Handball handiwork

Everyone knows about the star basketball players Carolina has sent on to the NBA, the former Tar Heel soccer players who have competed for the Women's World Cup.

Vince Carter. Mia Hamm. They're household names in Chapel Hill and around the country.

But what about John Keller and Steven Penn? Jon-Breck Sampson and Glenn Brooks?

These Carolina products also have competed at the highest levels of their sport.

And it's a sport with everything American fans love. Action. Scoring. Athleticism.

Team handball is also a game that most Americans know little -- if anything -- about.

"It's the best sport most people have never seen," said John Silva, a professor of sport psychology in Carolina's exercise and sport science department.

But Silva knows all about team handball. And thanks in large part to what he knows, Carolina's team handball club team -- which Silva coaches as a volunteer -- has sent 11 players to train with the U.S. National Team since 1989.

Two of those players -- Keller and Penn -- played on the 1996 U.S. Olympic Team. Sampson, Brook and Myles Bacon made the American team that competed in the 2000 Pan American Games, held earlier this summer in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

"All the stuff we heard (from the U.S. coaches in Brazil), I already knew from Coach Silva," said Sampson, a 1999 Carolina graduate from Pembroke. "We didn't have a whole lot to learn."

The U.S. team won its first two games, against Mexico and the Dominican Republic, to qualify for the World Championships in Paris in January 2001. Then younger players such as those from Carolina took the court in games that American coaches saw as means to develop the U.S. talent pool for the 2004 Olympics.

Team handball trails only soccer in popularity among Brazilian fans. Some 10,000 spectators watched the Pan American matches, which were shown on ESPN Brazil.

That's a far cry from the U.S., where often only family, friends and players from other teams waiting to play show up in the stands, Glenn said.

Those who do show up see a game that resembles water polo without the water or lacrosse without the sticks.

Each team has seven players -- six on the court and one in the goal. The court is a little longer and wider than a basketball floor; the ball a little smaller than a volleyball but harder.

Players are allowed three steps, then must pass, dribble or shoot with the ball traveling at speeds of up to 65 mph.

The combination of skills needed makes it "like a whole bunch of sports put into one," said Glenn, who played high school baseball in Pembroke but had never heard of team handball before coming to Carolina. He graduated in 1999 and now is a Davis Library supervisor.

Silva became interested in team handball in 1986 when he began working with the U.S. Olympic squad as a sports psychologist.

He'd gone to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs knowing nothing about team handball, but he decided to check it out while he was there. And was hooked.

"You can't watch this sport or play this sport and not fall in love with it," he said.

While with the U.S. team at Seoul in 1988, Silva absorbed the coaching side of the game. Back at Carolina, he put that knowledge to use by forming a club team in 1989.

Carolina since has gone on to compete in club team handball's Division I -- one of the few college clubs at that level. Most Division I teams boast rosters of older, Olympic-caliber players who have played together for years.

But Carolina has held its own. This past year the team finished seventh out of 12 in Division I. And for the past two years, Carolina has placed second among college club teams, which include West Point, the Air Force Academy and Georgia Tech.

"In two years, these kids learn the game," Silva said. "Our guys have been very, very competitive against players with much more experience."

Silva credits the success to the players' effort -- "They train hard and read their playbooks" -- but Sampson said his coach has a lot to do with it, too. He grounds his players in fundamentals as well as teaches strategy and set plays.

"The national team coaches know he knows what he's doing," Sampson said. And that's a prime reason for Carolina's pipeline to the national level.

The Carolina club team practices two nights a week in Fetzer Gym beginning in the fall and competes mainly in the spring.

Silva sees the club as helping expose local residents to a highly popular international sport.

Toward that end, the club hosts several tournaments in Chapel Hill each year, including the Carolina Blue Cup Tournament. It attracts 10 to 12 teams that last year included more than 15 Olympians among them.

Silva's involvement with the team is strictly voluntary and after working hours. He joined the Carolina faculty in 1981 and can claim a long list of academic achievements, including more than 50 research articles and co-editing credits for Psychological Foundations of Sport, a widely used text.

But while it's something done off-the-job, coaching the club team is "another opportunity to test your teaching skills," Silva said.

He applies the same philosophy on the court that he does in the classroom -- work hard but have fun.

"I know I have to get these guys up to speed fast, but I can't go about it in a discouraging way," said Silva, who takes the most satisfaction from molding players from scratch.

Silva leaves the administrative duties of running the team up to the players. They do everything from raising money to hosting tournaments to setting up courts at tournaments.

"I tell the guys, `It's not my club, it's your club,'" he said.

And it's an ownership stake that the players appreciate. "You take more pride in the team if you put something into it," said Sampson, who played Carolina junior varsity basketball, a world that contrasted sharply with team handball "because everything was taken care of for you -- all you had to do was play."

And knowing how the real world works is a valuable lesson learned, Silva said.

"That's how it's going to be in life when you get a job."