This story is unpublished. It was written for a class while Molly was attending Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.
There is a gym on the northwest side of Chicago. In it, there are 15 women throwing sticky, cantaloupe-sized balls at each other.
There is a coach, a Croatian. He broods and occasionally yells so loudly and with such vim that the gym’s echoes obscure his heavy accent, and nothing is decipherable.
There is a competition in Mexico City.
After practice there are requests for 13 bags of ice, roughly one per player.
There is – this is – handball.
Dave Gascon travels with the USA Women’s National Handball Team. His daughter, Sarah, is a player. Gascon, who spent 32 years with the Los Angeles Police Department and retired as its Assistant Chief of Police in 2002, is standing on the sideline with me and Matt Specht, the head of athletic facilities for Northeastern Illinois University. We are watching would-be Olympians practice in a borrowed gym at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night.
The two men talk handball. They speak rapidly, rolling over the ends of each other’s sentences and interrupting, each eager to share their stories and their grievance over handball’s exclusion from popular American sports, each eager to explain the merits of the game and why everyone should love it as much as they do.
They are shooting the shit.
“If you see it in person, you’ve got to fall in love with it,” Gascon says. “It’s shocking it’s not an American sport, it has everything we love in it.”
“A lot of scoring–” Specht interrupts.
“Contact, running, strategy–”
“Right. Hand-eye coordination.”
“It’s superb,” Specht finishes.
Both men fold their arms. I continue taking notes and try not to get hit by any whizzing balls.
Team handball is a hybrid of soccer and basketball that’s been around about as long as either. It is the third most popular sport in Europe, according to most accounts.
It’s like ice hockey, one player explains. A coach tells me it resembles rugby. Gascon says to visualize it as water polo on dry land.
The floor is about the size of a basketball court. The ball is smaller than a soccer ball and coated in a thin layer of sticky wax. (During my first practice, I see the tin of wax on the sideline and dunk a few fingers in. It feels like thick honey and smells like the bottom of a sneaker. And a little like pine. It is only later that I realize I am unable to release my grip on my pen and must shamefacedly explain this to everyone who tries to shake my hand.)
There are small soccer-style goals on each end, with a goalie. Six players form offenses and defenses around the perimeter of the goal. They are similar to basketball – they can be in a man-to-man or zone defense, for example.
The biggest difference between handball and other sports is contact, what Sarah Gascon says is the best part of the game. A player can pick up another player and physically move her around – without the other player’s willing consent. It’s a rough sport. Watching the scrum, the feeding frenzy, I swear there is an overabundance of elbows and knees. Slaps sound across the gym.
I watch as a girl propels herself into the air for a shot. (Most scoring attempts are jump shots – it allows for height over defenders and gives attackers the ability to penetrate the goalie’s area without using their feet, which is illegal.) As she falls, she releases the ball with amazing ferocity and strength. I see her body, now flying parallel to the ground, and watch as she lands on another girl. Both tumble to the floor.
Dave Gascon catches me cringe and laughs.
There is another group in the gym tonight. It is the Chicago Inter Handball Club, run in part by an aging Belarusian named Felix Murokh. He stands against the mats at the half-court line, watching his own men’s and women’s groups practice and occasionally snorting in the direction of the national team.
Murokh, 61, started playing handball in the 1960s, when he represented Belarus in their pro league. He stopped playing in 1972 and emigrated to the United States in 1979. Now he owns a remodeling company in Skokie. He tells me to watch for “black vans, nice looking, with Mr. Floor on the side.” He pronounces it “meese-torr florr.”
Years ago, Murokh was asked to consider coaching the national team. He turned the job down.
“[In America] it’s amateur sport,” he says emphatically. “No money! I came here, I have to feed my family. So I say to them, ‘I have to put this aside for now.’”
Three years ago, Murokh joined the Inter Handball Club as a coach and created the now-thriving women’s team.
Where the national team players look short and quick, Murokh’s women are long and wiry. They look older. As two players jog by in sweats, he tells me they are both in their 40s. One had three surgeries last year to replace her knee. The other was on the Yugoslavian national team. They arrived late to practice and are running laps to warm up.
