He’s a handball wizard — and he’s Jewish, too
Love of a sport is something that can be like an heirloom, passed down from parent to child. In the parent’s perfect dream, the child not only grows to love the sport, but maybe he even excels at it.
For David Fink, the sport he inherited from his dad was handball.
“My dad has always been a top player,” said Fink. “He taught me how to play when I was 3 and taught me ever since.”
The younger Fink caught the bug early, traveling with his dad to local tournaments and playing in between the games. He grew up in Fox Chapel, became a bar mitzva at Tree of Life and graduated from Shady Side Academy. All the while, he was playing handball.
Not just playing, but winning. He won nine national junior championships and is the only player to win all age divisions in every code — 1-wall, 3-wall, 4-wall — which is kind of like a tenns player winning titles on grass, clay and hardcourt.
We’re not talking a one-sport wonder here, either. Fink captained Shady Side’s golf team and even spent some time as an adult trying to become a pro golfer. He walked on to the University of Arizona tennis team.
Fink hit the pro handball tour at age 17 and rose as high as No. 10, but had to call it quits in 1998 when he had a finger amputated. The Jewish Sports Hall of Fame of Western Pennsylvania inducted him two years later.
It seemed like his handball career was over. He focused on the golf thing down in Florida for a while, but he never got handball completely out of his system, even though he took nine years off from competition.
Now, the 31-year-old is back with a vengeance, sort of the Roy Hobbs of handball. In the movie, “The Natural,” when asked why he didn’t start playing when he was younger, Hobbs says something like, “I sort of got sidetracked, but my heart was always in the game, so I decided to give it another try.”
This try is working out extremely well for Fink, who lives in Greenfield and has ceased all other activity to focus on the pro handball tour. He recently won his first Pro Stop tournament, beating the top two ranked players, and is ranked No. 6 himself. All of this begs the question: What’s a nice Jewish boy playing a sport like handball?
Actually, it’s not so strange, at least not historically. The U.S. Handball Association’s Hall of Fame is dotted with Jewish names. Jews dominated the game more than 20 years ago, Fink said. Now, Irish and Mexican players fill the rankings, but Fink is also there, carrying the torch from a bygone era.
“It’s not something that’s talked about too much, but I feel that,” he said. “A lot of the greatest champions were Jewish. I’m actually the only Jewish player in the top 20.”
To say that his dad is thrilled would be an understatement. He’s the one who taught his son the game and there likely isn’t a father anywhere who doesn’t want to see his child surpass his own accomplishments in a sport. Just ask Ken Griffey Sr. about Junior.
“He loves it; it’s great for him,” Fink said. “It’s great for me, having been able to learn from him and take it to a level he never got to. Having his support and having him watch me has been great.”
Fink is hoping people in Pittsburgh come out to watch him at the Rodney Fink Classic, a tournament he is hosting that he named after his dad. It takes place May 29 to 31 at Amerifit in the South Hills.
“I’m really excited,” Fink said. “I’ve hosted about four tournaments, but this is my first big one with all the pros. It’s an official Pro Stop tournament with the top six men and women coming to play.”
If you can’t make it to that, or another tournament, there’s a growing way to follow the sport of handball. Fink is a big part of World Pro Handball (extremehandball.org), a promotional and marketing effort to spread the word about the game. Many of the tournaments are now webcast — something Fink says is a big step forward for the sport. So has the involvement of former NFL quarterback Jake Plummer and the return of David Chapman, the top player in the country, from a four-year layoff.
They all will come together in June for U.S. National Championships in California. Fink has had the date — June 8 — circled on his calendar for a long time. Winning that Pro Stop tournament in April filled him with confidence, but what he strives for is being able to play at that level consistently, to sit atop the sport’s rankings.
“My goal the last couple years has been to win nationals,” he said. “That’s why I stopped doing everything else and concentrated on handball. It’s what I’ve working for my whole life, really, but especially in the last year.”
(Jonathan Mayo, The Chronicle’s sports columnist and a staff writer for MLB.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)