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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | BILL PLASCHKE

Secret of Handball Found by Knocking Down Walls

August 03, 1996|BILL PLASCHKE

ATLANTA — Where's the wall?

Armed with only that question, and only two days to answer it, you set off Friday to expose the dumbest sport in the Olympics.

It is called team handball.

You know this because earlier this week, you were sitting at your 56th different sporting event when a sideline TV showed a highlight and you shouted, "What is that?"

Team handball, you were told, leading to the question that led to the search.

Where's the wall?

The U.S. men's team was playing Algeria on Friday morning in a bitter struggle for ninth place, so off you went, but not without some trepidation.

There is a fellow on the U.S. team, John Keller from Toledo, Ohio, whose biography includes this nugget:

"As a baby, spit up on baseball Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench."

Another fellow, Robert Dunn of Long Island, has only 13 months of experience.

That's not 13 months on the national team. That's 13 months since he first heard the words "team handball."

"About this time last year, I still thought the sport was played with a little blue ball," Dunn says.

You are thinking exactly this when you arrive at the converted ballroom in the basement of the Georgia World Congress Center and confirm that the little blue ball is instead a shrunken soccer ball.

The people who wrote the U.S. team media guide prefer a more scientific description, referring to it as "a large cantaloupe."

And about that wall.

"If we had a nickel for every time somebody asked us that, we would be rich," says team member Michael Thornberry of Suffolk, Va.

Turns out, there never was a wall.

In 1920, the Europeans invented a cross between soccer and basketball that they called simply "handball."

It is played on a surface one-third larger than a basketball court, seven on seven, the object being to simply run within 13 feet of a small goal and throw the ball into it.

The sport has grown to become the second-most popular team activity in Europe behind soccer, with pro leagues and huge crowds.

Americans popularized handball with the wall. In hopes of ending the confusing, when the sport was permanently included in the Olympics in 1972, officials added "team" to "handball."

It didn't work. After watching it for five minutes Friday, it is obvious the biggest drawback is the name.

Change it to "Bombardment." Or "Kill the Man With the Ball."

Then see how many former basketball stars you can attract, the kind you need to leap across that 13-foot line, hang in the air, knock off defenders and throw the ball into the net.

"Shawn Kemp would be a stud in this sport," says one U.S. official.

But for now, in the Olympic scheme of things, it is our intramurals.

The players are mostly small-college and military-school stars who were convinced to delay their careers--and go into debt--for a chance to compete in the Olympics. Even if they had no idea how to play.

"In my first game, I didn't even know the rules," said Dunn, a Division II basketball standout. "But when a guy showed up at my college wearing that star-spangled sweatsuit and telling me that I could be in the Olympics, I was a fish with a big hook in my mouth."

America's intramurals. A short guy with a crew cut directs the offense. An athletic guy with dreadlocks does much of the scoring. A couple of big, unfairly handsome guys push people around.

And the goalkeeper has a gut.

He is Cliff Mannon of Amarillo, Texas, and on this day he is wearing a tie-dyed shirt, baggy black sweat pants, and the kind of belly that has attended too many campus buffets.

Like any good intramural team, it is really pretty bad. Earlier this week, the United States won its first Olympic game in 12 years, and that was against a junior team from Kuwait.

So here they are in the ninth-place game against Algeria, and so what.

An Algerian, thrown out of the game for yapping, walks into the stands to find his buddies. After the Americans score, they mug and point to a large crowd of mostly family members.

Then something happens. Thornberry throws in a fastbreak goal with 17 seconds remaining to tie it, 22-22. Mannon makes a kick save at the buzzer to keep it tied.

Then with no time left in the second and final overtime, with the score tied, 26-26, Dave DeGraaf throws in a rare penalty shot over a wall of Algerians to give the United States a victory.

The players strip off their jerseys, throwing them into the rafters. Their families rush down to hug them.

In 31 Olympic matches, the U.S. men have won four times, but No. 4 dragged the sport out from underneath the bed and shook it, resulting in one of the most splendid moments of this meet.

"Next week I have to find a job. . . . The people back home still think I play against a wall," says Denny Fercho from Camarillo. "But I was an Olympian. I'll always have that."

You think your search for the dumbest sport should continue. On a sideline TV, a Gumby-shaped girl is wearing a bright pink leotard and skipping rope. You will go there.

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