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November 10, 2000, Friday

LEISURE/WEEKEND DESK

WEEKEND WARRIOR; Hit Me With Your Best Shot

By JOE GLICKMAN (NYT) 1974 words

Coney Island is an eclectic oasis on the edge of an eclectic city. It is home to the Polar Bears, those hearty souls who swim in the Atlantic in February, and the Russian women who stroll the boardwalk in mink coats in July. And, of course, the Cyclone, the rickety-looking roller coaster that roars over an amusement park with a fabled past and a faded present. I've been going there for 18 years and still marvel at the delightful weirdness of it all.

For me, one of Coney Island's most riveting attractions is the Sea Breeze handball courts. Passing by on the boardwalk, I've often stopped to watch the ferocious battles below. On the sidelines, tanned elderly men schmooze in the salt air, betting on the action and bantering with one another and the players. I've been impressed by the level of skill and the athleticism of the competitors. One man who is there virtually every time, year after year, dominates. What I didn't realize when I first saw him was that I was watching the handball equivalent of John McEnroe playing at Wimbledon.

Last year curiosity got the best of me, and for the first time I went courtside to study this man. Tanned and shirtless, he had long limbs and the lean, muscular body of a light heavyweight boxer struggling to make weight. He belittled his opponents; McEnroe, the Super Brat himself, would have blushed at some of the trash talk he hurled at his rivals. But he was often very funny. And if his banter stooped low, it could also swoop upward. After one of his deft shots, he said, ''Albert Einstein couldn't compute the physics of that shot.''

And in an aside to the audience during a dispute over a line call he said, ''A lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.'' After the game I introduced myself, and the long conversation that followed sparked a friendship.

Joe Durso, this 6-foot, 1-inch, 185-pound handball legend, is, to put it mildly, supremely confident. ''I tower over the game like the Colossus of Rhodes,'' he said. This is not an idle boast: Mr. Durso is a nine-time National One-Wall champion. Reared in the Coney Island projects by his grandmother, Mr. Durso, a 45-year-old assistant district attorney, is a combination of athlete, shock jock and performance artist. His on-court schtick is half improv, half rehearsed, often provocative, always irreverent, but never boring.

''Whether you love me or hate me,'' he said, ''I'm like a car crash -- compelling to watch.''

Had Mr. Durso channeled his energies into tennis, the world would probably know his name. But his sport is handball, the quintessential city game, the poor man's sport. In New York, handball originated in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, at the turn of the century, when locals passed the time by batting the ball against the breakwaters at low tide. Today handball is played in schoolyards, parks, alleys and supermarket parking lots, in all but the most inhospitable weather. All you need is a wall and pavement.

While the game appears simple -- players smack a small rubber ball with either hand against a wall -- it requires speed, agility and impeccable hand-eye coordination. At its highest level it's a game of violence and finesse -- two or four combatants vying for a small piece of real estate, more like a hybrid of boxing and squash than tennis.

The rules take a minute to learn. The player serving must stand behind the service line, roughly at midcourt. The ball must bounce behind the line and within the side and end lines. The player who returns the serve can whack the ball with either hand on the fly or on one bounce. As in volleyball and squash, you can only record a point on your serve.

This fall, I asked Mr. Durso to show me how to play. On a weekday after work, he met me outside his office in downtown Brooklyn. He was wearing a stylish gray pinstripe suit and bouncing a soft blue ball. The courts on Jay Street near the Brooklyn Bridge were occupied by two doubles games taking place on opposite sides of the 15-foot-high concrete wall. I followed Mr. Durso's lead and stood in the rear just inside the chain-link fence. ''We've got to establish territory,'' he said, ''so they know we're next.''

While we waited, Mr. Durso revealed the key to the game, something deceptively simple yet that took him years to learn: hit the ball away from your opponent. ''The player who does that the most often has to win,'' he said. ''But there's a weird psychological factor,'' he added, swaying from side to side in his black leather shoes like a fighter before a bout, ''that compels you to hit it to the guy. Maybe it's because you want the engagement to continue. But it's a tendency that has to be fought.''

He folded his suit jacket and tie and set them and his cell phone in a neat pile on the side as we finally took the court. Several things quickly became clear to me. First, handball looks a lot easier than it is. Second, connecting solidly with the ball in the palm of your hand hurts. Third, handball demands that you be ambidextrous. Though I'm right-handed, I consider myself reasonably coordinated with my left hand; however, each southpaw foray sent the ball in cruel and unusual directions.

''You literally have to form new synapses in your brain,'' Mr. Durso said as I chased another of my miss-hits.

And I thought I was there just to learn handball.

Twenty minutes into our lesson, I was batting the ball back and forth with this former national champion for minutes at a time. At the end of one manic rally (remember, Mr. Durso was wearing dress shoes and slacks), we were gasping for breath and laughing like a couple of kids.

