USA Team Handball News Former Kansas State ...

Former Kansas State Basketball Star Dennis Berkholtz Became The Leading Force In Developing America's First Olympic Team Handball Squad

By Larry Weigel | Oct. 07, 2020, 11:16 a.m. (ET)

Dennis Berkholtz arrived in Manhattan, Kansas by train during the fall of 1963 to enroll at Kansas State University and play basketball for K-State's legendary coach Tex Winter. Winter signed Berkholtz in his hometown of Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin to a full athletic scholarship. Later, Berkholtz came to K-State without ever setting foot on the campus. 

His high school coach, Jack Nagle, was Tex Winter’s assistant coach when Tex was the head coach at Marquette University (1951-1952). Berkholtz had other offers but put his full trust in Nagle’s recommendation that he should play for Tex. 

Coach Winter and his assistant Bill Guthridge met Berkholtz at the train station and escorted him to his K-State campus dorm room at Goodnow Hall where he met his 7’ 2” roommate Nick Pino. “I’d never been around a 7’ 2” guy before,” Berkholtz said.  “He looked like a mountain.”  

“The thing I remember most was Pino hitting his head at the top of the door  frame as we entered our dorm room,” said Berkholtz. “I tell the story that Nick slept in his bed and my bed together and I slept in his size 20+ shoe.” 

Berkholtz was a three-sport star athlete at Whitefish Bay High School in  basketball, golf, and baseball. He was the first freshman in the Milwaukee area to play on his high school varsity team where he was a starter and named to the all state team two years and voted the best high school player in the state of  Wisconsin. In 2020 he was inducted into the Whitefish Bay High School basketball Hall of Fame.

His exceptional athletic ability carried right over in college where he was a three year starter on the Kansas State varsity basketball team. “I had an advantage over most of my teammates because Coach Nagle ran Tex Winters’ Triple Post  Offense,” Berkholtz said. 

Berkholtz was a smooth ball handler and accurate passer. I told him, I’ll never forget the no-look pass he made to me when we were playing Nebraska, and I was so surprised and shocked to get the ball, I missed the layup. Berkholtz had a good laugh not remembering the situation.

Upon graduation from Kansas State in 1967, Berkholtz planned to enlist in the Marines for pilot training. But that decision changed quickly when he accepted a position with the Akron Goodyear 
semiprofessional basketball team thanks to the recommendation of Gary Williams who also was a member of the team. 

Williams played on Kansas State’s 1964 final four basketball team and was a fellow teammate when we played together on the freshmen team at K-State in 1962. Gary was an outstanding player with lots of talent. 

“With Williams and other former Division 1 collegiate stars, we really had a good team, but lost to Army in the national finals,” Berkholtz said. Berkholtz received a phone call from his roommate before the final game telling him he got drafted. Berkholtz asked, “by who”, thinking the NBA; but his roommate said, “No, the U.S. Army.”

Berkholtz spent two years in the army and said, “I wanted to do my duty and go to Vietnam.” But Berkholtz’s athletic ability caught the eye of a Captain who talked him out of going to Vietnam and made him the Athletic Director for the army brigade at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Berkholtz’s skills gained him recognition as an All-3rd Army athlete in basketball, softball, golf and volleyball. 

During the summer of 1969, Berkholtz was one of four athletes asked to come to  New York and try out for a newly ordained Olympic sport called team handball. “I declined the offer and told the officer who was head of the army sports, I don’t like handball and I’d rather run the gym where I am and hung up,” said Berkholtz.  

Then, the officer called back a few days later. “This time he reminded me I was in the army and said, 'specialist Berkholtz, you will come to New York' and that’s how my Olympic career in team handball started with the Army Champs program.”  

“I was the best player the first day, not because I was so good, but the other players lacked athletic experience and ability,” Berkholtz said. “Team handball is a basketball-like game that looks like water polo on land. After one week of training we went to Europe and would lose 33-9, which is like losing in regular basketball 55 to 10.“ 

After Berkholtz returned to the States from Europe, he traveled throughout the country and Asia, teaching team handball at U.S. army bases. “We trained at Fort Dix, New Jersey a year and a half prior to the 1972 Olympics,” Berkholtz said. “We had to relearn a sport that was played professionally in Europe and even though we were all good athletes, in this game we were just kids. As captain of the team, I learned a great lesson about losing because sometimes you just can’t win no matter how hard you try.”  

“We made it to the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany, where we won one game and lost four,” Berkholtz said. I asked about the hostage situation when a group of Palestinian terrorists killed two Israeli athletes and took nine others hostage.

“Back then in 1972, we didn’t mix with athletes like they do today. We were told to leave the Olympic village until the hostage situation was over,” Berkholtz said. “This was one of the first acts of world terrorism seen on TV and the athletes decided to go ahead with the games and play. It would be different today. Now we’d be in mourning and the Games probably would be halted, but back then, nobody knew their opponents.”

