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King of the Courts: Street Handball in NYC

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On a scorching Saturday afternoon in Liberty Park, tucked between the autobody shops of Jamaica, hundreds of spectators squeeze into the margins of a cement handball court.

The air is filled with an array of New York sounds: the tinkle of an ice-cream truck, the sizzle of a barbeque, and the unmistakable plunk of ball against wall.

“It’s basically the Olympics of handball,” says John Wright, aka Rookie. Rookie is the city’s uncontested number one player and, at 37, he’s still winning tournaments. “It's a great event. The agony of defeat is there, the honor, the glory. It's beautiful," says Rookie. 

The players hail from all over the city, but if you ask them where they’re from, they’ll give you the name of a neighborhood park. There are over two thousand courts in the city, but the top players gravitate to a few elite parks.

“I’m originally from West 4th,” says Giovanni Vasquez, known in handball circles as Gio. “But now I usually play at Seaside Courts in Coney Island."

Gio, 25, was once Rookie’s student. Last year, he beat out his former mentor to take the crown. Despite the competition’s prestige in the handball community, the cash prize is fairly small -- two thousand dollars.

"You win a lot of respect," says Gio. "This tournament decides who is the man on the courts, who owns these walls."

Handball is thought to have medieval Basque origins, and was brought over in its modern form by Irish immigrants in the early 20th century. It took off among the city’s Jewish population and it’s played throughout the boroughs by a diverse array of born-and-bred New Yorkers. They have aspirations to to expand the sport internationally and one day bring it to the real Olympics. Most city high schools field teams, and local players will occasionally travel to tournaments in Philadelphia or Chicago.

Like all handball tournaments, King of the Courts is organized on an entirely grassroots level by fellow players, who take a cut of the entrance fees for their efforts. Despite the lack of official organization, the community keeps in touch through websites like SmackIt Sports and Handball City. An unofficial committee of citywide organizers tracks up-and-coming players and decides who deserves the status of an “A- player,” even issuing A-cards to the chosen few. At the King of the Courts, only the A’s need apply.

Last year, Rookie came up against Gio in the final game. This year, Rookie won, regaining his title as King of the Courts. "I always expect to win when I enter a tournament," he says. "Otherwise, I wouldn't play."

For more on the King of the Courts, watch our audio slideshow below: