What You Don’t Know About: Handball

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Blake Griffin, Forward / Los Angeles Clippers - The Players' Tribune

Have you ever been cornered and asked, “So, what do you do?” Or maybe, “What’s your major?” Sometimes, it can be tough be explain. Everyone thinks they know what a pro athlete does. But do we really know? For this edition, we sent Players’ Tribune Senior Editor Blake Griffin to the famous West 4th Street Courts in New York City to train with pro handball player Timbo Gonzalez. This is What You Don’t Know About: American Handball.

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Blake:
Okay, this is no joke. This is as close to a basketball workout as I’ve ever seen. I’m pretty gassed.

Timbo:
You use your whole body, right? For a person who hasn’t experienced the sport, the moment they start playing, they realize it’s triggering muscles they’ve never used before. You think you got a strong core? Come down to the West 4th Street Courts. We’ll see about your core.

Blake:
So we just went through your workout, but explain for the people at home who have never heard of handball before: What is it that you do?

Timbo:
Handball is crazy. Handball is the best, most pure sport in the world. When some people hear that I’m a pro handball player, they picture Olympic handball, with the nets and everything. But American handball is like racquetball, only there’s no racquet. Your only tool is your hands. It’s just a very raw, very real competition.

Blake:
I have to say, smashing the ball with your hand feels pretty awesome.

Timbo:
Oh man, it’s just so addicting. Once you play this game once, you’ll never stop thinking about it. There’s something about the feeling of hitting the ball with your hand and making it go where you want it to go that’s just … you’re so connected to it, you know?

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Blake:
My hand kind of hurts, man. Like the good kind of hurt. But my legs are like the bad kind of hurt. I thought hand speed was going to be the challenge but for me it was more the read-and-react and moving my feet to the ball. This is like every single movement that I do for basketball, especially the quick lateral movements on defense.

Timbo:
The whole name of the game is court control. It’s probably a lot like playing defense for you. You have to maintain a dominant position in the middle of the court. Whoever is in the front court has a more open view. You can control your opponent that way. You can run him ragged around the court and keep him backpedaling. You want to be centered. You don’t want to be reaching and scrambling.

Blake:
I was scrambling. You were making the ball do crazy things.

Timbo:
Spin is big. There’s certain ways you maneuver your hand to create spin on the ball. So the standard shot would be your hand just smacking the ball flush like a tennis racket. But that’s going to create a flat shot that’s easy for your opponent to deal with. You want to throw your opponent off. You want them stutter stepping and second guessing. So you have to make the ball dance.

Blake:
Your palm is like completely calloused over. I feel like I have baby hands now. I can’t believe you don’t wear gloves.

Timbo:
No way. Some guys wear them, but it’s all about the feel for me. To create spin, you have to graze your palm over the top of the ball. Think of it like a curveball in baseball. There’s a million slight little variations that you can create based on how you twist your palm at different angles. I’ve never really played tennis seriously, and I imagine it’s the same idea, but the cool thing about our sport is that you can really feel the control in the palm of your hand. It’s wild. It’s tough to explain that feeling of total control unless you’ve played handball. That’s where the addiction comes from.

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Blake:
We’re out here just in the middle of Manhattan. I love this. Is this like the mecca of handball in New York?

Timbo:
Oh man, on a weekend, if there’s a tournament going on, the crowd is unbelievable here. It’s such an aggressive, aggressive atmosphere. Because I’m a top-ranked player, a lot of the crowds pull for the underdog, and I just love that. I love when they’re against me. When I’m in a game, I zone out and I just hear the crowd and the ball and it takes me to a different place. I don’t worry about anything. All my problems go away. I just worry about hitting that ball. It’s amazing.

Blake:
It’s kind of like a streetball atmosphere.

Timbo:
It is, but it’s just you out there. There’s no hiding in the corner on the three point line. This game is very, very mental. Your opponent is talking trash, the crowd is talking trash. And they’re right there, a couple feet away. It’s crazy.

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Blake:
Who’s the best trash talker?

Timbo:
This guy John “Rookie” Wright is kind of like the Gary Payton of handball. He’s a monster. He’ll break you down. I’ve seen it happen.

Blake:
I feel like you knew where I was going to hit the ball before I even made contact.

Timbo:
Your shot has a lot to do with your foot movement, so I can usually get a clear read on where the ball’s going based on your body language. Recreational players won’t know that. You have to play for a while to get the intuition. But you can’t always rely on seeing your opponent’s hand movement, because he might be disguising it or hiding it with his body. Your ears are your best friend in handball. Because you can actually hear certain types of shots coming off the wall. If a guy is putting a lot of spin on the ball, you’ll hear it coming off the wall like, “Eeerrrp.” But then there’s like 50 variations of “Eeerrrp,” you know?

Blake:
That’s really interesting. It’s kind of similar to rebounding. There’s certain things that are really hard to explain unless you’ve done it thousands of times. Like even the sound of a ball coming off the rim.

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Timbo:
If you’re just looking at the wall and waiting for the ball to come off, you’re done. You’ll be reacting instead of acting.

Blake:
Is it mentally draining? I feel like sometimes I’m more mentally exhausted after a game than I am physically exhausted.

Timbo:
A hundred percent. I get so many thoughts when I’m playing, it’s just crazy. I’ve been playing for so many years that I see so many openings. I guess it’s how boxers must feel when they see the punch sequences coming ahead of time. I’ll have nights when I’m laying in bed before a tournament and I’ll be strategizing in my head what I’m going to do to my opponents. Sometimes I can’t even sleep. I’m telling you man, this game is addicting.

Blake:
I will have absolutely no trouble sleeping tonight. Thank you for kicking my butt, man.

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Want to watch Blake and Timbo in action on the West 4th Street Courts? Click here to watch the video on redbull.com

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