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Handball players hope for the sport's rebound

The tradition among Latinos is fading with the closure of hundreds of courts over fears that they attract more gang members than children.

June 04, 2007|Jennifer Delson | Times Staff Writer

In Santa Ana's El Salvador Park, four hulking, tattooed men use gloved hands to smack a blue rubber ball against the wall.

Nearby, relatives grill hamburgers and hot dogs as they wonder which players will leave the three-walled court as winners and take home a trophy resting on a nearby table.

The tradition of handball and competitions, like this one organized by the Rev. Santos Chavez, a former gang member who heads Street Light Ministries, is quickly fading in Southern California.

Handball foes say the sport -- popular in prison -- attracts a rough-and-tumble crowd that scares away children and brings gang members, ex-cons and crime to parks. And critics have been successful in getting hundreds of public three-walled courts torn down in recent years.

"Handball courts chase out the kids," said Sam Romero, a spokesman for Santa Ana's Logan neighborhood, where some of the park's neighbors want the courts removed. "They bring in guys who are swearing, drinking and using drugs. We are stuck with it, and to say the least, we are quite upset."

Advocates of handball say the game is an important part of Latino culture, an inexpensive sport that allows entry to anyone who can afford a $3 ball, and shouldn't be stopped because loiterers sometimes use the courts for illicit activities long after the games are over.

"Handball in the Mexican American community is like basketball to inner-city blacks," said Frederick P. Aguirre, 60, a handball player and Orange County Superior Court judge. "Handball doesn't have the allure of the NBA, but it's important as a way to reduce stress, do exercise. I lose myself in the game."

Andrew Palma, 46, who is known on the courts as "Grandpa," volunteers at several Santa Ana parks, teaching the game to another generation because he believes it will keep them out of trouble. "We're fighting to keep this sport alive," Palma said.

Southern California has about 2,000 public handball courts, about 500 fewer than just five years ago, said Gary Cruz, director of player development for the Southern California Handball Assn.

"We have to change the way people think about handball," Cruz said.

Early versions of handball, one of the oldest sports on record, were played in ancient Egypt and pre-Columbian Latin America. The modern game, originally known as Gaelic handball, was first recorded in Ireland about 1500.

In the 20th century, the sport became popular in American urban centers, including Mexican American communities. In the 1920s, men in those neighborhoods made their own balls -- smaller than today's version -- with string covered with leather.

In New York and other cities, the game is played against a single wall. But in Southern California, players compete on a three-wall court that can double as enclosures that prevent police from seeing illegal activity. This, Cruz said, has led to the decline of local handball courts.

The Southern California version of handball has often attracted unsavory elements. Although Aguirre was raised in a Placentia neighborhood, he didn't play until he attended USC. His father didn't want him hanging out with guys in the park where handball was played.

Handball's reputation led several years ago to the closure of courts at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa and a recent decision to tear down those at Golden West College in Huntington Beach.

But Cruz said nowhere was the trend more apparent than in Santa Ana, where nearly two dozen courts at the city's schools had been dismantled over the last two years. School district officials said the structures had become hangouts for gang members and loiterers, and were used as public bathrooms.

"Handball is wonderful, but what they were using the courts for was not," said James Miyashiro, chief of school police services. The smell from the courts was so putrid that weekly cleanings didn't eliminate the odor when the students returned to classes each Monday, he said.

However, Cruz criticized the decision to close the school handball facilities, particularly because Santa Ana faces one of the highest obesity rates among large U.S. cities.

A 2005 study by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy found that 35% of Santa Ana children were obese and more than 70% of Santa Ana adults were overweight.

"If the schools were using the courts to teach kids handball, they wouldn't have torn them down," Cruz said. "And once the courts are torn down, the kids can't get in their cars and just drive somewhere else. They are just out of luck."

With the school courts gone, courts remain at more than half a dozen parks, including Logan, where some neighbors are lobbying the city to remove them.

A youth handball team that formed three years ago at Logan Park draws 20 to 35 teenagers each week.

"The kids here do use the courts to play handball," said Carlos Nava, park program coordinator. "The kids take the sport seriously, and they want to improve. It's a challenge for them to compete."

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