For an event that turned out to be The Great Underground Game of 1967, it all started quietly enough. Paul Haber, 31, who is the national handball champion, picked up the telephone in one meaty hand and called Jimmy Jacobs, who used to be the champion, and said the magic words. He challenged Jacobs to a quiet, final, man-to-man showdown. Nothing fancy. No hoo-ha and publicity. They would pull on their white soft-leather gloves and duel to the death, that's all. All strictly unofficial, cut-'em-up, nothing at stake. Well, nothing except the whole world of handball, which promptly heard the news and came running.
Jimmy Jacobs was so excited about the prospect that he even accepted collect charges on the call, San Francisco to New York. They agreed to meet unobtrusively on 92nd Street in Manhattan, on the fourth floor of the YMHA, a Jewish island between Germantown and the advancing Puerto Rican belt. There would be two matches, one on Saturday night and one on Sunday, to give more fans a chance at the few available seats.
This was roughly two weeks ago. By last Saturday night, when Jacobs and Haber were tugging on their gloves, everybody who was anybody in the game had assembled at the Y. Betting money began flowing like wine at an Italian wedding, because, in New York City, Jacobs is the Jewish Clark Kent, fine and clean and pure and strong and true, even if he is 36 years old and getting to the point where he combs his hair slightly forward to cover the thinning spot. What matters is that nobody beats Jacobs at handball.
After Jimmy accepted the challenge he hung up the phone, dashed to his checkbook, paid for Haber's plane ticket to New York and arranged for his expenses plus $150 personal-appearance money. Then Jimmy began to flex his forearms, which are extremely large and hairy, and nervously wait for the big day. The YMHA agreed to pay back Jacobs by selling its few seats at $10 each—which was a nice gesture for a secret game. They could have sold out Yankee Stadium at twice the price.
To understand the reason behind all this midsummer lunacy one must first understand something about the sport. Handball is a game that might have been devised by the Marquis de Sade as something fun to do while his whips were at the cleaners. The four-wall version is played by two men locked inside a 20-by-40-foot room, off whose walls, ceiling and floor they slam a small, black rubber ball at speeds up to 100 mph. There are only two ways to win: by scoring 21 points first or by having your opponent suffer a coronary occlusion. In one match (two out of three games), a good player will sweat off at least six pounds, and the palms of his hands will begin to look like the soles of combat boots.
Jacobs has been the leading gladiator of New York's elite handball-oriented community for a long time. Between 1955 and 1965 he won six national singles championships and shared in four doubles titles. The last two years, out of ennui, he gave up the singles game and concentrated on doubles, which he won laughing.
All this was fine with New York, but bitter for California and Paul Haber, who won the singles titles in 1966 and 1967. The championship had a certain taste of ashes to it because he had beaten everybody of consequence—except Jimmy Jacobs. It got to the point where people were saying, "Oh, sure, you are the national champ, all right, but...." And Haber, who is a proud man, began to be rankled.
The night before the big match Haber sat in a Third Avenue restaurant, moodily poking at a steak, his steel-pipe forearms hidden under the sleeves of a green blazer. "This here is a mess," he said. "I mean, my coming back to New York to play him on his own court. I was raised in the Bronx, but I left when I was 10. Still, I'd go to China to play this guy, just to get the thing settled. Anywhere, anytime. I can outshoot him, and that's all there is to it."
Not too many blocks away, Jacobs sat at a back table in the Old Murray Hill restaurant, a dark, beamed-ceiling place on East 40th Street, daintily picking at a chef's salad and shaking his head in limited wonder. Jacobs had not lost a singles match since the year of the blue snow. "An unfair myth has arisen around this country," he said, "that I cannot be beaten. This is just not true. It is true that I have not lost in a long time, and it is true that it's been about 10 years since anyone has challenged me at four-wall, but...." His voice trailed off.
Haber had begun the soft psych that is the specialty of the game by stopping off in Phoenix to play a few tune-up games with The Monster. The Monster is Dave Graybill, a kindly, gentle man in private life but a killer on the court. Haber wrote Jacobs from Phoenix that "The Monster was playing tremendous ball. But, alas, not good enough."