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The 30, Week 17: The Big Red Ones

The London Chronicles, Vol. 2: Handball! (Handball?) Handball!

When everything at the Olympics is a long walk away, you tend to find yourself sucked into whatever sport is next to you

The London Olympics have taken good-natured heat because their logo looks a little like Lisa Simpson performing a sex act, and because their official mascot looks a lot like a fancy futuristic penis. Both quirks fit in splendidly with London, the world’s most perverted city. You knew about London’s Page 3 girls, the city’s raunchy television shows and its general bawdiness, as well as the Brits’ ironic reputation for also being sexually repressed. But it’s the little things that win London the “biggest pervert” title — you know, like that timeout during yesterday’s USA-France basketball game when cheerleaders ran onto the court and fans immediately started whistling and cheering. You would have thought we were at the Spearmint Rhino. London slays me. This place is hornier than Antonio Cromartie.

Still, it would have made more sense if the 2012 logo was a drawing of someone walking. That’s all anyone does at the London Olympics. You walk. You walk, you walk, you walk, and then you walk some more. You walk so much that you can be standing in what seems to be the middle of everything, after having walked over a mile to arrive at what you thought was the middle of everything … and then you see a sign that says, “BASKETBALL ARENA: 25-MINUTE WALK.” If you think I’m kidding …

Olympic venue sign

… I wasn’t kidding. You see that sign after you leave the Stratford tube stop (ground zero for Olympic Park — the only way in and out) and spend the next 25 minutes walking over a bridge, walking through a freshly built mega-mall, walking through the entrance, going through security, then walking over a second bridge just to reach the first landmark (Olympic Stadium). And that’s when you realize, “Crap, I’m not even close to anything yet???”

This isn’t a complaint, more of a belated revelation. I love walking. What better way to work off fried food, heavy beer and every other old-school lifestyle choice that makes London what it is?1 (I’m surprised they haven’t figured out a way to serve fried coffee.) In my head, I just assumed you hopped on the tube, jumped off at the “Olympics” stop, zipped through security, flashed your press pass or ticket, then everything was right there. Nope. Ever been to Disneyland and planned on hitting a ride, then realized it was a 20-minute walk across the park from where you were? That’s every Olympics venue, basically. Imagine the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals and U.S. Open happening at four different venues within a mile of each other, only if 10 famous musical acts were playing indoor/outdoor concerts in the middle of everything. How much space would you need to pull off that scenario? A lot, right? That’s the Summer Olympics.

You can’t even imagine the magnitude until you’re here. In that respect, it’s like seeing the Grand Canyon or the Rose Bowl, or even Manute Bol at his skinny apex. Armed with a mack-daddy pass and the determination to catch as many events as possible, you’d be surprised how many decisions hinge on these four words: “Oh, it’s right there.” No different from ending up on some amusement park ride that you never expected to try, only you did because the line wasn’t that long. Proximity trumps anything else.

That’s how I ended up ripping off a women’s handball doubleheader on Saturday afternoon (the first official day of the Olympics). My friend “Fitzy”2 and I had just finished a horrendous lunch at one of the viciously overpriced restaurants in the heart of Olympic Park. We were standing in the middle of swarms of people walking every which way, trying to determine how to kill the next few hours before the first Lochte-Phelps showdown that night.

“I want my first Olympic event to be a little goofy,” I said. “Something like handball or badminton.”

“They play handball in the Copper Box,” Fitzy said. “I think it’s close to here.”

We looked around and noticed an unassuming building right behind us.

“Oh, it’s right there,” Fitzy said.

And that’s how I ended up losing my Olympics virginity: by going to a preliminary-round match (no real stakes) of women’s handball (a sport I knew nothing about) between Croatia and Brazil (two countries that probably won’t medal). How could you resist anything that enticing? We arrived 20 minutes before the match, grabbed choice press seats at midcourt (or whatever they call midcourt in handball), then stared at the empty court.

