Satish Jagnandan is a hard man to reach. Handball officials don’t have his current phone number. A player who told me he was Jagnandan’s “unofficial publicist” spent two days trying to get him on the line, to no avail. Once I obtained his various phone numbers, I left messages. No response. With the J. D. Salinger of handball, you have to make a pilgrimage to his mountaintop: Bailey Park in the Bronx, a nondescript sliver of a park near Riverdale with the Major Deegan on one side and the auto-parts shops of Bailey Avenue on the other. Here, surrounded by a small group of players who are like family, he develops his skills in isolation, rarely venturing out into the wider handball world except for tournaments. “He has a way of intimidating his competition by not being around,” says Sala. “So when they see him, it’s like, ‘Oh, this is the guy they’ve been talking about.’ ”
When I get there on a Friday afternoon, Jagnandan is warming up by himself on a far court, preparing for a doubles game much like the one Sala played in Coney Island. He has a few days’ growth of a beard and a mop of jet-black hair above his battered eyegear. His greeting is cordial but he isn’t much interested in halting his routine. And it is a serious routine. He practices three times daily, arriving for his morning session at 6:30 a.m. “I’ve seen him out here in the rain,” says Emmanuel Fuentes, 22, a frequent practice partner. “I’m like, ‘Yo, what are you doing?’ ” Jagnandan maintains a strict diet of fruits (breakfast and lunch) and chicken with rice (dinner). In the mornings, he takes supplements of cod-liver oil and vitamin C—“just regular stuff,” he says. In contrast, Sala practices about three times a week and has a far from austere meal plan, allowing himself pizza every couple of days.
A native of Guyana who moved to the Bronx when he was 9, Jagnandan had the stable family background that Sala lacked. His father, Basdeo, spent hours each day tutoring and playing sports with him and his brother. Jagnandan’s steady excellence in school has brought him, at a relatively young age, to a position of humbling responsibility—he is charged with improving the math and science capabilities of students in the struggling Mount Vernon district. His lifetime of precision and discipline can be seen on the court. “He’s no emotion, all logic, just pure angles,” says Durso. “He plays a very geometric game … If he gets a bad call, he tries to contain it. He very rarely will talk to a ref or a spectator. He’s very cerebral and very calm.”
Jagnandan’s supporters see their man as a lone rebel arrayed against a hostile handball Establishment.
Once he is ready, Jagnandan moves to Bailey’s version of center court. Over the course of three hours, he and his partner, a 62-year-old in excellent shape named Joe Agosto, grind down their opponents and are never once threatened with a loss. “His drive is incredible,” says spectator Pedro Garcia, who has written a play about two rival handball players, one from Brooklyn, the other from the Bronx. “He doesn’t do anything to spoil his body, and plays for hours and hours at a time.” Jagnandan rarely makes a mistake—his shots go where he wants them to go. And unlike Sala, who is content to strike the ball lightly at times, Jagnandan wallops the small blue sphere every time he cocks his arm. Although he jokes with the other players—and even trash-talks in ways he never would during a big match—it is obvious that he is dead serious about avenging his embarrassing defeat to Sala in last year’s Nationals. Jagnandan lost the first game by a single point, hurt by a controversial referee’s call that is still being debated. Sala then coasted to victory in the second game, winning the match 2-0 and ending Jagnandan’s streak of four singles’ titles in a row. “I am always practicing, thinking about him in my mind,” says Jagnandan. “You can’t relax with a guy like that around.”
Up here in the northern reaches of the city, far from Coney Island, Jagnandan’s supporters see their man as a lone rebel arrayed against a hostile handball Establishment. “A lot of players don’t like him,” says Timothy White, one of Jagnandan’s most fervent devotees. “He doesn’t get respect.” White describes how he confronted a player who denigrated Jagnandan’s abilities. “I said to him, ‘Who can beat him? Give me one name!’ ” He wonders why the USHA doesn’t put Jagnandan on the front page of its website.
Jagnandan receives the most knocks from his critics for almost never playing doubles at tournaments, allowing him to focus his energies on the singles competition. (Sala has won many doubles titles.) “Do you know what it’s like to play singles and doubles in the same tournament?” roars Billy Maggio, a Sala supporter. “You have to be fuckin’ strong. Excuse my French, he’s like a little bitch.” But no less an eminence than Howie Eisenberg sees Jagnandan’s decision as “smart,” arguing that it does nothing to diminish his achievements. “I want to bring the spotlight back to singles,” says Jagnandan.