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?

Handball is a fixture in urban areas, but it's an almost-exclusively Latino sport in Orange County, played for generations in parks, on school grounds, in prison yards. The game is easy to learn—players hit the ball with an open hand or fist, gaining a point if on their serve or if their opponent can't reach the ball on his turn before the second bounce. And the equipment is cheap: All that's required is a $1 racquetball and a two-story wall. But while playing is simple, getting good—"hustler" good, like Dueñas—is a rare feat dreamed of by all who play. You need strength, speed, agility and endurance. You need a lightning-quick mind. You need to know when to hit it hard or super-hard, spin it or barely tap it. You must watch both the ball and your opponent. You need to be simultaneously clairvoyant and observant. "You can read where they're gonna hit it by how they're standing," Dueñas says. "I know where to be at all times." He opens his hands to show the war wounds—scrapes and blisters cover his skin.

Displayed around the Boisseranc courts are fliers advertising a tournament he's hosting in Westminster in a couple of weeks. In his self-appointed position as Southern California's spokesman/promoter/ringmaster/champion of the sport, Dueñas is inviting the best players from Los Angeles, San Diego and Riverside counties to play. Whatever it takes—whether posting videos of himself on YouTube thrashing opponents, e-mailing handball news from around the world to reporters, or something as simple as taping a homemade flier to a post—to show the world and the skeptics that handball is more than just handball, the sport of cholos and felons. It's an art, a calling—a sport.

"It's blowing up," Dueñas says with gusto and increasing bravado. "I'm taking it to the next level. I wanna play forever. I wanna be known."

Sal Dueñas (left) takes on his first opponent at a handball tournament he hosted at La Quinta High School in Westminster
Sal Dueñas (left) takes on his first opponent at a handball tournament he hosted at La Quinta High School in Westminster
A scene from the tournament
A scene from the tournament

Then he looks around at the guys at Boisseranc.

"But I can't do it here."

*     *     *

Dueñas learned to play from his father, Sal, a Santa Ana native who works in sheet metal. Sal Jr.'s mother left the family when he was just 6, so the elder Dueñas tried to find ways to keep the boy and his two sisters active, to shield them from pain and the gangs that always lurk on the city's mean streets. The nearby Jerome Recreation Center offered free jujitsu classes, so he signed them up. "I needed to make sure they wouldn't go the wrong way," he says.

Dueñas Sr. enjoyed hitting the courts at Santa Ana College for exercise, and he soon starting bringing Sal Jr. along. At first, the boy would watch his papi, mesmerized. Eventually, he joined in. "We'd go three or four days a week, and then go get drive-through food," he recalls. "It was something that brought me and my dad together." The kid started getting good, and soon, the two started wagering. "It'd be like, 'If I beat you, you have to buy me new shoes or a new pair of pants.' It got to the point where he'd owe me, like, three pairs of shoes, six pairs of pants and some shirts."

When Dueñas was 11, his father heard about a junior national handball championship in Venice Beach and wanted to see how far his son could go. The tournament used an "ace" handball, better known in the sport's lingo as the "small ball." About the size of a golf ball with the firmness of a baseball, it's tougher to hit than the racquetball used in the street game, known as "big ball" or "big blue." While Dueñas didn't earn a top spot that day, he quickly mastered small ball. As a teenager, he trained with Tony Huante, a Southern California handball legend who coached six world champions in small ball. Dueñas traveled with a group of young, up-and-coming players to compete in sanctioned tournaments in Nebraska, Illinois, Ohio and all over California. "When we got off the plane in Nebraska, that was the first time I saw snow," he recalls.

Forty-five trophies now glimmer in his home.

At age 17, with money problems at home, Dueñas realized he couldn't join the handball circuit all the time—he needed to work. So he enlisted in the U.S. Army with plans of being a telecommunications specialist in Germany for four years. But for reasons Dueñas can't remember, he changed his mind right before his ship-off date. While finishing coursework at Santa Ana College's Centennial Education Center, he held various jobs, working as a cast member at Disneyland and at a sheet-metal shop like his father, haunting local handball courts during his time off.

Huante, now 83 and living in Commerce, remembers Dueñas. "He was a really good player, man," Huante says of his former pupil. "He killed shots and everything. He could've been a champion if he stuck with me—but no more."

The allure of the small-ball circuit still tugs at Dueñas. It's currently the only way to make a living off handball without hustling guys at parks. Small-ball tournaments, sponsored by big-name companies such as Simple Green, offer thousands of dollars in prizes—but to work it, he'd have to make major life changes to even have a chance at competing. Out goes the day job so he can practice all the time. He'd need to save up lots of money to barnstorm. And the small-ball community is somewhat foreign to him. Big blue—that's home.

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