“You have to see how they play,” Murokh says. “They play so good, so smart.” He waves his hands in front of him, as if to dismiss the gloomy idea that their professional handball days – and his – are well over.
In an effort to cheer him, I tell Murokh about my adventure getting to the gym. I had to take two buses to get to the right part of town, I explain. When I finally set foot on the sidewalk, it was 9 p.m., cold and dark, I say. I had no idea where to go next. Walking ahead of me was a man with a gym bag. So I did what any reporter would and asked hopefully if the man was there for handball. Turns out he was. Turns out he could help me find my way. Turns out he used to play for Poland. (It later became apparent how lucky I’d been. The court the teams use is tucked far away in the building’s inside pocket, like a dirty hanky. I would never have found it alone.)
After Murokh’s smile recedes, I ask how many non-U.S.-born people play in the Chicago league. Murokh says about 18 countries are represented on his men’s and women’s teams. He points at players as they zoom by or when they elevate for a shot.
“This gentleman, Pavel, he used to play for Poland. That young guy used to play for Egypt. This guy used to play for Romania….This tall girl with light hair. She was playing for Latvia. In our tournament, she was the best scorer. You have to see when she plays. It’s like somebody playing beautiful violin. She knows every move, she does everything right.”
The players on Murokh’s team practice twice a week. Occasionally, there will be a tournament they can compete in, but club teams in America are rare. They’re so hard to find that Murokh says he’s had players come from Milwaukee, St. Louis and Detroit just to practice with the team.
Though the national team borrows the gym Murokh reserves for his players, there is a little tension between the groups. The 20 women on Murokh’s team have played the national team two years in a row and won both times.
“You’re looking at a team that is U.S. champions of 2007,” he says.
There was no national championship this year because “of lack of funding,” but in an unofficial match, the Chicago team won.
“We beat national team big time, two times!” Murokh says. “We have really, really good players here. That’s why these girls love to play against us.”
The two 40-year-old women have finished warming up. They peel off sweatpants and thick hoodies. One readjusts her ponytail, and they begin running drills with the rest of the team. They are thin, toned, sinewy. Intense. They begin to work with a fierce joy. The one with the knee brace takes a shot. The force of the ball is so strong the goal is moved back a few inches and into the gym wall. The goalie giggles dizzily, and the two older women high five.
The sound, POW, still ringing in the gym, punctuates their fire.
Murokh’s team may have won because it has seasoned ex-professional athletes at its core. The national team’s players are all students of other sports: baseball, volleyball, softball, soccer. They have fewer years of experience, even in their own sports. But it’s more likely that the Chicago league won because they play twice a week with the same group of people.
The national team – the group that would represent the United States in the Olympics, should they qualify – will be lucky if the players reunite once a month over the next four years.
The team is in Chicago to practice for a competition in Mexico City. The tournament is a qualifier for the Pan-American games. A win at the Pan-Ams automatically qualifies a team for the Olympics. The only other way to earn a spot in the Olympics is by medaling at the world championships.
The team has practiced five days for this important competition. In those days, all of which were spent in Chicago, piggybacking on Murokh’s rental of the Northeastern gym, the players have had about 10 practices.
It is the first time some of them have met.
The women live in different cities. Two of them play handball in France. Most don’t have access to a club team, so they can’t practice on their own. If the team does not perform well at the Pan-Am qualifier, the next scheduled time the women can compete together is in two years. If they qualify, the Pan-Am championship is in June.
No level playing field, here, when European teams practice year-round and compete in pro leagues as popular and competitive as our NBA or NFL. There, being a handball player is a career choice; here it’s a favor to a former coach or a funny story to tell your friends.
Marko Brezic, the Croatian coach, isn’t having much fun. It’s the last practice before the team leaves for Mexico City, where there might be an hour of court time each day…if they’re lucky.
The girls are tired. They make mistakes they wouldn’t have made five days ago. Brezic, 45, sits at the half-court line with his legs stretched out, leaning back on his hands. He is smoldering, emitting an anxiety that lingers like a black cloud.
“It was a good practice, but the girls are tired,” he says. “You can feel that. Not just from this morning. Because we started Friday, now it’s Tuesday. That’s five days. Five days of almost 10 practices.
