By Peter Duffy
The history of handball, the greatest of New York City street games, has not been written. Instead, its folk memory is passed on through the rich oral tradition of its glove- and eyegear-wearing practitioners. On the benches surrounding the Seaside Courts on Surf Avenue in Coney Island — handball’s holiest site — you can see them: the elder storytellers, the praise singers who transmit the heroic myths of their people. They tell of the colossus known as Vic Hershkowitz (a Brooklyn fireman who loomed during the forties and fifties), the relentless Steve Sandler (the sixties and seventies), and the spectral presence of Joe Garber, killed while flying a B-29 over Germany in World War II. “The same old conversations,” as one of them puts it. “The same old bullshit.”
“He saw Joe Garber play,” says Hank Grassi, a fit 83-year-old wearing a cap that reads #1 POPPY, pointing to an arriving Stu Fleischman.
“Joe Garber,” announces the crotchety Fleischman, his hand raised as if asking for quiet, “was like Joe DiMaggio.”
“How old are you?” I ask.
“What the hell do I give a shit?” he barks.
The griots all agree on the identity of the two men who currently reign over the game: Cesar Sala, 31, an NYPD officer from Brighton Beach, and Satish Jagnandan, 32, director of mathematics and science for Mount Vernon City School District, from Wakefield, the Bronx. The two, who are as gifted athletically as any of the better-known (and significantly better-paid) sports figures in town, are the Nadal and Federer of the handball world, fierce competitors with contrasting styles and personalities who have brought new excitement to their pastime.
Sala, who received his GED after dropping out of Lincoln High School, took up handball as a teenager when he found that he could win a few hundred dollars by going into a park and challenging its top player. Jagnandan, who has two master’s degrees and is completing a Ph.D., learned the game at the prestigious Bronx High School of Science, where he starred on the varsity handball squad. On the court, Sala is thrillingly improvisatory and sometimes erratic, a defensive genius who suffers visibly when he struggles. His legions of fans shout “Hail Cesar!” whenever he hits a winner. Jagnandan, famous for his devastating serve, is controlled, merciless, and often boring, like “Mr. Spock on the Enterprise,” says one player. He has a small band of followers who are inevitably outnumbered at tournaments. “We go into the lion’s den and we’re surrounded by a thousand Brooklyn mugs,” says Pedro Garcia, a loyal Satish man. “The ten Bronx guys are dead meat.”
Each is busy preparing, in his own way, for handball’s Wimbledon: the National One-Wall Championships held at the courts in Coney Island from August 5 to 9. Typically played during the hottest week of the summer, the Nationals draw the top players in the city, a diverse cast of local legends, who are given the opportunity to imprint their names on the game’s collective unconscious (and win $2,000). On the final day of the tournament, Sunday, two players will compete for the title of national champion on the concrete of Court One, surrounded by a few hundred fans, many placing bets on the action. ESPN will not be present. The only way you can get a decent seat is if you bring your own. There will be profanity. And if it’s anything like a typical day at handball’s mecca, the sweet swell of marijuana will waft over the courts from the direction of the boardwalk.
For the past three years, Sala and Jagnandan have faced each other in the final. Jagnandan beat his rival in 2006 and 2007, giving him four titles in a row. Last year, Sala scored a redemptive victory — ”No words to describe,” he says — adding to the national title he won in 2001. It is fully expected that the two will meet again on Sunday afternoon. “For Cesar and Satish, it doesn’t matter if there are ten guys or 10,000 guys, they are better than those guys,” says Joe Durso, 54, who won the singles title nine times in the eighties and early nineties. “They are going to meet in the final.”
“Satish and Cesar are an inspiration, helping fuel the renaissance of one-wall handball,” says Howie Eisenberg, a commissioner with the United States Handball Association and Steve Sandler’s chief rival during the sixties. “I think they could’ve played with us. But only those two.” To the New York City handball player, these grudging words of respect are the equivalent of a solemn rite of investiture. “He said that?” asks Jagnandan.
One-wall handball — there are also three- and four-wall versions popular in the other 49 states — couldn’t be simpler. “Either hand or either fist may be used to hit the ball,” according to the USHA rules. “The objective is to win each rally by serving or returning the ball so the opponent is unable to keep the ball in play.” The first player to 21 — points can only be made on serve — wins the game. In the bigger tournaments, the first to win two games wins the match. If the sides split the first two games, a tiebreaker is decided by the first to reach 11 points.
