King in His Court: The Legend of Albert Apuzzi
King in His Court: The Legend of Albert Apuzzi
by Greg Howard
Coney Island is dying.
At least, that’s what it feels like, as I descend the steps from the elevated W 8th Street subway and step into a decaying Jersey shore town. It’s well into April, but it’s cold and cloudy; it tastes like rain. I can smell the salt from the frigid Atlantic lapping up on the shores not 100 yards away, and the occasional waft of fish from the nearby aquarium. An empty amusement park sits across from the subway, its main attraction an 84-year-old, rickety, peeling, knotted excuse for a rollercoaster: “The Cyclone.” Seagulls circle overhead, like crows.
I check my notebook, making sure I’m in the right place. Doesn’t seem like the birthplace of a 10-time national champion, Hall of Fame inductee, living legend.
Coney Island is a ghost town, silent but for the occasional passing car. I hear him before I see him as I walk down the wide Surf Avenue to the neighborhood’s historic handball courts at W 5th Street.
Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! hollow, and over and over again in a steady cadence, like the last kernels popping when you pull the bag out of the microwave. Pop! Pop! Pop!
Then, I see him.
He’s winding up like a pitcher, really winding up, stepping into it and sending a small blue ball hurtling against the closest of six 16-foot tall cement walls. The ball caroms off the wall with a loud Pop! before bouncing against the grey concrete and hurtling back to the man. At the last second, he reaches out with his left hand and rips the ball out of thin air, before shifting it again to his right. Pop!
Barely scraping 5’5, he’s small, compact, with the face of someone 10 years younger than his 55, and the just-bulging midsection of someone 10 years younger than that. He looks like a wrestling coach. He’s wearing a weathered navy sweatshirt, and non-matching, frayed navy sweatpants. Dark creases cut into his worn red, white and blue Puma basketball shoes on his feet. Yellow-tinted half frames rest upon his nose. As I get closer, I can see long, thin tendrils of grey reaching up from his temples before plunging again into his dark, thick head of hair.
It’s Albert Apuzzi.
“You must be the journalist.” Not a question. “I can tell because you look out of place.”
He doesn’t seem in the mood to talk, not at first. His partner was supposed to show up at 10 for a game, but looks like a no-show. At nearby benches, he reaches into his bag and comes up with the February edition of the United States Handball Association magazine.
“You can keep it.”
Albert asks me if I want to try to play. Sure. He hands me two thick, white leather gloves and fits rubber bands over my wrists to hold them in place.
“Are these handball gloves?” I ask him.
“No, they’re yard gloves.” He rummages into his bag again, pulls out a second pair. “These are handball gloves.”
They look like batter’s gloves.
Albert never lived in Coney Island, not a day in his life. He was born in East New York, Brooklyn, the oldest of four to Italian parents who were also from Brooklyn. Handball was passed down to Albert from his father when he turned four, but they only played sporadically. In the late 50s, East New York was still swampland, undeveloped save for a few scattered housing projects. There weren’t many handball courts. The Apuzzis only played when they went upstate for vacation.
“My father used to say if I beat him, he’d give me $50. But then when I was a teenager, I almost beat him. He didn’t play me no more after that,” he says.
He tosses me the ball, a surprisingly heavy, hard rubber one that’s hard to track as I smack it against the wall. Four times in the span of two minutes, I completely swing and miss. Other times, I mishit the ball, and it bounces off the wall or cement at odd angles, like a shanked tennis ball. Within 10 minutes, I give up, exhausted from schlepping, frustrated by how hapless I am.
When Albert finally gets fed up with waiting for his partner, he approaches a group of middle-aged men, asking for a game. Outfitted in Rec Specs, knee braces, buckskin gardening gloves and low-cut sneakers, they elect to bare their leathery torsos to the cutting breeze. They look like a sorry bunch. Albert asks if a pair of them want to play two against one. They decline. Albert doesn’t even consider me. Giving up, Albert decides to show me around the boardwalk.
We walk, taking in the neatly combed beach, evidence to of its disuse rather than its superlative upkeep. Still, Albert’s mood seems to shift. He begins to loosen up, talking faster, louder, longer, his Brooklyn accent lacing every syllable.
“People pay thousands of dollars to go on vacation—for this!” he crows, gesturing to the water lapping against the sandy shore. “They could just come here!”
