Author(s):    Leslie Anderson, Globe Correspondent Date: July 12, 1998 Page: 1 Section: Northwest Weekly

LAWRENCE -- Sweat dripped down the faces of four muscular young men as they ran, grunted and spinned to reach a sky-blue sphere, not even the size of a tennis ball.

Though graffiti covered the tall cement wall of the city-owned handball courts at Lowell and Oxford streets, the players were oblivious to distractions as they slammed the ball for a point. "I play almost every day," said Dominick Almonte, who at 29 is viewed by his fellow players as a master of the sport. "It keeps you occupied. It keeps you in good shape."

There is no Michael Jordan of handball. No obscenely paid professionals whose names alone can sell sneakers, jerseys, or boxes of cereal.

All there is to this most basic of court games is a wall and a $2.50 ball.

But that's enough for Almonte and growing numbers of urban youths who have taken up the game, honing their skills in school yards, parks and against the stark walls of housing projects.

On July 25 at 9 a.m., the Lawrence branch of the Merrimack Valley YMCA will host its first ever citywide handball tournament, with several other community service agencies.

In doing so, the organization hopes both to promote the sport and connect with the often disenfranchised teenagers who play it.

"Handball is an up-and-coming sport for the kids around here," said Randy Kinnas, the Y's physical and youth director. "It's not expensive. All you need is a ball and your hand."

"I thought it would be a good idea to bring this to neighborhoods that have a lot of runaways, teenage violence, drug activity," said Rev. Juan P. Romero, a local pastor who serves on the Y's board of managers and suggested the tournament.

"If we bring social services together and these kids together for a teen participation event, we can at least get them talking."

Although handball is believed to have been played since ancient times, the modern version was introduced to the United States by Irish immigrants in the 19th century, according to the US Handball Association based in Tucson. The game used a four-wall court of the type found in many old YMCAs, including the Lawrence facility.

But while four-wall handball remains the choice of many purists and was the precursor to racquetball, one-wall handball has caught fire among youths in Lawrence and other urban areas.

"It's something they can do any time," Kinnas said. "They don't need a membership at a YMCA or a Boys Club. There's nobody breathing down their neck, telling them to follow rules and stuff. They just do it."

Originating along the beaches of South Brooklyn, one-wall handball spread through New York City in the 1930s when the city's Parks Department erected thousands of neighborhood courts. Opponents alternately hit the ball against a wall that is 16 feet high and 20 feet wide. The purpose of the game is to hit the ball in such a way that one's opponent cannot keep it in play -- that is, hit it back against the wall before it has bounced on the ground twice. Only the server receives a point. If heor she loses the rally, the serve goes to the opposing player. If the ball bounces twice after hitting the wall, it is called out.

Although handball games generally run to 21 points, Kinnas said the YMCA tournament games will go up to 15.

New York is still the one-wall mecca, but the game has spread to other US cities and even into Europe. In Lawrence, its adherents play on the glass-strewn courts at Lowell and Oxford streets.

That is where the July 25 tournament will be held, primarily targeting youths of middle school and high school age. First, however, the YMCA will organize a community cleanup and repairs to the city-owned facility.

The Y has also invited several other community agencies, such as the city's Housing Authority and Youth Commission, to help run the contests and provide information about their services.

"We would not just run an event and leave," said Frank Kenneally, the Y's community program director. "We want to establish a presence and let people in that neighborhood know what programs there are for kids and their families."

Romero, whose Pentecostal church, Iglesia de Dios, is across the street from the YMCA, grew up in New York City and recalled how handball would "bring kids from the neighborhood together."

"This team spirit was elevated when we would have an adult -- especially somebody like a teacher, somebody who served as a role model -- participate with us," he added. "It gave us a sense of importance."

Romero said he hopes the tournament will do the same, eliminating the stereotypes that some social service professionals might have "as to whether these kids are really lost causes."

The tournament might even prompt some participants to check out the four-wall handball courts in the 88-year-old YMCA building, now primarily used for racquetball, Kinnas added.

"Maybe this might be another great way to bring more kids into the Y, if they know we have handball courts," he said.

Whichever version -- four-wall, one-wall or three-wall (yes, there is such a thing) -- handball is considered by its proponents to be nearly unrivaled as a sport combining flexibility, stamina and coordination.

"It's probably the oldest game involving a ball," said Art Padilla, a former member of the US Handball Association's board of directors. "Some historians trace it to the time of the Greeks and have pictures of Greek soldiers playing with a ball against a wall."

Despite its apparent simplicity, Padilla said, handball is a difficult game to master. "Anybody can hit a ball with a racket," said "But to hit a handball well with your hand -- and especially your off-hand -- takes some work. The real good players are ambidextrous."

Judging from other YMCA-sponsored tournaments, the upcoming handball contests should draw a crowd. Last August, the Y held its fifth annual three-on-three basketball tournament at which more than 200 players competed.

But to Andre Morillo, 14, handball far outshines basketball.

"It's better," Morillo said as he slammed a few shots against the wall. "It's better. I play with my friends, all of them.

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