Work it Out
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Handball is New York City’s quintessential street game, and for nearly a century, the city has produced many of the best players in the world.
In the summer, the talent is spread out over the roughly 2,000 courts in the city. “But in the winter,” said Raymond Soriano, 32, a devoted handballer, “the best players all run into each other here, so they have to play each other.”
“Here” is Guz Indoor Sports Club, opened three years ago in what was once a garment-dyeing factory on an industrial street in Ridgewood, Queens. The space has smooth cinder-block walls and fits four regulation-size courts. Players — some come from as far away as Florida — call it “Ridgewood Indoors.”
The club opens at noon every day and closes as late as midnight, depending upon how heated the games are; there are pool tables and Ping-Pong tables, too, separated from the courts by a chain-link fence.
Wherever you have handball, you usually have money being wagered. Top players said the going rate used to be $20 a game, but that since the economic downturn, it was often $10.
Juan Guzman, 36, who owns Ridgewood Indoors with his 38-year-old brother, Angel, said that Friday evening was the busiest time. “Friday is payday,” he noted, “and guys will come down with their paychecks and try to double them up.”
Wednesdays, when admission is $5 instead of the usual $10, is busy, too. There were perhaps 100 people filling the bleachers at the club this past Wednesday, many of them playing cards as they cheered or jeered the players. The thwack of blue rubber balls and squeak of sneakers on the gray-painted concrete floor made a constant din.
On Court 2, unofficially the elite one, the play was especially furious, with a waiting list of dozens of names scribbled on a yellow legal pad. The handball at the club is mostly doubles, and its rules are similar to those in doubles tennis or two-on-two volleyball: Teams maintain service by winning the point, and games go to 21.
The players include doctors, police officers, factory workers and high school students. Top performers in handball tournaments are awarded official status as “A-players” — there are about 30 active A-players across New York City (and many more B-players). In warm weather, many of these rated players play at Castle Hill Playground in the Bronx, the West Fourth Street courts in Manhattan, the ones at 88th Street and Atlantic Avenue in Queens, or the Seaside Courts on Surf Avenue in Coney Island.
“The reason New York has the world’s best players is because you can grow up playing at these spots — it feeds on itself,” said Eddie Neville, 25, of Ozone Park, an A-player though he began playing only four years ago. “You can play every day of your life, but if you don’t play with A-players, you’ll never become one. That’s why all these guys are here, for this competition on this one court.”
Everyone here seems to have a nickname — Mr. Neville is known as Warrior, Mr. Soriano is Phat Kat — and everyone talks trash. John Wright, a k a Rookie, who stayed on Court 2 for two hours that Wednesday as he and his partner won game after game, is widely considered the best player in the city — by no less an authority than himself.
“I’m Number One in the world,” he said after one of the victories. Then he wiped his sweat-drenched face with his T-shirt, and said to the pool of players in the bleachers: “Next!”
But being that good has its drawbacks. “His problem is that no one will bet against him,” Mr. Neville said of Mr. Wright, “so he has to pick up a player who is not so good, kind of like a handicap.”
Mr. Neville, a semiprofessional hockey goalie, said that becoming an A-player was the worst thing that ever happened to him financially. “When I was a B, I could support myself with handball,” he said. “I could go to a park and everyone would play me for money — I’d walk away with $900 in my pocket. I once won $1,700 in one game.”
As the best in the world beat each other up on Court 2, Abelardo Cervantes, a paramedic who lives in Jamaica, Queens, said playing handball at the club was as much about the people as the competition.
“Look around; you have all walks of life here,” said Mr. Cervantes, 32. “Over there you have a Muslim and a Hasidic Jew who are a doubles team. Handball is the great equalizer. All you need is a ball and a wall and a lot of heart.”