Albert didn’t start playing handball in Coney Island until he was 16. He was born in November and skipped a grade, so he was almost two years younger than a lot of his classmates. He always found ways to miss junior high tryouts at school, even though he’d skip out on lunch everyday to play. Then, when he was 16, he started dating Helen, a 15-year-old Sephardic Jew who lived in the apartment complex across from the Coney Island courts.
“A lot of things in life are about convenience,” he says to me for the first time.
Short, with buckteeth and long, brown hair, Helen grew up playing paddleball on the Coney Island courts. She loved the sport, and they’d often play, his hands against her paddle. Other times, he’d seek out games on the courts against other handball courts. Even after he graduated high school at 16, they continued their relationship, and Albert soon was riding his bike at least 250 miles a week to travel between East New York, Brooklyn College in Central Brooklyn, and Coney Island.
“I used to make the trip here and back once a day, Monday through Friday, and two times on the weekend, because I’d go home for dinner, and I’d come back at night,” he explains. At that point, he lived in Canarsie, about 10 miles away. “So that’s 20 miles a trip, and let’s say I made it 9 times, so that’s already 180 miles. And I didn’t come straight here, I’d go from my house to Brooklyn College first, and then come here after school.” Albert also worked at a pharmacy, and would use his bike to deliver prescriptions.
He fell in love with Helen, with handball, with Coney Island, and played everyday, all year round. He used the official USHA handball, a small, hard, heavy ball called the “Red Ace.” It hurt to hit, like smacking a baseball, and gloves had to be worn to play. Sometimes players even broke their hands striking the ball. Albert discovered the ball careened ridiculously fast off the wall; once he heard the POP! he only had a split second to hit the ball. He found starting out that if he lunged wildly for the ball, he’d probably miss it, and that he’d generally have to move directly behind the ball to strike it with any sort of conviction. The handball curved, too, and with practice he could curve with an expertise that made it almost impossible for players to correctly judge the bounce of the ball or return it well.
Handball wasn’t user-friendly. It was difficult, grueling on the body, and took a while to truly master. Some people never did. For a tough kid born and raised in Brooklyn, it was the perfect game, a game built around speed, power, and toughness. It was a man’s game.
Even in the bitter New York winters, Albert would trudge through the biting cold to dig the Coney Island courts from under the snow. Sometimes he and his friends would even jump in the frigid Atlantic Ocean by the handball courts afterwards. “There are some things you only have to do once.” He pauses a beat, for effect. “I went in the water last New Year’s, too.”
By the time he and Helen broke off their eight-year relationship, Albert had a 28-inch waist and powerful legs so large that he could only fit into pants for much bigger men that sagged off his hips. He was small, very small, but over time, he became shockingly quick and agile. He could react to the ball faster than just about anyone, often chasing shots all over the court and even off the court, returning shots that ricocheted at sharp angles off the wall and would have evaded all but the fastest players. Albert was also extremely powerful with both hands. Although he didn’t like baseball, his younger brother always had it on, stacking one television on top of another to produce a primitive picture-in-picture effect. Albert studied pitchers’ motions, and learned to step into his swings, striking through the ball with his left and his right. He was also a very deceptive and technically sound shot selector. Opponents were afraid of his power, and would stand back further from the wall, so that they would have more time to react to the ball, like in ping pong or tennis. Albert could wind up as if to smash the ball, and dink a drop shot at the last second that bounced lamely off for a point. He could set an opponent up, knocking the ball high off the wall. Other players, judging the high bounce, would have to retreat and jump backwards to return the ball off the wall. Following their weaker, defensive shots, Albert would pounce and deliver a “killer”: a low, driving shot that hit the corner where the ground met the handball wall, where the ball would rebound in a roll or skip two, three times before the opponent could even move. Players had to gamble, rushing the wall or hanging back on nothing more than a hunch, a guess as to what Albert was going to do. And finally, the guy just wanted it more.
“I was always more of a mule when I played,” Albert says. He could run all day, and so he did. “Some people are willing to do more than others. Sometimes that comes out, and people are willing to cheat more than others, willing to argue more than others. Some people are more willing to risk bodily harm than others.”
Albert had all of the raw talent in the world, and he wasn’t afraid to eat asphalt every now and then to win.
As he stepped into bachelorhood for the first time, Albert was one of the best young players at Coney Island, along with another friend and up-and-comer, Joe Durso. Albert and Joe didn’t know it as they developed side-by-side on the same courts famous for producing the best handball players of all time, but soon their destinies would be intertwined, a matched pair in the lore of New York, whether they liked it or not.
