Kenneth Bethune flinched and ducked as a handball pounded against wooden rafters next to him, sending a rattle through the court.
"He throws hard," Bethune said, referring to former American team handball player Jeff Chappell.
The tall, barrel-chested Chappell has the build and athleticism of a football linebacker, but instead chooses to play handball, which is wildly popular overseas, but remains obscure in America. Having played in the 1995 Olympic Festival (a sports competition previously held in Olympic off-years) and in the Pan American Tournament in 1996, he hopes that his experience will help forge a new team in Oklahoma City and perhaps finally give the sport a foothold in the state.
Olympic fans got several chances over the summer to sample handball " which is not the sport of the same name played by slapping a small ball against a wall, but rather a mixture of sports more familiar to Americans, namely basketball and soccer.
"It's water polo on land," Chappell said. "You're taking a ball, throwing it in the net and it's really physical. Or you can say it's a cross between soccer and basketball."
The handball court is larger than a basketball court with goals similar to, but smaller than, those in soccer, surrounded by an arc where only the defending goalkeeper can set up. Players can dribble the ball, which is about half the size of a basketball, but Bethune said that crisp passing is preferred because it keeps play quick and is more apt to break down defenses. Offensive players are allowed three steps with the ball, with most scores coming from leaping overhand shots.
"In places like Croatia, France, Germany, Russia, those people play it year-round," Chappell said.
The Oklahoma City team is largely comprised of college players, and will likely compete on the collegiate level, but is looking for any athlete willing to try out the new sport.
"I've painstakingly recruited these 10 people," Bethune said. "Craigslist is where I got half these people, and the rest I go to school with. I set up a table in the cafeteria trying to recruit people, but this school is very performance arts-centric and people who have played sports before don't always want to start a new sport they aren't familiar with."
The sport's focus on endurance and flowing teamwork appealed to fellow law student Andrew Etter.
"I played college soccer, but when I got to OCU, I wanted to find a new sport to try out since I couldn't do college sports anymore," Etter said. "There is nothing really offered here for law school students. I knew Kenneth and he told me about it, so I decided to try it out."
After attending a recent clinic conducted by USA Team Handball, the team has a scheduled scrimmage against the Austin RockStars in Texas. Since the nearest teams are in Missouri and Texas, with another possible team emerging in Tulsa, travel is part of the handball experience.
The team has a Web site set up at www.okchandball.org, and Bethune said a new national organization for handball is currently being formed to further promote the sport.
For now, Chappell and Bethune are just hoping to attract players. Bethune insists that once players get a taste of the sport, they'll understand why it is so popular around the world. "Charles Martin