Olympic handball venue

You know what’s way more fun than you’d ever expect? Watching a world-class Olympic event without knowing any of the rules. We didn’t know how many handballers actually played (six per side, plus goalies); if you could advance the ball by dribbling (you can); what the traveling rules were (you can take a LeBron three-step, and you can’t hold the ball for more than three seconds); what the defensive rules were (you can get clutchy/grabby/shovey with any ball carrier as long as you’re positioned directly between the ball carrier and your goal, and as long as you don’t punch them in the face or throat like you’re Liam Neeson in Taken); what happened after someone scored (this is cool: The game just keeps going); whether there were penalties (yes) and penalty shots (yes!!!); whether you could substitute players on the fly (you can); what the painted circle in front of each goal represented (offensive players need to stay out of there unless they have the ball); what the dotted arc that looks like a 3-point line in basketball represents (I still don’t know); and how long the halves were (30 minutes).

Oh — and until I actually saw the court, a small part of me wondered if handball players took turns batting a ball against a wall like they were elementary school kids in recess.

So we were unprepared … to say the least. The players jogged out, waved to the crowd, went through a complicated/confusing pregame handshake ritual (including group chants3), then warmed up by sprinting from corner to corner. A few things jumped out right away. First, Croatia’s team unleashed a series of pregame high-five/hug rituals that would have humbled even Renaldo Balkman and Nate Robinson. We couldn’t decide whether this was a good sign (that their chemistry was terrific) or a bad sign (that they were overdoing this stuff because they stunk). Second, there were two referees, only they were female twins named Julie and Charlotte Bonaventura. Female twin referees?????? (The last time I watched a sporting event with twin referees, Andre the Giant and Bobby Heenan Ted DiBiase stole the WWF title from Hulk Hogan. Needless to say, I was concerned.) Third, there was a scorer’s table positioned directly between the benches that featured five serious-looking officials, only we had no idea what these five people did and it was unclear if they were alive or dead.

Olympic handball venue

Our final guesses: scorekeeper; timekeeper; executive overseeing the twin referees; dead person; Mitt Romney hiding out from the European press. Anyway, the game started and we quickly realized that women’s handball was a loony cross between hockey, basketball, lacrosse and Vince Vaughn’s Dodgeball movie, only if it was created for people with ADD. And featured women. (Wouldn’t you have fun watching a sport like this? I thought so.) The hockey parallels are obvious: Two goalies protect the nets, every possession feels like a power play (with defenders clogging in front of the goal and their opponents rotating the ball and figuring out ways to pick them apart), and if somebody draws a two-minute penalty (called a “punishment” in handball4), then it really IS a power play. Like lacrosse, there’s a relentless amount of scoring that leaves you a little numb after awhile.

But it was the basketball parallels that I really enjoyed. Particularly the slash-and-kick game (drawing multiple defenders over with penetration, then feeding an open teammate) and the concept of spreading the floor by sticking “shooters” in both corners. In basketball, those corner players (hopefully) shoot open 3s. In handball, those corner players (hopefully) gain space after a teammate draws the defense away from them, then they slash toward the goal, haul in a pass, take two giant Dwyane Wade steps, leap in the air and rip off a fastball (sometimes, a double-clutcher) that almost always goes in.5 There’s a real art to those shots, by the way. They might fire them as hard as they can, unleash a skip shot (a hard bounce pass, basically) or even pull the goalie out and lob a tennis-like shot right over the goalie’s head.6 If the LeBrons and Griffins ever played handball, they’d probably be corner scorers. Oh, and they’d be ridiculously awesome. That too.

Like basketball, everything in handball plays off the “playmaker” (like a point guard in hoops), the team’s most creative passer and someone who leads the team emotionally, directs its offense, distributes the ball and attempts many slash-and-kick plays. She’s also the one who gets nailed in the face the most. On any fast break off a missed shot, the playmaker is always prominently involved. It’s the marquee position on the floor. We nicknamed this position “The Nash” after Steve Nash for obvious reasons.