Handball came to New York in the boats and minds of Irish immigrants in the second half of the 19th century, who were fleeing the choking famine of their country or chasing dreams of riches and opportunity as America built railroads to push west in the name of Manifest Destiny. Virtually every culture dating back to the ancient Egyptians played some sort of hand and ball game, and the Great British peoples were no different. Two similar versions of the game that date back to the Middle Ages evolved on the island, Irish handball and Scottish handball. In the 1700s, the two were merged into Gaelic handball, which was played with four walls. A century later that same game washed up on New York’s Atlantic beaches, permanently inserting itself in the city’s lore.
By the early 1900s, four-wall handball had gained in popularity in New York. In Brighton Beach, hard balls like baseballs and the like were prohibited from play for safety reasons, in favor of softer, lighter balls that resembled bald tennis balls. When it was warm out, people flocked to the beach and played a version of handball on the sand against a 15-foot tall bulkhead during low tide. This was the birth of one-wall handball.
In 1909, a handball player named Charlie O’Connell asked Charles Keene, a manager at the Brighton Beach beach club Parkway Baths, to build a permanent one-wall handball court, so that players wouldn’t be swept off the court when the tide rolled in. Keene obliged, and the court was so popular that beach clubs all over New York began to erect one-wall handball courts. The biggest, Brighton Beach Baths, had set up 20 handball courts. One-wall had taken hold of New York.
It was an outdoor game, cheap to play, a good workout, and all anyone really needed was a high wall and a 34’ x 20’ box. Balls were sold for a nickel or less. In 1924, the Amateur Athletic Union hosted the first citywide tournament. In the 1930s, New York City Parks Department began building handball courts with taxpayers’ money. By the 1940s handball had exploded from the beaches, a true citywide sport. In 1951, four years before Albert Apuzzi was born, the United States Handball Association was formed as the country’s official governing body of handball. In 1959, when Albert was four years old, the USHA sponsored America’s first-ever national one-wall tournament, a gargantuan affair with over 750 entrants. A New Yorker won, starting a permanent trend. New York one-wall handball players would always be seen as the cream of the crop, the best in the world.
Handball enjoyed over four decades of media coverage in the city’s newspapers, but after World War II, media coverage declined even as its popularity in New York increased. Handball couldn’t attract corporate sponsors, and there were no official handball leagues. It was a sport, sure, but people couldn’t live on the game. Handball in New York was relegated to little more than a street sport. Early greats like Victor Hershkowitz, the Obert Brothers and Ken Davidoff were playground legends, gods of Coney Island, but received little recognition otherwise.
Even handball greats had to have day jobs. Hershkowitz was a New York City firefighter. Today, William Polanco, one-wall handball’s premier international ambassador and a USHA board member, is an IT Manager at a law firm. When I meet with Albert for lunch, on a different, equally cold, cloudy, deserted April day in Coney Island, I find out that he’s a pharmacist at Coney Island Hospital.
Albert looks out of place in his work garb when he pulls up to the courts on his bicycle, kind of like Peter Parker. Bespectacled in those yellow glasses, he’s wearing a blue collared shirt and khakis rolled up to the knee, showing white Nike running shoes. A bolo tie, complete with the face of a Native American on the clasp, hugs his neck.
A lone group of six men, ages between 20 and 60, loiter on a bench at the courts, debating loudly amongst themselves. They almost stand at attention when they see Albert, and they greet him loudly, in unison, suddenly teens at a Bieber concert.
“Al! Hey Al!”
After he obliges the group, we walk to a pizzeria around the corner. Albert looks tired, worn out. He’s worked as a pharmacist in Coney Island Hospital since 1985, but he doesn’t particularly love his job. “Things in life are about convenience,” he says again. “It’s just a job.”
Albert doesn’t particularly love any sports, either, beyond handball. His brother’s obsession ruined baseball for him, and even though he was a Physical Education major at Brooklyn College, he doesn’t follow basketball, football, or any other sport he was introduced to. Just handball. When he biked over a thousand miles a month, it never occurred to him to enter a bicycle race. He works on his car, but only because the mechanic would be more expensive. Everything in his life seems to be based around the sport of handball and the neighborhood he’s frequented for over 40 years.
At the pizzeria, he orders a calzone at the register and takes a seat in a corner booth. Newspaper clippings and photographs coat the walls of handball players past and present diving low, jumping high, slapping at balls. When the calzone’s ready, the cashier brings it over. Albert reaches into his wallet, but the cashier shakes his head, taking a step back. His money’s no good here.
