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THE GREAT OUTDOORS: A GUIDE TO ORANGE COUNTY RECREATION
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In Good Hands

Dedicated Handball Players Hope to Perpetuate Sport's Popularity

May 28, 1999|MARK SPINN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Even in junior high school, handball requires top-notch strategy.

Especially when lunch money is on the line.

Long before he became the U.S. Handball Assn. Open singles champion, Huntington Beach's John Libby saw the need for an effective game plan when he stepped onto a concrete court.

"I always teamed up with the biggest guy on the playground," Libby said. "I hit the shots and he collected the winnings."

Not the most finely tuned plan, perhaps, but effective--and undoubtedly still used in some form by the dedicated core of players who fill outdoor handball courts throughout Orange County each weekend.

The most popular form of handball in the county is three-wall handball, played outdoors at public parks and schools.

Gary Cruz, a Newport Beach resident who is the Southern California representative to the USHA board of directors, says its popularity is easy to explain.

"The beauty of outdoor handball is that it costs essentially nothing," Cruz said. "All you need is a court and an old racquetball."

Elite players such as Libby, who won the 1998 USHA Open singles title last summer, focus primarily on the traditional four-wall indoor game. The outdoor or "big ball" game uses the same type of inexpensive ball used in racquetball (the indoor handball is smaller, harder and pricier).

Outdoor handball also doesn't require the gloves, goggles, and potentially expensive gym membership.

Furthermore, it's important to note that big ball handball requires no tolerance for hand pain. First-time strikers of the traditional ball have a traditional reaction: ouch.

"There's a real conditioning period you've got to go through to get used to [the indoor ball]," said John Bazacas, owner of the Newport Beach Athletic Club, where members play handball on two gleaming indoor courts. "But with the big ball, you can play all day long from Day 1."

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Regardless of which ball is used, "handball is handball," according to Libby. "You still have to be ambidextrous, you still have to understand the angles of the shots and you still have to be able to think during the point," he said. "Big ball, small ball, indoors, outdoors. None of those things change the fundamentals of the game."

A typical handball court is 20 feet wide by 40 feet long; the recommended height of the walls is 20 feet. In indoor handball, the ceiling and the rear wall (the "fourth" wall) are used for shot making. In the three-wall outdoor game, however, there is no rear wall and the majority of courts have either abbreviated ceiling cover or none at all. Also, on outdoor courts the side walls only run part of the way down the court.

Still, the object remains the same: Hit the ball with either hand so that it strikes the front wall (before hitting the floor) in such a way that the opponent is unable to return the shot before it bounces twice.

Shots that are first directed off a side wall before hitting the front wall are common. Much like in tennis, powerful passing shots and sharply angled returns are keys to success. A "kill" shot, when the ball is returned low off the front wall and ricochets in such a way that it's unplayable, is optimum.

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On Saturday mornings at Saddleback High School in Santa Ana, as many as 100 big ball players regularly converge on the outdoor courts. In the open challenge games, players range in ability from beginner to top-flight players such as Goyo Tellez and Jesus Garcia of Santa Ana.

When he's not playing, Santa Ana's Nick Alvidrez is usually distributing flyers and information on three-wall tournaments and events.

Earlier this month, a tournament at Camino Real Park in Orange drew more than 200 players, thanks largely to word-of-mouth promotion.

"Handball players are very loyal to the game," Alvidrez said. 'You have a lot of fathers and sons playing together, where one generation teaches the next about the sport.

"We like to get the kids involved in handball as early as possible. It helps keep them out of trouble and gives them a sense of belonging to the game to carry on the tradition."

Cruz, who began his term on the USHA board of directors in January, says it is essential that the relatively separate worlds of indoor handball and outdoor handball combine forces to ensure the long-term health of the sport. He estimates that outdoor players outnumber indoor players by a 4-1 margin nationwide.

"We are seeking a new generation of indoor handball players," Cruz said. "The indoor game has basically lost two generations to the outdoor game.

"We can't afford to miss a third, or the sport might die off."

Libby, 30, won three consecutive California state outdoor three-wall championships between 1995-1997. When he plays outdoors, he plays in events where the traditional handball is used.

Libby also prefers to travel to the outdoor courts at Venice Beach, where the traditional ball is used and top players gather.

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