That reminds me — those occasional long outlet passes and fast breaks in handball are way more exciting than you’d ever expect. I found myself yelping, “Ohhhhh!” and “Whoa!” more than I expected, to the chagrin of at least one serious handball media member sitting in our row. (Whatever.) Handball is also more consistently physical than basketball, as hard as that might be to believe. Defenders routinely mug offensive players much like Shane Battier mugged Kevin Durant in the NBA Finals, only nobody ever seems to take it personally — it’s a little like rugby in this respect; just part of the game and that’s that. There’s a little flopping, but not much. Nobody overreacts to getting popped in the face, and when someone gets hurt, they’re actually hurt. This would NOT be a good sport for Vince Carter.

From what I could gather, you need three things to succeed in handball: a killer “Nash,” one consistently good corner scorer, and a competent goalie. Croatia lost to Brazil, 24-23, because Brazil’s goalie was relatively incredible (even stopping two penalty shots); meanwhile, Croatia’s goalies were so inept, Croatia’s coach pulled his starter, then ended up reinserting the starter because the backup was even worse. (There’s a chance both goalies were planted by Serbia. We’ll never know.) Handball is a little like hockey — you can’t win the title without a hot goalie, and you can’t win anything with a sieve protecting the pipes. That’s the biggest reason Brazil won. We felt bad for the Croatians, who kept herocially trying to run-and-gun it like the 2007 Suns and probably had a better team.

I have to be honest — we didn’t even make it to halftime before we started wondering things like, “Why isn’t handball more popular?” and “Why isn’t America better at handball?” If you didn’t know, America is willfully terrible at handball — not even a supposedly concerted effort to convert former Division II basketball players came close to working. When you watch handball in person, it just doesn’t make sense. Running and jumping, passing, in-the-air coordination, speed in short bursts, amazing plays that can easily be posted on YouTube within 10 seconds of them happening … um, isn’t that kind of our thing? What am I missing? We were so enthralled by the Croatia-Brazil game that we decided to stay for the next one between Denmark and Sweden. Not only did that seem like a natural rivalry, but … um … did I mention the game involved Danish women and Swedish women?

You’ll be shocked to hear that the stands were packed for that one — it’s like they sent out an Emergency Pervert Alert through the streets of London. Even though there were a few lookers on each team, Isabelle Gullden was the one who jumped out: an attractive blonde who doubled as Sweden’s version of Nash, someone who was as talented as she was pretty. (Here, I’ll save you the 25 seconds you were just going to spend frantically YouTubing her.) Thanks to her, Fitzy and I practically broke our ankles jumping on the Swedish women’s handball bandwagon. In the first half, Sweden’s coach kept subbing offense/defense for Gullden — even if he was resting her for the second half (when she never came out), we decided the coach just wanted to sit next to her on the bench. We couldn’t blame him, either. Sweden ended up blowing the game in the final two minutes, putting a ton of pressure on tonight’s battle with archrival Norway. Regardless, what were the odds of me grinding out a women’s handball doubleheader on Day 1? 20-to-1? Higher?

The next night, I returned to the Copper Box to watch Denmark play Hungary in men’s handball, if only because the best player in the world was playing: Denmark’s Mikkel Hansen, who plays the “Nash” position and looks like a cross between Lou Amundson and half of the characters in Beerfest. Hansen was voted 2011’s best handball player and earned nearly 216,000 views for this apparently iconic handball clip. He’s bigger than you’d think (6-foot-5) and plays handball like LeBron plays basketball; even if he’s not physically overpowering like LeBron, they see the same passing angles and have the same command-of-the-roomsmanship (if that were a word, and really, it should be).

I wanted to be blown away by Hansen, but here’s the problem: Men’s handball just isn’t as entertaining as women’s handball.7 You know how women’s hoops fans always defend that sport by praising its old-school execution of back cuts, bounce passes and everything else? In women’s handball, that slightly slower pace really works in its favor — there’s a little more thoughtfulness, if that makes sense. The men’s handball players are too good and too fast. The rules can’t really stop them. In that respect, it’s like indoor lacrosse, another sport I’ve never enjoyed for the same reason — it seems like anyone can score whenever he wants.