''It's fun!'' he exclaimed. ''When you hit the ball well, your brain sends a message to its pleasure center. You want that feeling again. In tennis, a racquet separates you from pure contact with the ball. Handball is more primal. I don't care if you're a Ph.D. or a high school dropout, when you're playing well and controlling your opponent like a puppet, it's pure pleasure. No one outgrows this.''

On my way home from the courts, I stopped at a discount store and plunked down 99 cents on a squishy blue handball. The next Saturday I went to the courts on Surf Avenue in Coney Island, the site of the Nationals, looking for a game. At 9 a.m. the action on the half-dozen courts by the boardwalk was already in full swing. On the sidelines, William Sanchez, a Coney Island regular who holds his own despite his artificial left leg, made a small wager on a forthcoming match with Morris Levinsky, a grizzled 83-year-old park historian.

''Any game without money isn't worth a nickel!'' Mr. Levinsky explained to me.

Mr. Durso was on the court tutoring a lithe blond woman named Victoria Kutikova, a former ballet dancer in her early 40's who moved to Brighton Beach from Ukraine. A jogger and ballroom dance teacher, Ms. Kutikova started playing last fall. ''You guys would be a good match,'' Mr. Durso said as he headed off to find himself a game.

Initially, I sprayed the ball around the court like a monkey with a machine gun. After two dozen erratic shots, I remembered Mr. Durso's advice: ''Forget about trying to hit the ball hard; concentrate on contact.'' I zeroed in on the bouncing blue ball and began to have fun. Ms. Kutikova and I played for more than an hour in the cool ocean breeze, often clicking into a bounce-and-hit rhythm that at its best felt like a satisfying, if crudely choreographed, dance. Unlike our mentor, we engaged in no macho posturing or trash talking. We didn't even keep score. All we did was run, hit, sweat and laugh.

After my match I wandered over to watch Mr. Durso and his partner, a short, squat man, battle a tough-looking muscular duo. A small crowd had gathered, and the barbs and side bets were flowing. Having now played the game, I could truly appreciate their skill. They whacked the short rebounds on the fly with either hand and hammered floaters with blinding speed. (A good serve travels 85 miles per hour; I was often unable to track the ball.) Several times, competitors dove to the pavement like outstretched volleyball players digging out a short ball.

What separated Mr. Durso from the others, it seemed, was his ability to control a point -- hitting short, lobbing deep, working the angles. After one rally that seemed to last forever, I thought of something Mr. Durso had told me: ''I wasn't just interested in winning, I tried to create volleys that were beautiful; to create a living art form, using my opponent.''

The next Saturday I was back for more. And so, of course, was Mr. Durso. Unable to get into a game the lone time I ventured back to the courts on Tillary Street, I'd practiced three times against a schoolyard wall in my Park Slope neighborhood. Practice left me far from perfect, but I did improve. While I had decent directional control with my right hand, shots with my left remained an adventure. If the ball bounced above my left shoulder, I slapped at it like a duck flapping an injured wing.

When I arrived, Mr. Durso was eating his breakfast (chicken legs) on a park bench. With nothing else going on yet, he offered to hit with me. He held a drumstick in his right hand and hit with his left. As soon as he noticed that I had improved, he sent me scampering to the corner. Much to his surprise, I returned the ball with my left. He sent a shot to the opposite side of the court. I swung wildly, hitting the ball with the top part of my hand and sending it sailing over the wall. He applauded my hustle, but offered a bit of philosophy he said he had borrowed from Ayn Rand: ''It's not enough to strive for perfection -- attain it.''

We rallied like this for half an hour. I was drenched in sweat; Mr. Durso, who appeared to be enjoying himself immensely, seemed slightly fatigued from talking so much. I continued to hit after he left to play singles on another court.

As I hit, I listened to Mr. Durso riding his opponent. On the court next to me, four men old enough to have seen Gil Hodges play in Ebbets Field were battling on creaky knees. After a particularly loud Dursoian sally, one wizened player built like a refrigerator said: ''Hey Joe, shut up, will ya? We're trying to play over here!''

Mr. Durso unleashed a stream of inspired invective that covered the man's age, ability and appearance. Both parties laughed. Seconds later, everyone was hard at it, grunting, whacking and wisecracking, chasing a small rubber ball across a 20-by-40-foot slab of concrete.

Fun and Games

Handball, which is depicted in Egyptian hieroglyphics, may be one of the world's oldest games. In the view of the champion Joe Durso, the two local handball shrines are at Surf Avenue at West Fifth Street on Coney Island in Brooklyn and ''the Cage'' at West Fourth Street and Avenue of the Americas in Greenwich Village.

And more can be learned about the game at
www.ushandball.org.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

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