Following the lead of track and tennis in these trendy times, handball is the latest sport to come out of the closet and go pro. Last week the pro handball tour concluded its first year of play in Aurora, Ill., and the tournament held at the YMCA sort of summed up what has happened so far: superb play, piddling box office.
Handball, of course, has been kicking around the insides of sweaty little windowless rooms for years to the attention of no one save those hardy souls who like their torture cloistered. To a man—and with some justification—handball players will tell you that their sport calls for more body control and ambidexterity and quicker reflexes than any other athletic endeavor. Nothing outrages them more than to see an overweight golfer tap in a two-foot putt for 50 grand and the acclaim of the crowd.
Handball owes what following it has to one man, Bob Kendler of Chicago, a 69-year-old millionaire home builder and longtime friend of Avery Brundage. Perhaps because of his friendship with Brundage, Kendler was long a foe of professionalism, even to the point of damning a pro tour proposed four years ago by Paul Haber, handball's answer to Joe Namath. But last year, for reasons which few seem able to explain, Kendler changed his mind and gathered unto his Lake Forest mansion the best players in the country to launch the National Handball Club, Inc.
The NHC has a total of 17 players, the top-ranked "Super Eight" and nine taxi-squad substitutes. Members of the Super Eight, who are still eligible to compete for trophies or whatever in amateur events, travel the country holding tournaments in glass-walled courts where the surrounding crowds look like voyeurs in convention. The court gapers at Aurora could be excused, however, enthralled as they were by howitzer serves, explosive caroms and lethal kill shots that made some local handballers consider a very quick return to five-irons.
This is not to say that the Aurora tournament ran smoothly before Dennis Hofflander, a 27-year-old apprentice electrician from nearby Chicago, won first-place money of $900 by beating Fred Lewis of Cleveland 21-12, 21-13. Ironically, the tournament took several amateur turns which need straightening out if the pro game is ever to become an entry on Wide World of Sports.
One example. The Super Eight determine who plays whom by drawing names from a hat. Eminently fair but potentially bad show biz and not even very good sport. Imagine Forest Hills with Newcombe and Smith meeting in the opening round. Given bad luck in the draw, that is exactly what happened in Aurora. Lewis, the No. 1 money-winner, drew Paul Haber, No. 2. Defeat this early for either man could hurt any handball tournament. And it did when Haber lost 21-19, 21-7 and was relegated to the loser's bracket.
Haber is the draw in handball. With a training regimen that consists primarily of cigarettes, booze and the wee, small hours, he has long been an outrage to image-conscious handball minds, not the least for having won five national titles probably in various degrees of hangover. Now 37, Haber is almost ready to admit that others in the game are catching up to his self-acclaimed excellence. In Aurora, Haber nursed an elbow injury he sustained in the national amateur tournament at Knoxville two weeks earlier. It is highly possible he aggravated it during three nights at the Hilton Inn bar, but even before he took the court he discounted any prospect for success.
"I won't win a match here." he said. "I'm used to playing about 15 games a day, and for the last couple weeks I haven't played any. I fell on the floor in Knoxville and cut my elbow right down to the joint. It's been infected and draining since. Now I can't extend my right arm the way I have to on returns and I can't hit the ball hard. When I'm right, none of these guys can touch me."
True to his forecast, Haber suffered on Friday the ironic humiliation of losing his next match 21-11, 21-7 to Billy Yambrick, a 32-year-old religious literature salesman from St. Paul, before he scratched from further competition.
The tournament was even more trying for Lewis, a shy Jewish lad whose philosophic bent would befit a Talmudic scholar. "We wear a lot of masks in our society to keep people from seeing what we really are," he said, "but it's hard to hide your true personality on a handball court. That's where it's all out in the open, and you see what a guy is really like. That's one reason why I like this game so much."
Before the tournament began, Lewis said he planned to catch a 5 p.m. flight Saturday from Chicago to Miami to celebrate Passover with his family, and thus would not play the championship game scheduled for 7:30, even if he had to forfeit.
NHC officials had informed the Christians among the Super Eight that the tournament would not be extended into Palm Sunday, but they took no action on Lewis' behalf until the last minute when, to the anger of anyone who had bought a $6.50 ticket ahead of time, the title match was switched to one p.m.