Introduced to the city by Irish immigrants in the nineteenth century, the sport crowned its first men’s singles champion in 1923. His name was Edmund W. Butler. He lived on Ocean Avenue and was a salesman for the Blue Crest Wine and Spirits Corporation, according to his 1956 obituary in the New York Times. Handball took off during the Great Depression, when there was nothing better to do. From the thirties to the mid-fifties, Jews dominated, supplying national champions with names like Irving Jacobs, Moe Orenstein (a Runyonesque character who was Vic Hershkowitz’s great adversary), and Artie Wolfe. The streak was interrupted with the emergence of the famed Obert brothers — Oscar, Carl, and Ruby — second-generation Germans (!), one of whom (Ruby) can still be found batting the ball around Coney Island. The seventies and eighties brought a greater diversity, with Italians, Latinos, and African-Americans all winning titles. Today the best handball players represent nearly every subset of New York ethnic society. “Here you got the League of Nations,” says old-timer Max “Crazy Legs” Forcht.
According to the Parks Department, there are some 2,000 handball courts in 560 parks in New York. You can learn a lot about a top player by where he plays. John “Rookie” Wright, who is one of the game’s most enthusiastic bettors, goes where the action is, often the courts at West 4th Street in Manhattan or 88th Street and Atlantic Avenue in Queens, both gamblers’ paradises. (He also works the night shift as a clerk at an OTB in Manhattan. “I’m surrounded by gambling,” he tells me in mock horror.)
Sala, who has tightly cropped black hair, a compact build, and an easy manner, practices in the broadest of daylight in Coney Island, where handball’s hard-to-please cognoscenti scrutinize his every move. From what I observed, he is loved. Manny Haimowitz, a handball elder nursing a Coors, calls him “bubbeleh.” A young Ukrainian in a bikini top, Anastasiya Oleynik, hugs him and says that he told her “there are no limits” to what she could do in handball. “Cesar shows the kids how to play, how to serve the ball,” says Mike Garcia, who originated the “Hail Cesar” chant at tournaments. “Satish doesn’t really do that: It’s all about me and f-you.”
Sala first wandered over from his apartment in Brighton Beach as a teenager. At age 15, he was asked by a gambler to take on another player. “And I destroyed the guy,” he says. “And, I don’t know, this guy made a thousand dollars on me. So he gave me 300 bucks. So I was like, ‘Hey, 300 bucks and I didn’t even break a sweat? I think I can do this.’ I got sucked in by that whole thing.”
At about the same time, his parents split up. His mother moved to Puerto Rico and his father to the Bronx. Sala stayed in Brooklyn, living with his sisters and sometimes friends. Although he worked odd jobs, he made a significant income through handball, taking home $100 to $200 a day. It’s a world that is unknown to Jagnandan, who frowns on gambling. “A guy throwing an elbow is not as foreign to me as it may be to him,” says Sala. “Or a guy running into my swing or trying to hurt me physically while we’re playing.”
Honed by his battles in the street, Sala won his first national title at age 22 in 2001. He then went through his own Lost Weekend. He rarely played and partied vigorously. And he lost his crown. “I would go to a club, hang out, and then come here and play in a tournament,” he says. “And you just don’t have it. You have to sleep right.” He fully emerged only after joining the NYPD in 2005. He was assigned to a radio car in the 66th Precinct in Boro Park. “It definitely brought stability to my life,” he says. “I needed it on and off the court.” Still, “I’ve always had a thing for excitement. I don’t like to play it safe. Sometimes that bites you in the ass. Sometimes it doesn’t.”
“Cesar is very high-strung, he’s emotional,” says Durso. “If he misses a shot, you can see the pain. He’s always talking to himself internally. . . . There’s a tremendous swing and range of emotion. He’ll make a great shot. Then he’ll miss an easy shot. The shots that he goes for are not normal shots. Cesar will go for experimental shots, shots that Satish would not think of going for.”
Indeed, during a pickup doubles game on one of my visits, Sala is so inconsistent at first that catcalls rain down from the ramp leading to the boardwalk. He smacks a few volleys clear over the wall into the next court. For several minutes, he and his partner appear ready to lose. But before long he is covered in sweat, and in the end, he hits a dramatic winner down the line to pull out a victory that had appeared impossible. He is not at all embarrassed by the drama. “I love winning like that,” he says, flashing an exuberant smile.
