Ninja Warrior Gary Hines: Why U.S. handball needs a revolution - and LeBron James
Who is Gary 'Hangtime' Hines?
Gary 'Hangtime' Hines is the greatest USA Team Handball player that most Americans have never heard of.
This unsung handball hero spoke to the Olympic Channel about why gold medallists LeBron James and Russell Westbrook would be brilliant crossover talents on a handball court, how he's living his dream, why Vince Carter inspired him, and how it all may never have happened while he moved from foster home to foster home as a kid.
At 180cm (5'11") they told Gary Hines he was too small to play ball.
Then they saw him jump.
Now in his 9th year as a pro, this handball pioneer is still trying to change the game, aiming to take the USA to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and give the next generation a lot more exposure to the sport.
Hines has watched three Olympics come and go with the USA failing to qualify - the last time they made it was Atlanta 1996 as hosts - but victory at the 2019 PanAm Games would see the U.S. book their berth at Tokyo 2020.
"That would be a dream. That would just be unbelievable, a big goal, and a big check off my list... to play against the best of the best" - Gary 'Hangtime' Hines
His jump has been wowing people for a long time:
"I'm in my 9th grade gym class and guys are running up and trying to touch the backboard and I just run up and end up grabbing the ring with two hands and they're all like woooah!" - Hines to the Olympic Channel
Gary and his big air jump will be there to lead the line in Lima, but he's got a fight on his hands to make the Games and to make the sport more well known and widely played.
Handball isn't the most popular sport in the United States.
It isn't even close.
As a young handballer, Hines even had to explain to the other kids what the sport was:
"I'd say I play handball, and they'd say 'Oh, I was good at that, I used to hit it against the wall and...'", Gary would cut them short, "no, it's not what you're thinking, and I would explain and show them videos and they would be like: what? Oh, wow, that's crazy, I never seen this sport, I would love to see this!"
Inspirations: Vince Carter, Darrick Heath
So how did Hines, originally a big basketball fan and player, end up playing handball?
"My basketball coach introduced it to us, it was an after school program... I was one of the ones that stuck with it, I gravitated to it because it was a mixture of a lot of sports all in one."
"One of my favourite players when I first started playing basketball was Vince Carter, that was my favourite player, Vince carter, and I would wear his shoes and wear his number."
What about handball heroes?
"When I got introduced to handball there were a couple of guys on the national team, one of the guys was Darrick Heath, and he was one of the first players - I like was like - woah... he was flashy, he could jump and he was a beast on the court and I was like: that guy's cool."
You can see similarities between Vince Carter and Hines too.
Both are born entertainers, neither wants to give up the sports they love - Vince Carter just announced that he's going to play his 22nd NBA season at 42 - 'Hangtime' says he is in the shape of his life at 35 and sees no end in sight.
'Hangtime' Hines - The nickname
'Air Canada', 'Vinsanity', 'Half man half amazing' - Vince Carter has had some nicknames in his time, but Gary 'Hangtime' Hines can easily keep up in that contest.
Gary Hines became Gary 'Hangtime' Hines after his debut with the national team.
"I got that in my first ever game with the national team," he tells, "in my first game I scored 12 goals and the next day there was an article and it was 'The Hangtime Hines Show.'"
"It was basically about how fast I was, how high I jumped and how long I stayed in the air, and the defence didn't know what to do, the goalkeeper couldn't figure out where to go, so, it just took off after that, and the name kinda, made sense!"
Just a number
At 35 'Hangtime' just seems to be getting better with every year that passes, finishing his 9th season in Germany in style, a key player in a league-winning campaign.
“He is in incredible shape. He can decide games on his own. I hope he can score 1000 goals for us.” - Volker Thiel, HSC Bad Neustadt Chairmain to the Olympic Channel
With over a hundred goals in every one of his 9 seasons at the club, 'Hangtime' Hines isn't far off the 1000 goals mark for HSC.
So what keeps him motivated?
"Just the love of the sport, and the work, and the effort that I've put in, it keeps me motivated to see that a lot of the guys that I'm playing against I'm 8,10 years older and I'm still at the top of my game. They always ask me, 'How is it possible'."
In a video that Hines posted on Instagram on 1 March 2019 where he leaps clean over a standing player to shoot, a friend commented:
"Man u still fly like when you were 16.. I can barely get out of bed now!!"
I havent slowed down. - Hines
There's something deeper too, something else that won't let him slow down.
Hines has had to fight all his life get to where he is now.
Born in Prince George's county, Maryland, his mother had drug and drink addiction issues and never told his father that he had a son.