Another K-State grad Brad Schlesinger was also a member of the 1972 Olympic team handball squad. Schlesinger was a pitcher on the K-State baseball team (1966-1968) and was drafted in the army about the same time as Berkholtz.

“I went to Ft. Riley, Kansas and was assigned as a machine gunner on a helicopter unit,” Schlesinger said during a recent phone interview. “But thanks to a fellow K-State 
grad and friend Geoff McPartlin, also at Ft. Riley, I was assigned to the personnel department.” 

In the summer of 1969, protests continued throughout the country against the Vietnam War. “The Army Champs program was promoted to shine up the image of the army and have athletes compete in the 1972 Olympics,” Schlesinger said.“ I was one of the lucky three who made the cut at Ft. Riley and went to Chicago to compete against more than 80 army athletes assembled there.” 

From there, Schlesinger traveled throughout the country to three different military installations, competing against other army athletes before he made the final cut of 16 and hooked up with Berkholtz at Ft. Dix, New Jersey to prepare for the 1972 Olympic Games. 

“Walking through the opening ceremonies at the 1972 Olympics was a real thrill for me and I still have that picture on my wall of fame,” Schlesinger said. But there was an obstacle he could not overcome to join the 1976 Olympic team handball squad after practicing with them up until three weeks prior to the time they were scheduled to depart for the Montreal Games. 

“The last army player cut before the final 16 were selected on the1976 team was so upset that he complained to authorities that I had played professional baseball and didn’t meet the U.S. amateur rules in place at the time,” Schlesinger said. “The European Olympic Committee didn’t see any problem over this issue because their athletes trained and lived together as professionals representing their country.”  

“But the U.S. Olympic Committee enforced the requirement for amateur standing and removed me from the team since I had signed for one year with the Kansas City Royals baseball team prior to 1972,” said Schlesinger. 

Berkholtz became coach of the 1976 Olympic Team Handball squad. “It was quite an honor for me,” said Berkholtz. “We didn’t win because we were weekend warriors and had no chance. It wasn’t like 1972 when we were all together for a year and a half and competing.”

Prior to the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Berkholtz played a large role in bringing team handball athletes to Atlanta. He helped raise more than $1.5 million dollars for both the men’s and women’s teams where they trained in Atlanta for two years prior to the Games. “I also had my own company providing housing and tickets for corporate clients,” said Berkholtz. 

He served as President of USA Team Handball (1996-2000) and was a member of an international committee (2000-2008) representing the handball interests of USA, Canada, and Greenland. “I was hired as a ticketing consultant for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City and had a little company called “Ticket Man”, said Berkholtz. 

“I also tried my hand at professional golf attempting to qualify for the Senior Tour at age 52,” said Berkholtz. “I made it to the final round. I learned what it really takes to become a professional golfer but fell short of my goal.”  

Berkholtz has been a scratch golfer and was a member of the Kansas State golf team in the mid 1960’s. He’s won a few tournaments including being a four-time Club Champion at Ansley Golf Club in Atlanta, Georgia. 

In 2010 Berkholtz started the National Senior League (NSL), a national seniors Wii  bowling program. Wii bowling is a 2006 video game developed by Nintendo. “The idea developed as a result of having my parents in a senior living community with little to do,” Berkholtz said.  

“I was Wii bowling with my long-time fraternity friend and K-state baseball player Jim Cheatham, when we conceived the idea,” Berkholtz said. “The NSL manages two seasons of Senior Wii Bowling competition determining National Senior Champions in seven divisions based on levels of ability.”

In 2015, Berkholtz was put in charge of building the USA Beach Handball program for the women’s and men’s teams competing in international competitions. “We had talented men’s and women’s teams and won a gold medal in the Pan America Games in Venezuela (2015), a bronze medal in the 2017 Games in Oceanside, California, and won another gold in the 2019 Pan Am Games in Trinidad earning trips to the World Beach Championships in 2016 in Budapest, Hungary and 2018 in Sochi, Russia,” said Berkholtz.  

Berkholtz announced his retirement as the Director of USA Beach Handball in late 2019 to pursue new business ventures.

“I’m now in the 4th quarter of my life and want to create more programs in senior communities including a National Senior  Wii Bowling Open Championship and Senior State Cornhole Championships,” said Berkholtz.  

Berkholtz told me he is toying with the idea of creating animated games for kids teaching life lessons through sport, as we concluded the interview.

“I have been fortunate to play sports at a high level,” said Berkholtz. “My life is doing what I  want to do to mentor others and give them similar opportunities to what I have experienced.” 

Schlesinger said, “Berkholtz was the guiding light on our 1972 Olympic team in Munich the way he could dish the ball to other teammate similar to the way he led his K-State basketball team as point guard back in 1967 when I was watching him play in Ahearn Fieldhouse.”  

As Berkholtz was leaving my house after a two hour visit a few weeks ago in Manhattan, I was still thinking about that layup I missed at Nebraska after receiving his nifty no look pass. And that was more than 53 years ago. 

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