Up Against the Wall

Handball, the City’s Most Popular Game

Ghetto President dived for a ball streaking out of bounds, got his finger tips on it, and just before tumbling to the asphalt, put up a beautiful shot that turned Ace's mug redder than the Jack of Diamonds.

"Goddammit!" barked Ace, jumping in the face of his teammate, Rich Fabre. "When you got a man down," Ace reminded Fabre, "you kick that man! Don't ever let him get up!"

With that remark, the boo birds began flying around the West 4th Street courts on Sunday and a murmur rose from the crowd that had gathered to watch and, for some, to bet on the proceedings. But Ace and Fabre quickly got their act together and defeated Ghetto President and his teammate, Donald "Jevon" Whitten, 25-17.

Talkin’ smack: Rookie displays his championship form.
photo: Michael Kamber
Talkin’ smack: Rookie displays his championship form.

"Hey, I'm just trying to let my partner know I got his back," Ace said after the match. Ace, a/k/a Robert Acevedo, a 40-year-old Brooklynite with long hair and a short temper, summed up with, "It's all in good fun."

But it wasn't for Margie, a courtside spectator. Margie lost a $10 bet on Ghetto President, figuring a guy sporting a diamond earring, baggy blue jeans, a backward baseball cap, and his nickname tattooed across his washboard stomach just couldn't lose.

But he did.

"Ghetto President?" asked Margie, as she handed the 10-spot to another woman. "Who the fuck voted for him, anyway?"

Every day of the week, from sunup till sundown, in school yards all across New York City, people like Margie come out to cheer, jeer, and even wager a few bucks on players with nicknames as slick as their games.

Players like Rookie, Power, and Pee Wee talk mucho trash on the blacktop and sometimes kick the intimidation up a notch by playing a physical brand of roundball that New Yorkers are known for.

While the game they play sounds an awful lot like basketball, they're actually hooked on basketball's little, inner-city cousin—handball.

One-wall handball to be exact.

"Every sport has its top players, and handball is no different," said Justin Sullivan, a 26-year-old journalist who recently put the finishing touches on an intriguing, 57-minute video entitled Big Blue: The New York City Handball Documentary. Sullivan, a native New Yorker who grew up playing handball, explained that his film took its name from the soft, blue racquetball that City players use to play their game. It's also to differentiate it from the smaller, heavier, solid-rubber orb used in Small Ball, a slightly different brand of handball.

"There's something so pure about this sport," said Sullivan, his eyebrows heading north as he watched a series of wicked exchanges between top seeds Rookie and Robert "the Iceman" Sostre in a doubles match at one of the big handball tournaments last month. "There are no million-dollar contracts in this sport, no greedy players," continued Sullivan, who is constructing his own handball Web site, Bigbluehandball.com. "But somehow, as often as it is played here, it never really gets the kind of attention it deserves.

"New Yorkers kind of take handball for granted," he said.

That's hard to believe, especially when you consider the fact that there are 2052 handball courts spread over New York's five boroughs. According to the Parks Department, there are 673 courts in Brooklyn, 640 in Queens, 406 in the Bronx, 277 in Manhattan, and 56 in Staten Island. "Handball is the largest sport in the city," remarks a player in Big Blue. "There are more people on the handball courts than on the basketball courts on any given day."

At the Big Blue Championships, a city-sponsored tournament that draws the best players in the sport, Rookie—handball's Michael Jordan—went on a serious roll. He had Goland Bokobza for breakfast, Power for lunch, and Emmitt for dinner en route to taking the $500 singles crown. With his second consecutive Big Blue title, Rookie established himself as the best one-wall player in the world.

After crushing his opponents by scores of 21-7, 21-3, and 21-4, Rookie, a 6-1 player with long, muscular arms, paraded around the court. He held the ball high over his head, sidestepped some trash talk—"You ain't shit, Rookie!"—then bowed before the hundreds of cheering fans whose noses were pressed against the chain-link fence that surrounds these Queens courts.

"I'm in great condition, I don't smoke, and I don't drink," said Rookie, standing near his first-place trophy in London Planetree Park in Woodhaven. "All I do is play the game; that's why I'm the best. It's all about the game."

Ahh, the game. The ancient game.

Historians claim the game of handball began with the invention of the ball, dating back to the Egyptians in Thebes in 2000 B.C., where tomb paintings depict priests striking a ball with their hands.

And there's a lot more history to be learned in Alley Cracker: The Story of Handball, a film produced, directed, and narrated by Ben Thum that was released last year. In the documentary, handball historian Tom O'Conner tells us that the Greek writer Homer mentions a handball game invented by Princess Anagalla of Sparta in his own, Homeresque sort of play-by-play: "O'er the green mead the sporting virgins play, their shining veils unbound along the skies, tossed and retossed, the ball incessant flies."

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