One of the pictures on the wall is a recent one of a 17-year-old Hispanic kid in mid-swing. It’s Josh Garcia, Albert informs, a player known as the Michael Jordan of high school handball, thought by many to be the best high school player in the country. He made New York headlines in April when a rival coach secretly tipped off the city’s Public School Athletic League that Garcia competed in a Coney Island tournament in August, where he won $250. By accepting the cash, he forfeited his amateur status, and was ineligible to play in high school. His sister Raquel, maybe as dominant in her division, was also deemed ineligible. By the PSAL rules, he’s not an amateur. The only problem is that in one-wall handball, there’s no such thing as a professional.
“A lot of the tournaments are done, I don’t want to say on the sly, but they’re done without park permits, maybe without announcements being posted,” Al explains, so that the proper authorities aren’t aware that a tournament isn’t happening. “It’s not that they’re actually trying to hide it…it’s just how it’s done.”
Gambling is the financial rock of handball in New York. Often, players bet against each other even as spectators on the sides bet five, 10, 20, 50 dollars or more on the games’ outcomes, like cockfighting. Steve Sandler, one of the best players of all time, was infamous for wagering on games, usually with a self-induced handicap. He’d play with one hand tied behind his back, use only his backhand, or even hold a beach chair in his offhand. And he’d win.
But it wasn’t always fun and games. When money was at stake, blood would boil between bettors both on and off the court. Albert himself knows all too well. When he was young, he was playing in a tournament at Ajax Park in Queens. One onlooker was overly excited, kept getting too close to the court. Albert, fired up from the intensity of the game, yelled at him, telling him to back off. The spectator felt disrespected. So, he pulled out a gun. Only when the gunman was restrained and talked down by some of Albert’s friends did the game resume.
Even with the rare threat of crime, though, gambling has become an integral part of the sport. Almost every single tournament offers a winning pot. The winning purse in a tournament is usually between $500 and $1,000. In a more organized event, it’s usually twice as much. At a 4-wall tournament a couple of years ago, Irishman Paul Brady won and walked home with a $50,000.
Still, Albert jokes that the closest thing to a full-time handball player is a local hustler named Benjy. I recognize him as one of the men from the handball courts earlier that day. Benjy’s a towering, lanky man, with arms and legs that seem disproportionately lanky still. He’s got rounded, hunched shoulders, grey hair, and the weathered, tanned skin of a farmer. He moves gingerly and looks old, used up, but his eyes are bright, the eyes of someone who is probably a little younger and cleverer than he looks. Benjy and Albert have known each other for decades. When he walks in the restaurant and sees us, he hurries over to the table.
Al introduces us. “He’s writing an article about me. Sports Illustrated!”
“Oh, sure,” Benjy says sarcastically, with a twinge of jealousy. He looks at me. “You ever play handball before?”
“I’ll break you in. We can play singles for fives.” He goes to the counter, grabs a paper bag with a sub in it, checks the receipt once, and walks out of the restaurant.
Benjy’s the pizzeria’s delivery boy.
Gambling usually begets more gambling, and that was certainly true on the concrete courts of New York. The Coney Island courts were home to card and dice games, and they’re where Albert learned to play poker.
“We used to play for some big money, I mean, unbelievable,” he says. Albert’s group played a high-low split game, with table stakes. At the time he was fresh out of college, working, and living at home. With no expenses, he would walk around with huge wads of cash in his pocket, and always had money to burn. In his games, it wasn’t uncommon to have a few hundred dollars bet on a card, and sometimes thousands.
“We had one game where the guy lost $185,000,” Albert divulges, chuckling. “But we stopped counting, at about forty thousand. To the guy’s credit, he actually called me up the next morning and said, ‘you know, I did the math, and I lost a lot more than 40,000.’ It was a friendly game, though, so I wound up with $9,400 in my hand.” Sometimes he’d play through the night, until six in the morning, go get breakfast, and head to the pharmacy, where he’d fill prescriptions all day, eyes burning from the fatigue. It wasn’t until he married his wife Dori in 1993, that he quit.
A 5’10” willowy blonde, Dori was raised in Brooklyn, in Brighton Beach and Coney Island. She was a paddleball player and always played at the Coney Island courts. One day in 1987, she challenged Albert to a match, hands vs. paddles.
“She thought she was going to win, I knew I was going to win,” Albert says. Albert was in his physical prime at the time, a national handball champion. Dori never stood a chance.
