The Handball Symphony

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One harsh thwack of rubber ball meeting hand, then a moment later, a flatter, harder thwack of ball meeting wall. Then the same two beats over again. Soon, a rhythm emerges. These are the trademark sounds of a game of handball. Put several games together, as the Inner City Handball Association (ICHA) did last weekend at the North Meadow Recreation Center in Central Park, and you get a symphony of the sport: thwack-thwack, thwack-thwack, thwack-thwack, a squeak of sneakers, a grunt of exertion, an ultimate, determining thwack-thwack and finally a yell of exultation.

“I like the drive, the power, the intensity, the angles, the lobs, everything,” said 15-year-old Josh Garcia of Sunset Park, Brooklyn, still breathing hard moments after a long semifinal doubles match.

Like the several dozen others wandering around, he was playing in the 2009 Sky Bounce Handball Championships, a tournament now in its 15th year. (It was previously called the Inner City Big Blue Championships before Sky Bounce, which manufactures handballs, became the title sponsor last year.)

An athlete takes aim at an oncoming ball during the 2009 Sky Bounce Handball Championships, in Central Park. Photo by Isaac Rosenthal

An athlete takes aim at an oncoming ball during the 2009 Sky Bounce Handball Championships, in Central Park. Photo by Isaac Rosenthal

The tournament is only one of several notable endeavors that Paul Williams has started. He founded ICHA 18 years ago and has shepherded it to a place of prominence in the enthusiastic handball community of New York City. The nonprofit organization arranges handball clinics, games and tournaments on both indoor and outdoor courts for about 5,000 kids. That’s a heady number, but it’s one that Williams is still unhappy with.

“There are still a lot more kids in the city,” said Williams, a towering figure with a thin, salt-and-pepper mustache. “This city has 2,000 handball courts, so 5,000 kids suddenly doesn’t seem like so many.”

Handball typically comes in one-, three- and four-wall varieties. For years, one-wall handball was exclusive to New York and regarded as perhaps the city’s most emblematic sport. The best players still come out of the five boroughs, but the one-wall version of the game has now spread to 20 states and even to Europe.

Williams has played the game for 41 years and intends to head to the World Championships in Portland, Ore., this October. He has twice won his age bracket there and twice finished second in the open competition.

“It’s a hobby,” he said in a remarkable bit of understatement for something that seems more like a passionate obsession. “My game is still pretty good.”

Williams, who is also president of the World Handball Council, hopes to take some of ICHA’s kids to Portland with him. Teenage players have to earn their way by showing success both on the court and in the classroom. Garcia, who makes no bones about his handball obsession, might be one who gets to make the trip. Williams placed him among the top junior players in the city.

“I don’t think that I’m the best,” Garcia said. “I just have more experience and play more than the other players.”

When he isn’t in school, Garcia plays 10 games per day, three or four days per week. During the school year, he plays for Brooklyn’s High School of Telecommunication Arts & Technology and is coming off a near-perfect season. This spring, he went 15-0 and led his team to the city championship final before it lost its only match. His father started teaching him the sport when he was 3 and still occasionally runs him ragged out at the courts, but Garcia never loses his enthusiasm. On July 19, he won the under-17 singles draw at the Sky Bounce Tournament and then showed off his skills in the doubles format, consistently hitting low, hard shots and keeping his opponents off balance.

“When we go on defense in the back, our goal is to move them back so we can go to the front and take control,” Garcia said, explaining his strategy. “It’s all about taking control by using lobs or drives to send them to the back of the court. Then you can block out your opponents so it’s a struggle for them to reach for the ball.”

Moments after Garcia finished his semifinal match, Williams strolled to a court on the opposite side of the recreation center and began playing a casual game. He was without athletic garb and had more important tasks at hand: keeping matches going, running errands, ordering pizza for his players. The noontime sun was withering overhead, with the concrete underfoot attracting every bit of heat, but for a handball diehard like Williams, that familiar thwack-thwack was just too much to resist.

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