A Shot In The Dark

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A Shot In The Dark

April 20, 2014

1954 – a year that saw a multitude of first time undertakings, life changing inventions and iniatives.  RCA manufactured the first color TV set and the Soviet Union recognized East Germany as a sovereign state.  Bill Haley & His Comets recorded “Rock Around The Clock”, starting the Rock and Roll rage while in Europe the Common Nordic Labor Market came into effect.  In the U.S. the first issue of Sports Illustrated was published and in Tokyo the movie “Godzilla” premiered.  Burger King had its initial door opening in Miami and the NBA entered its first season introducing the shot-clock – a rule change that Maurice Podoloff, the NBA’s first president, later described as the most important event in the history of the league.

Sixty years later the shot-clock discussion has reached the upper echelons of professional handball – not for the first time.  While today’s state of handball cannot be compared to the woeful situation of America’s NBA more than half a decade ago, the idea of introducing a shot-clock to Europe’s number one indoor game has gained momentum and many prominent supporters have raised the issue once again.  Professionals such as Gudmundur Gudmundsson (future coach of the Danish Men’s National Handball Team) who recently asked the simple question of “how long is an attack in handball supposed to last?”  In his conversation with Germany’s daily paper Mannheimer Morgen, he offered a plausible solution making reference to professional basketball. “In the sport of basketball every team has exactly twenty-four seconds time to attack. Everybody knows that. Everybody can rely on that – the referees, the players, the coaches, and the spectators. That is a pretty good solution.” So far, so good or better said – so simplistic.

It’s worthwhile to take a look at the shot-clock’s history and why it was introduced to professional “hoops”.  At a time when the NBA’s most prominent player was former Boston Celtic All-Star guard Bob Cousy known for his ability to stall a match with the ball.  “Prior to the 1954/55 season that was the way the game was played – get a lead and put the ball in the icebox”, Cousy once explained.  In the 1950’s the pace of NBA encounters or lack thereof was a real problem.  Until today the game between the Fort Wayne Pistons and the Minneapolis Lakers on November 22, 1950 stands out as the NBA match with the lowest score ever – 19:18 in favor of the team from Fort Wayne.  In the 4th quarter the Pistons outscored the Lakers by a dismal and embarrassing margin of 3:1.  In retrospect the game of basketball had reached its lowest point and audience interest was dwindling rapidly.

As is well known by now, along came the late owner of the Syracuse Nationals, Danny Biasone together with his General Manager Leo Ferris, and invented the 24-second shot-clock at the outset of the 1954/55 season in an attempt to speed up the game of basketball and preclude stalling tactics.  Biasone simply assumed that the average shot attempts teams would take during a game were 120.  He then divided that number into 48 minutes or 2,880 seconds (the duration of a match).  The end result was the magic number 24.

While most archives credit Danny Biasone and his invention of the 24- second shot-clock as the single most important modification that revived NBA basketball another significant rule change that occurred at the same time is often forgotten.  As the 24-second clock was adopted, a limit on the number of fouls a team could incur in a quarter was also introduced.  It was the combination of these two material events – the shot-clock along with the team foul limit – that laid the foundation of pro basketball as it is known today.

Inarguably the handball rulebook as it exists does not specify a time limit for the team that is attacking.  But does handball really need a clock to increase the pace of the game?

Just by looking at a number of leagues that recently concluded their regular season schedule, the answer should be closer to a “no” then a “yes”.  Considering the total score per game in various Scandinavian leagues (men and women) by and large a goal is counted every minute of the match.  And since not every offensive effort ends with a measurable result it is probably safe to assume that the average length of an attack is already around half a minute – more or less.  Are 30 seconds too long?  Is this the reason why certain handball leagues struggle with a decrease in attendance?  Is it truly necessary to effectively shorten the offensive period to 13 seconds – the average time of an attack in the NBA – to make handball more attractive?

Indeed some coaches are concerned about the declining number of attacks during the game – THW Kiel’s Alfred Gislasson is one of the outspoken proponents of a shot-clock.  In the fall of 2013 he remarked to Kiel’s hometown newspaper “Kieler Nachrichten” that the numbers of attacks per game have dropped from around 70 per match three years ago to about 50 now.  Today, the referees determine at their sole discretion at what point a team is stalling in order to wind down the game clock.  According to Alfred Gislasson circumstances that appear to be nonsensical.  “Too judge about that issue they (the referees) would need to have an idea about tactics but that is generally lacking”, he further explained.   Gislasson’s solution to “the” problem – a 35 second maximum time limit per attack just as it was tried a few years ago in the Russian league.