As the match was drawing to a close, Dori twisted her ankle, spraining it badly. Albert drove her home. They became fast friends. Albert convinced her to drop the paddle for handball. They two started dating. Six years later, they tied the knot.
Albert and Dori’s relationship is a storybook romance, well known throughout the handball community in Coney Island. Even more famous, though, is the story of Albert and his old friend and teammate turned bitter rival, Joe Durso.
Joe and Albert’s relationship is almost as famous as either of them is in their own right. The same age, they made a name for themselves together on Coney Island’s handball courts. Albert, short and compact, is a stark opposite to Joe’s 6’1, leggy frame.
“A lot of things in life are based on convenience,” Albert tells me. They were friends, knew each other’s strengths, and partnered up in doubles handball. In time, they became almost unbeatable.
In 1980 they reached the semifinals in the USHA small ball national one-wall championships. That year, Joe reached the finals of the singles tournament, while Albert made it to the semifinals. The following year Albert finished higher than Joe in the national tournament, a semifinalist once again. In 1982, Joe beat Albert in the finals. In 1983 Albert and Joe won their first doubles title together. Joe lost again in the finals and Albert lost for the third time in the penultimate match. By then, they became virtual forces of nature on the handball court. Albert won doubles six more times in a row, breaking the famed Obert brothers’ record of five straight championships, and again in 1992 for his eighth. For all but two of those titles, Joe was by his side.
In 1984, Joe won his second national title, beating Albert in the semis. In 1985, Albert finished second, while Joe came up short in the semifinals. A year later, Albert left Joe in the semifinals before winning his first championship. Between 1987 and 1992, though, Joe won six straight titles, beating Albert in two of them. Albert won in 1993 to bookend Joe’s streak, and Joe beat Albert to claim the 1994 trophy. But something had happened. Even as they won, their relationship became strained. They drifted apart.
In the partnership, Albert was the mule, the hard worker that dove for balls, chased balls out of bounds, covered for Joe when he made a rare mistake. Joe didn’t try as hard. And almost a foot taller with long arms and legs, maybe he didn’t have to try as hard, maybe he just made it look easier. Regardless, Albert started to resent that. Midway through their reigns as champions in the mid- and late-1980s, Albert started to question Joe’s motives for slacking.
“Sometimes I felt he’d even make our doubles matches harder than they needed to be by him resting too much,” Albert says. Other players started noticing it, too, saying that Joe may even have been making bad shots on purpose to tire Albert out. The singles and doubles finals were played on the same day. Two of the best players in the world, they had enough talent to win doubles every year anyway. Joe was making sure he won the singles, as well. Albert still didn’t seem to mind, since he was so physically fit. Until 1989.
After breaking his own record for the seventh straight national doubles championship, Albert began to have pain in his arm. He went to the doctor; it was a blood clot. He couldn’t compete 1990’s national tournament, and his streak ended. When he returned to the handball court, he was still a competitive player. Still, he had never regained his previous dominant form.
It didn’t help that Joe was on the shortlist as one of the best handball players in the sport’s history. He won 16 national championships, nine singles and seven doubles. He talked trash, boasted about his legacy, rode a motorcycle, wore eccentric fedoras. In a 1992 Queens Public Access Television station, a younger, stronger Joe, 185 pounds with a thick helmet of brown ringlets, summed up how he felt in an interview.
“I can do everything that all the other guys can do. Plus, I can do a lot of stuff that they can’t do. I can run as fast as anybody. I can hit as hard as anybody. I have as much stamina as anybody’s. My left is as good as anyone’s. In other words, I’m physically better than them in every category of the game, every physical category.”
Albert, quiet on the court and humble off it, had had enough. Their partnership, and their longtime friendship, was effectively over. Unfortunately, the two men would be doomed share the same fate, an outside enemy camouflaged as a friend that would threaten to kill off the sport they loved.
It arrived in the 1980s: a ball that would forever changed the scope of the handball world. At the same time Albert and Durso were making their mark as the best doubles team of all time, players started playing with a racquetball, or what handball players started calling “big blue” or simply the “big ball.”
When it was introduced three decades ago, big ball took the city by storm. Beginners started picking up the big ball instead of the small ball. The bastardized version of handball was simply easier. The big ball was a little bigger than the handball, and made of a softer rubber. It was easier to hit, even if players were reaching, slightly out of position, and didn’t hurt, so gloves weren’t necessary. It was light, light enough that as much power couldn’t be generated by striking it, like handball’s version of a shuttlecock. It moved slower, didn’t curve, ricocheting of walls and hands in straight lines. Like softball, big ball gave the average New Yorker a chance to compete, to have fun.
