Every sport has icons; players whose stature is greater than the game itself. They transcend the game by embodying the best qualities that sport has to offer. Fred Lewis is an icon in the world of handball. He is a six time USHA 4 wall national champion, tied with another icon, Jim Jacobs.
Fred Lewis is the measuring stick for consistency and endurance in the game; while he played during the era of ‘Shoot for Dough’ in the 80’s, an era ushered in by Naty Alvarado Sr, Fred continued on his successful path using percentage handball, will and desire.
His influence on the game is still evident today in players such as Paul Brady, Emmet Piexoto, Tony Healy and Eoin Kennedy. His impact on the game and the psychology of the sport is a testament to his status all one of the all time greats.
Scott: How did you get your start in handball?
Fred: I grew up in New York and both of my parents played handball. I played at Castle Hill in the Bronx. It was very user friendly. I had a group of friends that used to play, which created a very fun yet competitive environment. I grew up playing 1 wall and played in my first tournament when I was eight years old. 1 wall was huge because there were courts all over the city and it was cheap to play.
Scott: Growing up in the 1 wall community of New York, with its great atmosphere must have been amazing.
Fred: It was. We also played 4 wall at Castle Hill, but on the oversized courts they had that were 46 x 23. That’s how you got stronger, by playing on those oversized courts. You had to develop a strong back wall game and ceiling shot to win. I then played at the University of Miami and won 2 collegiate titles. I have attended the collegiates for the last four years as a coach and let me tell you the collegiate program has really taken off – it is the best tournament of the year. The problem with handball is keeping the players after they graduate from college. I went to the USHA with an idea of a graduate division at the nationals each year. Handball is a great fraternity because of the camaraderie that you find within the game. That camaraderie is the glue that ultimately keeps people playing and involved in the game. Having a graduate division at the nationals would help tournament numbers yes, but also serve the greater purpose of keeping those friendships alive. There are 100 women that play in the collegiates, but get lost after graduation. Imagine what could happen for the game if we kept those friendships kindled!
Scott: How did your goals change throughout your career?
Fred: My goals never really changed, I always wanted to win. I was a very competitive kid, and that is something that I always kept with me. I get that from my parents; they were both very skilled and competitive athletes so coming from that upbringing instilled that in me. My dad was involved in Track, Basketball and even amateur boxing but my mom made him give that up. I was on the swim team in high school but after the last meet I gave it up because I had developed a love for handball.
Scott: Who where your handball heroes?
Fred: Well the best 1 wall players played in New York, the Oberts, Vic Hershowicz. They had so many national titles they had established themselves as the best. As for 4 wall and 3 wall, Marty Decatur was great. He was a bout eight years older than me, and he was the best to come out of our group. He was a great 3 wall singles player, and a terrific 4 wall doubles player winning 6 doubles titles with Jim Jacobs. Paul Haber was another guy that amazed me. I first saw him in 1969, the year I won the collegiates and I was amazed at his control. He changed the complexion of the game. He had great defense and adequate offense. The thing that Jacobs, Oscar Obert and Haber all did was they forced players to have two good hands, turned handball into a more ambidextrous game. Naty Alvarado Sr and Denis Hofflander came along and took it to a whole new level, commanding a two handed offensive game. Someone comes along, does something smarter than everyone else, and they are all sure to follow. Paul Brady for example caused other players to be in super shape. He plays at a relentless pace. That’s the key to training; being in top physical condition gives you the confidence to win. you know that no matter how intense the match, the other guy will give in to fatigue before you will. You also mustn’t be afraid to lose. When you are afraid to lose you become nervous and disrupt the rhythm of your game and shots. When you combine the mental toughness, not being afraid to lose with superb physical conditioning, then you have the greatest chance at winning.
Scott: Who was your toughest opponent?
Fred: The top players of the 70’s were a great crew. We were all really competitive and wanted to beat each other every time out. Naty Alvarado Sr was probably the toughest. We met in the finals of pretty much every tournament that we entered. We had a great rivalry.
Scott: I remember reading of a nationals final between you two where he won the first game, but then you went on to beat him 21-2, 11-1. He had already won three national titles at that point, and you five. How were you able to dominate the match so effectively against such a great opponent?