Other coaching legends such as RK Metalurg’s Lino Cervar foresee a more general need for innovation and rule changes.  In an interview with Balkan-Handball.com he emphatically supported the need of introducing the shot-clock as it would change the dynamics of the game.  Only then coaches would be challenged and the game of handball progress.

On the other hand there are the critics of restricting the length of attacking time.  Germany’s national coach Martin Heuberger categorically resists the idea for the very same reason that his colleague Cervar is in support of it.  Limiting the period of an attack would fundamentally alter the game of handball possibly for the worse and certainly with many unintended consequences – a viewpoint that is shared by Daniel Stephan the former World Handball Player.  He as well as Oliver Roggisch (Rhein Neckar Loewen) fear about the culture of the game and an increase of ill advised scoring attempts.  At a recent meeting in Doha the IHF kept the rules as they are and did not even consider entering into what could be expected a very heated and drawn out debate.  According to Manfred Prause, Chairman of the IHF Playing Rules and Referees Commission, “there will be no changes in 2014, the rules are fine as long as the referees interpret them correctly. We cannot just copy a rule from basketball.”

Today, clubs who intend to stall a match do not begin with their “delay of game” efforts once they approach their opponent’s nine-meter line.  The recent Champions League fights between KIF Kolding and Metalurg Skopje serve as a “good” example of how a team (i.e Metalurg) tried to “work” the game clock almost every time body contact with one of their players was established.  Passionate observers of the sport such as well-known EHF TV’s commentator Tom O’Brannagain criticized this unfair practice publicly, pointing out that Balkan teams in particular may have a tendency to engage in this type of behavior.  After the game in Kolding, Metalurg’s coach, Lino Cervar, referred to his team’s key to success as “Knowledge” handball and by default dismissed the Danish squad’s style of play as “Run and Gun” – i.e. ignorant or innocent.  While the comment from the outspoken Irish reporter garnered criticism and praise alike it also highlights how some of the vocal shot-clock proponents contradict themselves.  Slowing down a match by whatever methods is acceptable as long as it works in one’s favor.  It’s part of being clever or playing “Knowledge” handball, according to Cervar.  Yes – it is the same Lino Cervar who strongly supports the introduction of a shot-clock to quicken the game.

Of course, the former member of the Croatian parliament is not the only individual who finds him- or herself entangled in this rather complex issue.  There is little doubt that regulation 7:11-12 (Passive Play – IHF Rules of the Game) is an opaque guideline for the simple reason that it is open for interpretation. Clarification No. 4 in the rulebook provides additional guidance but still does not offer the objective criteria that everybody is looking for.  By the way, most sports have regulations that leave room for wide interpretation by the officials and are anything but clear.  It certainly is not a unique phenomenon associated with handball as a recent article of Germany’s daily paper “Tagesspiegel” wants readers to believe.  The author of the article would be hard pressed to follow the referee’s interpretation of the NBA’s “Clear Path” rule or the impossible complicated rules governing zone defense, for example.

So – will a shot-clock provide the quick fix to rule 7:11-12 that so many are looking for?  Will an attack limit rescue the sport of handball as it apparently saved basketball in the early 50’s?

Sweden’s national coaching duo (Staffan Olsson and Ola Lindgren) may have provided the best idea yet of how to address handball’s controversial rule 7:11-12.  According to them it maybe worthwhile to have a clock beginning to run once the referees have raised their arm indicating “passive play”.  This simple thought may be the best first step in making the consequential actions of  “passive play” more transparent to officials, players, coaches and fans alike.

When the NBA implemented the shot-clock it did so in combination with adjusting the limit of how many fouls a team could commit in a quarter – an aspect often forgotten when discussing what saved the league and the sport of basketball from its “death-bed” anno 1954.

Handball 2014 is not anywhere near to being considered a “lifeless” sport.  In fact it is one of the most exciting in-door sports in the world that in the next few weeks will once again draw thousands of spectators into some of Europe’s largest arenas. Barely six months ago a world-record setting audience of 20,000 saw the final match of the 2013 Women’s World Championship in Serbia – a game that many observers described as the best women’s final to date.  While the regulations of the sport are not perfect, they do not require a rule change that would fundamentally transform handball as it is known today.  Rule 7:11-12 needs careful (as opposed to careless) tweaking and the thought of Olsson and Lindgren present a step in the right direction.  It may well turn out to be “the step” that solves an issue that clearly needs work in the “digital age”.  If successful – it would not be the first time that a straight forward Scandinavian (handball) concept would have lasting as well as enjoyable effects.


“Time is an illusion.”

A. Einstein

J. Schutz

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