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."