Leora Jones didn’t exactly grow up playing team handball in Mount Olive, North Carolina. Yes, the place known for the pickles.
She didn’t even know anything about the game. Basketball was her first love. Jones could hold her own competing against the boys in the neighborhood, too, and once she finally convinced her parents to let her play in high school, she starred at Southern Wayne.
It wasn’t easy, either. Jones, who was raised on a farm, went to the tryouts after school one day but missed her ride home and ended up sneaking into the house and hiding under the bed until her sister convinced her to come out.
"That's how scared I was," Jones told the New York Times in 1987. "I got chewed out pretty bad, but I didn't get a spanking."
Jones-- who was nicknamed Sam because her dad had wanted a son-- went on to earn All-America honors at what was then called Louisburg Junior College. She spent her final two seasons at East Carolina, where she averaged 16 points a game and led the Pirates to a 40-17 record and berths in the 1981 AIAW Tournament and the 1982 NCAA Tournament.
An intramural softball game in 1982 changed Jones’ life, though. That’s where someone in the ECU athletic department who was a team handball aficionado saw her play and suggested she try out for the Olympic Sports Festival team.
''My first reaction was, 'Team handball? Get out of here,' '' Jones told the Times. ''I thought it was like regular handball. Anyway, I went over and watched an intramural game and I loved it. It was the same as basketball, only more physical.
“There's no limit to fouls, as long as it's done the right way. Being a tomboy all my life, that was perfect for me. The game was all about you against an opponent. You trying to stop her, her trying to stop you any way possible.”
Team handball bears a resemblance to basketball that Jones loved so much as well as sports like water polo, soccer, ice hockey and rugby. Each team consists of seven players, six in the field and one goalie. The object is to get a ball about the size of a melon in the opposing goal.
Jones enjoyed the physical nature of the game.
"It's one thing to jump and shoot in basketball and quite another to jump and shoot in team handball-- and get hit," she told Sports Illustrated in 1992. "I want opponents to say, 'Hit her. Stop her. Oh, no, here she comes again'."
And again, and again. Jones excelled at the game, playing in three Olympics and in 42 different countries. The closest she came to a medal was in 1984, two years after she took up the sport, when the U.S. finished a surprising fourth.
Four years later, Jones was the second leading scorer in the Olympics with 35 goals, although the Americans finished seventh overall. She was the U.S. Team Handball Federation Athlete of the Year three times and part of a gold medal team at the 1987 Pan American Games.
After her second Olympics, Jones decided it was time to quit playing. She went home to Mount Olive to work in a bank.
"I really thought I was retired,” Jones told the Tampa Bay Times in 1992. “I told everybody I was retired. All I really wanted to do was maybe do a little recruiting for our national team. Just promote the sport and recruit.”
But she was asked to coach the South team at the U.S. Olympic Sports Festival in 1990. Jones’ team finished second, and that loss made her realize she still had the ability – and the desire -- to help the Americans.
Jones’ final Olympics was in 1992 in Barcelona where the United States finished sixth. She was inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in 2004, which she called a “tremendous honor.
“I’ve traveled around the world and back, but it doesn’t get any better than being honored by your native state.”
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