pretty disruptive on family life. It would also probably get in the way of other career goals like his reported desire to own an NBA franchise.
It’s pretty hard to envision a scenario by which LeBron could be convinced to take up handball. But, if the U.S. can’t get LeBron, what about LeBron Lite?
Well, the answer to that question depends on how “lite” you want to get. For those thinking that other NBA athletes or other professional athletes might be available, think again. Money, desire and life issues will preclude just about any professional athlete from making such a leap. And, we’re not just talking about U.S. based professionals, but Americans playing in Europe as well. Just about any player with D1 basketball talent can play professionally in Europe at some level. They aren’t making NBA money, but they are making a living. Plus, as any professional athlete knows their sporting career can only last so long. Many will be looking to cash in on their skills before they have to go get a “real job.”
What about other sports? American football is a good candidate, but players have options like the Arena and Canadian Leagues. Baseball players have multiple minor league opportunities and will hold on to the dream of making the major leagues as long as possible. There are other sports, of course: Lacrosse, volleyball, etc. But, with those sports there’s a smaller athlete pool and accordingly you’re going to draw athletes that clearly won’t overwhelm those Euros athletically. And the same can be said for the talent that will come out of the lower collegiate divisions in hoops and football. You’ll find pretty good athletes, but a notch below are best pros. That’s why they’re not pros.
What about the pro that had a decent career, made a little money and now wants to chase an Olympic dream? All good in theory, but you’ll need to factor in desire and life issues. If you’ve played on a big stage toiling away learning a new sport in obscurity might not be so appealing. And if you’re a 20-something year old adult, life issues such as getting married, having kids and contemplating what you’re going to do work-wise the rest of your life will become more and more important as you start getting closer to being a 30-something.
Bottom line: The LeBron lites will be decent athletes, but not NBA level. Hopefully, not too much below, but recent recruiting suggests otherwise. Yeah, if we’re lucky we might get athletes comparable to the athleticism of the Croatian handball squad. So much for overwhelming the opposition with superior athleticism.
For more on recruiting challenges in the US, read the “Moneyball Handball” commentaries at this page: Link
How exactly are you going to train the cross over athlete?
Another element left unsaid in the whole concept is just how exactly LeBron would become the best player in 6 months. The original quote is from the U.S. Men’s National Team Coach, Javier Garcia Cuesta, so one could imply that Coach Garcia Cuesta would take on the task. Currently, he is running the U.S. Men’s residency team program at Auburn, AL so one could further imply that LeBron would head to Alabama for 6 months of intense handball training. The team practices 5 days a week on the court and has additional strength and conditioning training. The number of athletes currently training isn’t clear, but for the last couple of years it seems to have fluctuated between 7 to 20 athletes. Most of these athletes are relatively new to handball and this past summer some didn’t even make the U.S. team that competed at the Pan American Championships. Further, in the competition the key backcourt positions were primarily filled by non-residency athletes.
So, if LeBron was to head down to Auburn, there would really be no one for him to observe and play against to learn how to play at the highest level. Now a lot can still be learned from a knowledgeable coach in a vacuum so to speak. Just learning 3 steps and how to properly shoot a jump shot for instance. But, becoming a world class player in essentially a vacuum? Sorry, it’s just not going to happen.
No, the only way it would even begin to happen is if LeBron was added to a roster at one of the world’s top professional clubs, like Paris-SG. In theory, he would be treated like an NBA “project player.” He would have individual sessions with a top coach and also be allowed to practice with the team as he got up to speed. With Hansen, Karabatic and Narcisse around he surely would pick up a lot and as I mentioned in part 1, I think he would become a pretty decent defender fairly quickly. Learning how to play backcourt, though, that surely would take a while even in the perfect circumstances I describe. This is pretty far fetched, but I bet if LeBron really wanted to pursue handball a top club would actually accommodate him. The publicity for sure would be awesome.
But, again, it’s not going to happen so we need to talk about how the U.S. would train some LeBron Lites. Right now, USA Team Handball seems to be locked into using the Residency Team model at Auburn University. For the uninitiated the Residency Model seeks to find the best possible athletes, put them in a central location and then train them up with handball skills. Further, the goal is to keep the national team together in preparation for national team competition.
For those new to handball or this website I’ve already spent quite a bit of time railing against the Residency Model. (Read the series of commentaries about the Residency Model and the Auburn Decision towards the bottom of the page: Link) A model that I participated in and one that really helped me become a decent player. Here’s the cliff notes version as to the major problems:
- It was only modestly successful under far better conditions. S. teams achieved a measure of respectability, but still couldn’t beat the top teams in WC or Olympic competitions
- European handball has become more professionalized. The Euros always had a technical skill advantage, but superior American athleticism could make up for that somewhat. This is simply not true anymore. Professional athletes will top amateurs almost every time.
- Pan American competitors have improved substantially. A team of athletic Americans with limited technical skills could at one time win the Pan American ticket without too much trouble. Now Argentina and Brazil are pretty athletic, plus have good technical skills.
- Lack of resources. The USOC used to provide substantial support to residency programs. Not true anymore. The current programs are so austere that athletes are essentially provided nothing. They are even asked to pay for travel to competition. Link
- Lack of competition: Training in the USA means that the USA athletes would lack meaningful competition. You can’t get better unless you play top competition on a regular basis. This would mean more costs to travel to Europe, but even then the professional club season limits the windows for meaningful competition.
- The location (Auburn) is far from ideal. A college town in a rural Alabama really limits the opportunity to create a regional hub for the sport.
- Athletes have more options. European opportunities have resulted in fewer athletes seeking an outlet like team handball.
Bottom Line: We don’t have the money to do it right, we don’t have the athletes to get us there and even if we did have the money and athletes about the best we can really hope for is a team that doesn’t embarrass at a potential LA 2024 Olympics.
Worse, when you focus most of your time, energy and resources on a residency program it also detracts from everything else, particularly grass roots efforts. The opportunity costs are immense. I fear that we will again look back and wonder why we sought a quick short term fix. And, yet again wonder what might have been if different strategies for long term sustainable growth had been considered.
Three years into the program little has been accomplished. Neither the Men’s or Women’s team have come close qualifying for an Olympics or even a World Championship. Ironically, the U.S. actually did better in 2012 qualification when no residency program existed. The athletes are hard working, but none have yet showed world class promise or significant interest from a 2nd tier pro team.
Honestly, it’s a bit frustrating to see newbies to the sport tweet that a bunch of D1 hoops players could win gold after a year of training. Frustrating, but to be expected. But, it is totally exasperating to hear our coach spout such nonsense, even if it is just to be a bit provocative to promote the sport. To see Federation leadership march blindly down such a short sighted path. I just don’t get it.
I keep thinking that a preponderance of evidence plus some thoughtful consideration of possible alternatives will inevitably result in a change of plans, but it hasn’t happened to date. And really, I would be thrilled to eat my words; to watch Team USA march on the court in Tokyo and stampede through the tournament like a wrecking ball. I really would. But, I’m an analytical type guy and there’s just absolutely nothing to suggest such a miracle. At least I’ve yet to read anything which made me stop and think that perhaps I’ve got it all wrong. Again, the open invitation for someone to educate is out there for anyone willing to string a few words together: Link