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?

"In order to practice small, you'd have to call someone, reserve a court, be on some schedule," he explains. "With big ball, you just show up. We all look at handball as part of our daily lives."

But Dueñas doesn't romanticize street handball as some proletarian ideal. It's disorganized, and everything's up for contention. At games, even at tournaments, there are no refs, only the judgment of the crowd and the players themselves. On the courts, it's all too common to hear one player yell, "It bounced!" and another scream back, "It did not!"—followed by a barrage of expletives by both sides. And in Southern California, while handball players separate themselves into divisions—A, B and C—based on their skills and the matches they've won, no independent governing association officially ranks players. Dueñas guesses he's the third-best player in California—first is probably Samzon Herdandez of Hawthorne, and second would be Ricky Ruiz of Downey—but if he wants an official ranking from the United States Handball Association, the sport's governing body, he'll need to play in sanctioned tournaments, which are mostly held in New York.

Not that he's not willing. Last year, Dueñas and Hernandez traveled to Italy to represent Mexico in the World Federations Cup, a one-wall, big-blue tournament, and came in third, after Puerto Rico and the United States. This year, he plans to compete in big-blue tournaments in Holland, Tucson and New York, paying his own way. To stay sharp, Dueñas doesn't drink or smoke. And he doesn't have time for a girlfriend, unless, by some miracle, she's into handball as well.


For now, he spends most of his days in the parks or at LA Fitness in Cerritos, coaxing people onto the courts. Most guys won't play him unless they're given a handicap, so he tries to get creative. Dueñas has played one-handed; he's played two-against-one. He's played so that his financial risk is quadruple that of his opponent's. A week ago, he played against a guy who secured wooden panels to his hands with rubber bands. He's played guys with real rackets. He usually beats them all.

"They're getting to know that they can't win, so I have to do all these extra things to give them hope," he says. "If I just skunk them, they'll stop after one game. But if I prolong it a little to make them think they have a chance of winning, make them think they're a threat, they'll continue to play."

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What Americans know as handball—not the team handball of Olympic sporting, or the game played by schoolchildren with a massive rubber ball—is a sport of blurred lines and constant dispute, with many origin stories but few clear-cut narratives. Historians have traced early versions of the game to ancient Egypt, Greece, pre-Columbian Latin America and Rome. The modern rendition, originally known as Gaelic handball, was first recorded in Ireland and Scotland in the 1500s, and chroniclers mostly accept the tale that Irish immigrants introduced the game to the United States in the 19th century and that handball took off during the Great Depression, when immigrant and working-class men had nothing better to do.

The sport remains plagued by problems: different rules and styles in different regions and a rightfully perceived lack of respect, relegated to somewhere between swallowing swords and three-card monte in the national imagination. In New York City, the nation's handball mecca, the game is played against a single wall and is accepted as part of the Big Apple's sporting culture—but one eight-time national champion from Brooklyn still once famously complained to Sports Illustrated that his achievements meant he was "a painter on a planet of blind people." In Southern California, on the other hand, the vast majority of players competes on three-wall courts, which may one day become part of history. Even as Dueñas dreams of making a living off handball, the sport is endangered on his own turf.

Handball courts in Orange County have been fiercely attacked for decades by neighbors and officials who say they are gathering grounds for gang members and delinquents looking for a place to hide. According to Gary Cruz, director of player development for the U.S. Handball Association, Southern California has lost nearly 250 handball courts in the past decade—in Orange County, the death toll includes those at Santa Ana High School, Santa Ana College Century High School, Fullerton College, Golden West College, Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, Saddleback College and Pearson Park in Anaheim.

One of those anti-handball-courts crusaders is Sam Romero, a longtime leader in Santa Ana's Logan barrio who has fought for years to get the courts at the local Chepa's Park torn down. A fierce critic of city officials and planners who have long had designs on eradicating Logan and gentrifying Santa Ana's downtown—where Romero runs a Catholic-gift shop—he has met with those same adversaries to drive handball away from his neighborhood.

"They draw the wrong element," he says. "We get a lot of heavily tattooed guys who look like they're straight out of prison. There's profanity and boozing. I'm sure they're doing drugs. Moms don't feel comfortable letting their kids wander by."

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