Howie Eisenberg figured it would be the easiest couple of
hundred dollars he had ever made. A game of handball against a
weak-armed teenage prodigy? Let the wagering begin. "I thought
it would be no contest, and I was right," Eisenberg says. "But
the game didn't come out the way I expected."
The prodigy, David Chapman, who was 14, whipped Eisenberg --
then 52 and admittedly past his prime but also the former winner
of nine national championships -- by a shocking 21-4 that day
five years ago in Venice Beach, Calif. Afterward Ed O'Neill, a
handball junkie better known as Married ... with Children's Al
Bundy, said to Eisenberg, "It seemed like he knew what you were
going to do."
Replied Eisenberg, "He reads minds."
Not even a mind reader could have known what Chapman would do
over the next five years. Chapman, the first player to win all
five of the junior age-group national championships (11, 13, 15,
17 and 19), is now, at 19, the top professional four-wall
handball player in the world. He has won four of six tournaments
on the Spalding/Gatorade Pro Handball Tour this spring. Yet he
is still essentially the same player who did in Eisenberg at
those beachside courts: While not the hardest hitter around,
Chapman is a superb strategist who has a knack for knowing what
his opponent will do next. "Some people say it's a sixth sense,
but I don't know about that," says Chapman. "I think it has to
do with spending so much time on the court."
By the time he was three, David Chapman was whacking tennis
balls against the garage door with his father, Fred. At age
seven David entered -- and won -- his first tournament. By age
14, when he beat Eisenberg, he was the national amateur
champion. At 17 he became the youngest player, by three years,
ever to win the national pro championship. And in Houston from
June 17 to June 24 he will be favored to win the 1995 title,
which he must reclaim from Octavio Silveyra, who won last year.
Tommy Burnett, Chapman's coach on the Southwest Missouri State
handball team, the top collegiate squad in the country, has a
Ph.D. in sports psychology. He says Chapman is worthy of
constant study. "He's got a mental dimension that most people
don't have," says Burnett. "The really great ones have the
ability to focus and shut everything else out."
Chapman started focusing early. When he was a kid, his best
friends were the other handball players at the Long Beach
(Calif.) Athletic Club, men in their 30's, 40's and 50's. In
high school David met his teachers for breakfast at his father's
doughnut shop before school and played tennis with them after
classes. "He's always had a rapport with people older than he,"
says Fred. "Now he has friends all over the country. Some of
them are as old as 70 -- he'll sit and play gin with them."
On the court David is described as the youngest 50-year-old
around. His style is deliberate, like that of an older person
trying to make up for declining physical abilities. And at 5'10"
and 160 pounds, Chapman doesn't look like much to reckon with,
either. He proves his talent, though, time and time again. Last
spring he and Burnett went target shooting on Burnett's farm in
Cassville, Mo. Chapman, who had never held a gun before, quizzed
Burnett on the rifle's mechanics. Then he shouldered it and hit
the target repeatedly. "I've been shooting for years," Burnett
says, "but the kid outshot me."
Throughout handball's history, players have come into power and
held sway for years. Naty Alvarado Sr., considered one of the
best of all time, won 11 U.S. four-wall titles over 14 years,
the most recent in 1990, when he was 35. Before Alvarado, Fred
Lewis won four titles in a decade. And before Lewis's first
title, in 1972, Paul Haber won five championships in six years.
But a number of young players are vying with Chapman for
supremacy. The 23-year-old Silveyra is ranked No. 4, and
fifth-ranked Naty Alvarado Jr., 21, resembles his father in more
than just name. "David is playing at a time when there are a lot
of contenders, and that makes it more amazing that he always
wins," says No. 2-ranked John Bike Jr., who at 29 is the oldest
member of the group. "Luckily there are guys his own age who
will be pushing him forever."
Forever? You have to wonder whether someone who started the game
so young and takes it so seriously will eventually hit the wall.
He treats handball as his job, but eventually he wants another
one. He plans to go to law school, then work for the FBI,
pursuing criminals and handball titles. "If he doesn't get
burned out, if he keeps in shape and keeps his interest," says
Burnett, "he's going to be unbeatable for a long time."
It doesn't take a mind reader to figure that out.