The stories out of Boston and St. Pete and Charlotte were wild—and, to some, encouraging. Paul Haber, handball's singles champion on exhibition tour, was drunk out of his mind. Paul hadn't been sober since he won the title last March, and he really wasn't sober then. He was drinking beer faster than Milwaukee could brew it, and sucking up cigarette smoke at the rate of four or five packs a day and not getting any sleep.
Aha, said the sport's devout leadership, there's this National Invitational Tournament in Birmingham, so let's gather all the top guns—Jimmy Jacobs and Stuffy Singer and Billy Yambrick—and let's go down there and bust this freewheeling, swinging cat who gives the game such a bad image. We need him like we need square handballs. He's been swinging, and he's ready to be taken. Let's get some more top guns, like Pat Kirby, who seems to get to Haber with his Scotch serve, and tough little Lou Russo, who'd rather whip Haber than eat, and....
So they all gathered in that smoky city in Alabama last week, hard-muscled, clear-eyed young men who can take that little black ball and shoot the eyes out of a Kentucky squirrel at 50 yards, and if Paul Haber came out alive, well, O.K.—just as long as he came out shot down in the eyes of the public. "Ho ho," said the dedicated, "have we got him now."
"Ho ho, like hell they have," snarled Haber, setting up permanent office in the dimly lit bar of the Cafe Italiano just across the street from the tournament headquarters. "Just let all them hypocrites try. Even when I'm drunk, I'm still 3-to-1 to beat any of them."
For the last four years Haber has been the bad noodle in handball's soup. For three of the four years he has been the singles champion, and that means he has been the sport's public image. "And it hurts when your public image is a guy who smokes and drinks and raises Cain," say the purists. "Why couldn't he have taken up bowling or Ping-Pong?"
On Thursday, the day before the tournament opened, Haber worked his way through, by his count, 28 cans of beer. "Man," he told delighted audiences, "this exhibition tour has been something, just one great party after another. In Boston I became the first guy ever thrown out of Bachelors III. A friend of mine poured me on a plane he thought was going to Chicago, and at 5 the next morning I wound up in St. Louis. I couldn't figure out what happened. Hey, where's the bartender? I'm out of beer. Who's got a match?"
A few of the handballers heard Haber was in the bar and they dropped in—not to drink, certainly, just to say hello. One was Stuffy Singer, the 1968 singles champion, and one of the big favorites to gun down Haber.
"Hey, Stuffy," yelled Haber, who was now behind the bar pouring drinks. "I can't wait until tomorrow because I get better all the time."
"That's not only a bad line," said Stuffy, grinning, "it's not even original."
Haber was undaunted. "You know, I was trying to figure out who is the greatest Jewish athlete of the last 50 years. You know what? It's got to be me. No one has ever done what I've done. Gimme another beer."
Singer shook his head. "Sandy Koufax was the greatest. But if you want to compare records, I've got more claim to the title than you. I was a national junior table tennis champion. I was a Los Angeles tennis champion at 15, and I never even played tennis until seven days before the tournament. I was an all-league quarterback in high school. I weighed 135 pounds, and I couldn't throw, but I was great. I was best running for my life. I played second base on a semipro team in front of Jim Lefebvre."
Haber frowned. "Aw, forget all that. I'm still the greatest." He retreated to a piano, which he first played and then later danced on. "Look at the way he attacks life," said Dr. Steve August who a few days later would lose to Dr. Claude Benham in the semifinals. "Have you ever seen anyone who tried to cram so much life into so little time?"
At noon Friday Haber was back in the bar. In seven hours he was scheduled to play Jimmy Leahy, a strong Irish kid out of Chicago. "Man, I'm hung over," moaned Haber. "I don't think I got any sleep. Give me a tomato juice and a beer." A few hours and a few beers later he left for the airport to pick up Paul Morlos, his doubles partner and a close friend who had flown in from California to watch the tournament. At the airport they had five drinks, and Haber said things were getting a little fuzzy. "Must have drank them too fast," he said. "Go ask that kid—what's his name Leafy?—if he minds going three games tonight. I feel too terrible to win in two. Oh, Lord, my head."
