When I was told I would have to learn to play team handball for this column, memories of my time at secondary school rushed back to me.
Not that I had ever played that game during my school days, but I did go to a school where handball is a quite popular sport. I remember when I went to basketball training after school, I always saw handballs flying around on the next court and heard banging noises when handballs smashed into the goal frame.
So, to revisit this sport - or more accurately "visit" it, for the first time, as I'd never actually tried it - I left work early one afternoon to train with Shek Lei Catholic School's handball team, led by veteran handball coach Wong To. (I later learned that Wong used to teach the coach of my secondary school's handball team at the Hong Kong Institute of Education.)
I wasn't too worried until I found out where the venue was. I used to think that all handball games are played indoors, mostly in air-conditioning. But not in Hong Kong. I was utterly devastated when I found out the practice would take place on an outdoor court at the Choi Hung Road Playground in Wong Tai Sin. As expected, the sun was my enemy. The temperature surged to 34 degrees Celsius at one point, and I was sweating it out like a sponge.
Keeping up with the pace of these fine-tuned handballers was also draining; this team came second at the last All Hong Kong Schools Jing Ying Handball Tournament. They are at the top of their game. I started gasping for air halfway into the warm-up exercise.
Handball is a deceptive sport; its goal is bigger than a basketball hoop and when it comes to ball control, tossing with fingers is always easier than kicking with your toes. But the problem is, there is a goalkeeper to block your shots.
To bypass goalkeepers, you need to make powerful shots from difficult angles. Some of the students showed me how to use the strength of my waist to increase the power and speed of my shots. Apparently, the arm and wrist can do only so much if someone wants a darting shot, they said.
A decent high jump will provide you enough time to aim and avoid defenders' blocking arms. Good places to target include the four corners of the goal. Experienced players will sometimes aim at the floor, one step ahead of the goalkeepers. This way, when the ball bounces back, it changes course so suddenly that a goalkeeper will have too little time to react.
I might as well admit that I failed at all the aforementioned suggestions.
I used to play a lot of basketball, and most of my teammates on the basketball team also played in the handball team. That made me think that the two sports are similar. My epiphany came when I played my first handball game. I was playing in defence on the court, and suddenly I heard Wong, the coach, yell: "You can play tougher. Go check the baller's hand."
To me, it was a confusing moment because in basketball, an intentional check on the ball-handler's hand is an intentional foul, which awards the opposing team one free throw and possession.
Yet in handball, it's allowed. Defenders can make body contact, including hand-checking, with an opponent as long as it is done face-to-face. A foul - or fault, as it's called in the handball world - is a common way to stop opponents.
Players don't have a fault quota the way basketball players do. If their defensive actions do cause a serious foul, such as pushing an opponent's side or back, the maximum penalty is a red card. This means a two-minute suspension for the culprit, during which your team plays short-handed.
Handball has a more co-operative nature than the two sports from which it comes - football and basketball. The court is always packed, and the attacking team need to initiate what they call a wave to create space for their teammates to shoot. All the players in a team have to play their parts properly, and - more importantly - trust one another.
The Shek Lei Catholic School's handball team is a tightly knit group. When I invited them to be in the opening shot of my handball video - which includes me standing in the goal, and them throwing handballs at me - the team all tossed balls at me in unison!
Chris lets fly with a shot on goal.
Handball in HK
Kowloon Park Sports Centre
22 Austin Road, Kowloon Park, Jordan
Tel: 2724 3120 / 2724 3494
Tin Shui Sports Centre
7 Tin Shui Road, Tin Shui Wai, Yuen Long, New Territories
Tel: 2446 6609
Sun Yat-sen Memorial Park Sports Centre
18 Eastern Street North, Sai Ying Pun, Hong Kong
Telephone: 2858 2493