And it was cheaper. True handballs were sold in sporting good stores for five or ten dollars. Soon, big balls could be found at virtually any deli in New York for a dollar or less. Small balls break often, since they don’t compress against the wall, against the hand. Big balls were made to be hit by a racquet; there was no way they’d break.
Handball exploded throughout the boroughs as big ball experienced a meteoric rise in popularity.
With big ball’s sprawling base, it was almost impossible to organize players throughout the boroughs. And as the majority of handball players turned to the big ball, the majority of gambling opportunities shifted from small ball to big ball. Therefore, big ball gained the reputation as the “street ball” equivalent of the sport.
As big ball flooded the courts, small ball was pushed to small, isolated pockets over the city: Coney Island, Central park, a couple of parks in the Bronx, and generally only used by a minority, like Albert and Joe, in USHA-sanctioned tournaments and official PSAL play.
Albert participated in big ball matches and tournaments, but he enjoyed it less. It wasn’t a power game. As the appeal of small ball shrank, Coney Island became the epicenter of small ball in the city, a mecca where the best players in New York traveled from boroughs all over to play, where the USHA small ball one-wall tournament was held every year.
But even when I arrive at Coney Island on a warmish Sunday, the day of a small ball tournament, big ball players are using nine of the twelve courts.
I sit down on a bench. “Durso Sucks” is scrawled onto my seat. I’m approached by William “Lefty Willie” Polanco, one of the world’s best players and the leader of a movement to make handball an international sport. Dominican-born Polanco is dark, with straight, shiny, cropped hair of a West Indian. When he’s not working full-time at the law firm, the 35-year old is jetting off to spread the game of one-wall handball in Spain, Belgium, England, Netherlands, Ecuador and other countries. And it’s working. Hand and ball players in around 40 nations have adopted the American game of one-wall. Polanco sees a bright future for the sport.
“The goal is to get it in the Olympics by 2020,” he says. He plans to have one-wall handball introduced as an exhibition games in the 2013 World Games in Cali, an event under direct patronage of the Olympic games. “Then we can get an exhibition in the Olympics in 2016, a move that would make it easier for one-wall handball to be a full-fledged game in 2020. The flame has been it.”
It sounds righteous, but doesn’t bode well for small ball. The big ball is the ball of choice used to push the game all over the world. It’s just easier. For people who have never played one-wall handball, there’s less of a learning curve. It doesn’t hurt. It’s cheaper.
I realize, then. Small ball one-wall handball, New York City’s game, is dying.
By any stretch of the imagination, Albert Apuzzi is beat up. He’s broken down, aging, and on the handball courts, he’s no longer the best. One on one, he’d probably get thumped by teenagers like Josh Garcia or players that grew up watching him, like the 35-year-old Puerto Rican, Cesar “Captain Hardball” Sala, a five-time USHA national champion, thrice in doubles and twice in singles. Still, Albert’s greatness hasn’t been forgotten by anyone, Sala lets me know, when he sits down on the bench next to me before the tournament starts.
“I met Albert in ’92,” says the Coney Island native. “I was trying to get his autograph.” Growing up in the shadow of the big ball explosion, Sala used to hustle for money as a teenager, playing basketball and handball around the neighborhood. He met Albert when he saw Albert was running organized tournaments at the courts.
“He showed me that it’s not always about gambling and all that other stuff, and some of the sport is organized and they have legitimate tournaments. He helped me travel.” Sala played handball in Ireland, England, Wales, Canada, all over the United States. He became one of the world’s best players, in small ball and big ball. Now, he and Albert are old friends.
Albert was a great player, one of the best doubles players of all time, but he was even better for the sport. Even after the blood clot robbed him of some of his prime playing years, he still organized tournaments all over. Dori says he was generous to a fault, giving away money and time to the sport. The two decided not to have children, so Albert’s devoted his life to handball. He knows everyone, and his outgoing personality is infectious as he chats up everyone as he passes. He’s a legend in flesh in blood, and the king in Coney Island. The USHA dubbed him the number one goodwill ambassador in the world of handball. With a title like that, and his impressive resume, it was natural for the USHA to induct him into their hall of fame once he turned 50, the minimum age required.