“To be honest, if we do something, that will be a true miracle. Me and [assistant coach Edina Batar] have five days to prepare them. You can’t prepare anyone in five days.”
Brezic began playing handball in 1988, when he was 15. He started coaching soon thereafter. He is the head of the Men’s Western Region team in Salt Lake City as well as the coach of this national team.
“What brought you to the U.S.?” I ask.
“Money. Just kidding.”
“What do you like about handball?” I say, hoping for a little more honesty.
“Girls,” he says. “Just kidding.”
I figure Brezic is wary because I’m a reporter. I figure he’s worried about the upcoming match. Maybe it’s a Croatian thing; maybe I’m misinterpreting his guardedness. Later, Felix Murokh explains what might be going on.
“Their problems [are a] lack of coaching and lack of money and management. They brought gentleman from Croatia who is hardly speaking English, and the girls couldn’t understand what he trying to say. It is a problem.”
I do not mention that Murokh’s own speech might set Roget and Webster back a bit, but I am able to grasp the point. I ask him to tell me more.
He doesn’t think Brezic is a bad coach. Murokh’s main criticism is that the team needs more money so they can be together more and the women can learn more about the sport.
He does criticize how Brezic is drilling a goalie, Erika Woodbury, a rookie used to guarding soccer goals. Woodbury is standing with her face to the inside of the net. At a signal, she turns and must react to an immediate shot coming from an unknown direction. I am surprised and impressed when she deflects most of the attacks.
Murokh waves his hand in frustration, and his lips thin into a small, straight line.
“They could be doing that any time. The goalie can do that with one other person whenever she want. He should be teaching her how to play handball.”
He explains that her stance and center of gravity is too low. Woodbury is standing with knees bent, feet wide and arms spread. She looks large in the goal. Murokh explains that for handball, a goalie should remain upright and in tight, so she can dart out with a hand or foot as quickly as possible. If the center of gravity is spread out – like Woodbury’s feet – she has to bring it back in before she can thrust at the ball. If she begins at the center point, less time and energy are needed to react.
“They call me and say ‘Do you want to be his assistant?’ I say, ‘You have to be kidding me.’” Murokh explains. “He is a temporary. This tournament gone and he is out. I said let them talk to me after that.”
Murokh’s criticisms are not intended to harm. His feelings are understandable, maybe what any older coach would feel about a younger one with a higher-ranking job. I am surprised later when, talking about the slight chance of the national team winning in Mexico, Brezic echoes the same sentiment.
“This goalie, Erika, she is probably ten days into handball. Ten days. I just want to tell you what kind of players we have. They are not those who play and train handball their whole life. We need to improvise lots of things. If we do that, that be maybe more than miracle. No one expects, except us, that we can do it.
“Probably I am the only freak who is willing to take that risk. Because my head is on plate. If I fail, I will go home,” he says. “That is the business of being a coach. It is always depending on winning or losing.”
Edina Batar is the assistant coach of the national team. She played in Hungary’s pro league before moving to the United States. Batar was a member of the U.S. national team until an injury ended her career last year.
Now, she rarely stays on the sidelines with Brezic and Dave Gascon. Instead, she works with the players, tossing them balls, participating in drills and offering advice. During a weave passing drill, a player misses a catch. The next throw would have gone to Sarah Gascon. Instead of jogging off the court like everyone else, she keeps running towards the goal and shouts, “Edina!” In less time than it takes to fill a lung with air, Batar tosses her the ball she was holding. The shot goes in.
The moment was extraordinary. It showed the primary characteristics of both women – Gascon never quits on a play, either in drills or competition, and Batar occupies a space somewhere between participant and observer. It is an unhappy space. A career ended is part of a life ended.
And yet, it is Batar, never a goalie, who helps 22-year-old Woodbury acclimate to handball. She assists in the reaction drill Murokh criticized and often stays behind the net, talking to Woodbury as the other players wax and wane up the court like tides.
“I’ve played soccer all my life,” Woodbury says to me later. “I’d never heard of handball a month ago.”
The national team was looking for a goalie and Woodbury’s soccer coach knew some people in the handball league. After two quick practice sessions with Brezic in Salt Lake City, Woodbury was invited to come on the Mexico City trip. It was she who had the too-low stance.
