Mustafah Abdulaziz for The New York Times
TIGHT HOLD Angel Marquez, center, 53, a legendary handball player, has two new hips and is back on the West Fourth Street courts.
By COREY KILGANNON
ANGEL MARQUEZ was a New York City handball legend. He wore down opponents with his hustling-and-diving playing style, winning countless tournament championships since the 1970s.
Mustafah Abdulaziz for The New York Times
That all-out approach has worn him down, blowing out his hip joints. But Mr. Marquez, 53, does not take losing lightly, and resists making concessions to age and physical decline.
“No way I’m going to let this end my career; I’m the one who decides when I quit this game,” he declared as he set off for practice on Thursday.
At an empty handball court in the Bronx, Mr. Marquez hobbled gingerly on two new titanium replacement hips. He began whacking the ball against the wall with effortless precision — left hand, thwock! Right hand, thwock!
After many months of his not playing, his hands, still rough as sandpaper from decades of being used as paddles, were wrapped with duct tape for padding. Like many aging champions, Mr. Marquez is taunted by the taste of victory.
“I was known on every handball court in the city simply by word of mouth,” he said, “and I want people to know I’m still here.”
Handball is New York City’s quintessential street game, and for nearly a century, its players have been the best in the world. They are ultracompetitive street legends with outsize egos, colorful nicknames and quirky personalities. Their reputations are debated and preserved by players at the 2,000 courts in the city.
Mr. Marquez grew up in the Bronx with an abusive father known as Muscles Jerry on the local handball courts, where he played for cases of beer. He refused to let his three sons leave the house for anything except handball. Eager for freedom, Angel was playing daily by age 8; he was tournament-tested by 13.
“I had a lot of hatred and anger because of my father,” he said. “And with handball, I finally had somewhere to focus and release it. I would do anything to win. I would humiliate opponents to the point where they would yell, ‘Why are you embarrassing me?’ ”
An obsession with handball led him to drop out of Theodore Roosevelt High School at 16, and it would keep him from holding a steady job through his late 30s. There was no time for off-court luxuries like friends or a wife and children.
In the 1980s and ’90s, Mr. Marquez was in the pantheon of elite city players known as A-players. (About 30 hold that distinction now.) With his vicious serve, he tried to hold opponents scoreless in games to 21 or 25.
But that dominance was tested early in his career when his idol, Ruben Gonzalez, the handball king who ruled the Mount Eden Park courts in the Bronx, showed up at Mr. Marquez’s home court on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. It was a tight match, but Mr. Marquez beat Mr. Gonzalez. Riding high after that win, he began traveling the city, looking for the best players and the highest stakes. A playing partner drove him from park to park and backed him.
“He’d say, ‘Angel will play anyone here, and I’ll take all bets,’ ” Mr. Marquez recalled. “And then he’d take most of the winnings.”
Traditionally, the best young handball players in New York City have an older top player as a mentor. John Wright, 38, of Harlem, known as Rookie and now widely considered the top player in the city, became a teenage protégé of Mr. Marquez’s after meeting him at the West Fourth Street courts. West Fourth Street is second perhaps only to Coney Island as the mecca of handball in New York.
“When I met Angel, he was just destroying everybody,” Mr. Wright said. “We didn’t think anybody could beat him. He had a killer aggression and two great hands. No one could match his intensity level.”
Last Sunday, Mr. Marquez dropped by the West Fourth Street courts to practice and watch another of his top students, Justin Rodriguez, 17, of Staten Island, who was playing on the “money court” against Timothy Gonzalez, known as Timbo, another top player.
Mr. Marquez has shown Justin his lethal style — the cupped hands and a whiplike hitting motion — but he also imparts the strategies of a handball hustler.
To court moneyed opponents he offered to play them using only his left hand or hitting only backhanded shots. He might show up to the courts after 5 p.m. on a weekday, wearing a suit and tie like some working stiff who played only casually.
“Another trick was to put grape juice in a wine bottle and show up swigging it down like I was drunk,” he said. “I’d show up in sandals or heavy boots so players would think, ‘No way he can win.’ ”
And when defeat seems imminent, he said, “always have a Plan B,” an escape from the park and the bet.
“You could throw the ball over the fence and pretend to get it and never come back,” he said. Then there was the partner who had “epilepsy” and could pull off a convincing “fit” when they seemed on the brink of losing.
These days, Mr. Marquez is back to a practice regimen of dips, push-ups and bike-riding, and he has engaged in a few laid-back games with neighborhood players. He hopes to enroll in master’s division tournament play this summer.
“People are going to know,” he said between ball slaps, “Angel Marquez is back.”