Two Decades Later, Gary ‘Hangtime’ Hines Is Still Chasing His Olympic Handball Dream
by Drew Silverman
When it comes to the last two decades of U.S. handball, Gary Hines has seen it all.
The 39-year-old has been a fixture on the U.S. handball scene since he was a teenager. He has played on the men’s junior and senior national teams, and he’s represented Team USA at the Pan American Games dating back to 2003.
The only significant accomplishments that Hines hasn’t achieved — at least not yet — are winning a world championship and putting the “USA” across his chest in Olympic competition.
Still, though, there’s time.
The Pan American Games Santiago 2023 are taking place Oct. 20-Nov. 5, with Team USA among eight nations competing in Santiago, Chile, for both a gold medal and an automatic berth to the Olympic Games Paris 2024.
Hines is heading into the Pan Am Games as confident as ever.
“We probably have the best team since we’ve had since I participated in the Pan American Games in 2003,” Hines said. “We finished in third place in the ‘03 Pan Am Games, but since then it’s been a different team every year for me. But with this group of guys over the last couple of years, it’s been very promising. I’ve seen a lot of growth, a lot of maturity and also a lot of development in our sport. I think we could easily finish top three if we play our best.”
If the Americans fall short of gold in Chile, they could still qualify for Paris via a competition next spring.
The path to the next Olympics is more defined: The U.S. has a guaranteed spot at the Olympic Games LA 2028 as the host nation, although Hines might be coaching by that point.
“The Olympics has been a goal since I realized handball was an Olympic sport,” Hines said. “That’s always been a goal of mine.”
It’s hard to blame Hines for dreaming a little bit. After all, no U.S. handball team has participated in the Olympics since the last time the U.S. hosted the Summer Games — back in 1996.
“It is one of the top honors to be able to represent the United States,” Hines said, “because I realize they could pick anybody else. Any time my talents are recognized to represent my country, it’s a great honor.”
A native of Mableton, Georgia, which is just outside Atlanta, Hines originally got involved with handball through the Boys & Girls Club. Then a 14-year-old with a basketball obsession, Hines admits now that he never could have envisioned a 25-year handball career.
“It was just something else to do, something that interested me,” said Hines, who also was a track standout in high school. “It took a few people to tell me to concentrate more on handball to get me to lock into it. Three of my coaches told me, ‘You’re good at basketball, but not everyone is as good as you at handball.’”
Indeed, Hines quickly made a name for himself in his newfound sport. By 2003, he was representing the U.S. in the Pan American Games in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. And in the first game of that event, Hines scored 12 goals while awing observers with his athleticism. The next day’s newspaper proclaimed him “Hangtime Hines” — a nickname that has stuck with him ever since.
“That was my coming out party,” said Hines.
His handball journey took a major turn in 2009, when he began playing professionally in Germany. He has played there ever since, racking up a slew of highlights that included scoring 300-plus goals in a single season.
“It’s been an eye-opening experience,” Hines said of his long stint in Germany. “At first when I came over, I thought I’d make a little money, play my professional career and come back home. But as I started grasping the language and getting better, I started playing in higher leagues and other things started opening up.”
Those additional opportunities for Hines included several stints on “Ninja Warrior Germany” — and later on “American Ninja Warrior” — among other television appearances.
But clearly his primary claim to fame at this point is as “Hangtime Hines” — a handball legend in Germany and a two-decade fixture on the U.S. national team, where the young stud (once upon a time) is now the team’s oldest player.
“Some of the younger guys, I tease them a little because I’ve got a lot more endurance than them,” quipped the veteran.
Ironically, it’s that endurance that has helped Hines persevere despite certain physical attributes that the doubters have pointed to for years.
“For one, they said I’m too small,” the 5-foot-11 Hines began. “That I’m not good enough. That opponents will be too tough for me. That I wouldn’t be able to handle the contact or that I wouldn’t be able to last more than a few years.”
“And now that I’m too old,” he added, laughing. “People are saying, ‘You should think about quitting.’”
Of course, all those critics only add fuel to his fire.
“I like proving things to myself and keeping the naysayers’ mouths shut,” Hines said. “I’ve overcome adversity my whole life. Moving all the way to a different country, learning the language, getting integrated, making a name for myself. It says I’m strong-willed and I don’t give up.”