LONDON — The question might have been too whimsical in regard to an entertaining sport that deserves to be taken seriously for what it is, not what it could be or looks like.
But team handball, the consensus breakout event of these Olympics, naturally invites comparisons to lacrosse, hockey, and especially basketball, with its dribbling and creative playmaking.
So during a conversation with Mike Gorman, the longtime Celtics television voice who is calling Olympic handball for NBC, the reporter’s question proved irresistible:
“Seriously, Mike. How great would, say, Rajon Rondo be at handball?”
Gorman, who is not in London but instead has called every game of the tournament from NBC’s 30 Rock studios in New York, laughed, and you immediately get the sense he has given this at least a moment’s consideration himself.
“I think the idea of giving him three steps would really appeal to him,’’ said Gorman. “That’s legal. Then you can dribble, and once you pick up your dribble, you have three more steps. So he could really wreak havoc.
“I think the thing NBA players would find very difficult to adjust to would be the physical contact. It is just an accepted fact that you are going to get belted.’’
Belted? That’s something that usually appeals to a US sporting audience, and the physical nature of handball has been one reason it received so much buzz during the London Games. It looks a little bit familiar and a lot of fun. Yet in the larger picture, handball is such an afterthought in the US that it didn’t even qualify a team to participate in London.
“I’m trying to investigate now that I’m more into it why it hasn’t caught on in the United States,” said Gorman. “One of the problems that I’m hearing is that it is an infrastructure issue. You’d have to take a multipurpose gym with about two or three basketball courts to be able to map out a team handball court. That’s a big problem, the infrastructure. We don’t have handball courts.
“But you’d think it would catch on, and NBC is aware of what a hit it has been during the Olympics. It incorporates so many of the skills that we as Americans think are ours: catching a ball, running, jumping, that physical play. They’re things we as a nation are very strong at in sports, and yet we can’t compete with teams from countries like Croatia and Norway and Denmark.”
Croatia, which plays France in one men’s semifinal Friday — the winner will be a prohibitive favorite against the winner of the other semifinal between Sweden and Hungary — is a team Gorman finds particularly intriguing.
“Their front-line averages 6-8, 240, and they’re the best passing team here,’’ Gorman said. “I’m not sure whether that comes across on TV, but these are not little guys. These are big, strong, athletic guys.
“The court is about 35 feet longer than a basketball court, and about 15 feet wider, and they sprint up and down like basketball players. I don’t think a lot of NBA players could deal with the physicality.”
Handball has elements similar to basketball, but it isn’t basketball, and that’s in part why calling it was intriguing to Gorman. He wanted to try something outside of his comfort zone.
“NBC originally approached me and asked if I was interested in doing basketball from New York,’’ said Gorman. “At this stage of my career, I’m more a Celtic guy than a basketball guy. I just love doing the Boston Celtics. More basketball games of teams I don’t know is not exactly what I’m looking for in the summertime. When they called me and asked if I’d be interested in doing basketball, I said, ‘Do you have anything else?’ ”
An executive at NBC with whom Gorman is friendly asked if he’d ever seen team handball. When he said he hadn’t, NBC sent him a DVD of the gold medal game from Beijing to help him gauge interest.
“I looked at that and said, ‘This is a crazy sport. I’d love to do this,’ ’’ Gorman said. “So the first team handball game I ever saw that was unfinished was the first one I broadcast.”
Gorman said the last couple of weeks have been a crash course in handball, aided by color analyst and former player Dawn Allinger Lewis, and a production team that has roots in the sport.
“I’ve been surrounded the past 2½ weeks by people who eat, sleep, and drink handball,” he said. “I’ve just absorbed from them, and that’s made whatever transition I’ve been able to make pretty easy.”
Still, it presents unique challenges.
“I’ve been doing the NBA so long that I don’t work off numbers, I work off faces,’’ said Gorman. “I just know all the players.
“We get the international feed, so we have no idea when they’re going to do the replay, when they’re doing anything, and it’s a video-only feed.
“So you’re in a little booth with a 24-inch monitor in front of you and your color person next to you, and you call the game. It’s difficult because there’s no sense of the ambiance in the building.
“You can’t look away, because one of the things in handball is that there are free substitutions. They literally substitute every time up and down the court, playing matchups and specialists. You can’t feel what’s happening unless they decide to focus the camera on it. So you’re playing catch-up at lot of the time.”
In one sense, Gorman has caught up just when it’s time to go.
“One of the reasons I’m excited about the games this weekend is that I finally know the players,’’ said Gorman, who by his estimation has broadcast every team four or five times. “I can recognize them without having to look at a name, look at a roster, and then a pronunciation guide.
“It’s an exercise in my craft, if you want to call it that, to do Iceland against Croatia, because none of the names are like the NBA. There are no Garnetts and Rondos running around out there.
“I think I may have to lobby Wyc [Grousbeck] and Steve [Pagliuca] to buy a team and have it play at the Garden.’’