David Chapman, one of the greatest handball players of all time, died this week. He was 42.
A couple of months ago, an announcement popped up online that made the handball world sit up and take notice. David Chapman, one of the greatest players of all time, was confirmed to enter an outdoor tournament at the Stratosphere Hotel, on the strip in Las Vegas.
He was known simply as TGO (“The Great One”), was back and, with pictures soon emerging showing him fighting fit, the handball community – a secret society of sorts which, surprisingly, boasts seven times as many registered members as squash in this country – was buzzing.
Chapman, a Californian child prodigy who became the biggest name in the sport and a nine-time US champion, would excel in the tournament, throwing hands with the younger generation, including top east coast professional One Wall players, tying them in knots with his unique, methodical style.
And then, on Wednesday last, came the earth-shattering news that he was gone. That morning, word slowly began to filter through that, aged just 42, Chapman had passed away suddenly at his home in St Louis, Missouri.
The outpouring of grief in handball circles mirrored that seen 15 months earlier when another of the game’s greatest icons, Michael ‘Ducksy’ Walsh, passed away aged 50.
Many simply refused to believe it, a natural reaction to news that just made no sense.
By that evening, his passing had been confirmed, although at the time of writing, pending the results of autopsy, no cause of death has been revealed.
That such mystery surrounds his demise is almost in keeping with the Chapman legend – his uncanny anticipation, his nerveless poise and ability to whip elite athletes while not always even in top shape himself had seen him attain almost mythical status in the game.
“Some people say it’s a sixth sense but I don’t know about that. I think it comes from spending so much time on the court,” he told Sports Illustrated for a 1995 feature about his astonishing rise to the top of the sport.
Chapman, whose ancestors came from Kilnaleck in rural Cavan, not far from Brady’s home in Mullahoran, started playing at the age of three, whacking a tennis ball against the door of the family garage with his Dad, Fred, himself a champion. By age seven, he had entered and won his first tournament.
His trajectory was freakish. The first player to win all five junior age groups in the US National Championships (U11 to U19), he regularly competed a division or two above his age grade during that run.
At 14, in 1989, he won the national amateur championship, beating the best players – of all ages - in the country outside of the professional ranks; three years later, he became the youngest ever winner of the Pro Singles.
A former juvenile state champion in tennis, Chapman was almost robotic in his speech patterns, weighing up each word.
At a time when the sport was becoming more explosive, with a shoot-or-be-shot attacking style pioneered by the great Mexican Naty Alvarado taking over from the old percentage game, Chapman was a throwback.
When he was a kid, his best friends were the other handball players at the Long Beach Athletic Club, men in their 30s, 40s and 50s.
He played that way, too, conserving energy and dictating the pace by perfecting a frustrating, slow lob serve which clung to the sidewall and dead-weight dump shots which neutralised the young, powerful gunslingers he faced.
“On the court, he is described as the youngest 50-year-old around,” noted Sports Illustrated.
Asked once for one piece of advice for young players, Chapman summed his philosophy in three words: “Don’t power serve.”
When he attended South West Missouri State on a handball scholarship, he hoovered up titles. Once, he went target shooting there on his coach Tommy Burnett’s rural farm.
Chapman, who had never held a gun before, quizzed Burnett on the rifle’s mechanics. Then he shouldered it and hit the target repeatedly.
“I’ve been shooting for years but the kid out-shot me,” Burnett would recall.
It all added to the aura. A rumour went around that he was a member of Mensa and that he spent four hours a day in the court, practising shots.
Whether they was true or not didn’t matter. It all added to the legend – particularly in this country, where he wowed the crowds several times - and spooked other players.
His defining characteristic was supreme self-confidence.
“Looks-wise I’m not as fit as any of the other pros on the tour but in terms of conditioning, I feel like I’m in the top three,” he once said, when asked the secret of being able to beat the top players while carrying extra weight.
While conservative on court, he loved to party and to gamble - he made annual trips to Vegas – and he was outspoken and controversial, too.
He once told the official American handball publication, at a time when Paul Brady was becoming the first Irish player to gate-crash the top five of the rankings, that he was “the luckiest player in the world” and would be “found out”.
When this correspondent interviewed him for a now-defunct handball website a few years back, he raked over the coals of an old defeat to an Irish champion of the 1990s, Walter O’Connor, claiming to have been jet-lagged when O’Connor beat him in the shock of the decade in Croke Park in 1996, throwing slurs which eventually resulted in a threat of legal action and saw the article pulled.
O’Connor’s upset win over Chapman in that Irish Nationals almost spun the handball world off its axis.
At the time, ‘DC’ seemed close to unbeatable. In 2004, a flood of money came into the sport, with a $135,000 prize fund raised for an event in Seattle called, with typical American understatement, the Ultimate Handball Showdown in February of that year.
Chapman, in his prime, was overwhelming favourite to take the $50,000 first-place cheque, the most lucrative in the sport’s history, but was beaten, for the first time, in the final by Paul Brady.
And while he defeated the Irishman for $20,000 a week later in Alaska and franked that form at that summer’s US Nationals in Portland, Brady was coming on strong.
Chapman knew it. The following Spring, he announced his retirement, citing disillusionment with the game (the expected big money tournaments had dried up after the optimism of those opening events).
“I didn’t have the love for the game anymore,” he would later explain.
“It’s really hard to stay on top year after year when everybody is gunning for you. I lost that edge and didn’t want to go in there half-assed and drop way down the rankings and that’s kind of why I decided to give it up.”
Others suspected that he knew Brady’s time had arrived and Chapman had begun to slip physically. The skinny, waif-like kid who emerged to take the no 1 ranking and defeat the barrel-chested John Bike in a nationally televised clash in 1993 disappeared as he aged.
Regardless, Brady took over, winning seven straight titles, beating Chapman – now out of retirement in his mid-30s and predicting success with typical bombast – in the finals of 2009 and 2010.
The following season, Brady missed out due to a broken finger and Chapman, inevitably, won his ninth after a gap of seven years. It was to be his last Major success.
In recent years, while his name was still box office, Chapman’s participation had been more sporadic.
Every now and then, a video would emerge online of him competing – and almost invariably winning – in one-off money games but the third coming as an all-conquering force on the indoor court coming did not materialise.
Players from all over Ireland and the States took to social media in recent days to pay tribute to a player whose court craft and control defined an era.
Brady’s own words were short, simple and most powerful of all.
“My toughest ever opponent,” he said. “And my idol.”
That said it all.
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