Handball originated as a sport in Ireland thousands of years ago, but the first court in the U.S. was built in San Francisco during the gold rush, attached to the alleyway of a bar.
“It was mostly immigrants of Irish and Jewish ancestry playing the sport at that time, but it quickly became popular with elite crowds, as well,” says Gary Cruz, director of program development for the United States Handball Association.
The sport also took home in New York. The time was the Great Depression and handball provided cheap or free sport and entertainment. “Tens of thousands of handball courts were built in the 20s during the Depression,” says Cruz. “People would play handball because it was something to do that didn’t cost anything, and that’s what people were looking for.”
Slowly but surely, the sport spread across the states and courts began being built in LA as well. “[Courts] were put in schools and parks around Los Angeles,” Cruz explains. Popularity for handball continued to soar, so much so that a national championship tournament was created. But funding was still a big issue. In 1951, a wealthy man by the name of Robert W. Kendler created the United States Handball Association to help address the issue. With additional resources and opportunities to compete, big players like Jimmy Jacobs started to get noticed and with that, the sport took off.
There was a shift in the demographic of players in the 60s and 70s. You started seeing more Hispanic immigrants playing in LA. “A lot of Hispanic kids were taking up the game because it was free and fun,” says Cruz. With that came the rise of Naty Alvarado, arguably one of, if not the best handball player of all time. “His nickname was ‘el gato,’ because he was so quick and just had this immense amounts of skills,” remembers Cruz. “From the 70s to the early 90s, Alvarado won more pro handball tournaments than anyone and held 11 national singles titles, a record he still holds today. Everyone wanted to be Naty.” And people would get dressed up in suits and come to places like the Los Angeles Athletic Club to watch him and other great players compete. It was during this time Gary explains that, “LA became the mecca of handball and has remained so for the past 30 to 40 years.”
Over the years, handball has lost some of its popularity. Most people get involved through a college club program. “But after these players graduate, handball takes a back seat to finding a job and starting a family. It’s become difficult for the handball community to retain players, though we want to.” The USHA is working to help keep the sport in people’s lives forever.
This may seem a lofty goal, but for Gary and many other players it’s a lifetime sport. “The handball community is a very tight and strong one, and once you’re in, you’re a part of it for life, regardless of how good you are at the sport,” says Cruz. This social bond formed over the game of handball is what makes people stand by the sport forever.
Photography by Matthew Miller.