Introduced to the city by Irish immigrants in the nineteenth century, the sport crowned its first men’s singles champion in 1923. His name was Edmund W. Butler. He lived on Ocean Avenue and was a salesman for the Blue Crest Wine and Spirits Corporation, according to his 1956 obituary in the New York Times. Handball took off during the Great Depression, when there was nothing better to do. From the thirties to the mid-fifties, Jews dominated, supplying national champions with names like Irving Jacobs, Moe Orenstein (a Runyonesque character who was Vic Hershkowitz’s great adversary), and Artie Wolfe. The streak was interrupted with the emergence of the famed Obert brothers—Oscar, Carl, and Ruby—second-generation Germans (!), one of whom (Ruby) can still be found batting the ball around Coney Island. The seventies and eighties brought a greater diversity, with Italians, Latinos, and African-Americans all winning titles. Today the best handball players represent nearly every subset of New York ethnic society. “Here you got the League of Nations,” says old-timer Max “Crazy Legs” Forcht.
According to the Parks Department, there are some 2,000 handball courts in 560 parks in New York. You can learn a lot about a top player by where he plays. John “Rookie” Wright, who is one of the game’s most enthusiastic bettors, goes where the action is, often the courts at West 4th Street in Manhattan or 88th Street and Atlantic Avenue in Queens, both gamblers’ paradises. (He also works the night shift as a clerk at an OTB in Manhattan. “I’m surrounded by gambling,” he tells me in mock horror.)
Sala, who has tightly cropped black hair, a compact build, and an easy manner, practices in the broadest of daylight in Coney Island, where handball’s hard-to-please cognoscenti scrutinize his every move. From what I observed, he is loved. Manny Haimowitz, a handball elder nursing a Coors, calls him “bubbeleh.” A young Ukrainian in a bikini top, Anastasiya Oleynik, hugs him and says that he told her “there are no limits” to what she could do in handball. “Cesar shows the kids how to play, how to serve the ball,” says Mike Garcia, who originated the “Hail Cesar” chant at tournaments. “Satish doesn’t really do that: It’s all about me and f-you.”
Sala first wandered over from his apartment in Brighton Beach as a teenager. At age 15, he was asked by a gambler to take on another player. “And I destroyed the guy,” he says. “And, I don’t know, this guy made a thousand dollars on me. So he gave me 300 bucks. So I was like, ‘Hey, 300 bucks and I didn’t even break a sweat? I think I can do this.’ I got sucked in by that whole thing.”
At about the same time, his parents split up. His mother moved to Puerto Rico and his father to the Bronx. Sala stayed in Brooklyn, living with his sisters and sometimes friends. Although he worked odd jobs, he made a significant income through handball, taking home $100 to $200 a day. It’s a world that is unknown to Jagnandan, who frowns on gambling. “A guy throwing an elbow is not as foreign to me as it may be to him,” says Sala. “Or a guy running into my swing or trying to hurt me physically while we’re playing.”
Honed by his battles in the street, Sala won his first national title at age 22 in 2001. He then went through his own Lost Weekend. He rarely played and partied vigorously. And he lost his crown. “I would go to a club, hang out, and then come here and play in a tournament,” he says. “And you just don’t have it. You have to sleep right.” He fully emerged only after joining the NYPD in 2005. He was assigned to a radio car in the 66th Precinct in Boro Park. “It definitely brought stability to my life,” he says. “I needed it on and off the court.” Still, “I’ve always had a thing for excitement. I don’t like to play it safe. Sometimes that bites you in the ass. Sometimes it doesn’t.”
“Cesar is very high-strung, he’s emotional,” says Durso. “If he misses a shot, you can see the pain. He’s always talking to himself internally … There’s a tremendous swing and range of emotion. He’ll make a great shot. Then he’ll miss an easy shot. The shots that he goes for are not normal shots. Cesar will go for experimental shots, shots that Satish would not think of going for.”
Indeed, during a pickup doubles game on one of my visits, Sala is so inconsistent at first that catcalls rain down from the ramp leading to the boardwalk. He smacks a few volleys clear over the wall into the next court. For several minutes, he and his partner appear ready to lose. But before long he is covered in sweat, and in the end, he hits a dramatic winner down the line to pull out a victory that had appeared impossible. He is not at all embarrassed by the drama. “I love winning like that,” he says, flashing an exuberant smile.