He rejected them though, and the year after, and the year after. He still hasn’t accepted their invitation yet. He explains, sitting on the bench.
“I’m a New Yorker. You haven’t been here that long. There are over 2,500 courts, tens of thousands of players—maybe hundreds of thousands. We have 166 PSAL high school teams, not to mention the Catholic school leagues. Here, one-wall’s king. I’m sure you’ve known people that just don’t play a sport. They live it. That’s how it is here.”
The USHA is based in Tucson, Arizona, 2,500 miles away from the Coney Island handball courts. With New York so far away, one-wall handball was out of sight, out of mind. When the USHA was first founded, the money was in four-wall and three-wall handball. Even after the explosion of one-wall handball in New York, the USHA failed to adapt to the shift in demographics and support it financially, the way it was supporting four-wall and three-wall handball.
“To the USHA, one-wall is a necessary evil. It’s like having an extra kid or family member you don’t want, “ Albert says. “Three-wall was really outdoor four-wall. It’s the same group of players, the same friendships. We don’t really care about four-wall the same way.”
New York City is home to more handball players than anywhere else in the world, but in the USHA, four-wall and three-wall, played on racquetball courts and in country clubs, is king. One-wall, on the other hand, is gritty, a street sport. As New Yorkers gambled, the USHA was running a four-wall pro tour, throwing a lot of its money into it. A lot of the funds went into travel expenses for the players. One-wall, on the other hand, a popular, centralized sport, was caught begging for crumbs.
“It’s annoying, you know?” Albert finally admits to me. “I was never really in it for the money, but it’s still annoying to see them putting it in a different form of the game.” In the minds of many USHA members, one-wall was a niche sport, a bastardization of Gaelic handball, and almost solely played in New York. Most of the players in the tournament were from the city. And almost all of the best players were New Yorkers, anyway. “In their brain, it’s no good, it’s just one area. No one’s coming from Dallas. No one’s coming from Newport Beach. No one’s coming from Quebec City.”
With small ball dying out, giving way to big ball, the two have come to need each other. Albert, who has spoken out against the USHA for years, and repeatedly declined the honor of being inducted to the Hall of Fame, has reached a crossroads.
The USHA gave Albert an ultimatum: accept the invitation this year, or never be inducted. In the growing sport of one-wall handball, the USHA is offering him immortality on a plaque in Arizona. If he declines, his memory will eventually fade to dust, trampled over by the Salas, the Polancos, the future Olympians.
And the USHA needs Albert. The official USHA handball is dying out, and Albert is one of the few charismatic, likable leaders fighting for small ball. The small ball is a fundraiser in itself for the USHA, since the small ball can cost five or 10 times the cost of a racquetball. Like it or not, their fates are intertwined.
The Coney Island courts fill to bursting on the day of the tournament. The small ball players gravitate toward each other on the ‘A’ courts, greeting each other with smiles, handshakes, hugs. Big ball players, not interested in the tournament, congregate on the ‘B’ and ‘C’ courts, nine courts furthest away from the entrance where less-skilled players find games.
Albert, back in his frayed sweats and red, white and blue basketball high tops, points out members of the small fraternity of ‘A-class’ players streaming into the Coney Island courts: Lefty Willie. Pee Wee. Captain Hardball. Dizzle. Rookie. All different ages, different backgrounds, but they all speak with that telltale New York accent; they all carry themselves confidently. Everyone has a nickname, except for the oldest players, who have been there forever, like Albert, and the youngsters who haven’t earned one yet, like Josh Garcia.
Albert, smiling, points out a stocky white guy with a long, blonde ponytail. “You ever watch wrestling?” he asks. “That’s Triple H.”
Regular guys, nobodies off the court, these players are living legends on it. For the second time, I find myself likening these athletes to superheroes, men who, when they take off their masks, become anonymous.
Spectators crowd around the three ‘A’ courts, mostly sitting on benches. Old-timers sit arm-in-arm with lifelong friends, taking in the scene and reminiscing on their youth and handball legends of the past. Sometimes they’ll chat up other spectators, or yell out to encourage and taunt players. One teenager, a Hispanic boy with an tattooed arm sleeve, in a black beater and baggy basketball shorts stamps on his just-lit cigarette in front of two elderly white men on the bench to my right. He leans in, hugging both of them and asking how they’re doing, then walks away, lighting another cigarette.
Albert calls over Lucky Friedman, an octogenarian in dark designer sunglasses and a ball cap.
“Who’s the best handball player you ever saw, Lucky?” Albert asks.
