Sal Duenas Is a Handball Wizard

The Santa Ana native is king of Orange County's handball courts—but can he go further and bring the sport some much-needed respect?

Sal Duenas Is a Handball Wizard

Even from hundreds of feet away, the sound of palms swatting blue rubber balls at concrete walls echoes across Henry Boisseranc Park in Buena Park. Bounce-thwack-POP! Bounce-thwack-POP! As you get closer to the handball courts, other noises begin to emerge: furious feet shuffling over cement, the low mumbles of group conversations, the occasional metallic groan of someone leaning against the chain-link fence that encloses the playing area.

Then, like a cri de coeur, someone utters a telltale expression of defeat: "Ay, bitch!"

On one court, 58-year-old Luis Gonzalez lost two bucks in a match against Jehu Garcia, 54. Wearing a plaid shirt over a sweat shirt, bleach-splattered khakis that hint at his job as an Anaheim maintenance worker, white sneakers, grip gloves and sweatband made of orange felt, the bearded Gonzalez crouches with his hands on his knees and sucks in air. "I ran out of wind," he says, gasping and shaking his head at his performance, his dark, leathery skin shimmering with sweat. "I started losing my breath; my legs starting giving out. I was like a battery decreasing in energy." Gonzalez has played handball for 10 years, getting his start at the Independence Park courts behind the DMV offices in Fullerton. He visits Boisseranc every weekend to keep his heart pumping, to see amigos. "I'll play until I die," he says, his lungs still heaving.

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Ediphotoeye

Other men make their way to the courts—one long, two-story wall with offshoots every 20 feet or so creating four mini-arenas, dark and cold like caves, with graffiti peeking out of paint splotches. They step over the park's wet lawn peppered with Corona bottle caps and gather on the cracked cement surface dotted with cigarette butts and old chewing gum. They carry gym bags and fuel: chicharrones, pumpkin seeds, 2-liter Sunkist bottles filled halfway with water. Most are old buddies who greet one another with fist pumps before catching up in Spanish about New Year's celebrations. "I've come here to escape," one guy cracks, and the group collectively laughs.

On this chilly Sunday morning, Sal Dueñas grins at the scene from a weathered wood bench, whacking balls back as they fly askew. A striped knit beanie envelopes his round, shaved head. His almond eyes are deep and kind. "Everyone comes from different places, but everyone's here for the same purpose," he says, his voice cool and mellow. "Handball is like a universal language."

Panning the crowd, Dueñas points out the regulars, their nicknames sounding like the cast of characters from a World War II movie. There's Leo, a manager at Taco Mesa in Orange, and Carlos, whom he met nine years ago while playing at Fullerton College. "That's Flama," Dueñas says, motioning to a bald, goateed man in the middle of an intense warm-up of sky-to-the-floor toe touches, lunges and arm rotators. "I call him Fanny Pack Guy because he's always wearing a fanny pack. Look—he thinks he's a boxer!"

Dueñas asks if he wants to play. Flama considers.

"Una mano. Con puntos," offers Flama, 49, real name Jose Hernandez. He'll play if Dueñas uses only one hand and gives him some points to start.

"¿Cuanto?" Dueñas asks. How much? Twenty bucks. Dueñas nods and says he'll give him eight points to start, but only if he can use both hands.

"Vete a la chingada," Flama replies. Go to fucking hell. Dueñas grins.

He finds a victim a couple of days later on the same courts, with the same crew of regulars batting away. Luis Castro, an Anaheim utility worker known on the courts as Greyhound, challenges Dueñas. Greyhound is a strong player who has known Dueñas for 13 years.

"I'll play him," Dueñas says. "I'll take his money."

Greyhound, wearing an orange sweat shirt, turns his focus to the wall and stretches his neck from side to side.

"You ready?" Dueñas asks. "Ready to beat me?"

Greyhound serves first, smacking the ball hard at the left side of the wall, then quickly repositions himself for the rebound. Dueñas side-shuffles across the court and whacks it low for the kill. The crowd gathers around. "And he takes the point!" one onlooker yells. Before you can turn back again, Dueñas is up 4-0.

While Greyhound's body moves erratically, trampling the concrete as he chases shots, hardly as sleek as his nickname implies, Dueñas is swift, smooth, his feet sashaying as gracefully as a dancer's, his arms zooming through the air like prizefighter haymakers. His eyes focus, then refocus. Each move is calculated and precise. He makes the handball zip, spin, curve, float, flutter, glide. It's a clinic in aerodynamics, with Dueñas an instructor out of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Greyhound sputtering around like a car with a bad carburetor.

It's a blowout: 12-0, Dueñas. Greyhound's sweat shirt is now drenched in sweat; Dueñas looks like he just tied his shoelaces. "That was for $20," Dueñas says, preparing for Round 2. "I hope he has a lot of money."

At 5-foot-8 and 185 pounds, Dueñas seems like a teddy bear out of place among his opponents, whose tattoo-adorned arms bulge like pythons. But on the local handball circuit, he reigns. With swift, Federer-like strokes, natural ambidextrous power and a lefthanded, underhand kill shot that's nearly unplayable, the 27-year-old from Santa Ana is arguably the greatest handball player in Orange County, one of the best in the state. A home-loan officer by day, he spends nearly every weekday afternoon and weekend morning traveling to different courts across Southern California for pickup games, battling it out for pride and cash. "I can play 12 games in two hours and make 240 bucks," he says. "That's, like, tax-free money. It's, like, why even work, you know?"

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