Paul Haber is from Milwaukee, which was no help at all to him last Friday night because he was in Austin, Texas, where the bars turn into pumpkins at midnight. And so, with the bewitching hour but 20 minutes away, he quickly drained his glass and ordered another. He had been drinking for almost six hours, while working his way into his third pack of cigarettes for the day. "I'm a great ad for booze and smoking," Haber said, "but if I win tomorrow I'll set handball back 20 years." He laughed softly.
Tomorrow would be the singles final of the United States Handball Association's four-wall championships on the showpiece glass-walled court at the University of Texas. Haber would face Billy Yambrick, a shy, religious advertising salesman who neither smokes nor drinks and who, of course, was home and asleep.
To the handball people, who get little publicity, their singles champion is tremendously important because he is their public image. And Paul Haber is a guy they wish had taken up bowling. "Tennis has its bums and golf has its hustlers," said one USHA official glumly. "We've got Haber. And worst of all, he's a great player. Maybe Billy will beat him."
On Thursday night they were hoping that Stuffy Singer, the defending champion, would do it the next day in the semifinal. And if not Stuffy, well, there was always Jimmy Jacobs, the greatest four-wall player in history—and so what if he was 39 and held together by adhesive tape? Jimmy would beat Yambrick, and even if Stuffy loses, well.
March 31, 1969
Well, Stuffy lost and later, mournfully, sat in the dressing room and said, "Paul was brilliant out there today, just tremendous. He certainly deserved to win. But I'll have to say that for the best interests of handball it would have been better if he had broken his leg in the first round." (Haber labels all such comments as envy and dismisses them.)
Singer is a former child radio-TV star. He played Dagwood Bumstead's son but today, at 27, has given up the stage for a successful career as an insurance executive. Haber was the singles champion in 1966 and 1967, an act which Stuffy, as champ, found hard to follow.
"I resent having to go around to the places where Paul has been and having to make up for the things he's done," Stuffy said. "I disliked being met with the attitude of, well, here's another handball player out to get us. I guess everybody has heard about the things he's done."
Haber does not deny most of the indiscretions attributed to him. More than once Bob Kendler, the USHA's founder and financial patron saint, has bailed him out of trouble, but Kendler loyally refuses to discuss the incidents.
Kendler is a multimillionaire home builder out of Chicago. In the 1950s, angered by the Amateur Athletic Union, he pulled out his checkbook and asked the AAU's rebelling handballers to follow him. They did and he has been picking up the tab ever since. At the moment he is setting up a $1 million trust fund so the USHA will survive after his death. He is 64.
"I love handball and I love people," Kendler says. "And I am a Christian Scientist. If I ever had one wish, it would be to wish for the power to heal. But I know I will never be a great healer medically so I try to do it with what I have—money. That's why I helped Paul. I just can't turn a handball kid down."
Kendler shook his head. "I can't remember all the kids I've got out of jail; the kids who got women into trouble; all the babies and hospital bills I've paid for; the kids I've found homes for. I've seen a lot of healing in handball. They say Paul's done some bad things. Maybe he has. But that doesn't mean he will in the future. Let's give him a chance."
"Would you like to see him win the championship, then?" someone asked.
"Well," said Kendler slowly, "I guess for the image, it would be better if...."
And then Jimmy Jacobs was gone, a loser in two straight games to Yambrick. Jacobs had won the USHA's singles championship six times, the doubles five times. But he had come to Austin with a bad back, two broken ribs, a painful bone bruise on the palm of his right hand and a tight and swollen right forearm, all of which he stubbornly denied having.
"I went out on the court and Billy went out on the court," said Jacobs, "and we closed the door and played. I felt fine but he won, and that means he's the better player."
Paul Haber swirled the drink in his glass. He stared at it moodily. He is 32, extremely intelligent, a scratch golfer.
"Look," he said, "I know a lot of people don't like me. But I didn't come out here to win friends; I came out to win the handball championship. Dammit, if they ever gave me the sportsmanship trophy, I'd give up handball. And I can't understand why everybody doesn't feel the same way. So I drink and smoke. I've been doing it since I was a kid. Why should I quit just because I'm playing a game?"
Mary, his bride of two weeks, who was sitting beside him, laid a hand on his arm. "I've heard a lot of things and I've seen a lot of things," she said, "and if all the things I heard about Paul were true I never would have married him. Yes, during a tournament he's rude and crude and I'm embarrassed. He's such a bad ass at a tournament. But it's not him, it's his competitiveness. No matter what he does he wants to win—has to win. A bad apple, but when we get away from the tournament he's a different guy, a sweet guy."
"But I still drink," said Haber, grinning.
"My honey gets bombed out of his bird, he really does," said Mary, laughing. "But he needs to relax. It never seems to hurt his playing."
"In a tournament in New Orleans last month we really tore things up," said Haber. "Drunk all night, handball all day. I got about an hour's sleep each night. I lost the first game in every match. I was still trying to find out if I was alive or not. But I won the tournament and I had to play two tough matches the last day."
Haber stood up. "Guess I'd better get some sleep," he said. "Billy drank his hot milk and has been getting his zzzs since 9 o'clock."
The first game went as some had sourly predicted. Haber won 21-11. Early in the game a baby in the gallery cried out.
Haber stopped play. "Is there a baby up there?" he shouted.
"Yeah," shouted a fan. "Do you want him down there?" But the woman with the baby left. Mary Haber looked embarrassed.
In the second game Yambrick, who had never beaten Haber in seven previous major tournament finals, came to life, built a big lead and coasted home 21-5. The crowd of 1,200, largest in handball history, stirred excitedly.
Haber quickly unstirred them. After a 10-minute rest he came back strong, built leads of 6-1 and then 15-3 and won the game, the match and the championship 21-14.
"I just don't understand Billy," Haber said later, frowning. "This is the eighth time I've beaten him in a final, four of them for national titles. And he never says boo. If it were me I'd be looking to kill the guy."