Wednesday, February 5, 2003

Carolina's Best-Kept Secret

Not too many Americans know the sport called team handball. Considering it is the second-most popular team sport in Europe and the UNC club teams host two of the most prestigious team handball tournaments in the United States, it deserves recognition. This piece informs and provides some color about this fast-paced sport.

Thousands of North Carolina students lineup for men’s basketball tickets outside the Dean E. Smith Center with crust still in their eyes on a rainy Saturday morning. Meanwhile, former and current national-caliber players are scoring goals at an alarming rate inside Fetzer Gymnasium. They race down the court with a few dribbles, pass to teammates and soar through the air with an arm cocked like a baseball pitcher – firing a ball into the back of a net.

While students begrudgingly wait until their numbers are called off for their precious basketball tickets, only a few, if any, will step inside Fetzer Gym on Nov. 16 to witness a sport that can be considered the best kept secret at UNC – team handball.

UNC hosts two tournaments every year – the Tar Heel Invitational, in the fall, and the Carolina Blue Cup Tournament, scheduled this year on Feb. 15-16. Both of which cover a two-day time period and are considered among the top three team handball tournaments in America. Many club teams include Olympic players, not just college teams, who make the pilgrimage to Chapel Hill to compete.

“There are goals scored constantly in this sport no matter how good the defense is, no matter how good the goalie is,” said John Silva, UNC’s team handball coach. “It’s like lacrosse in that regard. It’s up and down, there are shots, there are fantastic saves by the goalie, there’s great athleticism and it’s not like you’re having to wait 40 minutes to see if a goal’s going to be scored.”
Team handball developed in Denmark as off-season training for soccer players in the early 1900s. It has been an Olympic sport since 1972.

Each team consists of six court players and a goalie. The court is slightly longer and wider than a basketball court. The game is like soccer with your hands, and contact is a part of good defense. It is a passing game with a premium on athleticism, court awareness and technique.

Unlike some high-scoring sports, like basketball, in handball the referees do not touch the ball. The players must put the ball immediately down at the spot where a penalty occurred, so play resumes with no delay.

Teams were permitted one timeout per half for the first time two years ago, a controversial rule that the International Handball Federation thought might disrupt the continuity of a game divided into two 30-minute halves, Silva said. Instead, the timeouts add to a coach’s strategy and give the players a needed breather.

Also, like football’s popularity in the United States, team handball is the second most popular team sport in the world behind soccer, according to Silva. He receives e-mails from European students who want to play at UNC. So why haven’t Americans caught on to handball?

“As soon as people in the United States hear handball or team handball they think of the game that’s played in a racquetball court,” said Silva, a sports psychology professor in UNC’s exercise and sport science department. “I think a lot of American kids, North American kids in general, once they see the sport, once they start playing it, they really get attracted to it because it’s a very hand-eye game and we’re a very hand-eye culture.”

When Silva worked as a sports psychologist for the U.S. Olympic wrestling team in 1986 he had no clue about team handball. However, the president of U.S. Team Handball, Peter Buehning, requested Silva for his services. Initially hesitant because he had no understanding of the sport, Silva finally gave in after numerous phone calls from Buehning and flew out to the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs to work with the U.S. team.

"They dressed me out and threw me out on the court,” Silva said. “They said, ‘The best way for you to understand the sport is to run around with us. You know, you’re not going to stand there in a lab coat or anything.”

From that moment on, Silva was hooked. He not only fell in love with the sport, but found that the players enjoyed working with him and were “real, regular guys."

After the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea, he felt the time was right. He wanted to expose the UNC community to the new sport he adored.
' After the ‘88 Olympics I came back and said, ‘You know, this is such a great sport and I’m supposed to be an educator and I like to teach’,” Silva said. “And to me coaching the team is another way of challenging my teaching skills, taking kids who had never picked up a ball in their life and turning them into an Olympian – to me it’s a great teaching challenge.”

Thus, the Carolina Team Handball Club started in Jan. 1989, with a nucleus of former UNC varsity athletes. Silva has always maintained highly structured practices, simulating game situations and working on team and individual skills. He said that every former varsity athlete who has been through one practice has acknowledged the intensity, and some even admitted they were tired.

Apparently, his experience at the Olympic level and study of the game (he earned his team handball coaching and refereeing certificates) soon rubbed off on his players as they won a bronze medal in Division II at the U.S. National Championships in the spring of 1989. The team had no experience a few months earlier and had not played in any tournaments.

"I wanted to eventually get people who never had played the sport and have them come in as freshmen, never having touched the ball, and come out as seniors being really good team handball players,” Silva said. “And that is where we are now.”

Having a knowledgeable coach can only do so much for a team’s success. Players need to believe in their coach’s system. This could not be more evident than during the first game in pool play at the 2000 College National Tournament in Chapel Hill between UNC and Air Force. These two strong programs were so evenly matched that the game was still tied after overtime. The teams went through two shootouts and the deciding shot came down to a UNC player. Before the shot, Silva offered him some advice.

“I said, ‘Shoot a bounce shot, low-right. You’re going to score and win the game.’ And the guy went out there and he shot a bounce shot low-right and he won the game.”

Silva has been blessed with players who sacrifice themselves. A year ago in January, a team handball Olympic training camp was held in Fetzer Gym. In just his first year playing the sport, Carolina goalie Kevin Johnson was competing against players who had been on the national team for years. Jumping into the air for a save, he got hit in the face. His head hit the floor first, then the rest of his body. Yet, for Johnson he was just doing his job and bounced back onto his feet, still dazed.

“I’m still standing there and the coach grabbed a hold of me and said, ‘That’s what we need, no fear.’”

It isn’t just the fact that Silva is a knowledgeable coach, but he understands a player’s emotions as an athlete and a human being.

“I’ve had a lot of coaches,” said senior Kevin Williams, a former junior varsity basketball player. “I played tons of sports growing up and he’s probably one of the calmer coaches I’ve ever had, but I think his care for the sport and his care for us really shines through. It makes me work harder, just the fact that he cares about me as a person and an athlete of his.”

Adam Ross is a third-year law student, playing for Silva the last six years and now a member of the alumni team, Carolina Blue. He commends his coach for his volunteer work, designing plays and coaching both the University and alumni teams at the same time each Wednesday and Thursday afternoon
"A lot of players, coming in as a freshman and sophomore, don’t realize the effort that he puts in, but he dedicates a lot of time to it,” Ross said. “And pretty much every player that I know of, after being with him for a few years, really appreciates what he does for the team and what he does for the players as individuals.”

This mutual respect and adulation has paid off for the two club teams. For the past two years, two of the top 10 teams (all club teams included) in the country have been Carolina teams. Eleven players have trained for the U.S. National team since 1989. Members on this year’s Carolina Blue squad, Myles Bacon, Jon-Breck Sampson and Wade Sutton have competed in the Pan American games in South America. Two UNC alumni, John Keller and Steven Penn, started as court players on the 1996 U.S. Olympic team. Former UNC women’s basketball player Chryss Watts is often considered the best team handball player from Carolina. She became a two-time Olympian, including captain of the 1996 U.S. women’s team. How many teams can boast such lofty achievements while allowing anyone to join the team?

Yet gaining public recognition is a problem, Silva and players said. Perhaps Ross has the solution.

"I think it is a great spectator sport,” he said. “The biggest problem is people don’t know it. They don’t understand it. And until a cable channel or some network picks it up and starts running it a little bit with announcers that understand the game and explain it to the public, it’s not going to take off.”

This story first appeared in the Blue & White magazine in February 2003.