In the hands of Havlicek Team handball: Chris Havlicek, son of NBA great John Havlicek, opted to give up basketball for a shot at the Olympics.


May 07, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- Had Chris Havlicek stopped playing competitive sports, the shadows would have lifted and the spotlight would have faded. And Havlicek likely would have been remembered as another offspring of a famous athlete who had fallen short.

Instead, the son of former Boston Celtics star John Havlicek is rewriting his own athletic legacy. He gave up basketball for team handball, a fledgling career in Europe for a chance to compete in the 1996 Olympic Games this summer in Atlanta.

"This was a chance to do something I had never done before, play a sport where I wasn't compared to my dad all the time," Havlicek, 24, said recently before a practice at the team's training facility. "I'm proud to say I'm way better than my dad."

Havlicek is like a lot of the other players aspiring to be part of the 16-man team that will be announced today. Most came to the game after their college careers in more traditional American sports ended.

In Havlicek's case, he first watched the sport as a spectator at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, the summer before his junior year at Virginia. He would see it again during the four months he spent playing professional basketball in Italy in 1994.

"I thought it was a wild game, cool and fast," said Havlicek. "There was a questionnaire in the basketball office that fall [after the Olympics], asking for people who were interested. The following summer, I went up to Philadelphia for a couple of weeks to a camp. I did well enough to warrant some more attention."

The attention Havlicek is getting these days still has more to do with his last name than his abilities, but he is doing his best to earn the respect of his teammates and coaches. He has made tremendous strides in the past year and was being considered strongly for one of the last couple of spots on the team.

"Chris has definitely had a positive impact on this team," said head coach Rick Oleksyk, who has been part of the U.S. team handball program for the past 11 years, seven of them as a player. "He's not on our team because he's a nice guy or he's John Havlicek's son. He's a very good team handball player who's going to get better."

Just as happened at Virginia, where Havlicek spent all of what turned out to be a disappointing career mostly sitting behind all-time leading scorer Bryant Stith, Havlicek plays the same position as three-time U.S. Player of the Year Matt Ryan.

This time, he doesn't seem to mind.

"I'll be the first to admit that I'm not close to being the best," said Havlicek. "I'm the second-youngest guy on the team, and I've played the shortest amount of time. I'm definitely on the bubble. Most of the guys have been doing this since 1992. If I'm the last guy picked, I'll be very happy."

At 6 feet 4 and a little more than 200 pounds, Havlicek often was caught between positions playing basketball at Virginia. He wasn't big enough to bang inside, wasn't quick enough to get time in the backcourt and didn't shoot well enough to bring back memories of the most productive sixth man in NBA history.

But in team handball -- a sport that has been likened to water polo without the water -- Havlicek's size and bulk are an advantage. The position he plays, circle runner, demands being able to catch the ball, pass around the perimeter or shoot it in traffic in front of the goal.

"It's like being a point forward in basketball, but the moves are so different, the timing is so different," said Havlicek. "I went from not knowing what was going on to learning how to throw and learning my steps."

Havlicek credits his progress to the promotion last year of Oleksyk as head coach. Former coach Javier Garcia, a Spaniard who grew up playing the game, often didn't have patience with Americans new to the sport. Oleksyk, a Southern Californian who grew up playing team handball, sees Havlicek's potential.

"I was a fan of Chris' before I got the job," said Oleksyk. "The thing that was lacking in Chris were certain individual instincts. The more international competition he gets, the better off he'll be."

Pub Date: 5/07/96

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