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Handball players push their prowess to the walls

Around Southern California, the best street handball players dominate a park, like gunslingers in a western. Among the stars in this realm is Ricky Ruiz, who sometimes plays with a handicap, just to coax an opponent onto the court.

April 23, 2010|By Hector Becerra, Los Angeles Times

The son of Rambo strides across the grassy field, girded for battle. He wears a T-shirt with the word "famous" all over it. Stainless-steel studs blink from his ears.

Two women hawk tortas, chips and bags of pumpkin seeds to more than 100 people filling the bleachers at Bristow Park in Commerce.

Ricky Ruiz steps onto the court. He takes off his shirt, revealing a gold crucifix, which he swings around to rest on his back.

His father, a muscle-bound, in-your-face character known as Rambo, bulls through the crowd. "Who wants to bet?" he cries. Men peel $20 and $100 bills from wads of cash.

Ricky's challenger, Gilbert Rosales, 24, stands silently, looking like a 19th century bare-knuckled fighter with his mutton-chop sideburns. They call him "Boxer," because he used to be one.

Ruiz prepares to serve. The crowd quiets; the crinkling of Flaming Hot Cheeto bags subsides. With his right hand, he sends the ball against the concrete wall. Moments later, he fires a "kill" into a corner, like a sinking fastball, and takes a 3-0 lead.

Handball has been a feature of urban life for generations, a pastime of laborers and lawyers, a fixture in parks, private clubs and prison yards, a passion that transcends class, religion and ethnicity.

In 1974, the poet Irving Feldman wrote of the "oiled and bronzing sons of immigrants, the handball players of the new world" at New York's Brighton Beach, "who yawp, who quarrel, who shove, who shout themselves hoarse, who don't get out of the way, grab for odds, hustle a handicap, all crust, all bluster, all con and gusto."

He could have been describing the scene today at handball courts across Southern California.

Ruiz, 21, is one of the stars of that realm. Early mornings, he works for a traffic-management contractor, laying orange cones and closing streets. In the afternoon, the three-walled concrete courts beckon. Handball is a job too, and one he loves. When he's on his game, he can earn a few hundred dollars from bettors in just a few hours.

"I can't just sit at home. I have to get out here," he says. "I believe I'm in my prime right now. I can just tell. I never felt this good before. If I play my game, I don't feel I should ever lose."

The best street handball players dominate a park, like gunslingers in a western. Ruiz's home court is Bristow Park, but he plays all over — in La Puente, Venice Beach, East L.A., Lynwood, wherever he can find competition. His prowess is such that he sometimes plays with a handicap, just to coax an opponent onto the court. He'll spot a challenger points or allow him to use a racquet. Or he'll take on two people at once.

Boxer was too strong a player to expect any such concessions. Still, Ruiz was expected to win. The night before their match, he sat in the Bristow Park bleachers under floodlights, wearing braces on both knees, hoping to win a little money in low-stakes games while watching his father and brother play.

He didn't feel unbeatable. He was banged-up. But not showing up for his match with Rosales would be unthinkable, like missing a big day at work because of a lousy cold.

"We made an agreement. I have to show up," he said.

The next morning, his father, Martin "Rambo" Ruiz, used a T-shirt to sweep leaves from the court. Spectators filled the aluminum bleachers and crowded the edges of the court. Ricky and Rosales would play a series of games of up to 12 points each. The first to win two games would be winner of the match.

Handball is like tennis without racquets or a net. Players hit the ball with their open hand or fist. You lose a point if you can't reach a serve or volley before the second bounce.

Ruiz, Rosales and their associates placed bets among themselves amounting to more than $1,000. Including the many wagers between spectators, a much bigger sum than that was at stake, though no one was keeping track.

Ruiz got off to a strong start, winning the first three points and prompting shouts of "Go Ricky!" Rosales battled back, showing a balletic grace. He wowed the crowd by seeming to change direction in midair to reach one of Ruiz's volleys. One of Rosales' supporters called the maneuver a "mini-Matrix," a reference to the gravity-defying acrobatics in the "Matrix" movies.

Within a few minutes, Boxer had taken the lead and the momentum. Ruiz shook his head and cursed under his breath.

"There you go, no pressure!" one of Rosales' supporters yelled.

Then, Boxer appeared to block Ruiz's path, causing him to lose another point. Ruiz responded by stepping in front of his opponent.

"If you want to play dirty, I'll play dirty too," he said.

The burst of anger appeared to give Ruiz energy. He tied the game at 6-6 but then slipped, landing hard on the concrete. He struggled to get back on his feet

"Lift him up, Rambo!" someone cried. The father looked concerned but decided to stay off the court.

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