LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — It’s late on a May evening at the United States Olympic Training Center, and almost everyone has gone to sleep. There’s history to be made tomorrow, after all.
Two team handball clubs will play for the North American and Caribbean region’s first ever qualifying bid to the Super Globe, a worldwide competition between the best handball teams from several regions around the planet.
But Shkumbin Mustafa, better known within handball circles by his nickname, Bini, doesn’t seem too concerned with sleep. Not when he’s talking handball, anyway. He’ll discuss his dream for American handball with anybody who will listen, and right now he’s describing a hypothetical lineup stacked enough to make anyone who plays fantasy basketball salivate.
"Those guys are fast. They can dribble. They can do anything. We need that quality of athlete to choose to play handball.” Shkumbin Mustafa
Russell Westbrook at left wing. Kevin Durant at left back. LeBron James at center back. Ben Simmons at right back. James Harden at right wing. Who’s the polarizing big man who played for Houston not too long ago? Right, it’s Dwight Howard. He goes at pivot, handball’s closest equivalent to center.
There isn’t an obvious choice to fill the goalie position, Mustafa, a middle-aged man with shoulder-length, salt-and-pepper hair, admits. But then again, with all that athleticism, it might not matter.
“Imagine having those guys,” Mustafa says. “Just put your hands up and it’s over. Those guys are fast. They can dribble. They can do anything. We need that quality of athlete to choose to play handball.”
Mustafa doesn’t see handball in the United States for what it is — a sport so obscure you might confuse it with another game that shares its name. Maybe you haven’t heard of it at all.
Instead, Mustafa’s focus lies on what he thinks American handball could be.
“I always believe in the will and the desire and the support and the resources that the United States can put behind something they believe in,” Mustafa said. “No one does that better than us.”
USA Team Handball, with some outside help, is trying to pull Mustafa’s vision out of the realm of far-fetched fantasy. But for now, those who represent the United States in international competitions generally come from two routes: Athletes who discovered team handball — a game that is most easily described as a combination of soccer and basketball — via another sport and immigrants who, like Mustafa, played the game a lot in their native countries and have brought their passion to America.
The United States will host the 2028 Summer Games in Los Angeles, which means — under Olympic rules for the host country — the American handball team will automatically receive a spot in the field.
In other words, USA Team Handball holds a lottery ticket. A competitive showing on the Olympic stage could pave the way for more recognition, greater interest in the sport, and, of course, funding. But several challenges stand in the way of the Americans and a good performance in 2028, and the clock has already started.
Like many American-born handballers, Alec Zeck and Andrew Donlin found the sport by serendipity.
Zeck was approached by a member of the club handball team at West Point, where his plan to play college basketball hadn’t panned out. So Zeck gave it a try. Likewise, Donlin had hoped to walk onto the football team at the Air Force Academy. Instead, he ended up playing on the academy’s club handball team.
“I just kind of fell in love with it there,” he said.
The two close friends play internationally for the United States through the military’s World Class Athlete Program. As long as the Americans remain in contention for Olympic play, Donlin and Zeck are full-time handballers. As soon as the United States can no longer qualify, both return to service.
“It’s kind of our livelihood,” Donlin said.
A sculpted 6-foot-6, Donlin earned the nickname Captain America from United States assistant coach Mark Ortega.
Donlin, a Minnesota native, looks like he could be running crossing patterns for the Vikings or dunking basketballs for the Timberwolves. Instead, he’s found at the physical and defensively focused back position on the handball court.
Similarly, Zeck is the son of an accomplished basketball coach in the hoops hotbed of Kansas and also played football growing up. Now, by fate, luck or sheer coincidence, he’s listed as a back/wing for the United States handball team.
USA Team Handball holds a lottery ticket. A competitive showing on the Olympic stage could pave the way for more recognition.
“If you had told me six years ago I’d be playing handball for a living, I’d have been like, ‘You’re crazy, I don’t even know what you’re talking about,’” he said.
That, for USA Team Handball, is the crux of an exposure problem. Right now the sport depends on happenstance and diverted plans to find its stars. But it also illustrates the abundance of exceptional athletes in this country, something USA Team Handball hopes to use to its advantage.
For Donlin, talking handball can feel like one big clarification effort. No, he doesn’t play the game involving two players smacking a small rubber ball against a wall.
Handball — the “team” qualifier is rarely used among handballers — is played with an undersized soccer ball, slathered with just enough sticky resin to elevate the blood pressure of the person charged with cleaning the playing surface at competition’s end. Six players and a goalkeeper vie to fill a goal just smaller than the ones you might find on a field hockey court over the span of two 30-minute halves.
Donlin, more than accustomed to this exercise by now, has settled on his explanatory metaphor of choice: Handball is like water polo — without the water.
It gets physical, but there is no padding worn. And like with any sport, athleticism will only get you so far if you don’t understand the game as well as your opponents.
With American-born players like Zeck and Donlin, who find the game late, that can be an issue. Instincts, in this sport, come from nurture, not nature.
According to Djordje Radovanovic, who emigrated to the United States from Serbia and has played with Team USA, that is one of the biggest challenges American players must overcome in order to be competitive internationally.
“I just think the movement is very important,” Radovanovic said, “because you have to read the game, you have to read the player, where he’s going to move, where you’re going to move, where the ball is going to end up.
“And that’s something that makes a big difference between beginners and experienced players.”
PLAN OF ACTION
With 2028 inching closer and closer each day, first-year CEO Barry Siff goes about enacting his plan geared toward converting USA Team Handball into an organization that is built for sustainable growth.
