LONDON -- I came to England almost three weeks ago to tell the stories of some of the greatest Olympic athletes in the world. Michael Phelps. Missy Franklin. Jordan Burroughs. But along the way, I fell in love. Not with a woman, an ideal, a plate of fish and chips or a frosty cold pint of London Pride.
No, I fell in love with a sport that I had somehow spent my previous 35 years ignoring. Team handball. With a free night on Wednesday, I curiously stumbled into the Copper Box to check out the game I vaguely remembered from high school gym class.
What I found was an athletic, fast-paced, up-and-down, in-your-face sport that had me jumping out of my seat and screaming in delight, much to the confusion of everyone else in my section. They had all seen this before. Me? Not so much. On at least three occasions I literally came out of my seat after watching someone jump in the air and then single- double- and triple-pump fake his way to a goal. And each time I was met with a look like, "What's wrong with him?"
So on Sunday, as the 2012 London Games came to a close, there was but one place I told my editor I wanted to be: In the basketball arena for the team handball final between Sweden and France. Here were two different countries I had never been to, speaking languages I didn't understand, playing a game I struggled to comprehend, and I ate it up. My version of culture, I suppose.
The match itself did not disappoint. I'll spare many of the details because, really, you don't care. I'll just tell you that France was forced to play the last minute and a half a man down due to a penalty but still held on to win 22-21. It was awesome.
So what exactly is it that I love about the game? Everything. It's water polo without water. Lacrosse without sticks. Soccer using your hands. Basketball with a 3-by-2-meter goal instead of a 10-foot-high hoop. The game moves fast, there's lots of scoring and getting shots off takes an incredible amount of size, skill and athletic coordination.
That's because the goal area extends in a D-like shape 6 meters out from the actual goal. It looks like a 3-point line. And the only person allowed in the area with the ball is the goalkeeper. No offensive player can shoot within this darkened zone. So what the offense does is pass back and forth and shuffle men in a pattern similar to a three-man weave, hoping to create a gap in the defense. When a shooter sees a gap, he charges to the line and right before he gets there he jumps, elevates and throws the ball often in excess of 100 miles an hour at the goalkeeper.
But while in the air, players will almost always pump fake and alter their shots to confuse the goalie. You think Michael Jordan's jump-one-way-and-shoot-the-other layup in the '91 NBA Finals was impressive? That happened like five times here Sunday. There was a French triple-pump. A Sweden player jumping straight into a French defender, maintaining his composure and unleashing a goal-scoring laser into the back of the net.
And the best part is that after almost every goal, there's a collision. Sometimes it's with another player. Other times it's with the ground.
And of course, this begs the question: What about the U.S.? Well, the U.S. didn't even qualify for London and hasn't competed in the Olympics since 1996 in Atlanta, where it qualified automatically. There, the men finished ninth out of 12 teams. The women eighth out of eight.
Why are we so terrible? Part of it is a lack of interest. Part of it is the USOC's reducing its funding for the U.S. team by 20 percent last year. And part of it is the fact that our country focuses on a different indoor court sport: basketball.
But I'm not sure I buy that popular last argument. I get it, we play baseball instead of cricket. We're more interested in American football than the world's game. And so it would make sense that we play basketball instead of handball. One or the other.
But what about the French? They won the gold medal here on Sunday in handball and had a 4-1 record during prelims in the men's basketball tournament before losing to Spain in the quarterfinals. Why can't we do both?
Because four years from now in Rio, I want to be in some rocking Brazilian arena, the crowd screaming at a deafening pitch, with the red, white and blue flying up and down the court trying to outmaneuver some Croatian goalie in my new favorite sport.
I know, I know.