In school a young Gary carried big problems on small shoulders.
"I ended up in the system because my mother has drug and drink problems. One day no one could find her to pick me up from the babysitter so they called the state foster care system."
From there the future handball star passed from family to family until he found the one where he belonged, and their support was crucial to his success.
"I grew up in foster care, from family to family from the age of 7, up until I found my current family which I call my adopted family. I found them when I was 14 and I've been with them ever since."
"Without them I wouldn't have been introduced to handball, period, and it's because of them I'm able to play the sport because they put everything they had into helping me pay for flights, camps, anything I needed they supported me."
Hines found a family who believed in him and their support made a fulfilling life in professional sports possible.
That's why he won't let himself slow down:
"Because of them I'm able to play this sport and that's why I don't take anything for granted, I take it seriously and I'm gonna play until I can't play anymore." - Hines
When he thinks about it, sometimes Hines can't believe how far he's come.
"It doesn't seem real most of the time because I've been doing it so long it's just like, wow, I'm really doing what I set out to do, making accomplishments and living my dream."
Pride is a word that he likes to use.
"I take a lot of pride in where I come from, how I was raised and just getting to the point where I am now and I'm very prideful in steps that I took and steps that I will keep taking."
Top 3 career moments
Picking the top three moments from a long and successful career isn't easy, so he picks five:
- Being able to play professionally
- I have a few records here in Germany and with the national team
- In our first Pan American Games we came third place, bronze medal
- I scored 300 goals in one season
- I recently had my best game with the national team, I had 17 goals from 19, in one game
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LeBron James knows all about dedication too.
And what it feels like to take part in the Games and wear an Olympic gold medal.
Gary doesn't hesitate when he's asked to pick one USA athlete he'd like to play handball with.
"LeBron is my favourite player because he can play everywhere on the court, and I made my game the same way with being able to play all positions and being able to defend, pass and score at will."
"Plus a huge guy like LeBron would for sure intimidate the other team!" - Hines
"Another guy would be Russell Westbrook because I love his all out play, his passion to compete and his leave-it-all-on-the-court mindset, that's a good thing for handball."
At school when the other kids wanted to play basketball, Hines was happy to play new sports and try everything.
He hasn't changed much - now he's even become a Ninja Warrior.
Original hair, viral goals, this natural showman on the handball court is now a fan favourite off it too in Ninja Warrior Germany.
"I've been on the show three seasons and I'll be on it this year as well. And I'll be on Team Ninja Warrior this year too for the second season in Germany. I've either made it to the final or semi-finals each year."
But has he won it yet?
"Not yet, that's the goal."
Becoming a Ninja Warrior and TV celebrity in Germany is more proof of the man's many talents, but putting handball higher up the charts in his home country is a top priority.
So why has handball never taken off in such a proud Olympic country with some of the best athletes in the world?
"It's not promoted, for one," says Hines, "it's not big in college, it's not an NCAA sport, it's not a high school sport where you have your own high school teams and it's not well marketed."
So what needs to change?
"The first thing would be market it, and get our sport on TV on ESPN on Stat, highlights of athletes that are overseas and getting it in colleges, High Schools, just... exposure, more exposure." - Hines to the Olympic Channel
Tackling the problem
You don't need a miracle to turn a sport around, just look at USA Rugby 7's for example: the team went from sixth place in the World Rugby Sevens Series in March 2018 to 1st in the world just 12 months later before the showpiece Hong Kong Rugby 7's in April.
The USA narrowly lost out in the semi finals to eventual winners Fiji, but big performances confirmed them as contenders for a medal at Tokyo 2020.
One program that aims to address the handball grassroots problem is the USA Handball National Team Residency Program in the elite sports facility at the Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama.
USA handball say the program offers "the best of all training opportunities to those athletes committed to trying to achieve greatness and seeking to help the USA become competitive on the international stage."
The USA's handball flag bearer has a lot of reasons why young athletes should take up the sport:
"It's the top three sports in the States combined in one - Hines
"You have basketball, football, soccer, hockey, rugby, you have all these sports combined in one."
"You can combine so much, and it's so big, it can take you all over the world and just the impact it has on other people, just bringing them together."
"Also for fans and younger kids, they look up to new sports that they've never seen and athletes that are freaks of nature and can excel in a team sport like this."
So does veteran star Gary 'Hangtime' Hines see hope for USA handball's future in the next generation?
"I do, because I'm actually playing with the next generation [laughs] and I'm liking what I'm seeing."