The sport of handball is not unique to New York but nothing typifies the city’s street-level internationalism, its vibrancy and it’s competitive culture than the game played on courts from The Bronx, to Brooklyn to Queens.
Handball is as New York as New York gets
You just don’t see it anywhere else, the summer months bring the milling crowds, the families, the winter, thins to only the fanatics and there are many. The beauty of the game is that there is no equipment needed, just a rubber ball and a wall to aim at, but over the course of time the game has evolved a complex set of rules and skills as well as a significant betting culture that serves to pique the interest of the whole community.
The game was originally brought by Irish immigrants, who themselves have a standardised form of Gaelic handball and the earliest reference of the game in the country is to two handball courts in San Francisco in 1873. The first known reference of a game played by striking a ball against a wall with the hand is from Scotland in 1427, when King James I ordered a cellar window in his courtyard blocked up as it was interfering with his game. The earliest reference in Ireland is on the statutes of the city of Galway in 1527, where the playing of the game against the city walls was forbidden.
The Latin world shares a similar passion for a game involving a ball hit against a wall in Basque Pilota. The name refers to a variety of court games played using your hand, a racquet, a wooden bat or basket. It is played in Spain and France, Northern Italy and especially the Basque Country where it is intrinsic to the area’s cultural identity.
In fact, while the Gaelic version of handball is also historically associated with national identity and Republicanism, you could say that the New York version is a bastion of the city’s identity and culture at street level and it’s precisely that the game has no societal constraints, compared to ‘bourgeoisie’ sports such as tennis and golf, that the game has come to signify a national identity in a culture so diversified with and becomes all the more important and loved because of it.
There are no professional players or leagues but there are many who make or augment a living from the game and that helps keep the game pure. There is never the spectre of talent scouts and agents hanging over promising youths, such as in Basketball. The game is played purely for the love of the game, and you don’t see enough of that these days.
At this time of year, you can see canisters of kerosene courtside heating tubs of water in which the players keep their balls warm and soft against the frigid New York Winter air. In a city so full of micro and macro universes, it always warms the heart to see the spirit of community thrive around the one thing that consistently brings us all together, sport.
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