Mention team handball in Europe or at an Olympic training camp and everybody starts talking about what an exciting sport it is. Mention it in this country and everybody says, "Say what?"

But that promises to change, at least around here.

Team handball is played on a 40- by 20- meter indoor court with seven players to a side. The object is to throw the ball past the goalkeeper into a net two meters high by three wide. The ball is similar to a volleyball but smaller and harder. The players pass and dribble the ball around defenders while driving toward the net.

Several elements of play are familiar to most Americans: Offensive players (who go on defense when possession changes) employ many basketball-style passes, picks, sets, and blockouts; the defense will often use a sagging switchoff zone. The defenders are spaced around the six- meter, semicircular goal crease. A player cannot enter the crease except when shooting, when he may jump or dive over the goal zone but must release the ball before touching the floor.

While not a violent sport, team handball certainly is physical: The players set picks that would make Wes Unseld marvel. Knee and elbow pads seem to be standard.

Passing is the most effective way to advance, since a player may take no more than three steps with the ball before dribbling or passing. As most can palm the ball, there is normally some outstanding ball-handling. Passes around the crease are of the Larry Bird/Magic Johnson type: behind-the-back, lookaway, give- and-go, dish-off.

Good court sense is essential in this game of constant action and spectacular scoring. A favorite shot calls for the shooter to dive into the crease and release the ball when close to the floor, gaining more time to pick a spot and helping draw the goalie out of position. Bounce shots also are popular, because a rising shot is much harder to block.

Recently the Greater Washington Team Handball Club played West Point at Fort Belvoir field house. The Washingtonians were savvy and experienced, while West Point was big, young, strong and disciplined. The locals are mainly military personnel, embassy staffers, and various people who were exposed to the game somewhere along the line. Army Staff Sergeant Willie Bourda is a past Olympian; Captain Jim Kline and Sergeant Jimmy Smith have played in the National Sports Festival.

Washington was slow off the mark as West Point quickly piled up a 6-1 score; it looked as though the quick young men were going to run all over the smart old guys. The Cadets played tall and denied shots with tenacious defense and used a mean fast-break offense. DC settled down and rallied to 6-4 on three quick, impressive goals, and play was even from then on.

The locals held their ground for the rest of the game (each half is 30 minutes) but couldn't gain any. Play was rough and clean.

It added up to 30-25, West Point, not a bad start for the home team, playing its first game after limited practice.

WHERE TO SEE IT The Washington club will take on the U.S. Olympic team Saturday at 3 at the Naval Academy field house in Annapolis. Admission is free and there will not soon be a better chance to see first-class team handball.

The club welcomes all spectators and is eager to hear from anybody who has experience playing or would like to learn.

ABOUT TEAM HANDBALL: Call Joe Ritchie at 635-2189 or Bob Beasley at 528-0307.