Handball players descend on Coney Island

Hands up: (Left) John “Rookie” Wright and Joseph Kaplan battle for the title of the US Handball Association overall men’s champion.
Photo by Elizabeth Graham

Handball players from across the boroughs — and the country — poured into the People’s Playground on Aug. 5 to play the city’s signature version of the sport.

Men, women, and children — 119 in all — converged on the Asser Levy Park courts along Surf Avenue near W. Fifth Street for the 52nd annual U.S. Handball Association Championship, where they played one-wall small ball: slapping a golfball-sized handball, not the Big Blues found in most bodegas, against a single concrete wall.

Alethia Mendez, one of the event’s organizers, said that the distinctively New York style of the competition — as opposed to the three- or four-wall variety played elsewhere in the world — meant that the contestants were almost exclusively current and former residents of the city.

“Even the people who came from out of state were from one of the boroughs,” Mendez said, though she added that the event also drew a few players from Ireland.

Mendez said that there were four divisions to the championship: men’s, women’s, juniors’ — for teenagers — and masters’, for adults over 50. The juniors’ and masters’ divisions were further broken down by age group to ensure fair play. But nearly everyone was a veteran of the sport.

“These are people who’ve been playing for years,” said Mendez. “You talk to some of the masters’ people who are in their 60s, and they’ll tell you they started playing at 7.”

Each division competed tournament style, complete with an elimination bracket and as many as 32 rounds — each round a best-of-three match. Mendez described the atmosphere as friendly and welcoming on the sidelines, but fierce in play.

“The handball world is very small. Everyone is very close, everybody knows each other,” Mendez said. “But on the courts it’s all competition.”

James “Rookie” Wright, who won the men’s championship in the final round by taking two out of three against closest competitor Joe Kaplan, said the match was so intense it left him exhausted.

“My gloves were super sweaty, this guy was taking me to the hill. I fought with everything, and he fought, too,” said Wright.

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