There are thousands of them! In school yards and in city run parks all over New York. In fact, there are 2052 handball courts in New York City, according to the NYC Parks Department. Six-hundred-and-seventy-three in Brooklyn alone.
There are several ways to play this fast and furious talk-a-lot-of-shit game which may or may not have had its origins in antiquity. The sport was depicted on a tombstone carving in Athens, Greece dated 600 BC. As far as the game poppin’ off in the States, some say the Irish introduced it here during the California Gold Rush of the 1840s. One thing is certain, however: handball is a New York thing, so you wouldn’t understand if you’re not from here.
So how do you play handball? Simple: with one or four walls, high or low lobs, with hard or soft balls and with cunning angles that can kill. If you’re good you can be King of The Courts. If you’re wack, you’ll be Scrub of the Playground. For DJ Enuff, Gio Vasquez, Bill Spector and Keir Kramlich, members of the New York City Handball Club, organized by NYC impresario Mike Saes, the game supercedes any other game, organized or otherwise. For these dudes, its all about having fun. It’s fully a part of their lives, the fabric of their experience growing up in and around NYC.
Bill Spector. Orignally from Queens. Party promoter.
I’ve been playing handball since I was a kid in the ‘70s but I took some time off. I started playing again 15 years ago. I played basketball, but I wasn’t very good. While waiting to play basketball, I used to play handball. I was actually good at it even though I wasn’t coordinated.
I grew up in a different New York than it is now. I remember being by the guidos where my father lived, and there was a park with like, mad Italian dudes! They weren’t down with anybody. Yet, when a Spanish kid would pop up and play handball, everybody knew who he was. ‘Oh, that’s the great kid from East New York! He comes up all the time and plays,’ they’d say. I was like, ‘What? He’s not one of the kids you gonna chase with bats?’
Saes and I have been friends since we were kids in the ‘80s–we’ve stayed friends straight through. Keir is just a younger kid from downtown; I’ve known him for years. Enuff used to DJ my parties–we also know each other from when we were teenagers. Gio came into the fold recently, and he’s the number one handball player in the city!
Most of my friends don’t live in New York anymore. It’s funny: when I go to Florida, I have an apartment there, I run into people I grew up with, like random kids who say things like, ‘I haven’t seen you in years, you still play this game?’ We play on two courts in Florida–Flamingo Park in Miami and on a court in Ft. Lauderdale. The difference with playing in Florida is its all New Yorkers! The funny thing I’ve learned about handball, besides a couple places in LA, is that handball is a very indigenous New York game. And there are two places where people play handball: New York and in jail.
I often use the graffiti analogy: as a kid I wrote graffiti and there used to be a lot animosity between the writers and the handball players. I actually got punched in the face by some writer when I was a kid. Some kids did a piece on a wall, which was actually a dope piece, and the kids who played handball were like, “Are these guys your friends? And I said, “Yes, I kinda’ know them.” And they go, “Yeah? Tell them this!” and I got punched in the face! I was on the court leaking!
1Gio Vasquez. Pro Handball Champ. Brooklyn.
I’ve been playing handball since I was 12 years old, it was the only thing that kept me out of trouble. My mom passed away when I was 14 but since then I continued to play. I got the card that certifies you as a professional player at 18 years old. I’ve got crazy stories, scars, battles, you name it! As a pro I travel all over the world: I’ve played in Italy, in Portland, Tuscon, Massachusetts, Puerto Rico, Connecticut. I’ve been to a lot of states where I’ve won tournaments, and I have titles I have to defend every year. Florida is one of the major places I go. There’s a lot of major tournaments out there. I go there about four times a year to these events– which are cool with money, trophies. I’m down there doing something I love.
I was born and raised in Brooklyn; I came from a park by Broadway-Junction near the A line. It has about six courts that light up so you can play all night. I used to break night! People used to tell me to go home! They used to kick me off the court. I used to say, ‘One day I’m gonna get good and I’m gonna beat all you guys!’ And I came back and I beat the top players in a row.
Since playing handball at the pro level, I’ve been going from Number One to Number Two. I’m number two right now. There’s another guy named Rookie, he’s pretty good too. I think Rookie was the hardest person for me to beat. That was the toughest. You’re talking about a guy who reined 13 years-plus as the Number One player. Not too many guys took him down from there. My game against Rookie had to be one of the hardest games I ever faced. That was definitely the last level, like the 34th chamber. When I beat him I felt like I definitely arrived, that I was definitely Number One material. And I’m still fighting for it, you know?
Winning the King of The Courts had to be the coolest thing that ever happened to me. It’s like winning Wimbledon, the US Open. I won glory, pride, trophies. I just did it for the people you know? I’m just trying to be the people’s champ and that’s what I am.
I play year round, seven days a week. This is what I do! My favorite place to play at has to be West 4th Street and Coney Island. West 4th Street is the Mecca of handball, and Coney Island is a landmark. These are two places where there’s a tremendous amount of top players who are really good. Your game can excel when you play against certain players. West 4th is where I came from and where I play at now. West 4th is where I got my game to a level where I didn’t think it would ever be.
Its a different style of playing in Coney Island. In Coney Island, they play high ball, they don’t play low to the ground or with killer action. They’re not into that. It’s a technician sort of style–they’re gonna outsmart you with these high shots or high lobs. It’s a different experience. Its tough!
I play everything! I’m an all around player. I play low, high, mid section. However you wanna call it, its where I’m at! I play four walls but I’m not really familiar with the walls so I try to stay within my elements. It took me a few years to get my opposite hand just as good as my power hand. I call this the “pistol” and this the “gun”. Its hard to get them both even; it takes a lot of practice to get it perfect.