Published: June 28, 2008

Around the Coney Island handball courts, the handball mecca of New York City, there was the usual thwock of rubber balls against concrete walls, sneakers sliding on sun-baked courts and raspy trash being talked among the players, many of whom had deep tans, taut bodies and egos big enough to play great playground handball.In Coney Island on Friday, spectators talked about Mr. Hershkowitz, a Hall of Famer who died on Monday at age 89.

But there was also a buzz around the courts on Friday — namely the discussion about Vic Hershkowitz, a New York City handball legend who died on Monday at 89. Steve Sandler, 68, who has 15 national singles titles under his belt, remembered Mr. Hershkowitz’s 23 national handball titles and the way he excelled — particularly at three- and four-wall versions of the game, which were much more popular years ago in gyms and handball clubs across the city.

“Vic was probably the best ever,” he said. “Just a towering, towering figure in New York City handball, which is the best handball in the world.”

Ruby Obert, 74 — who with his two older brothers, Carl, 76, and Oscar, 77, made up a renowned trio of sidearm-swingers from Brooklyn — said Mr. Hershkowitz was a New York City fireman and would sometimes show up at tournaments straight from work, wearing his heavy uniform and a mask of soot. Then he would light up the court. Mr. Hershkowitz’s secret weapon, Mr. Obert said, was his ambidexterity.

“He could play equally well with either hand,” Mr. Obert said, leaning against the chain-link fence and eyeing some of the younger players. “Guys would die to have Vic’s left hand, which was just as good as his right.”

Not everyone at this Coney Island landmark known as the Seaside Courts was aware of the legend of Mr. Hershkowitz or that he died on Monday in Plantation, Fla. But Mr. Obert had heard the news, and he could talk about Vic Hershkowitz all day, if it were not for his natural tendency to turn the spotlight on himself and his brothers and their 36 total combined world and national championships. Oh, and did he mention that each had been inducted into the United States Handball Association Hall of Fame?

“That’s because I’m a handball player,” Mr. Obert readily admitted. “None of us can talk about anyone but ourselves.” A small ego makes a small player, he said, and by that logic, there were very few small players around the Coney Island courts on Friday, where the boardwalk and sand and scrubby pines edge right up to the courts.

But with all the bragging and arguing and recollections of Mr. Hershkowitz, the scene evoked a rich, if obscure, history of ultracompetitive handball in New York City over the decades: one with outsize egos, colorful nicknames and quirky personalities. One player pulled out the United States Handball Association’s official rule book to show that the cover illustration was, in fact, the Coney courts, a sideshow as delicious as any hot dog or burlesque act a few blocks west, where carnival rides and corn dogs and clam stands draw huge crowds.

And by noon, there was a crowd gathered around a challenge doubles match between two current handball champions: Joe Durso, the palm-pounder from Bay Ridge, and Cesar Sala. As Mr. Durso’s team fell behind, he began trading barbs with Mr. Sala’s partner. After a winning shot by Mr. Durso, the crowd whooped and Mr. Durso nodded and screamed.

“I told him I was going to humiliate him, and I meant it!” he yelled, as the jeers grew louder.

On these courts, one can hear the seasoned New York accent of old movies, often spiced up with a few vulgarities and employed with the purpose of criticizing just about anyone present, with regard to any aspect of their body, mind or handball style.

Mr. Sandler recalled playing Mr. Hershkowitz in a national tournament held indoors in Brownsville, Brooklyn.

“Some guys are money players,” he said. “We used to have big gambling on these games. Vic was more of a tournament player. He didn’t play for money. He played for trophies.”

He stopped: “Do you know that I used to have people tell me I was a better athlete thanWillie Mays?”

Hank Grassi, 82, a legendary paddle-baller, sat next to a court with Manny Haimowitz, 74. They recalled Mr. Hershkowitz as the best player ever to win titles in one-, three- and four-wall handball. Next to them was Al Torres, 64, who was inducted into the Handball Hall of Fame in 2002 and saw Mr. Hershkowitz play.

Mr. Obert said that some of the earliest handball in New York was played in nearby Brighton Beach, at the bathhouses that once dotted the area.

“They had a big concrete bulkhead that became exposed when the tide went down, and guys starting shaving tennis balls and hitting them against it,” he said. “That’s where it started.”

“Each borough, each neighborhood in the city, used to have its own handball culture, its own legends, its own stories,” he said. “You had Lincoln Terrace and Avenue P in Brooklyn, and Crotona Park and Macombs Dam in the Bronx. You had nicknames galore: there was Jittery Jack and No-Shoes Benny, and you had the Deacon — not because he was religious, but because he always wore black.”

“You talk about hustlers,” he continued. “One guy would lose 10 points straight and get a drink of water while his friend accepted bets against him. Then he would come back and win back the 10 points and wipe the guy out. You had this guy who’d show up in a suit and tie and everyone would bet against him, till he would change his clothes and win $100 and take off, and come back a month later and do it again.”

Source: New York Times