After a beat: “Victor Hershkowitz. He was the Babe Ruth of handball.”
Next is Herbie Rothstein, another old-timer, approaches donned in a Kangol, a white tracksuit and one white glove.
“Best player you ever saw, Herbie.”
“You know who I’m gonna say.” Herbie leans in close.
“Steve Sandler,” Herbie agrees, nodding. “Best athlete I ever saw.”
Albert juts out his jaw. “You know how Jay Leno’s got that jaw? The jaw that would come out, and he’d be just so…feverish. Now everyone was trying to win as much as they can, but he just took it to another level. It’s hard to describe.”
“Best pressure player I ever saw,” Herbie pipes up.
“That’s because he liked to pop those pills, Herb.”
As the start of the small ball tournament draws near, a tall, thin Caucasian rider in a long white tee shirt and jeans, hiding thinning, disheveled white hair beneath a red, plaid fedora, approaches the Coney Island courts astride a black Harley Davidson. The loud growl of his motorcycle as he rolls down Surf Avenue alerts everyone to his presence The rider idles for a bit. Between the trademark motorcycle and eccentric hat, he may as well have used a bullhorn to announce his entrance. It’s Joe Durso.
After speaking to some old acquaintances, Joe looks for a game with his current doubles partner, the 21-year-old Saul “Dizzle” Gonzalez. Gonzalez finished as a semifinalist in last year’s USHA national singles tournament after breaking his hand in the penultimate match. Joe recruited Gonzalez to compete with him in the 2011 doubles national championship.
Racquetball eye guards have replaced his yellow glasses, his yard gloves are on, and his high tops are laced up tight; Albert looks ready for battle. He partners with a middle-aged, heavyset black man, the Jamaican-born doubles star, Tony Roberts. The four jump on an “A court” closest to the beach, and begin to play.
It’s immediately obvious that Albert is decades past his prime. He’s hobbled by a hip injury, and isn’t moving much, sticking to the right side of the court. Gonzalez, the youngest, the fittest, with the most to prove, is the best player on the court. He’s covering the entire court, firing killers from all angles. Joe and Gonzalez take the early lead, 5-1.
Albert and Roberts, though, aren’t two of the best doubles players of all time for nothing. Albert strikes at the ball viciously with both hands. Roberts starts to assert himself on the game as well. Noticeably slow, Roberts is still agile, sure-handed, and willing to put his body on the line for Albert. He repeatedly uses a trademark shot, leaving his feet and diving, parallel to the ground, slapping a killer before landing, belly-first, on the concrete. Albert and Roberts rally, draw even, and pass Joe and Gonzalez. They lead 13-8.
Joe, however, was named one of Sports Illustrated’s 50 greatest New York City athletes of the 20th century for a reason. He’s great, undeniably great, and smart enough to let Gonzalez roam over most of the court chasing down balls to conserve his energy. The two battle back on Albert and Roberts, 14-14.
Then, in front of a crowd of growing onlookers, Albert and Roberts begin to pull away. Albert and Roberts start mixing up low shots with high, arcing ones that bounce over Gonzalez’s head or keep him away from the wall, allowing Roberts to punish the pair with low shots. And Gonzalez and Joe begin to miss, skipping balls off the pavement before the wall, mishitting the small, hard ball, sometimes even missing the entire wall. The game ends comfortably for Albert and Roberts, 25-14.
Albert slaps Tony’s hand when they score the last point, shakes Saul’s, and then turns to me. He and Joe come within arms reach, but don’t speak, don’t shake hands, don’t even acknowledge each other. Joe walks over to a bench, puts on a red plaid fedora, and talks to some spectators casually, before hopping back on his motorcycle, and driving off. Roberts sits down in his chair, catching his breath, recovering for the tournament. Gonzalez bounds off to horse around with Josh Garcia and the younger players. They didn’t play for money, and Joe nor Albert end up playing in the tournament. After a few minutes, it’s almost like the match never even happened.
Still, I beam with pride as Albert takes a seat next to me, sweat dripping down his face. He’s beat up, broken down. He’s not the best anymore, and maybe he never was. But he’s still fighting for the sport that defined his life. He’s one of the last of the old guard, New York one-wall handball players who were raised playing small ball handball, the power game, the man’s game, the dying game. Like everything, the game he loves will eventually fade to dust, a forgotten relic of a time long past. But for now, on this day at least, Albert Apuzzi is the king of Coney Island.