What if Shaq Had Played Handball?

The Shaq of Handball and the Shaq of Basketball

I generally am pretty annoyed with 10 second newbie analysis of how great athletes from other sports could take up handball and totally dominate. But, the exploits of Gautheir Mvumbi got me thinking… What if Shaq had played handball?

Gauthier Mvumbi: The Shaq of Handball

With little doubt the most fun story of the 2021 IHF Men’s Handball Championships was RD Congo’s Gauthier Mvumbi. Christened the “Shaq of Handball”, Mvumbi was officially listed as 6’4″ and 242 lbs (192 cm / 110 kg), but some reports indicated he was closer to 300 lbs / 137 kg).

Regardless, of how much he actually weighed he was an absolute blast to watch. When he first ran out on the court I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who chuckled a bit as he lumbered in from the sideline and posted up on the 6 meter crease. I’m sure there were many who also snickered at the overweight player and said to themselves, “This guy has no business playing handball in a World Championship.”

However, it didn’t take long for everyone watching to assess that once he got the ball the circle runner was pretty darn effective, scoring 20 goals on 23 attempts. And, remarkably agile for some of his size. I’m a little taller and also played circle runner, but my playing weight was closer to 200 lbs. I can’t even imagine moving the same way with another 100 lbs on my frame. But, for Mvumbi it was no problem. Gather the ball… turn… shake off the would be defenders… and dive in to score.

Mvumbi’s play generated quite a bit of media attention. He even got a shout out from the Shaquille O’Neal on Instagram.

Article with links to several photos and videos of Gauthier Mvumbi in action: Link

Shaquille O’Neal: The Shaq of Basketball

But, if we are going to call someone the Shaq of Handball, it’s worthwhile spending a little time remembering the impact Shaquille O’Neal had on the sport of basketball. Our memories fade and, if one is younger, such memories don’t even exist. Shaq, especially in the early days of his playing career was a very agile player. I don’t know how many times I heard a commentator say that “it was almost unfair that a player of such size could move so well.” At the apex of his career if Shaq got the ball in the low post he was pretty much unstoppable. About the only thing most players could do was foul him and make him shoot free throws. A strategy that eventually evolved to the infamous “Hack a Shaq” whereby teams started fouling Shaq even when he was nowhere near the basket. The rules were also changed to allow zone defenses and this also made it easier for teams to defend against him and over time it arguably led to the NBA game’s greater emphasis on the 3 point shot.

For more insight this video provides a pretty good in depth analysis of just how hard he was to defend: Link

My Encounter with Shaq Many Years Ago

Just about everybody has stories where they’ve met someone famous and, while I never actually engaged Shaquille O’Neal in conversation my brief encounter with him way back in 1989, as I will explain, was a real eye opener. How brief of an encounter? Real brief. Seriously, all I did was stand next to him in the cafeteria line at the 1989 Olympic Festival in Oklahoma. The Olympic Festivals were a multi-sport event that the U.S. held in non-Olympic years and I was there playing handball while a 17 year old Shaq was there, of course, for basketball.

Back then I was a close follower of NCAA college basketball and I had heard about this big center that was going to play at LSU next year. That he had dominated in high school and that was going to be the next Patrick Ewing or David Robinson.

Well, I’ve never stood next to either of those big centers, but I’ve stood next to other folks in their height range. When you’re used to being taller than 99% of the people you meet on a daily basis it’s always a bit of a novelty to look up to someone else. And, if you’re an athlete you size them up and wonder to yourself, “I wonder if I could play against them? Could I get my turn around jumper off if I really faded away.” And, I could actually rationalize playing against taller players on offense. Not, that I would get the best of them, but that I could compete. Defense against a taller player, however, would be tougher. It’s just the nature of the game in basketball. Against taller players you’ve got to be physical and hold your ground. Still, if you’re an athlete you always think you can compete.

And, then I stood next to Shaq…

It’s one thing for someone to be tall, but it’s another thing entirely for someone be immense. And, Shaq is immense. I’ve never felt so small in my entire life. Back then he was probably around 7’1″, 290 lbs. Could I compete against Shaq on defense? If he posted me up could I have held my ground? Uh… Sorry, no chance in hell. I would have needed two of me to double team him. And, even then it would have been all about keeping him from getting the ball.