The group no longer relies on a single paid CEO and a corps of volunteers, as it did for more than a decade. Siff recently hired a communications manager with a simple mission:
“Expose America to handball.”
Of course, Siff has plans beyond branding and messaging.
He wants to support established clubs with resources and help create new ones. He envisions a handball “Game of the Week” on an online streaming network. He wants to bring handball to Boys and Girls Clubs, playgrounds and schools. He’s even working on a domestic professional handball league.
“I’m not looking at what we’re going to do in 2028,” Siff said. “I’m looking at what we’re going to do in 2019 and 2020 because of 2028.”
An Olympics on home soil can be huge for a sport like handball looking to gain its footing. That’s obvious. But the way Siff sees it, it’s also an opportunity for America’s athletes.
A volleyball player who might be an elite athlete, but not quite skilled enough to make it as a professional, can find a place with USA Team Handball. There, athleticism is king, and everything else is a bonus.
“If you have a 15-year-old kid today, who is tremendously athletic, and they’re out shooting hoops after school every day or kicking a soccer ball or whatever, I mean, they’re probably not going to play in the NBA, and they’re probably not going to make the U.S. Soccer women’s team,” Siff said. “However, if you start playing handball at 15, we’re going to have a team in LA, and you’re going to have a shot.
“All of a sudden we’ve got this exposure of a sport for young kids to have a dream. And that fuels a lot of interest.”
BINI AND BUDDIES
Mustafa doesn’t have an official title within USA Team Handball, but he has everybody’s ear.
In his native Kosovo, Mustafa won championships in tennis, basketball and handball — not to mention a national second place finish in chess. He follows passion wherever it takes him, and now, it’s brought him to Lake Placid, where he’s a man with many tasks.
He socializes with everyone, bouncing around to ensure players and volunteers from all teams have what they need. He chats up officials from the International Handball Federation.
And he leads and plays for New York City Team Handball Club, a team comprised of players from all over the globe, many of whom have been playing handball since a young age.
With that in mind, the results of the Super Globe qualifier become relatively predictable.
NYCTHC edges out a win over a club team from Los Angeles, which includes Zeck, Donlin and many other American players, along with two former Brazillian professionals.
The New Yorkers then physically overmatch an undersized team from Quebec to earn their place at the Super Globe in Saudi Arabia.
What wasn’t as visible to the untrained eye, however, was the group’s intelligence within the game.
“I think that’s something that we, coming from around the world and mostly Europe, we know how to understand the game,” said Radovanovic, a starter for NYCTHC. “We read each other and know how to be in the right place at the right time.”
That understanding, in the short term, is what USA Team Handball needs. Without the necessary infrastructure to instill that nuance, those instincts, in the mind of American players, USA Team Handball has simply begun to look elsewhere for short-term solutions.
The USA Team Handball player pool has a healthy contingent of dual nationals — mostly players born in Europe who have obtained American citizenship.
Among them are Radovanovic and his NYCTHC teammate Benjamin Briffe, who played professionally in France and is a towering presence on the court with a tall, lanky frame.
Briffe is past his prime, but he plays a deliberate, in-control game that, paired with his size, makes him difficult to defend. He also boasts the kind of high-level experience that American handballers don’t.
Yet while having such players in the lineup serves as a partial fix for American handball, Siff made it clear — though he’ll welcome anyone who wants to play, his vision for the future of USA Team Handball is based on young Americans learning the game.
That’s still years down the road. Any dream of a miraculous run at qualifying for the 2020 Olympics came to an end at the Pan American Games this past summer.
The United States was blown out by eventual tournament champion Argentina in its opener. The Americans finished group play with a win over Cuba and a loss to Chile, before beating Peru and falling in a rematch with the Cubans in the tournament’s consolation rounds. The U.S. team finished sixth out of eight — its best mark since 2003 on the men’s side.
New York City Team Handball Club met a similar fate at the Super Globe, finishing ninth in a field of 10 teams.
DREAMS VS. REALITY
Mere miles from Herb Brooks Arena, the site of the Miracle On Ice, the reality that American handball will need a twist of fate even quirkier than the one that propelled the U.S. men’s hockey team over the Soviets back in 1980 seems clear.
There is too much ground to be made up to realistically compete for a medal against powers of the game such as France and Denmark, too much foundation yet unconstructed, too many obstacles, and not enough time.
Handball lacks viability at the youth level. It is not a varsity sport at colleges within the United States. It does not compete with sports at even the outer levels of the American consciousness from a visibility perspective, never mind the cultural titans like football, basketball and baseball.
But 2028 can be a launching pad for USA Team Handball to address all of these problems.
The IHF — handball’s international governing body — has taken an interest, too, seeing the United States’ massive media markets and large population as an opportunity for growth.
“I think handball is a sport made for America. You have a lot of goals." Salvio Sedrez
Following the IHF’s recognition of the North America and Caribbean Handball Confederation earlier this year and the opening of its headquarters in Colorado Springs, the IHF has supplied funding to support events in that region. This helps American handball, but also aids its competitors.
“We need to think about the United States and China, the biggest countries in the world with big populations, and the need to spread all over it,” said Salvio Sedrez, an IHF delegate in Lake Placid for the Super Globe qualifier. “And if you start here, having very huge handball fans, then you can have more and more people practicing it. This is the idea.”
All of this becomes easier if the United States acquits itself well in Los Angeles nine years from now. A competitive showing during the sport’s rare moment in the spotlight might be what handball needs to gain traction.
“I think handball is a sport made for America,” Sedrez said. “You have a lot of goals. Always you have the possibility to change the score of the game. So it means it is totally in motion. And then I think Americans will love it when they really know it.”
"Miracle On the Court" produced by Sébastien Kraft