Fred: That match I really went with shooting everything, something that wasn’t really my style. I was just in what athletes call ‘the zone’. I was in a really good zone those games. I think that came from the 11 consecutive national finals I was in; I had a lot of confidence in my game and the nerves of playing in the national finals had long since passed. Not only was Naty my toughest competition, he was also the best of all time. He was a great competitor. He won the most nationals and the most pro stops. Absolutely no one was able to do what he did on the court. The old timers say Jacobs would have beaten Alvarado, but I say that out of 10 matches Naty would have won the majority. Dennis Hofflander was probably my second toughest competition. He was also incredibly competitive, had a great off hand, probably better than Naty. The difference was that he lacked the serve that Naty had. Naty knew he could get 4 or 5 aces a game with his serve, where Dennis was just putting the ball in play.
Scott: What was your most satisfying victory?
Fred: My most defining victory was over Dennis in the finals of the Na’s in ‘75. back then all three games were to 21 points. I lost the first game 19-21, won the second 21-20 and won the third 21-17. the match lasted almost four hours. It was pretty much a last man standing match. If you watch the tape it wasn’t the greatest exhibition of handball, but it was, for me, about the will to win. We went toe to toe for 4 hours, and I pulled it out. Handball is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. There are always swings in momentum. When the stakes are high, you’ve got to keep yourself focused at the highest level of intensity. Brady has that intensity because he is in the best shape. Handball is a craft for him. At the US Open this Year, Sean Lenning played well enough to beat him, but Paul simply refused to lose.
Scott: How does the pro competition compare to the tour when you were on it?
Fred: Well, let's use the US Open because that is the best pro tournament. This last one we had was one of the most intense tournaments from the quarters on that I have ever seen. When I played, the competition and intensity was high. In the first pro tournament ever, there was the ‘Super 8’, the top eight finishers from the previous nationals. Every match went three games. So the intensity hasn’t changed. The game itself has evolved. It is extremely disappointing to see a lack of a tour, and no commitment to it. I hope that Dave can raise the funds to showcase a pro tour. It is important to have one in order to showcase the sport, and give the kids learning the game something to shoot for. People eat stuff like that up, the pro tour, the rankings, stuff like that. It needs to be there.
Scott: The Charlie Club in Chicago had one of the toughest glass courts to play on. How did you handle it?
Fred: Well, it had glass from floor to ceiling, so it was dark. But the more you play on glass in general, the more you get used to it. Its psychological. You have to play on it and develop confidence. The best players adapt. It was tough, but you have to raise your level of awareness.
Scott: I read in an article that you helped Dave Chapman before his match with Bike in the infamous Bike-Chapman showdown.
Fred: yea, his Dad sent him to me over a weekend when he was around 16. he did something’s I liked, some things I didn’t. David never developed a great serve, but compensated. He would pin you into the corners with it, force you to take it at odd angles. He didn’t want the serve to get him into trouble, a ploy similar to the one Paul Haber used. David had the best back wall game I ever saw, and great anticipation. He really knew his opponents and their tendencies. He knew what they were going to do, and just reacted to it. The guys he played never really changed their shots enough to beat him.
Scott: So you are now coaching at the University of Arizona. What is your coaching philosophy?
Fred: it all depends on the skill. If starting a player from scratch, I want to teach proper mechanics, accuracy and power. Teach them offense first, then defense. People could argue that defense should come first, but I say that without offense, defense doesn’t matter. I like to focus on court position as well. Luis Moreno is good at getting in position – when he does, few people on this planet can beat him. He just needs to be consistent with it. The main key is keeping the kids playing, It important for them because of the friendships and for things like scholastic opportunities.
Scott: So what are you up to now?
Fred: I am working as an accountant in the capacity of Senior Vice President of Finance for a real estate development company. I retired as an instructor at the University of Phoenix two years ago. I never like to do things that are strictly by the book. I am re-marrying my ex wife, we reconciled after 16 years! I am extremely committed to Yes 2 Kids, a local non-profit that uses handball as a vehicle to improve the lives of children. I raise money so that the kids can travel to tournaments, compete and develop everlasting friendships. Money is also raised to help with tuition costs.
Scott: Congrats! That’s amazing. Last question is name association:
Naty Alvarado Sr: greatest player of all time
Dennis Hofflander: most intense competitor of all time
John Bike: best ambassador for handball
Jamie Parades: great natural handball talent, sweetheart of a guy
Bob Kendler: did more for handball than anyone else, ever
Paul Haber: greatest will to win, had to kill him 10 times to beat him
Marty Decatur: all class
Ken Smolack: best friend
Fred Lewis: A handball warrior that knows the meaning of giving back