Shaq… as the Shaq of Handball

But, enough of this basketball talk. What, if Shaq had played handball? How would that have played out? It’s actually a question that I’ve pondered about since that brief encounter with Shaq many years ago.

I’ve played defense against some burly circle runners and they were always a bit of a challenge for my slighter build especially if they established a solid position on the 6 meter line. But, usually it was a challenge that I could counter with a height advantage and long arms to fend off would be entry passes. I’m not saying I won all these battles, but I am saying that I could compete.

However, I never played against anyone the size of Gauthier Mvumbi and during the World Championships I got to thinking how I would have played him. And, basically it would have been a lot of darting back and forth trying to stay between him and the ball. I’d like to think that I would have deflected a few entry passes into him, but I also saw how defenders were struggling to get around to the other side. Mvumbi takes up a fare amount of space and it’s a long way around.

And, then one contemplates the hypothetical of Shaquille O’Neal taking the place of Gauthier Mvumbi…

6’4″/300 lbs (192 cm/110 kg) vs 7’1″/320 lbs (216 cm/145 kg).

Heavier and taller. And… way more mobile and athletic. One defender guarding Shaq on the 6 meter line and keeping him from getting the ball? Sorry. No chance in hell for me and most humans. Maybe all humans? Why, I think even a guy like Bence Banhidi of Hungary/Szeged would struggle and he’s listed at 6’9″/265 lbs (206 cm/120 kgs).

Further, Shaq would not have been a one dimensional offensive player. I think Shaq would have had some limitations on the defensive side of the court, but he’d do alright. Basically he would be a quicker and more physical Dainas Kristopans. Someone that might struggle 1v1 against quicker players, but also someone that backcourt players wouldn’t like running into.

The “Would Be” Shaq Effect

How good of a handball player would Shaq have been? Well, offensively, especially after he figured out the basic circle runner placement and moves, I think he would have dominated the game much the way he did in basketball at his peak. Arguably, if Shaq were paired with one of the world’s top backcourts such a tandem would be unstoppable and even more dominating than the Kobe-Shaq 3 peat Lakers.

As I see it a Shaq that knows how to play handball would require at least 1.5 players guarding him at all times. Because of Shaq’s size and quickness it’s a virtually certainty that with just a bit of maneuvering he could set up shop anywhere he wanted to on the 6 meter line. Watch this video of Shaq pushing 7’1″, 235 lb David Robinson around: Link

One defender would need to closely guard him to deny the entry pass and one defender (the half) would need to keep an eye on him ready to closely guard him should the ball swing to the other side.

Of course, this is how defense against circle runners is often done against mere mortals. There’s some variance as to the defense alignment and the relative strengths of the offensive players. And, that’s where a Shaq like player would just trash up defenses. That’s because that “1.5 players” guarding him would sometimes become for all practical purposes 2 players.

And, if one pairs Shaq with a backcourt like Mikkel Hansen or Sander Sagosen… What does the defense do? If they come out to help out at 9 meters they leave Shaq with just one defender and he’s a big target for an entry pass. If they stay close to Shaq it’s too easy for a quality backcourt to score.

In a sense we already have an example where this dilemma is played out. It’s basically what happens when defenses pull their goalkeeper and go 7v6. The extra circle runner typically forces defenses to a 6-0 defensive alignment thereby opening up backcourt scoring opportunities. Of course, the drawback of the 7v6 is the open goal at the other end.

But, the Shaq effect would essentially be almost like playing 7v6 without having to pull your GK.

There’s Only One Shaq

Long time readers to this site know that I’ve religiously maligned and taken to task handball newbies who speculate how athletes like Lebron James (Part 1 and Part 2) would dominate team handball. So why doesn’t this logic also apply to Shaq? Two reasons:

  1. Shaq would clearly have played circle runner. Circle runner is the easiest position to learn how to play. Not surprisingly it’s also where there have been some successful transitions from other sports like basketball. Teaching someone how to play backcourt effectively is a much more difficult prospect. It can be done, but not quickly.
  2. There’s only one Shaq. Seriously, only a couple of people have even come close to the combination of size and quickness. Wilt Chamberlain in his era. Zion Williamson is kind of a miniature Shaq. But, yeah Shaq is pretty much literally a 1 in 10 billion kind of a guy. And, just like he forever changed basketball he would have done the same thing in handball.