To qualify for the final, Lewis survived a laborious and punishing encounter with Lou Russo, a New York financial consultant who, both in stature and personality, comes on like one of Donald Duck's nephews. Nicknamed "Snow White's Favorite" by Haber, Russo makes up for his 5'5" height with a wicked assortment of either-hand shots and often quickens the tempo by "flying the ball"—returning it out of the air rather than off a bounce. Beaten 21-14 in the first game, Russo showed how tough a competitor he can be by routing Lewis 21-1 in the second. Lewis rallied to salvage the match with a gritty 21-12 third-game victory.
Hofflander had more luck advancing toward Saturday's showdown, starting with his opener against Dr. Steve August, a 29-year-old ophthalmology resident from UCLA who came dangerously close to qualifying as the patient for some other eye doctor. Hofflander adjusted to August's vicious serve, the most powerful of any on the tour, for a 21-18 win and led 11-9 in the second game when the doctor dived after a low return shot at the right wall. He missed, and his head crashed into the unyielding glass at full speed with a sickening thud. The collision nearly rendered August unconscious, and in minutes he had an ugly blue knot as big as a golf ball on the right side of his forehead. He also complained, "My peripheral vision is cut down. I can't see anything out at my left side, and everything's flashing and jumping." August took a 20-minute time-out, but never was in the game thereafter as Hofflander won 21-11.
The only real challenge anyone threw at Hofflander came Friday from Tacoma's Gordon Pfeifer, a former semi pro baseball player and the NHC player representative pictured above the following weird sentence in the official tournament program: "Gordie finds himself champion at the big, pro wise because he's 35 and anxious to 'make the hay' while the flesh is willing." Whatever that means, Pfeifer has heart to rival Pete Rose. Down 18-10 in the third game, Pfeifer battled back to tie Hofflander at 19-all and would be scrapping yet had not an ace ended his hopes at 21-19.
Even for those grooving over a Chicago boy making good, Hofflander's quick disposition of Lewis for the championship was an anticlimactic contest devoid of suspense. The entire match was over in 75 minutes and gave Hofflander some vindication for Knoxville, where Lewis beat him for the national title.
Interestingly, Hofflander's triumph came in his first pro tournament, subbing as he was for the injured Dave Graybill. With a two-year NHC contract, however, he is likely to be one of the Super Eight whenever or wherever the next tournament takes place in the second year of the tour. Cleveland, Spokane and San Diego loom as likely spots, but the real test will come in the national proam tournament scheduled for next April in Las Vegas.
"For Vegas they're talking about a $25,000 first prize, and that's about as big as any there is in any sport," Haber says. "When the money gets big, I don't care what the game is, the public takes interest. If things stay at the level they are now, I won't say pro handball is dead, but it's got a foot in the grave."
Pro or amateur, the big problem handball has never conquered is the size of its audience, so limited because the flight of the ball, at speeds approaching 125 mph, demands close proximity to be seen. The largest handball facility in the country, at the University of Texas, accommodates a crowd of 1,500. More common are the reception-sized groups that Aurora drew, ranging from 175 to 225. Television would seem to be the answer, but a handball of any color tried fades toward invisibility, especially when the game is played on a glass-walled court. Still, the NHC is optimistic.
"We feel there's a good future," says Executive Secretary Mort Leve. "The top players are all happy. Since they're playing against the best, their play has improved. At the same time they're making some money, getting some recognition and bringing youngsters into the game. Next year we hope to get some sponsors and maybe add a zero or two to the prize money."
Even without the money, handball will always have devoted adherents like Dr. August, who says, "There's got to be something about this game that makes me bust my butt to play it, then come home and prepare for class lectures to medical students the next day. As far as exercise, I could walk to a tennis court near my home, but there's something unusual about this game. I'm not sure what it is. I've found it unique, and the people who make it up are unique. You usually find they've achieved some other success in something else."
Kendler, who once equated the rising popularity of handball among business and professional men as "a crusade to make America fit to fight and stand off those bearded baboons who have created so much turmoil in our good land," undoubtedly would applaud August's sentiments. Harder to figure is why Kendler came to Aurora only on Friday and left after two matches, odd behavior for a man bankrolling anything.
Maybe Haber wanted a raise.