Satish Jagnandan is a hard man to reach. Handball officials don’t have his current phone number. A player who told me he was Jagnandan’s “unofficial publicist” spent two days trying to get him on the line, to no avail. Once I obtained his various phone numbers, I left messages. No response. With the J. D. Salinger of handball, you have to make a pilgrimage to his mountaintop: Bailey Park in the Bronx, a nondescript sliver of a park near Riverdale with the Major Deegan on one side and the auto-parts shops of Bailey Avenue on the other. Here, surrounded by a small group of players who are like family, he develops his skills in isolation, rarely venturing out into the wider handball world except for tournaments. “He has a way of intimidating his competition by not being around,” says Sala. “So when they see him, it’s like, ‘Oh, this is the guy they’ve been talking about.’ ”
When I get there on a Friday afternoon, Jagnandan is warming up by himself on a far court, preparing for a doubles game much like the one Sala played in Coney Island. He has a few days’ growth of a beard and a mop of jet-black hair above his battered eyegear. His greeting is cordial but he isn’t much interested in halting his routine. And it is a serious routine. He practices three times daily, arriving for his morning session at 6:30 a.m. “I’ve seen him out here in the rain,” says Emmanuel Fuentes, 22, a frequent practice partner. “I’m like, ‘Yo, what are you doing?’ ” Jagnandan maintains a strict diet of fruits (breakfast and lunch) and chicken with rice (dinner). In the mornings, he takes supplements of cod-liver oil and vitamin C — “just regular stuff,” he says. In contrast, Sala practices about three times a week and has a far from austere meal plan, allowing himself pizza every couple of days.
A native of Guyana who moved to the Bronx when he was 9, Jagnandan had the stable family background that Sala lacked. His father, Basdeo, spent hours each day tutoring and playing sports with him and his brother. Jagnandan’s steady excellence in school has brought him, at a relatively young age, to a position of humbling responsibility — he is charged with improving the math and science capabilities of students in the struggling Mount Vernon district. His lifetime of precision and discipline can be seen on the court. “He’s no emotion, all logic, just pure angles,” says Durso. “He plays a very geometric game. . . . If he gets a bad call, he tries to contain it. He very rarely will talk to a ref or a spectator. He’s very cerebral and very calm.”
Once he is ready, Jagnandan moves to Bailey’s version of center court. Over the course of three hours, he and his partner, a 62-year-old in excellent shape named Joe Agosto, grind down their opponents and are never once threatened with a loss. “His drive is incredible,” says spectator Pedro Garcia, who has written a play about two rival handball players, one from Brooklyn, the other from the Bronx. “He doesn’t do anything to spoil his body, and plays for hours and hours at a time.” Jagnandan rarely makes a mistake — his shots go where he wants them to go. And unlike Sala, who is content to strike the ball lightly at times, Jagnandan wallops the small blue sphere every time he cocks his arm. Although he jokes with the other players — and even trash-talks in ways he never would during a big match — it is obvious that he is dead serious about avenging his embarrassing defeat to Sala in last year’s Nationals. Jagnandan lost the first game by a single point, hurt by a controversial referee’s call that is still being debated. Sala then coasted to victory in the second game, winning the match 2-0 and ending Jagnandan’s streak of four singles’ titles in a row. “I am always practicing, thinking about him in my mind,” says Jagnandan. “You can’t relax with a guy like that around.”
Up here in the northern reaches of the city, far from Coney Island, Jagnandan’s supporters see their man as a lone rebel arrayed against a hostile handball Establishment. “A lot of players don’t like him,” says Timothy White, one of Jagnandan’s most fervent devotees. “He doesn’t get respect.” White describes how he confronted a player who denigrated Jagnandan’s abilities. “I said to him, ‘Who can beat him? Give me one name!’ ” He wonders why the USHA doesn’t put Jagnandan on the front page of its website.
Jagnandan receives the most knocks from his critics for almost never playing doubles at tournaments, allowing him to focus his energies on the singles competition. (Sala has won many doubles titles.) “Do you know what it’s like to play singles and doubles in the same tournament?” roars Billy Maggio, a Sala supporter. “You have to be fuckin’ strong. Excuse my French, he’s like a little bitch.” But no less an eminence than Howie Eisenberg sees Jagnandan’s decision as “smart,” arguing that it does nothing to diminish his achievements. “I want to bring the spotlight back to singles,” says Jagnandan.
If handball is about anything, it is about just such disputes. In such a culture of contention, everything is up for debate. It isn’t even clear what the record is between Jagnandan and Sala. They have played each other roughly three or four times a year since 2004, with Jagnandan winning the majority of two-out-of-three matches and Sala taking most of the one-game matches. Even though Sala won all three matches in 2008, many handball wise men believe that Satish’s single-minded dedication will win out this year. “I’m sure he can’t wait for the chance to regain his title,” says Albert Apuzzi, a former champion himself. But you will not hear these two competitors denigrate each other in the time-honored way. Both say the rivalry has made them better players. They heap praise each other’s technique, say it’s an honor to be on the same court � blah, blah, blah.
Joe Durso is openly contemptuous. “Handball is a physical contest where there is a premium on aggression,” he says. “You are trying to physically overpower the opponent. I just don’t like that while you are trying to do that, you are trying to be a gentleman.”
He adds, “I think I was better than both of them.”