Sam Jones is walking along the street in downtown Colorado Springs not far from the Olympic Training Center, and, oddly, not a soul pays attention. No, no, it's not that Sam Jones, the one who played 12 brilliant seasons for the Boston Celtics in the '50s and '60s. This Sam Jones is a woman and by far the best team handball player the U.S. has ever had. If the Americans are to have even a faint hope of winning a medal in that sport in Barcelona, this Sam Jones will have to be more sensational than even that Sam Jones ever was. "For us to have any chance, we need Sam at her highest level," says coach Vojtech Mares.
Not that anyone will notice. Sam (she's so named because her father wanted a boy; her name is really Leora) and team handball are used to being ignored—although not in Europe and Asia, where she is frequently recognized on the street. About all that people in the U.S. know for sure about handball is that it is generally played in YMCAs by two people who bounce a little ball off the walls. But that has nothing to do with team handball. The team game—which the U.S. Team Handball Federation says is second in world popularity to soccer—involves six players plus a goalie, a court a little bigger than a basketball floor and is played with a ball slightly smaller than a soccer ball. Competitors try to throw the ball into a goal 10 feet wide and nearly seven feet high.
Of course, when the rules of a sport have to be explained like this to a U.S. audience, it's in some trouble here. "It's a lonely battle," concedes the federation's assistant executive director, Evelyn Hunt Anderson. And a long way from being won. The federation spends $800,000 a year on the sport, but the U.S. men failed to qualify for Barcelona and the women will be lucky to finish better than sixth there.
The problem with team handball is it's a very rough sport. Most young girls in America aren't attracted to physical violence, but Sam Jones was, and that, at its core, is what makes her such a power on the world level. She brings to the game the same passion for physical conflict she first experienced as a youngster competing with boys on the basketball court back in Mount Olive, N.C. She describes herself as "a kind of butcher woman." And she says that "it's one thing to jump and shoot in basketball and quite another to jump and shoot in team handball—and get hit. I want opponents to say, 'Hit her. Stop her. Oh, no, here she comes again.' "
Jones has been on the national team now for 10 years—this is her third and, she says, last Olympics—and she has competed in 42 nations. At Seoul in '88, she was the Games' second-leading scorer overall, with 35 goals in five games.
She stumbled into the sport in college at East Carolina, where she went on a basketball scholarship. One day in 1982, Wayne Edwards, an East Carolina athletic official who was active in team handball, saw Jones playing in an intramural softball game and encouraged her to try out for the Olympic Sports Festival team. "Here is this man asking me to try out for a sport I've never heard of, and he's telling me I have a chance to be on the Olympic team," she remembers. "I thought, Come on, be for real." She tried out anyway, and one month later she was playing in France on the U.S. national team.
Even though Jones is past her prime, at 31, and admits her bruised body is burning out from the rugged play, she's "still the player we go to," says teammate Cindy Stinger, herself 34. Alas, one of Jones's strengths, her lust for driving from her back circle position into the middle, where most of the rough stuff occurs, is her biggest weakness because every team in the world knows that's her style. But that's how she has always scored, and she can't change now. So, she'll be easy to spot in Barcelona. She'll be the one involved in almost all the wrecks and trying like there is no tomorrow because, for her, there isn't.