The history of handball, the greatest of New York City street games, has not been written. Instead, its folk memory is passed on through the rich oral tradition of its glove- and eyegear-wearing practitioners. On the benches surrounding the Seaside Courts on Surf Avenue in Coney Island—handball’s holiest site—you can see them: the elder storytellers, the praise singers who transmit the heroic myths of their people. They tell of the colossus known as Vic Hershkowitz (a Brooklyn fireman who loomed during the forties and fifties), the relentless Steve Sandler (the sixties and seventies), and the spectral presence of Joe Garber, killed while flying a B-29 over Germany in World War II. “The same old conversations,” as one of them puts it. “The same old bullshit.”
“He saw Joe Garber play,” says Hank Grassi, a fit 83-year-old wearing a cap that reads #1 POPPY, pointing to an arriving Stu Fleischman.
“Joe Garber,” announces the crotchety Fleischman, his hand raised as if asking for quiet, “was like Joe DiMaggio.”
“How old are you?” I ask.
“What the hell do I give a shit?” he barks.
The griots all agree on the identity of the two men who currently reign over the game: Cesar Sala, 31, an NYPD officer from Brighton Beach, and Satish Jagnandan, 32, director of mathematics and science for Mount Vernon City School District, from Wakefield, the Bronx. The two, who are as gifted athletically as any of the better-known (and significantly better-paid) sports figures in town, are the Nadal and Federer of the handball world, fierce competitors with contrasting styles and personalities who have brought new excitement to their pastime.
Sala, who received his GED after dropping out of Lincoln High School, took up handball as a teenager when he found that he could win a few hundred dollars by going into a park and challenging its top player. Jagnandan, who has two master’s degrees and is completing a Ph.D., learned the game at the prestigious Bronx High School of Science, where he starred on the varsity handball squad. On the court, Sala is thrillingly improvisatory and sometimes erratic, a defensive genius who suffers visibly when he struggles. His legions of fans shout “Hail Cesar!” whenever he hits a winner. Jagnandan, famous for his devastating serve, is controlled, merciless, and often boring, like “Mr. Spock on the Enterprise,” says one player. He has a small band of followers who are inevitably outnumbered at tournaments. “We go into the lion’s den and we’re surrounded by a thousand Brooklyn mugs,” says Pedro Garcia, a loyal Satish man. “The ten Bronx guys are dead meat.”
Each is busy preparing, in his own way, for handball’s Wimbledon: the National One-Wall Championships held at the courts in Coney Island from August 5 to 9. Typically played during the hottest week of the summer, the Nationals draw the top players in the city, a diverse cast of local legends, who are given the opportunity to imprint their names on the game’s collective unconscious (and win $2,000). On the final day of the tournament, Sunday, two players will compete for the title of national champion on the concrete of Court One, surrounded by a few hundred fans, many placing bets on the action. ESPN will not be present. The only way you can get a decent seat is if you bring your own. There will be profanity. And if it’s anything like a typical day at handball’s mecca, the sweet swell of marijuana will waft over the courts from the direction of the boardwalk.
For the past three years, Sala and Jagnandan have faced each other in the final. Jagnandan beat his rival in 2006 and 2007, giving him four titles in a row. Last year, Sala scored a redemptive victory—“No words to describe,” he says—adding to the national title he won in 2001. It is fully expected that the two will meet again on Sunday afternoon. “For Cesar and Satish, it doesn’t matter if there are ten guys or 10,000 guys, they are better than those guys,” says Joe Durso, 54, who won the singles title nine times in the eighties and early nineties. “They are going to meet in the final.”
“Satish and Cesar are an inspiration, helping fuel the renaissance of one-wall handball,” says Howie Eisenberg, a commissioner with the United States Handball Association and Steve Sandler’s chief rival during the sixties. “I think they could’ve played with us. But only those two.” To the New York City handball player, these grudging words of respect are the equivalent of a solemn rite of investiture. “He said that?” asks Jagnandan.
One-wall handball—there are also three- and four-wall versions popular in the other 49 states—couldn’t be simpler. “Either hand or either fist may be used to hit the ball,” according to the USHA rules. “The objective is to win each rally by serving or returning the ball so the opponent is unable to keep the ball in play.” The first player to 21—points can only be made on serve—wins the game. In the bigger tournaments, the first to win two games wins the match. If the sides split the first two games, a tiebreaker is decided by the first to reach 11 points.