USA Team Handball News Passing The Torch: A...

Passing The Torch: A Conversation With 1996 Olympian Darrick Heath And Gary Hines

Dec. 29, 2020, 8 a.m. (ET)

When the U.S. takes the court in Egypt for the 2021 IHF Men’s World Championships, the team will include the leadership and experience of veteran Gary Hines, who has played on the Men’s National Team for the last 17 years.

Despite this being his first World Championship experience, Hines has no better mentor to provide him with advice: 1996 Olympian Darrick Heath, who played in three World Championships: 1989 in Austria, 1993 in Sweden, and 2001 in France.

Heath boasts an extraordinary handball resume, playing overseas for five different clubs at the top level and competing in three Pan American Games, three Pan American Championships, and three World Championships for USA Team Handball.

Heath and Hines met 20 years ago, at the Boys and Girls Club of Metro Atlanta. The pair briefly played as teammates for Team USA before Heath went on to serve as a coach and influential mentor figure for Hines. Read our Q&A with the two below:

Darrick, I know that you have been a mentor for Gary and wanted to learn more about that origin story. How did you two first meet? 

Darrick: My first introduction to Gary was through the Boys and Girls Club of Metro Atlanta, 20 years ago. I was deeply involved with the handball programs in the Atlanta area, and Gary came to one of our club programs through the Boys and Girls Club. He was 16 at the time and I remember telling him, ‘My goodness, you jump like a grown man!’

Just watching him grow as a player and watching how he handled himself on and off the court, is really a true testament to how an athlete should be. I had the very unique pleasure to both play with him and coach him, first as an assistant coach and then as head coach of the national team. I coached him for the Pan American Championships and Pan American Games.

Gary was aware that I played overseas so he knew it was a place that he could go beyond the U.S., so to speak. I think it was very important for him and other young athletes from the inner city to be able to travel and see the world and go places that they may have heard about, through magazines or television. Gary is the perfect ambassador of what could come out of that.

Gary: I met Darrick when I started out learning the sport. I saw him play when I was on the development teams and Men’s Junior National Team. He was one of the players I looked up to. I was like ‘whoa – I want to play like that one day.’

We ended up being teammates at one point, when I was the youngest guy on the team. Darrick also coached me when I was playing on a club team and the national team. He’s my mentor and helped me become the player I am now. He let me know that it's okay to be the individual that I should be on a team, and to not shy away from that. 

Gary, how was the experience of playing with Darrick and older athletes who you looked up to? Was it intimidating to be the youngest on the team?

Gary: It wasn't actually intimidating, I feel like I fit right in, because I put in the work like everybody else and earned it. Every time I stepped on the court, it wasn't intimidating, it was just a place to be myself and be free without outside distractions. For me it was fun and challenging to prove that they made the right decision by putting me on the team. I wanted to show that I was there to keep up with everyone, no matter how small or young I was compared to them. 

Darrick, what the experience of coaching Gary like?

Darrick: The experience of coaching Gary was a true pleasure. He always did whatever was requested and he was a great teammate. He led by his actions, which is the most important thing, and is a fantastic ambassador for our sport. As far as his athletic ability and knowledge of the game, I knew the sky was the limit. I knew he was going to be a very special handball player.

In the U.S. you're starting to learn handball at such a late age, you don't have time to move around to different positions. In Europe, it's a bit different – you have a distinct position, but you play everywhere to develop a broader skillset. I thought it was my duty to pass onto Gary what I learned in Europe. I wanted to make sure he was able to play everywhere, including goalkeeper. As far as coaching Gary, it was a pleasure. It still is a pleasure, watching him develop into the man and athlete that he is.

Gary, what characteristics of Darrick's game initially inspired you?

Gary: From first glance, it would be Darrick’s jumping ability and his finesse. He brings his own unique style with passing, faking and one-on-one moves. Darrick has a basketball background and I have that as well, so it’s like watching him on a basketball court, but doing handball moves. Darrick was able to play anywhere on the court. He's on another level most of the time and everybody watches him, wondering what he's going to do next.

Darrick, how was the 2001 World Championship experience? How does it make you feel knowing Gary will be competing in a World Championship as well soon?

