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Handball puts diverse players against the wall

For all the centuries that handball has evolved, it remains one eccentric sport.

On the East Coast, the game is typically regarded as an urban, New Yorkish thing, cheap to play outdoors.

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With simple rules, it is an everyman's game in the vein of stickball or basketball that arrived here in the 1800s with Irish immigrants. Yet the game's hall of fame and American governing body, the U.S. Handball Association, reside in Tucson, Ariz..

You've probably heard of handball, thanks to the movies and your neighbor's cousins from Brooklyn, but have you ever seen a match?

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It is virtually never on TV or in the papers, and in many communities around Howard County there are no youth programs teaching the game, there are no leagues and no one who plays gets any publicity.

But on Aug. 8 and 9, the 8,500- member association's Eastern Regional Championships in three-wall handball will be played in Ellicott City. (One- and four-wall titles are to be decided elsewhere.)

Cars from as far away as Florida and, certainly, from New York will descend on Centennial Park-north, off Old Annapolis Road.

Never fear, neighbors. You'll scarcely know the players and the tournament are there. Local organizers figure that if the weather's good, about 80 players - this is a men's event - will compete, starting about 8:30 a.m. Saturday.

The venue is six tall, gray, concrete courts in need of paint that are used variously by tennis, racquetball and handball devotees.

Handball probably is the world's oldest game played with a ball.

In the Centennial-north version, competitors alternately smack a hollow rubber ball (a bit larger than a golf ball) against any combination of three walls and a high ceiling. The ball may bounce off the floor once before a player must hit a return shot.

Make your opponent miss, earn a point. When you miss, he gets to serve. Reach 21 points first, or whatever level is agreed on beforehand, and you win.

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Swat with your open hand, either one. Being ambidextrous helps. Leather gloves similar to those worn by baseball batters help protect against bruises from a ball that can fly at 80 mph. Goggles protect your eyes from errant fingers and the ball. You run, bend, twist, perspire and swear to yourself in frustration a lot. Handball is strenuous.

The guys who frequent Centennial-north would hate the description "eccentric." Judging from visits on a recent Sunday morning and Tuesday afternoon, this is one band of passionate players.

Several pointed out that those Centennial courts witness a lot of regular, high-quality play from seven or eight - the count varies - national champions, including Roger Berry, who lives in Rockville and is a two-time world and eight-time national singles titlist in three-wall handball.

Of maybe 25 men playing during those two visits, only one was in his 20s, three or four were in their 30s, and most of the rest were 50-plus, including several retirees.

Many stuck to playing doubles, although no one seemed unable to get into a singles match.

All, it seemed, were on a first-name basis. Howard County was strongly represented, but regulars also come from Northern Virginia and Pennsylvania for Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Sunday morning competition.

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After a close, three-game match against Josh Ho, 25, a former Wilde Lake High School lacrosse player, Clarksville's Murzy Jhabvala, who helped run the eastern championships for about eight years, acknowledged the apparent lack of young blood.

"Yeah, I think it's declining some," said Jhabvala, a player for 26 of his 52 years, skilled enough to win a singles age-group title when he was in his 40s and finish second in the nationals about eight years ago.

"It's a very hard game to get good at," he said. "Have you ever tried hitting one of these balls? There aren't many courts, and if you play indoors, you first have to join a club and sign up for court time every time you want to play, so that's just a lot for young players."

But, Ho, a software engineer who went to Penn State and who takes a lot of teasing because of his youth, said he likes the mix of people who play and the willingness of older players to teach newcomers.

Ho, who won the eastern B-level singles title last year, is hoping to do well in this year's nationals during the Labor Day weekend in Toledo, Ohio. He also is one of several Centennial-north regulars introduced to the sport by their fathers.

Daniel Ho, 55, a computer programmer, took up the sport while looking for a fitness activity that was also a game in 1980. He will compete next weekend in doubles and singles.

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Columbian Richard Solomon, 59, who learned the game from his father 51 years ago, explained his love of handball this way:

"Besides being a life sport, handball is multicultural," said the retired University of Maryland education professor. "You have Indian-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Hispanics, African-Americans.

"You can be short - I'm 5-5 - and play well. We have laborers, police officers, postal workers, doctors, academics - all sorts of people. It's a wonderful microcosm of what America should be like."


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