Nikola Karabatic: The Handball Goat Retires (Part 1): Intro and Match #1: OMG, He’s only 18 Years Old!

(An 18 year old Nikola Karabatic with Montpellier head coach, Patrice Canayer, back in 2003)

Later this August, probably after the Gold Medal match at the 2024 Olympics, Nikola Karabatic will hang up his shoes and retire from handball. It’s been a long journey for him… and a long journey for me and the rest of the handball world. Like most careers one fillled with ups and down, but way more ups than most. I’m going to take a long look at those ups… but, I’ll also touch upon some of the down moments. In doing so I hope to capture his legacy and give the GOAT a proper sendoff.

Handball’s Greatest of all Time (GOAT): Don’t Even Try to Argue for anyone Else. Just Don’t…

When a professional career spans over two decades of excellence it can be a bit hard to wrap ones arms around its entire arc. Memories fade some as the great player becomes only really good and then just good with periodic reminders of that all time greatness. Younger fans of the sport who have never even seen Karabatic play when he was at his peak are may even be a little puzzled when he’s referred to as the GOAT.

Understandable… but, they need to be educated. For sure, the numbers are just ridiculous. No one has won more titles as a national team athlete or a club athlete. Just take a look at these major international tournament stats from his Wikipedia page.

I had to shrink the page several times just to get a screenshot and its pretty clear there are a lot more highs and lows. And, yes handball is a team sport and France has had a lot of good players over the years. But, make no mistake: He’s been the key cog in the French machine for the past 2 decades. 2 decades… 25 major tournaments with 11 Gold and France made the semifinals in all but 6 of them. He’s going to be a 6 time Olympian. Take a look at this list of most Olympic appearances in all sports. A lot of equestrians and shooters… He’s doing it in a rough and tumble, professonal team sport. It’s truly remarkable.

On a club level he won the national league title for the club he was playing for (in France, Germany and Spain) every year except the 2012-13 season. I guess just 3 Champions League titles is a bit of a disappointment, but it’s still pretty good. And, it’s certainly true that he’s almost always played for a really good club, but it’s not a coincidence that he has usually been the centerpiece of those really good teams.

Nobody has numbers like this. I guess Mikkel Hansen is sort of in the ballpark, but Hansen never played defense anywhere near the level of Karabatic has. And, if there are any Croats lurking that want to argue about Ivano Balic. Please… Just don’t…

Seriously, I think the only thing Balic did better than Karabatic was the “flashy” pass. And, mind you Balic wasn’t a better overall passer. No. He was just a better flashy passer. The kind of passes that make for great highlights. Whereas Karabatic generally just made effective passes that got the job done.

And, really that pretty much defines Karabatic’s entire game. Effective… doing what’s needed to get the job done… over and over and over. One could even call him the “quiet” GOAT. Quiet in that a video of career highlights the highlights aren’t that remarkable. If you know handball you certainly can appreciate them, but they aren’t the jaw dropping “spectacular move” of a Michael Jordan. Just mind numbing excellence year after year after year.

My Parallel Journey

This series is mostly about the GOAT, but it’s also about me and really any other fans out there. For me personally, Karabatic’s career parallels my journey from a casual handball fan to an uber handball fan. And, over the past 22 years I’ll estimate that I’ve seen him play around 10-30 matches/season which I’ll round off to about 450 matches in total. That’s a pretty good sample size for anyone. For an American? That’s a crazy number. I was there when he burst on the scene and I’m still here two decades later as he hangs up his shoes.

So herewith is my look back at his legacy by my estimated chronological viewing match #.

Match #1 (9 March, 2003, Montpellier, 34 vs Zagreb, 25 EHF Champions League QF): OMG, He’s Only 18

(Context: My daughter in front of the TV back in Paris and at her recent college graduation. Karabatic has been playing at a really high level for a really long time.)

It’s important to set the scene for the 1st time I remember ever seeing Nikola Karabatic play. I had been living in France for about 6 months, but I hadn’t quite figured out French television or club handball competitions for that matter. Many of the matches were on a different tier of cable service which I hadn’t paid for initially and I didn’t really understand the concept of the Champions League and that I could watch such matches.

But, I eventually figured it out and I’ll never forget sitting down on the couch to watch handball that fateful day a little over 21 years ago. 21 years… In my mind’s eye I can see my not quite 1 year old daughter crawling around as I watch. The same daughter who just recently graduated from College.

And, I can remember watching the match on a non HD set and seeing this guy named Nikola Karabatic playing and clearly being the best athlete on the court. And, I remember asking myself, “Who is this guy with the Yugoslavian name and why have I never heard of him before? I distinctly remember grabbing my laptop and googling his name, pulling up his French Wikipedia article, cutting and pasting it into some translation website and reading the entry…

And, saying to myself:

“Oh My God, He’s only 18 years old! Is that really true? Is somebody messing with Wikipedia. Is the translation not working?”

My Greatest Sports Prediction

We always remember the predictions we got right… and forget the ones we got wrong. I’ve hit a few home runs in my day. In 1988, while he was still a cadet I predicted that Troy Calhoun would some day be the Air Force Academy Head Football Coach… He’s now in his 17th season in that position. In 2013, I correctly predicted the four handball clubs that would make the 2014 Champions League Final Four and that Flensburg would win it. This preseason prediction is even documented on video.

And, on that day back in 2003, I said to myself that someone that crazy good at age 18 could very well become the greatest handball player of all time. It’s a shame I’ve got no video evidence. Just my self serving recolllection, but it’s true.

And, it would be fun to go back and watch the match again to see what exactly impressed me so much. I suspect it was a combination of his outside jumpshot and 1v1 skills. A combination that made him so very hard to guard. Don’t come out on him aggressively enough… and he’ll shoot over you into the top corner of the net. Come out on him…and he’s going to go by you for a breakthrough shot. Standard stuff, of course, he just did it really well then and eventually better than anyone else who’s ever played the game.

That 2003 Champions League season was epic as the kid led Montpellier to their first ever title. There’s a lot to be said for the Final Four in Cologne, but the two game aggregate playoff final between Montpellier and Pamplona (Portland San Antonio) was a real gem with Montpellier losing the first match in Spain by 8 only to turn the tables with a 12 goal win in the return leg.

Here’s a video highight and a post regarding that epic playoff: Link

(Karabatic with a breakthrough left handed goal vs Pamplona)

That run through the Champions League was my (and the world’s) introduction to Karabatic. But, there was more to come… a lot more.