30 years ago I was a member of the U.S. National Team that participated in the 1993 World Championships in Sweden. This week, Team USA returns to Sweden for the 2023 World Championships and I can’t help but feel nostalgic along with a little bit of deja vu. Deja vu, in the sense that while handball has changed and evolved in many ways the U.S. is simply right back where we were 30 years ago.
A Seminal Experience
Anyone who knows me or has followed this website is well aware that I have a great deal of passion for the sport of handball. Where does that passion come from? Well, much of it can be attributed to my participation in the 1993 WC. I was already passionate about the sport, but having the opportunity to represent my country and play against the best handball athletes on a world stage had a super charging effect. Further, my participation was unexpected. I had actually been cut from 1 of 4 Olympic Festival teams (an annual event used in part to evaluate prospects) a year and half earlier. I though my career was over, and instead I ended up starting on defense and playing just about as good as my limited skills and talent would allow. And, now the U.S. returns to a World Championship in Sweden 30 years later. How could I not be nostalgic?
Here are some names from my 1993 experience and the role they now will have at the 2023 WC.
- U.S. Head Coach, Robert Hedin: Yes, as you can see from the old Swedish newspaper clipping, Coach Hedin played against the U.S. in our forgettable 32-16 loss to the Swedes at the Scandinavium in Gothenburg. How forgettable? Coach Hedin had literally forgotten that he had even played against the U.S. back in 1993 when I first mentioned it to him during an interview. He remembered playing against the U.S. at the 1996 Olympics, but had totally forgotten this classic. Clearly not a seminal moment for him. (Interview from 2018 shortly after he was hired: Link)
- U.S. Asst Coach, Darrick Heath: Heath, is one of the all time best back courts for the U.S. and was also on the 93 USA Team. So the U.S. coaching staff will be returning to Sweden 30 years later, but this time Hedin and Heath will be working together on the same team.
- Netherlands Head Coach, Stefan Olsson: Olsson was briefly the USA Team Handball High Performance Manager and is now the coach of the Netherlands. I’m thinking he’s also forgotten the U.S. match 30 years ago. If he remembers, he did not play well and I like to think I played a part in that. (Even if it’s not true… that’s how I like to remember it.)
Just how long has Paul Bray been commentating handball? 30 years ago he was the voice on EuroSport, cracking up the USA team with “barging, giving up the far post” and other British colloquialisms that sounded pretty funny to our American ears.
Striking to me are some athletes on the rosters with similar backgrounds:
- Darrick Heath (1993) / Gary Hines (2023): Much like Gary Hines was the “jumping out of the gym” crowd favorite at the warm up tourney in Trondheim, Darrick Heath was the crowd favorite back in 1993. It’s not very often one can actually hear a crowd collectively gasp, but that’s exactly what happened in Gothenburg the first time Darrick launched a jump shot off a 9 meter throw. Seriously, in that one very narrow skill of a 9 meter jump shot behind a wall Darrick might well be the all time greatest.
And, here’s a side note on Gary that makes me feel just a little bit younger. Way back in 2004 I played my last competitive matches at the USA National Championships with Gary on the Condors club team. As long as he keeps winning the battle vs Father Time I get to watch Team USA and keep saying, “Yeah, I played with him.”
- John Keller (1993) / Ty Reed (2023): They play a different position (Right Back for Keller; Right Wing for Reed), but they both played for NCAA Division 1 football teams (North Carolina for Keller; Alabama for Reed).
- John Ryan (1993) / Drew Donlin (2023): Both Circle Runners; Both Air Force Academy Graduates; Both Captains and while Drew is the Space Force and I was in the Air Force, I was working Space acquisition before Donald Trump made it cool. The similarities pretty much end there, though. While I was a serviceable defensive specialist no one was plucking me out of the lineup to go play in the Liga ASOBAL for a couple of years.
Similar Teams and Deja Vu?
I write this with a question mark because we’re talking different eras and I’m pretty sure this USA team is not going to finish dead last with no wins like we did back in 1993. That said, I like to think that if we had played with an expanded field of 32 teams (instead of a 16 team field) we wouldn’t have finished 32nd.
We were a side that played hard and showed some potential. Darrick Heath parlayed his performance into a professional career. Several of my teammates continued playing and became Olympians 3 years later. The U.S. continued to improve and started to play closer matches vs the top teams. Why does Coach Hedin remember his match against the U.S. at the 96 Olympics? Because three years after clobbering us by 16 goals they had to sweat out a 4 goal win in Atlanta.
The jury is still out on this 2023 team, but the warmup tourney in Trondheim suggests that we will see a team that will sometimes be way out of its league (losing 27-12 to Norway in the 1st half) and at times pretty competitive (losing 16-14 to Norway in the 2nd half). Much like the U.S. team was back in 1993. (Our two halves vs Sweden in 1993: Link)
And, perhaps just like 1993 we could see some players turn some heads. It won’t shock me at all if Abou Fofana and/or Ian Huter with the great exposure provided by the World Championships get some offers from bigger clubs.
It’s also pretty clear to me that we will be watching the core nucleus of our 2028 Olympic team. There are a few players on the roster that will likely age out, but the bulk of this roster is in their early to mid 20s. Why, I see as many as 10 athletes on the current roster suiting up in Los Angeles in 2028. And, unlike our 93 team they will have 5 years instead of 3 to further develop as a team. So while this 2023 team is in a similar place to the 1993 team they have far greater potential.
I think Abou Fofana said it best when he was asked on Instagram, “What should Americans look out for when they watch this team?”
All, I can say is… I wholeheartedly concur with his assessment
But, while there are some similarities between these two teams, there’s one huge difference that would have been inconceivable to me and my teammates 30 years ago. And, that is a roster consisting mostly of Americans who grew up in another country. I’ll explain why in part 2 this is not really something to be concerned about… if we take full advantage of this good fortune to really focus on efforts to develop handball stateside.
Some links to check out