COMMERCE — Around the handball courts at Rosewood Park, where he has helped dozens of boys find a better life through sports, Tony Huante is known fondly as the " abuelo. "
The neighborhood "grandfather" is a straight-shooting, gregarious disciplinarian with the energy, at 62, of a man many years younger. Huante has served as a surrogate father, adviser and handball coach to dozens of Latino boys over the past 14 years.
A father of five children, Huante had not played handball until he took early retirement from his job as a steelworker in 1978. In a barrio not far from some of the most notorious gang turf in Southeast Los Angeles County, he discovered that handball could be used as a vehicle to create positive role models for the community, while building players' self-esteem.
"Positively, he changed my life," said top-ranked professional handball player Octavio Silveyra. "People like him come along once in a lifetime."
Silveyra has won $20,000 so far this year on the four-wall circuit, and three other Huante-trained players are ranked among the nation's top 10. More than 60 of Huante's "boys," as he calls them, have been ranked among the nation's best.
But in the barrio, where young boys are under pressure to join gangs, Huante is proudest that most of the kids who stick with him for more than three years have made better lives for themselves. Huante counts a doctor, a law assistant, a policeman and a computer technician among former pupils. Countless others remained in school despite pressures for them to drop out.
"My boys never, never get into trouble," Huante said. "By the time they get done with me, they have a different viewpoint on life."
Huante encourages players to develop their own style of play and to think independently. He exposes them to other ways of life by sending them around the country to compete in handball tournaments against players with different backgrounds. By the time they return home, they have a different perspective about the world.
"If they see the way others live, then I tell then that they have an option with their lives," he said. "They join a gang, then I tell them 'You know you will get in trouble.' "
"He has a tremendous success rate, in terms of the kind of kids he has and of keeping them off the streets," said Vern Roberts, executive director of the United States Handball Assn. "He sticks with his kids. They're classy, top-notch kids."
Huante also believes that by playing against a variety of competitors from other areas of the country, players learn what it takes to win.
"That gives me a great deal of satisfaction," he said.
Handball has always been popular in Commerce, where a single wall in an industrial complex can become an instant playing site. Several courts have been built at parks in the area, and city fathers have allocated as much as $10,000 a year to cover travel expenses for Huante's players, who range in age from 12 to 24.
Huante often digs into his own pocket to pay for player expenses, but he says he doesn't know how much money he has spent over the years. Recently he plunked down $1,200 to secure a dozen memberships in a nearby health club so players will be able to train in its new four-wall courts. He said he has some money to burn from profitable real estate investments he made years ago.
Huante, according to several players, has never asked to be repaid. The return on his investment, Silveyra said, is simply "seeing us all do good and keeping us out of trouble."
"He gives us pride," Silveyra said. "Just for us to know that somebody from East L.A. can do something successful. . . . It's great."
Silveyra was 11 years old when Huante noticed him hanging around with gang members in Rosewood Park near the three-wall courts. Nine years later, Silveyra attends Rio Hondo College preparing to become a firefighter. In December, he'll be in Japan representing the United States at the world four-wall handball championships.
Manuel Resengez--at 24 a veteran of 12 seasons with Huante--wanted to drop out of school. Under the coach's influence, Resengez went on to become a national Bclass three-wall champion, earned a high school diploma and got a good-paying job as a truck driver. His 15-year-old brother, James, joined the program and quit ditching school. A third brother also plays.
Current national 17-and-under champion Vince Espinoza had already joined a gang five years ago when Huante persuaded him to stay in school and play handball.
Espinoza recalls that Huante challenged him to a game of three-wall. The loser had to buy cheeseburgers for the team. Espinoza was leading 10 to 0 when Huante deliberately lied to cheat Espinoza out of a point. Enraged, Espinoza lost his concentration and was defeated, 21-18.
As a seething Espinoza footed the bill at a local fast-food restaurant, Huante asked him what was so important about losing a single point.