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August 8, 1999, Sunday

THE CITY WEEKLY DESK

NEIGHBORHOOD REPORT: CONEY ISLAND -- BUZZ; They're Up Against the Wall

By PETER DUFFY (NYT) 594 words

THE SETTING -- The Seaside Courts on Surf Avenue in Coney Island, where some of the best handball players in the country gathered for the 39th United States Handball Association One-Wall Championships. The tournament, held from Thursday through today, includes 135 players in 10 divisions and three skill levels. A total of $5,000 will be awarded to the winners.

On Thursday, 50 people sat in lawn chairs or leaned against the fence watching the first-round action on Court No. 1. Many were older men who had followed the game for decades, but there were younger practitioners seeking a glimpse of spectacular shot-making.

The courts are hallowed ground to one-wall handball players. The sport is also played in three-wall and four-wall versions, but one-wall, a space-saving variety that can be played against the side of an apartment building, is traditionally a city game. The best players in this tournament are from the five boroughs. Admission is free.

THE BUZZ -- ''We all look forward to this,'' said Artie Cussell, 84, a spectator on Thursday but a still-active player known to everyone around the courts. ''And this is only the preliminaries.''

Mr. Cussell spoke after a match between Danny Bell, the Canadian champion, and Joe Durso, a nine-time winner of the men's singles event. The 44-year-old Mr. Durso is a famed competitor known for his ferocious serve and his on-court temper.

He said that, because of his age, he tired near the end of the match, in which he prevailed over Mr. Bell. ''That took me from untouchable greatness to being very good,'' he said.

He is not shy in assessing his overall place in the game, either. ''If this were a famous sport,'' he said, ''my body would be studied by the Harvard Medical School.''

But Mr. Durso is typical in his veneration for this spot. ''These courts are like Wimbledon center court for handball,'' he said. ''The blood and sweat of these players has seeped into the concrete.''

The crowd was filled with legends. Quietly watching in a Mets cap was Ruby Obert, 65, a four-time singles winner and a member of the handball Hall of Fame, in Tucson, Ariz. Mr. Obert possesses none of Mr. Durso's bluster. He is a student of the sport who coolly analyzed weaknesses in players' games.

During a break, Mr. Obert offered instruction to John Lee, 19, who was competing in the tournament for the first time. Mr. Lee was honored when the silver-haired champion gave him his home phone number. He promised not to give it to anyone.

''This is a chance to showcase our skills,'' said Paul Williams, 40, who has reached the doubles final five years in a row, winning twice. It allows players to prove that they aren't wasting their time on a street game, he said, but are legitimate athletes.

The competition is intense, full of trash-talking, dives across the concrete and arguments with officials.

''They get very upset,'' said Pat Fattore, a referee. ''But they don't mean anything by it.'' PETER DUFFY

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

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