Darrick: In 2001, it felt like the whole world stopped for that one event. One thing I remember from the World Championship is that I wanted to prove I belonged. It was the opportunity to play with the best in the world, show what I've learned, and prove that we do have handball in North America and we belong there.

It was one of the greatest experiences, seeing crowded arenas, people with their faces painted, cameras everywhere, TV coverage, etc. I was very fortunate and blessed to have the opportunity to go to three World Championships. I'm so happy for these athletes who are going to go because they're going to realize that their hard work really does have meaning. To be able to compete, score, get a stop, block a shot – each step they make at the World Championship is a win. 

The night before we played Japan,  I slept in my uniform. I wanted to be ready and that's how ready I was. My teammates thought I was crazy, but the next day, I had the best output that I've ever had. I had that mindset of wanting to prove that you’re an elite handball player and the World Championship is the best place to prove it. 

Gary, how does it make you feel to be competing in this historic World Championship, the first one that the United States has been a part of in two decades?

Gary: I've been playing on the national team now for 17 years – I’ve put in so much hard work and been through so many different teams and coaches. I've been playing in Germany for the last 12 years, making a name for myself and this is finally a chance to play against the best of the best. I've been playing against good players, but finally I will get to be on that stage and have the whole world tune in and see me do what I do.

That's the best feeling to go against players that I've seen on TV here in Germany and be mentioned in the same arena as them. Just to compete with the best of the best is an exciting opportunity because we have waited a long time for our chance to do so. I'm looking forward to the competition and making an even bigger name for USA Team Handball.

Darrick, with your background and your experience at the World Championships, do you have any specific advice for Gary?

Darrick: The World Championship pace is second to none. It's not only the biggest event as far as handball is concerned, so it is serious business. I would tell Gary to be himself and listen to his instincts. Do the things that you have been training for. Make sure to take care of your time and your game preparation. There are going to be a lot of people who will be trying to get your time or attention. Just remember why you're there. This is your time. This is what you've been waiting 17 years for. Enjoy it – this is your Olympics. 

Gary, we are in a difficult bracket for Egypt 2021 and most of our athletes are on the younger side. Do you have any thoughts on how you will be approaching your role as one of the veterans on the team?

Gary: To me, it doesn't matter the age of the player. What matters is what you put into the game and what you are putting onto the court. On previous teams, I've been almost 10 years older than a lot of the guys. They see how hard I work when I'm in practice or in games. They're amazed that I'm still able to run circles around them.

My outlook is to outwork everyone else and have my teammates try to keep up with me. If you can outwork me, that’s good. I feel that when everybody is giving that much effort, you can't be mad with the outcome of the game. As long as we are strong as a team, I would just say to take those small moments we have to play together and try to form this playing bond as quickly as possible. I want to go out there and show that the U.S. is here to stay and shouldn’t be overlooked anymore.

Darrick, do you have any final thoughts on the upcoming World Championships, this opportunity for Gary?

Darrick: The torch has been passed. When Gary was talking about being one of the oldest players on the team and having younger teammates not be able to outwork you, that brought back memories from when I was one of the oldest on the team and working as hard as I possibly could to be the best possible version of myself. At the end of the day, that's all you can ask for. My being involved with USATH really is not only a joy, but also an honor. It is an honor to represent our country and organization. I'm a lifer as far as I'm concerned.

As far as preparation for the upcoming World Championship goes, Gary, you have arrived. All of your hard work have gotten you to this point. This is the reward to show you that hard work does pay off.

Gary, do you have any final thoughts on the upcoming World Championships and the impact that Darrick has had on you?

Gary: One of the highlights of working with Darrick for me was when we had a Pan American Qualification Tournament. Darrick, who was coaching us, wrote a message to each player on a piece of paper. Mine said the words ‘green light’. In that game, the team was down and I scored five goals in a row to bring us back and help us win. Ever since then, I think about it and remember to have that scoring mentality and go all out, no matter what.

For me, it’s a pleasure to see everything come full circle. I started out watching Darrick and admiring his game. Then we became teammates on the same court. Then Darrick began coaching me. He passed the torch and I've been taking this game and running as far as I can with it. What it's done for me personally has just been amazing.

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Gary Hines