It takes a while to find the place. The handball courts in Coney Island, Brooklyn – perhaps the most famous handball courts in the world, where, for a moment in the 1970s the sport reached an apotheosis of talent – are right off the boardwalk, just down from the old Cyclone rollercoaster, across from the ocean. They are impossible to miss, I’ve been told, but for the life of me I cannot find them.
It is an early spring day. The sky has been swept clean of clouds. The sun feels Saharan. And I’m late for a lesson with Joe Durso, the biggest title-winning handball champ of all time. Durso, 59, once ruled the Seaside Courts here and the world of one-wall handball. He has 23 US national handball titles – more than anyone else – and from ages 25 to 40 was virtually unbeatable. Now he is retired, his bones creak and he is no match for young strivers who yearn to vanquish the old legend. This fact, perhaps more than anything else in his life, drives Durso nuts.
When I finally arrive, he is about to launch a sidearm serve against a player half his age. “I’m gonna eviscerate this kid,” hollers Durso, whose fearsome reputation on these sun-bleached courts extends to his mouth. Durso, it is widely acknowledged, is Coney Island’s poet laureate of scorn. “He’s gonna wish he never crawled out of his mother’s womb,” he snarls.
At first, this strategy works. Durso goes 2-0 up against The Kid, who seems stunned by the skeins of invective. But The Kid asserts himself, ripping shot after shot past Durso, shots that describe long, twisting, elliptical arcs, with the ball vanishing mid-air until it hits the wall – thwack! – and returns to earth. Despite several age-defying strikes himself, Durso falls behind. Still, he rides The Kid the whole game (“You suck!” “You’re getting your ass kicked!”). The Kid gets in a few zingers himself; he only needs to mention Durso’s outfit – tight-fitting, black Spandex bicycle shorts – to earn some hoots from the gallery of old-timers lining the fence. Unfazed, Durso removes his T-shirt, revealing a shockingly lithe, if slightly vintage, torso.
“Look at me,” he demands, pausing to flex Mr Universe-style. “Pretty good, right?”
The origins of American handball are tough to parse. It was probably inherited from the Irish, who probably got it from the Scots, who maybe learned it from the English, who almost definitely got it from the Romans. But the Maya were also big fans. Ditto the Toltecs. Alexander the Great? You guessed it.
Whoever its progenitors were, one-wall handball, which is played with a hard rubber ball on a 20ft by 34ft patch of concrete, became an essential American urban pastime in the late 19th century. Today, four-wall handball – picture a squash court, minus rackets – is the dominant form overseen by the US Handball Association in Tucson, Arizona. But in New York City, where thousands of handball courts were built during the Depression, one-wall is king. And Durso, arguably, is the best one-wall player ever.
The Kid, however, wins two games against the older model Durso, who circles the court afterwards, huffing the spring air.
Now it’s my turn. After a quick tutorial from Durso – “You’ve played racketball? Same idea” – I’m skittering across the court, grunting and lunging after the ball. Durso dials down the trash-talking, but despite the 20 years he’s got on me, his former glory flares up.
“You’ll never get this one,” he says, smashing the ball into a corner. And he’s right. The vast heaves and contortions required to retrieve the shot are beyond me. My knees and back begin to wobble.
“C’mon, you’re not even trying!” screams Durso, whose thinning grey hair and stony jawline remind me of Tywin Lannister from Game of Thrones. Then my ego puts its foot down and I get off a couple of good cracks, including one wild, off-balance projectile smacked from the left-hand corner that has me sailing out-of-bounds, but miraculously goes in. “Nice shot,” Durso concedes.
After 20 minutes, the wind starts shrieking, blowing the ball all over the place, so we pack up and stroll down the boardwalk to Tatiana Restaurant, a Russian spot overlooking Lower New York Bay. As we order salad and a kebab, I ask Durso to assess my game.
“Too early to tell,” he says, laying out some glaring deficiencies. “First, you were staring at the wall instead of the ball, so you were reacting late. A beginner’s mistake, but a big mistake. Also, you were a little lazy. Why weren’t you running?”
I’m too embarrassed to admit I was running like hell, full-bore, with everything I had.
“But you made a couple of surprising shots,” he says. “If you played every day for six months, who knows?”
Durso grew up during handball’s golden age, the 1970s, when players with names such as Pat the Butcher and Louie Shoes haunted the Seaside Courts and games were played for pockets of cash. “I grew up wild, like Tarzan,” Durso says of his childhood in Coney Island. His mother couldn’t handle him, so he was raised by his grandmother, whose apartment was within throwing distance of the handball courts. As a brawny 6ft 2in teenager, he was big for the sport and quickly became someone to be reckoned with.
“It was pretty much love at first sight,” he says. “All I wanted to do was play handball. Once I was hooked, it became an addiction.”
Durso isn’t bashful about his handball prowess – “Without question, I was the best ever” – but he acknowledges the dubious distinction of having been the greatest in a sport that, outside a few rarefied circles, is invisible.
“It’s frustrating,” he admits. “I was so gifted, but nobody saw it. Muhammad Ali and John McEnroe did in their sports what I did in mine. They became immortal icons, and I became nothing. A schmuck.”
Fortunately, Durso had a back-up plan. He attended law school and worked for a while as an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn, and also taught high school maths. Now retired, he lives a quiet life with his wife in nearby Bay Ridge.
The handball stuff still eats at him, though, and the trash-talking, he says, is largely fuelled by frustration. “A lot of what makes me act out is anger. It’s my own neurosis playing out on the court.”
He is silent a moment. “The thing is,” he says, “even though I didn’t get money and recognition, I know that for a moment in time I was the best on the planet. I still have that feeling, and that’s a pretty good feeling to have.”
As we pay and collect our things, Durso reveals he is plotting his swansong.
“I’m going to enter one more tournament,” he says. “I still bring fear to people. They might not fear me any more, but they fear losing to me.”
Photographs: Flora Hanitijo