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Team handball gives US audiences a surprise

Probably more is on record about the sporting habits of the jellyfish than is known in this country about Olympic team handball, which is as misnamed as Piccadilly Circus. Most people automatically assume this is the same game where a hard black rubber ball is hit against any one of four walls with the hand, only with considerably more than two players involved.

Well, what the world has in team handball is a lively combination of basketball, water polo, and ice hockey, with seven players to a side, including a goalkeeper. The game originated in Germany around the turn of the century and has grown into one of Europe's most popular sports. It is especially strong in Eastern Europe; in fact, since the inception of men's handball in the Olympics in 1972 and the women's game in 1976, every single medal until this year has been won by a communist nationl

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The game is usually played on a basketball court widened by 20 ft., covered with a green synthetic surface, and equipped with netted soccer-like goals.

As in hockey, substitutions are made on the fly; also, roughness can result in a penalty shot or the loss of the offender for two minutes. The ball looks like an underdeveloped soccer ball that is multi-paneled with a non-slip surface. It is quite hard, and can be thrown at speeds exceeding 50 m.p.h.

Blocked shots sometimes ricochet a spectacular 30 or 40 feet in the air in almost any direction. This creates some of the same rebound situations that you get in basketball.

Players are chosen for their height, stamina, quickness, speed, fearlessness, and the ability to mesh well with their teammates. While it is impossible to judge a goalkeeper's speed or form by any standard rating system, the great ones probably account for at least 50 percent of their team's success.

Team handball enthusiasts often liken their sport to water polo, mostly because of the constant passing and teamwork that is required to move the ball away from their own goal and toward the oppositions. Teams play two 30-minute halves during which the game clock stops only if there is an injury. After a 10 -minute rest break at halftime, teams exchange opposite ends of the floor.

Crash landings are frequent, although nobody on the four teams I saw play (Korea vs. Sweden; Denmark vs. Spain), wore knee pads or protection of any kind.

Typical scores for Team Handball run 20-18 or maybe 22-20. Most goals come on hard line-drives, though some players finesse their scores by one-hopping the ball into the net.

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According to the International Handball Federation, team handball is Europe's most popular indoor sport, with a player membership of 4.2 million representing nearly 90 countries around the world. But while Germany alone has close to 200, 000 who regularly play the game, club membership in the United States is under 2 ,000.

The driving force behind team handball in the United States is Dr. Peter Buehning, a German immigrant who introduced the sport to Uncle Sam in 1959. Early on, team handball was played almost exclusively in New Jersey. From there it spread into New York, and when Buehning formed a US Olympic team in 1972, 90 percent of its members were from the military.

''What we need in the US is to get Team Handball on television, so that the public can see what a great game it is,'' said Mel Franks, the Olympic press chief for the sport. Anyway, the finals of this year's Team Handball will be held Saturday at the Fabulous Forum in Inglewood, where more than 12,000 tickets reportedly have already been sold for this gold-medal event.

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