“My instincts are definitely more towards soccer,” Woodbury says. “It’s the same general idea – you have to keep the ball out of the goal – but the technique is a lot different. How you’re supposed to move. There’s a lot more lunging and reaching in handball, whereas in soccer I’d be diving.
“I found myself diving onto the floor a few times, which was quite painful. That’s what my instincts told me to do. I tried not to do it too much but it happened quite a few times, and I was pretty bruised because of it.”
Woodbury had never met any of her teammates before the Chicago practices began. She didn’t know, for example, Megan Ballard.
Ballard, 24, is a former point guard and a Georgia native. She’s a pretty black woman with a headband and bouncy curls, and she’s most often seen doing pushups on the sideline. The rest of her teammates stop for water or chat, but she goes nose to the floor and up again. During another break in the practice, she jogs in place.
When the Olympics were in Atlanta, she tells me, the city’s middle schools started a junior development program for handball, which is when she was introduced to the game. After she graduated college, a former coach called her and asked if she’d consider moving to France. Ballard’s been playing handball there for two years.
“I play for the city of Toulouse,” she says. “It’s kind of like playing for the Hawks or the Celtics. I’m considered semi-pro. I’m still a student over there, but I do get a salary.”
She laughs when I ask about the pushups.
“My coach in Toulouse, if we stop at all in practice then everyone has to get down and do pushups,” she says. “In the game of handball, you never stop. It’s 30 minutes of non-stop action. And so you never have a time when you’re just standing there, so he makes us always be in some kind of movement.”
She pauses to search for English words. “And when I miss shots that I shouldn’t miss, it’s just kind of … self-discipline.”
Ballard hasn’t been home in a year. It is interesting that she now plays on a team with Farida Abouzeida, who is spending time away from her family for the first time ever.
Abouzeida is a 17-year-old Egyptian. She likes to shoot from the outside, farther away from the goal than most of her American teammates. She was born in the U.S. while her father attended college here. When she was 5, the family moved back to Egypt, where they remained until three months ago.
“My memory of America is kind of vague because I was 5,” she says. “My dad just wanted to give me a chance to see what it’s like here and then I would decide if I wanted to live here or go back to Egypt. Just for more experience, I guess.”
After moving to Alabama and enrolling in a community college, Abouzeida, a life-long handball player, tried out for the national team. She was accepted. The practices in Chicago and the week-long trip to Mexico will be her first experiences traveling alone in a new country. She says she felt comfortable going alone, but her parents were nervous.
“They were very, very worried. I’m their little daughter,” she laughs. “I’m still their little baby to them. I’m 17. I’m the youngest on the team. I’m away. And my mom was really upset because she wanted to come. My mom’s a handball fan, a really big one.”
Abouzeida estimates handball is the second most popular sport in Egypt after soccer. She’s been playing since the family moved there. She says the experience of handball with Americans is different from Egyptians.
“The U.S. team is great, they’re just not really used to the game,” she says. “We’re not a bad team, we just need to play with each other more to get some more chemistry.
“[The competition] comes from countries where they already know the game. Handball isn’t exactly popular here yet. Most of the people on the USA team they haven’t played handball so long, but the other teams grew up knowing what the game is and playing handball…. We met for a week before we went to the tournament. If we were given more time we definitely would have done some things different.”
Abouzeida plans to enroll at Auburn University in the fall. She hopes to have a career in the U.S. with handball, but says she knows she might have to move back to Egypt to play professionally.
I discovered handball during the August heat of the summer Olympics. The games aired during the mid-afternoon, when news trickled the slowest and I was at my desk with a serious case of the doldrums.
One glance at the overhead television, and I couldn’t peel my eyes from the screen. Here were women battling, throwing elbows, knocking knees, palming the ball, making fast breaks, dribbling, blocking, scraping, scrapping. All of it was there. Incredible athletes playing with such ferocity and velocity– all in a game I’d never seen before.
Dave Gascon also discovered handball during the Olympics.
“I’d seen it in many Olympic games before,” he said. “Being a little older, I remember from years and years ago. It’s an interesting sport to watch, but I never played it as a kid. We didn’t even have it here and that’s unfortunate.”
