Published in Time Out New York, November 12-19, 1998
TO THE WALL
Before the young studs take over the Coney Island handball
courts, a posse of trash-talking seniors show how to hit and run
by Brett Martin
The name of the place is Seaside Park - or is it Asser Levy? The
men who gather here several times a week suggest these possibilities after ten
minutes of heated discussion. But the real name hardly matters, since the small
park at Surf Avenue and West 5th Street, just a short walk down the Boardwalk
from Nathan's and the Cyclone, is known as only one thing, "the Mecca."
Specifically, the park, with its 11 courts, is New York's
Mecca of one-wall handball. This version of the sport - a gritty, urban game
played elsewhere on three or four walls - is a distinctly New York
phenomenon. Here at the Mecca, the National One Wall Championships are held each
Memorial Day, and a community of older handballers gathers year-round to play
On a recent sunny Sunday morning, the Mecca crowd is out
in force. Art Fuchs, a 53 year old city worker who helps organize the weekly
games, and Jack Feldman - who, at 71, has played for more than 50 years - stand
courtside, watching a heated match between older players. Many of the guys have
been competing since they were children. "Every generation of poor kids picks up
this sport, because it's cheap," says Feldman. "All you need is a ball and a
pair of gloves." A rabid Giants fan, Feldman is known as "Football Jack"; he
explains that this helps distinguish him from "Jack the Arab," who is a
Sephardic Jew, and "Red Jack," who is bald.
It's hard on the body," says Fuchs. "You need strength and
speed. But it can also be a head game, like a game of chess. You want to
outsmart your opponent and hit the ball where he isn't." Feldman pats Fuchs's
ample belly. "Art plays a head game," he says, smiling.
Across the way, the over 80 group is gathering. "I'm
retired now, and this is like my job," says 83 year old Irving Friedman. "And
it's the best job I've ever had." His teammate Jack Neuman is 86 and dressed in
a Miami Beach sweatshirt and Chuck Taylor sneakers. "We're not sissies," he
growls. "This is about competition, desire." He leans forward. "You want to live
a long life? Find a sport you like, and play it."
The matches are intense, lasting 40 minutes or more, and
filled with trash talking, strategic maneuvering and surprising agility. But the
sense of camaraderie brings out as many people as does the game itself. The
regulars talk about champions who have passed away or who have just moved on to
Flamingo Park in Miami Beach, which is sort of a Mecca South. They mention
people like Vic Hershkowitz, who won his first one-wall title in 1947 and five
more over the next decade. Or Joey Garber, 1938's champ, who was killed in World
War II. They mention names like Steve Sandler and Kenny Davidoff and the Obert
brothers - Oscar, Carl and 63 year old Ruby, who can still be seen on the
courts, dressed only in red shorts and sneakers.
The younger players begin arriving at noon - lean,
muscular guys, many Hispanic, who play fast, graceful matches. Although
basketball has long since replaced one-wall as the pre-dominant playground game,
true believers (like 43 year old Albert Apuzzi, a ten time outdoor champion)
keep the sport alive by organizing the annual championship and informal year
round activities. "There's always the question of whether the sport will out
live us older guys," says Fuchs. Today, at least things look good, as the older
set watches the young players admiringly. "Once you're a handballer," says one.
"it never, ever leaves you."