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.
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."