USA Basketball with a Worst Ever World Championships: Does Anyone Still Think that Similar Athletes Can Lead us to Handball Greatness?

The USA Men’s Basketball National Team, humbled after a quarter final loss to France and a consolation loss to Serbia. They will play for 7th tomorrow vs the Czech Republic.

The U.S. Men’s basketball national team has one more game to play at the FIBA World Championships, but they won’t be playing for Gold, No, they will instead be battling the Czech Republic for 7th place.  It’s an ignominious end for the pre-tournament favorite, but really not that big of a surprise as the gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world has continued to narrow.  Plus, this wasn’t clearly wasn’t the best U.S. roster, as many stars simply decided not to participate.  This may seem strange to the rest of the world, but here in the U.S. it was no big deal as the only national team competition that matters is the Olympics.  Heck, the World Championships aren’t even on regular TV and matches could only be seen on ESPN’s streaming service.

What’s this Got to do with Handball?

Well, quite a bit from a U.S. perspective.  The reason being is that like clockwork, every four years during the Olympics some sports commentator discovers handball for the first time and immediately concludes that the U.S. should and could dominate this sport.  All we need to do is find some NBA players that can’t make our U.S. Basketball National Team and train them for six months.  As someone who follows handball closely I don’t mind the extra publicity and some new people discovering our great sport.  I really don’t, so let me be as diplomatic as I can be regarding such analysis:


How crazy is it?  Think about it.  What just happened?  A team of NBA athletes playing a sport they have played their ENTIRE lives can’t win a title and will finish no better than 7th.  What on God’s green earth makes anyone think that a similar group of athletes are going to fare better in a sport that they’ve NEVER played before after 6 months, a year, 2 years, 4 years of training?

It is an opinion that is so blind to the reality of the professionalism of both sports that it is mind boggling.  I got some news for you would be problem solvers.  The two teams (Serbia and France) that just beat the U.S. in basketball also have pretty good handball teams and their roster is 100% full time professionals.  And, quite frankly the athleticism of their handball teams is pretty much the same as their basketball teams.  Heck, I love Nikola Jokic of Serbia as a basketball player, but sorry if you’ve seen him play you know full well that his “athleticism” isn’t what makes him such a great player.  What makes him great is his court sense and passing… Something he’s developed after years and years of playing basketball.  The sort of court sense a player like Nikola Karabatic has in handball.  Expecting someone who’s only played for a couple of years to compete against that level of experience is unfair.  Expecting newcomers to actually win…Really?

My Biggest Fear

I guess everything would be OK if views like this were simply the domain of sports writers and talk radio.  Misguided nonsense, but still great promotion for the sport.  I also think that transitioning athletes from other sports like basketball to team handball makes sense in the U.S.  But, such transitions need to be done smartly at the right age and with realistic expectations; As part of a comprehensive strategy to grow the game domestically in the U.S. 

Where I get nervous and real antsy is when such transitions are talked about in the context of our National Teams.  Folks that should know better start discussing variants of the “other NBA players” strategy.  Those variants typically involve bringing in athletes from a variety of sports and providing them dedicated, focused training.   The National Team Residency program concept is dusted off and tweaked.  This time it will be different…  And, this is my biggest fear: 

That the bulk of USA Team Handball’s resources will shift to finding athletes who’ve never played the game and training them, all with the goal of turning them into National Team athletes.

Can this be done?:   Yes, to a certain extent.  It’s been done before to varying degrees of limited “success”.  It would be tough today now that handball is way more professionalized, but it’s possible.  And, expectations would need to be tempered.

How long will it take?: Well, for sure not 6 months; 2 years?; 4 years? What quality of an athlete is going to sign up for that?

Can it be done on the cheap?:  No, for sure it can’t.  One just has to look at the Cortland and Auburn programs to quickly come to that conclusion.  Doing such an effort correctly will cost… a lot.

But, really, this is the question everyone should be asking:

Should it be done?:  And, this is the fundamental question our Board of Directors should be taking a real hard look at in the context of everything that needs to be done. 

  • Is it worth the cost?
  • What are the expectations?
  • Why is this “short term” fix a better use of resources than other programs that are focused on “long term” solutions?
  • What do we think such an effort accomplish at the end of the day?

Previous Commentaries regarding the “NBA Other Players” strategy and understanding that handball is a professional sport

  • Why a Residency Program at Auburn?: Reason #2: The U.S. had its Greatest Success with Residency Programs… True Statement, but that Success Occurred when Handball was only “Somewhat Professionalized.” Link
  • Could Lebron James Really become the the Best Handball Player in the World in Just 6 Months? (Part 1): Do I really have to Explain how Crazy that notion is? Link
  • Could Lebron James Really become the the Best Handball Player in the World in Just 6 Months? (Part 2): Why it’s just not Going to Happen; but what about Lebron Lite? Link