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."