It’s 5:30p.m. on a Thursday, and a team of four men, most over 50, run up and down a Hazard Park handball court.
Their feet move faster than their bodies as they smack a small blue ball back and forth, creating an echo throughout the court.
“Bola (ball)!” yells one man to the group, indicating the start of the game, while the others hunch over in starting positions, ignoring the sweat dripping from their faces onto the concrete.
Handball is played weekdays until the sun goes down as well as weekend mornings in city parks and in schools across Los Angeles. It’s similar to school handball, but instead of a big red rubber ball, a three-inch ball is bounced on the concrete and hit against two to three walls.
Though not a mainstream sport, the game is popular in working-class neighborhoods like Boyle Heights, where mostly male Latinos play. At nearly no cost, handball offers players a way to relieve stress and get some exercise while partaking in fierce, but friendly, games.
Mateo Covarruvias, 47, was introduced to this game over 15 years ago when his brother brought him to the handball court. At first, he didn’t like the game;his sport was soccer. But after a year of observing, he finally began joining other players on the court.
“I see this game as an exercise where you sweat and run,” says Covarrubias, a house painter who lives two blocks away from the park. It’s my only exercise.”
Covarrubias joins players about three times a week at Hazard Park and other courts in the area, but he doesn’t just come to play. He often sits on the sidelines along with others who enjoy the male banter and competition.
“This is here to relieve stress. You come to the court and forget all the problems and only think about the game,” he says.
The game differs from professional handball, which was first played in the 1936 Summer Olympics. The professional game of handball has no walls, is played indoors and calls for seven players on each team attempting to score into the opposing goal. The game played on these outdoor courts is more informal. Rules vary by court, and pick-up games are often between single players or teams of two.
On an April evening at Hazard Park, a veteran player, Sebastián Martínez Cortez, 52, wipes sweat from his balding head and catches his breath to chat about the game. His eyes follow the ball as he studies his opponent’s every move.
Around Hazard Park, Martínez Cortez is known as the most skilled player. He has several first place handball titlesfrom local tournaments and more than 40 years of experience under his belt. He first learned to play this kind of handball in his hometown of Guadalajara, Mexico, where the game is known as rebote or fronton.
“This game is handed down through generations. My grandfather played it, my father, me, my sons, my grandson,” says Martínez Cortez, who recalls his father taking him to watch his grandfather play and now brings his own offspring.
While tournaments are sometimes organized, players usually just take it upon themselves to continue the tradition that has been part of the Eastside for decades.
The Maravilla Handball Courts in East Los Angeles are the oldest courts in the city, and the courts at Hazard Park are important to many because the park became one of the rallying points during the 1968 Chicano student walkouts.
It’s because of this history that some activists fought to preserve the courts last summer when the University of Southern California introduced plans to expand its Health Sciences Campus. Some community members protested because the plan called for a street extension that would have required the handball courts to be moved to another part of the park.
“The handball courts are a staple, they’re part of the park,” says George Madrigal,a recreational assistant at Hazard Park.
While USC ultimately decided the courts could remain where they are, other courts across Los Angeles and Orange County have been removed for other reasons, including a negative association with the sport, says Gary Cruz, director of player development for the Southern California Handball Association.
“The first thing that crosses [people’s] minds when they hear the word handball is that’s the game that’s played in prison,” adds Cruz, who has been playing handball for over 50 years and now teaches people how to play the game.
According to Cruz,some schools and parks began removing courts because of illicit behavior, such as loitering and drinking. The solution, says Cruz, can be as simple as teaching the game at schools and parks so it can gain more respect.
In Hazard Park, neighbors say that while transient and homeless people occasionally leave their belongings at the courts, they know of no incidents there involving handball players.
Madrigal describes players as regular guys who come and play after a long day at work, maintain the courts themselves and “don’t bother anyone. They’re just playing handball and doing their own thing.”
Win or lose, these players come out here to get away for a few hours and to enjoy the rush of adrenaline the game brings. It’s a humble pastime that’s worth a lot to them.
“My wife gets mad because I’m always here,” says Covarruvias,who calls the courts his second home. One of the greatest payoffs, he says, is “the excitement of beating this one guy who is better than me. I leave really pleased with myself, and sleep well. And tomorrow this guy will beat me.”