Up Against the Wall

Handball, the City’s Most Popular Game

Alexander the Great (450 B.C.) is credited with spreading the game to Italy, where it then migrated to other parts of the Roman Empire.

It was the Irish, though, who developed the modern form of handball, bringing the game to America during the 1849 California Gold Rush. The original Irish ball was known as an "alley cracker" because of the sharp cracking noise it made when hit against the stone wall of a handball alley.

Handball migrated to New York via Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, at the turn of the century, when locals passed the time by batting the ball against the breakwaters at low tide.

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

By the late 1920s, handball's popularity took hold, with the spread of outdoor athletic clubs—like the Brighton Beach Baths and the Castle Hill Club—that featured the game. Handball has since been standardized, employing a 16 foot-by-20 foot wall and a 34 foot-by-20 foot court.

These days, the two biggest handball tournaments in New York are the Big Blue Championships and King of the Courts, which will be held July 14 at Roy Wilkins Park in St. Alban's, Queens. King of the Courts awards $1000 to the winner.

"I'm going to win King of the Courts," said Lloyd "Power" Babb, 26, a construction worker who was full of sweat and misery after being taken apart by Rookie in the semis of the Big Blue tourney. "My power game is stronger than Rookie's. He just has a psychological edge over the rest of us."

But that edge was not a sharp one during Rookie's thrilling Big Blue doubles semifinal, which featured him and teammate Fred Lynch against Iceman, a world-class paddleball champ and top-ranked handball star, and his partner, Ervin Irizarry. "Don't be afraid to hit it to him!" Iceman yelled to Irizarry, coaxing his partner to challenge Rookie. "I'll take care of the rest."

And he did, blasting a low, unreturnable ball (a "killer," in handball parlance) to Rookie's backhand, polishing off the singles champ and his partner by a score of 21-15.

Huge favorites heading into the match, Rookie and Lynch let a lot of bettors down that afternoon. "C'mon Rook," a voice shot out of the crowd. "There goes my fucking rent."

John Gregory Wright, otherwise known as Rookie, is one of the many handball phenoms profiled on Sullivan's documentary. "When I was coming up, people called me Rookie of the Year," Wright explained. "But you can only be Rookie of the Year once, so the next year, they cut it down to Rookie."

A 27-year-old clerk at OTB, Rookie is the betting favorite for most of the well-tanned men and women sitting on folding chairs in straw hats and sunglasses at his tournaments, following him from borough to borough, and wagering hundreds of dollars on each of his games. Players also bet on themselves, which often enables them to double or triple the size of their tournament winnings.

"Rookie, Emmitt, those guys don't want to play with you if you don't have any money," says Marvin Jones, an A-player himself, in Big Blue. "In one year, I probably lost $2000 in handball money alone."

The film pays no attention to Small Ball, which uses a harder-to-hit golf-ball-sized sphere, or to 3-wall handball, which is more of a California game, or 4-wall handball, which Sullivan describes as "where a bunch of lawyers might meet on a Tuesday and play at their local YMCA. "If you want a definition of a subculture, this would be it," continued Sullivan. "What's going to surprise people is that handball is a self-contained community with its own heroes, its own legends."

Big Blue opens with a series of the city's best handballers playing to an African drumbeat on various courts throughout the city. There's no narration, but through a series of insightful, colorful, and sometimes comical chatter from the players, the viewer gets an up close and personal look at the sport and the characters associated with it. Culled from more than 80 hours of footage from last summer, nothing comes across more than each player's burning passion for the game.

"Nobody who ever played handball, even a little bit, ever really stopped playing," Joe Durso, the Mickey Mantle of handball, says to the camera. "It's a weird thing," continues the 45-year-old Durso, who, along with rival Buddy Gantt—handball's Willie Mays—dominated the sport for two decades. "You have to play it a little bit to understand. But it's just so pleasureful that you don't give it up."

Perhaps the most telling piece of footage in Big Blue concerns Rookie, who, like most of the players, is a perfect gentleman off the court, an egomaniacal, hotheaded sore loser on it. "When people play sports, they seem to forget to have fun," pontificates Rookie, smiling wide for the cameras during an off-court interview. "When you don't have fun, your aggression, your anger, stays bottled. You have to have fun."

In the next scene, Rookie is on the court playing doubles, but clearly forgetting to have fun: "What the fuck is wrong with you?" he screams at a teammate who forgot the game plan. "I told you to stop hitting the ball to him! Why can't you listen to me? I don't understand you! Do you want to lose?"

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