Gascon was a lieutenant in the LAPD in 1984, when the Olympics came to Los Angeles. He worked the event, but says he didn’t have the chance to see any live handball.
“I think that’s what inspires a lot of these players,” he says, nudging me to retrieve a loose ball. After I toss it to his waiting daughter, he continues. “They know it’s an Olympic sport and they’d really like to see the United States qualify a team. We haven’t qualified a team in a long time.”
Not since 1996. In fact, the U.S. women’s handball team has been trying to qualify for the Olympics since the early 1970s. Their first and best appearance was in 1984, at the same games Gascon was working. The team placed fourth. After four Olympic appearances and five world championship tries, the United States has yet to medal in either competition.
Handball faces a tough economic situation here. The United States Team Handball Federation was the governing body until 2006, when it was dissolved due to lack of funding. In 2008, Dieter Esch, the co-owner of modeling agency Wilhelmina, underwrote a bid to restart the program. The National Governing Body (NGB) is now known as USA Team Handball. He moved the operation to Salt Lake City and got rid of the residency program, which helped national team players relocate so they could practice together more often.
The NGB is still looking to fill its five regional director positions, a bad sign because one aspect of a director’s job is to encourage grass roots programs and to locate potential players. Without active promotion, the sport cannot grow. Brezic serves as the regional director for the west coast and for this he is paid $2,000 a month. Without more money for the regional directors, the number of applicants and their influence cannot grow.
“It’s a shame [handball is] not popular in America yet,” Ballard says. “It’s a cross-over and an inclusion of all sports, whether it’s foot control, eye-hand coordination, speed. It’s a non-stop game. It’s fast-paced. It’s a high-scoring game. It’s great.”
She – along with both Gascons, Specht and Murokh – have faith that the sport will catch on in the United States.
“Over 180 countries play handball. It’s one of the most popular games in the world,” Murokh says. “You cannot create adult team without kids team. We have to start from the bottom. At least if we will start in universities, then maybe we will have something in the future.
“We have plenty people to create good coaching. But no programs. I am coming to schools, to high schools. Nobody want to talk to me. I say, ‘I’m not doing this for money! I do this because I love the game. I want to see United States team to have success.’ Nothing happen.”
Murokh is negotiating – with Specht’s help – to create a club handball team at Northeastern. He says students have been receptive. With luck, they’ll have a team practicing next fall.
Brezic watches the team practice.
Brezic watches the team practice.
The last practice before Mexico City is over. The girls add layers of clothing and settle into a seated semi-circle, facing Brezic, Batar and Dave Gascon. Batar doesn’t say any words, Brezic says very few, and then Gascon begins. He talks about airport logistics, how everyone will return to the hotel tonight, asks if there are any new aches and pains acquired from this day’s hard work.
One girl calls out, “Chief, does your cell phone work in Mexico?”
“I don’t know if it’s going to work in Mexico,” Gascon replies. “If it does, it’s probably $20 a minute or something like that. If there’s an emergency, we’ll do whatever it takes. Don’t worry about the cost.”
Later, as the women pack the extra balls and sop up the streams of water running down their legs as ice packs melt, Gascon makes another announcement.
“My credit card from the Federation is still not working. I don’t know if it’s going to be working tomorrow, but we’re in luck because both my credit cards are working. So I’ll be taking some cash and we’ll convert it and make sure you guys have some spending money.”
There are noises of surprise and then choruses of “Thank you, Chief.”
“There’s only one thing I require of you,” Gascon prompts, as the girls come in for their last huddle in the U.S.
I watch the team file from the gym. Some of them say goodbye to me, others focus on getting back to their warm hotel and a hot shower. It’s their second practice of the day, the last of the week. They’re tired. Excited to travel. Hopeful and doubtful all at once.
As he passes me, one of the last to leave the gym, I wish Brezic luck in Mexico City. He shrugs, leans over and says, “The ball is round and there is sixty minutes of playing. Miracles is possible.”
NOTE: The USA team lost every game it played in Mexico City.
There are no immediate plans for another practice or competition, though there is still a chance the team could qualify for the Olympics.