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.
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?"
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."
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.
"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."
* * *
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."
That's the common image of street handball, Cruz explains, what society sees from a distance. "People think, 'Oh, it's handball. Oh, it's prison ball. Oh, it's poor kids.'" He says that while handball culture can attract a "little bit of a rough crowd," most players are hardworking, top-notch citizens.
"There could be a correlation between gang activity and handball courts, but there's no correlation between gang activity and handball playing," says Cruz, who lives in Newport Beach. "If there's a stabbing on a baseball court at Saddleback College, are they going to get rid of baseball?"
Cruz believes the problem is that courts are being abandoned, used as makeshift storage lots for gravel bags and workmen's supplies, when schools, parks and recreation departments, and YMCAs could be putting them into play.
An example of someone who has partnered with city fathers to show that handball is a force of good is Richard Gomez, a campus-safety officer at Costa Mesa High School. A few years ago, he started a school handball program to keep kids from gang life (see Alicia Lopez's "Helping Hands," Nov. 20, 2009). Today, young players from several cities—Orange, Santa Ana, Newport Beach, Costa Mesa and Canoga Park—compete for gift cards, trophies and other prizes.
"We need to take ownership of courts," Gomez says. "If you're not gonna spend the time on courts with kids, then go ahead and knock them down."
Dueñas has watched his courts turn to rubble as he's gotten older. "Walls are coming down, and new ones aren't coming up," he says. "Next time, when they want to tear another court down, I wanna show them me. If I didn't have handball, who knows where I'd be—smoking, drinking, in bad health, in trouble? I hope to start a family someday, and I want handball to be here forever."
* * *
It's tournament day, an abnormally warm Saturday in mid-January. Handballers from across Southern California flock to the stretch of eight gray-and-white courts at La Quinta High School. They set down lawn chairs and ice chests filled with Modelo Negro on the grassy viewing area alongside the action. Wives lay out blankets for the kids, who wipe their tongues on fruit pops. A man walks around selling tortas.
Dueñas stands behind the registration table under a tattered blue canopy with the words "Orange County Teachers Federal Credit Union" printed on it. On the metal legs, twigs replace the pegs that have gone missing. Players stand in line holding tournament T-shirts over their heads to shield themselves from the sun. The shirts Dueñas made read, "Anyone. Anywhere. Anytime" and feature a mock-up of the Major League Baseball logo, with the silhouette altered so it's a guy about to whack a handball.
The games were supposed to begin at 11 a.m. It's already 1 p.m.
"I just wanna get this day over with," says Ricky Ruiz, 21, one of the best street handball players in Southern California and a frequent Dueñas foe when the two aren't doubles partners.
He turns to Dueñas. "Start the matches now, foo'!"
"That guy didn't wanna play, and now he wants to play," says a flustered Dueñas, a pen behind his ear, staring at the names on the registration sheet and reworking the brackets.
Ruiz shakes his head. "Sal, you have to be like, 'Shut the fuck up, bitch!'"
For Ruiz, who lives in Downey, handball is a job. "It's about the money," he says, hoping to take home the grand prize of $450. "Anybody who says they're here for fun is lying." He, too, had considered sticking with small ball and going pro. But Ruiz makes a hefty income as it is in the parks, and he has decided to focus on other things, like taking over his dad's landscaping business and beginning a career in criminal justice.
"If handball happens to get as big as the World Series of Poker, then I'll do everything to be on top," Ruiz says. "But right now, I'm not gonna stop drinking and going out. It's not that easy. You can dedicate your life to it, but it won't get you anywhere. You can make good money off it, but you can't live off it. By 27, I'll be done."
Frankly, he says, Dueñas doesn't have what it takes to make it as a pro, either. "He doesn't have the aggression. He's too nice. Look at him: He's all smiles. You can't be smiling at a tournament. You have to be ready to go. He needs . . . something."
Samzon Hernanez is also here, and both Ruiz and Dueñas agree the 20-year-old is their superior, the top player on the Southern California circuit. Hernandez wants to make it as a professional handball player—he has already played in Italy—but he has a 1-year-old daughter to care for and says there's just not enough money in the sport. "Well, I'm still gonna try," he says.
His friend and Ricky's brother, 23-year-old Braulio Ruiz, interrupts the conversation.
"You can't do it," he says, putting his arm around Hernandez. "As a homey, I'm trying to look out for you."
The day goes on with trash-talk, wads of cash wagered among spectators, and people getting drunker by the hour. Dueñas couldn't find any referees or even someone to monitor the matches; instead, players report to him who won and who lost. The tournament continues through the weekend, and Dueñas comes in fifth place, taking home no cash, probably even losing some. Nevertheless, Dueñas looks triumphant. "Look how many people came out!" he says. And tomorrow, he has a match scheduled at Canyon Terrace Health Club in Tustin for cash.
Dueñas' next goal: to make handball an Olympic sport in 2016. It's a long shot—according to Cruz, it "doesn't got a prayer"—but Dueñas says if just two more countries participate, handball will get Olympic approval, and when it does, he plans to suit up. "I'm not giving up hope on this," he says. "Right now, I'm playing better than I've ever played. I don't stumble; I don't fall on the floor and dive. And I can play one way one day and a totally different way the next. I don't want anyone to learn my game.
"Sometimes, I think, man," he concludes, "if only I played tennis, I'd be a freakin' star."
This article appeared in print as "Handball Wizard: Sal Dueñas is the king of Orange County’s handball courts—but can he go further and bring the sport some much-needed respect?"