David Fink is a local legend. From the downstairs courts at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, his lore soars.
“He’s been the best to ever come out of the JCC,” remarked Ronald Jacobs, a handball player from Regent Square. “We were shleppers compared to him.”
For three weeks last month, Fink was the highest ranked professional handball player on the planet, noted the World Players of Handball Foundation.
The fact that the one-time Fox Chapel resident achieved such distinction is not surprising, as athletes of all stripes have emanated from these parts, commented Anne Madarasz, director of the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum. “There is success in things that we know about, but there’s also success in all sorts of sports that we don’t know about, where people are competing and achieving.”
Fink’s rise to the top, which ultimately concluded with a season-ending rank of No. 2, echoed the journey of former Jewish athletes.
“Before me, there were a bunch of great Jewish handball players,” noted Fred Lewis, who in 1981 was also ranked No. 1.
Between 1955 and 1969, Jimmy Jacobs, a Jewish American athlete, won every national handball competition he entered, as well as six doubles championships alongside Marty Decatur, another Jewish handball player.
Around that time, between 1966 and 1970, Paul Haber, a Jewish handball player, was Four-Wall Singles Champion. And even earlier, from the 1940s through the 1960s, Vic Hershkowitz won 23 national amateur titles.
What Fink’s ranking represents is the end of “a drought,” said Lewis. And “it’s been about time,” added the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame inductee.
Since achieving such a distinguished spot, Fink was asked about his place within the corps of great Jewish handball players. “Those guys have so many national championships, it’s an honor to be mentioned among those guys,” responded the now-Tucson, Ariz., resident.
Whether Fink wants to include himself in the group or not, there is a definite legacy of top Jewish handball players.
Within the Handball Hall of Fame, half of the inductees are Jewish. That “shows how prominent Jewish players have been in the sport,” noted Fink, who serves as announcer and senior writer of World Players of Handball Live TV, as well as head of the program’s Junior Events.
Reflecting on a journey that included many stops at the JCC, Fink has “reached the pinnacle,” said Jacobs.
But with acclaim comes admission, from Fink, that other Jewish athletes could potentially achieve similar results if not for several reasons.
With regards to handball, the physical expansion of Jewish Community Centers has introduced would-be players to other means of exercise and diminished the prospective pool. “Starting in the 1960s and ’70s, people started getting into weightlifting and aerobics and away from sports [like] handball,” which was “very big back then.”
Also, “Jews are kind of pushed toward education and career, and that halts a lot of top would-be Jewish athletes. There is a focus on college and graduate school, and it is not as acceptable to pursue a career in professional sports,” said the decorated competitor, who also excels in tennis and golf. Yet, even despite such obstacles, “I don’t think there’s anything that would stop Jewish kids from becoming professional athletes.”
In Fink’s case, it was his parents who largely demonstrated what he could become. He is quick to note that his father, Rodney Fink, taught him the game, and that his mother, DeDe Fink, was a “two-time women’s state handball champion in 1981 and 1982.”
But also important is his connection to Israel, said the talented athlete.
“I spent a week in Israel last year on a JNF volunteer vacation and attended the AIPAC conference last month.”
While the latter was spent with his father and sister (Julie Paris), both of Pittsburgh, the former, which happened to be the professional player’s first visit there, was an almost indescribable experience, he added.
“I felt like a different person the second I touched down at Ben Gurion. From that point forward, I just became such a proud Zionist.”
Through monumental life experiences, the past year has been extremely satisfying, said Fink.
“I take a lot of pride in being Jewish and accomplishing this great season I had as a Jew.”
>> David Fink will return to Pittsburgh July 8-9 for the Rodney Fink Classic. The handball tournament will feature top players in a two-day competition. For information, visit wphlive.tv.
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.