If handball ever gained steam in America — whether it happens during these Olympics or even down the road — women’s handball would be the way it happened. And not just because of its favorable pace. You can’t discount the sex-appeal thing, especially with the game being most popular in European countries like Sweden, France, Denmark and Norway … you know, four countries that aren’t exactly homely. Remember when the Curglar (Canadian curler Cheryl Bernard) became something of a Twitter phenomenon during the 2010 Winter Games? At some point, a female handball Olympian will catch everyone’s attention that same way, and when it happens, everyone in America will suddenly start wondering why we aren’t better at handball.

Since we’re here, I can’t resist throwing on my sports tsar costume and making five no-brainer suggestions to subtly improve women’s handball.

Suggestion No. 1: Turn that dotted circle into a 2-point line.

Any made shot thrown behind that circle is worth two points. Why hasn’t this happened yet? What’s the delay? Not only would it be a real feat to wing one in from that far, but it would augment the drama for any close game. When the Swedes were trailing the Danes by two in the final 30 seconds, how much fun would the frantic attempts at a 2-pointer have been? I say we change this rule before the medal rounds.

Suggestion No. 2: Each team drops a player for the last five minutes of the first half and the first five minutes of the second half.

Just to open it up … a little. Like when they have four-on-four overtimes in the NHL. Those 30-minute halves in handball are a tough haul for spectators — you need to keep the fans on their toes just a tiny bit more.

Suggestion No. 3: Add yellow cards and red cards.

Wait, handball already has those! Awesome! I love yellow cards and red cards!8 Let’s audible to this one.

Suggestion No. 3: Add a penalty cage.

Right now, a player gets punished for two minutes and simply goes back to his/her bench until the punishment ends. How is that punishing? Stick them in a humiliating cage across from their bench for two minutes! Yes, they should lock the cage and everything.

Suggestion No. 4: Tweak the penalty-shot rule.

In soccer, it’s always loads of fun when a goalie blocks a penalty kick, then it’s a live ball/free-for-all as the other players come charging in like maniacs to either score on the rebound or kick the ball away. In handball? Block a penalty shot and the clock stops so the goalie can jump around doing double fist-pump screams. Look, I’m all for double fist-pump screams, but wouldn’t a live rebound be more fun? Come on. Always gravitate toward the words “more fun.”

Suggestion No. 5: Find an attention-seeking billionaire to help save handball in America by throwing gobs of money at a women’s professional handball league that will eventually get the ball rolling so we don’t stink at handball anymore.

Fine, this will never happen — I just wanted to bring up America’s dire handball situation again. If you didn’t know, we could have qualified for the 2012 Olympics in men’s or women’s handball just by winning the Pan Am Games last year. Our American women finished eighth out of eight teams, with the low point being a 50-10 loss to Brazil. Fifty to 10!!! The men’s team finished seventh out of eight teams, so it’s not like they were much better. Again, it was the Pan Am Games. Not to pull an Iverson on you, BUT WE’RE TALKING ABOUT THE PAN AM GAMES!!!!

How can we be that hopeless? Let’s say we need 16 quality handballers (eight male, eight female) to make a splash internationally. Think of all the basketball talent America cranks out — we couldn’t steer a few studs toward handball? Would you rather come off the bench for a forgettable .500 team in the Big Sky Conference, or would you rather become one of the best handball players in the world, save handball in America, compete for a gold medal, then live overseas playing handball professionally? How is this even a question? Should America ever suck at a sport that revolves around running, jumping and passing? I’m going out on a limb and saying no.

And on that note, I just wrote 3,300 words on handball. That the best thing about the Olympics, as far as I can tell, anyway — you never know what might suck you in. Time to walk two miles to the next event. More Wednesday.

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Bill Simmons is the editor-in-chief of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

Archive @ BillSimmons

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