If it had gone three games, Leahy would have been delighted. As it was, Haber won 21-6 and then 21-5. The execution was swift and brilliant. Haber was merciless, blasting Leahy into quick frustration—once even bouncing a point off the young Irishman's head—and then savagely axing him into helpless submission.
An hour later he was back in the bar. "I've never seen such stamina," said Bob Williams, the owner. "And he sure loves to party—for some reason."
"Hey, Bob," Haber yelled, "bring a couple of beers, my mouth is dry."
Three young customers walked in. "Hey," Haber said, "why didn't you guys bring some girls?"
"They're seminary students," said Williams.
"Well, what are they doing in here?" said Haber. "I've already drunk up everything there is to drink."
Saturday they played two matches, one in the morning, one at night. Haber showed up for his morning match with Marty Decatur looking terrible. "I think I'm going to die," he said. He beat Decatur 21-19 and then 21-8. "I've got to have a beer and a nap or I won't even be alive to play tonight," Haber said.
He was to play Singer, who had just won a tough match with Pat Kirby. "I'm afraid I've got to pick Haber," said Jimmy Jacobs, who exchanges no love with the champion. Jacobs had pulled a muscle in his left thigh and had to forfeit his second match. "Stuffy is just too nice a guy to be able to beat Paul. He's got just as much ability, but Haber is ruthless. What Stuffy has is integrity. He's steeped in integrity."
"What about Haber's personality?" someone asked.
"When Paul is in there, he's in a war. He hangs his emotional hat on that ball. It's all he has in life. Handball."
Stuffy Singer came by, and he and Jacobs went to lunch. "You can forget about me being a nice guy out there," said Singer. "It depends upon who you play. I won't be a nice guy against Paul."
Jacobs looked at Stuffy and sighed. "Look," he said, "I want to tell you something, and keep a blank mind. You've got to use a three-wall serve against Paul. That's what Kirby used, and he beat him their last six matches. One more thing—you haven't been playing the ball off glass too well. But none of us has. So you've got to play the ball down the left, to his weaker hand. You must not hit the ball down the right. And insist upon a referee who can't be intimidated. You know how Paul is, he has them frightened before he gets on the court."
"Don't worry," said Stuffy, "I'll beat him."
It began that way, with Singer building a 13-1 lead in the first game. But that soon passed. Haber won the first game 21-15, the second 21-8. He played brilliantly and ruthlessly; Singer had played only brilliantly.
"And you know what Stuffy did?" Haber complained a few minutes after the match ended, "he came off the court first and he stole all the Gatorade. I've got to get a drink."
He did. Beer, of course. And then a few more beers, and a few more, and finally, deep into the night, someone asked if he wasn't going to play the final the next day.
"Are you kidding," said Haber. "I'll be there even if I'm drunk. And it's still no contest."
At 4 in the morning he quit drinking. He was up at 10, his hands shaking, his eyes bloody. "Here goes evil against good," he said, grinning. "And I guarantee you evil is going to win."
It was almost a disaster. His opponent was Dr. Claude Benham, a big, strong and clean-living All-Ivy quarterback out of Columbia. Dr. Benham started strong and won the opening game 21-18. But in the second game Haber went to work both on the doctor and the referee, Billy Yambrick. Between points he stomped the court like an enraged lion. It was nip and tuck to the end, with Haber winning 21-18. Then, with the seemingly inexhaustible Haber actually gaining strength and the clean-living doctor flagging badly, the third game developed into no contest, 21-13.
Haber headed for the bar to do a little serious drinking. He said: "Guess I've earned a beer."
Almost sober, Haber (left) beats Leahy.
At his favorite Birmingham bar Haber, with friend, enjoys a little prematch tune-up.