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The timbre of the voice is authoritative. The drape of the jacket is just right. He is barbered and manicured to perfection. He looks like a road-show Robert Young. His name is Robert Kendler, he is a 72-year-old multimillionaire home builder in the Chicago area and he is known as the Wizard of Skokie, because of his inventiveness in the realm of handball and racquetball, and as Emperor Bob because of his domination of those sports. A bronzed handball glove has pride of place in his office.
Kendler standardized handball, invented the glass court and brought the game up from the dark, dank basements of YMCAs to the bright lights of posh athletic clubs. In the process, he has fought and won countless battles, first with the AAU and Avery Brundage, then with anyone else who has attempted to invade what he considers his domain. Measured against the standard of the most powerful sports authority, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Kendler is the czar of czars. "If you get anything but hearts-and-flower quotes on Kendler, I'll be surprised," says a man who has been his adversary over the years. "He's one tough hombre, and who needs the hassle? But I'll say this, he's a genius."
Kendler controls the United States Handball Association and owns its professional counterpart, the National Handball Club, which sponsors a pro tour. And what Kendler has done for handball he is doing for the fast-growing game of racquetball. The doing includes the usual treatment: standardizing the game and the ball, as well as owning and controlling the pro and amateur organizations. In 1968, when Kendler was asked to take over racquetball, it was several games, most notably something called paddle ball, and house rules prevailed. In the eight years since he changed the name of the game to racquetball and married the rules and court to handball, the number of players has doubled and redoubled until there are now a reported eight million devotees. Last year an estimated 10 million balls were sold at 80� each, and all those players and balls are careening around 15,000 new courts. Nonetheless, Kendler regards racquetball as strictly a business proposition. "I wouldn't be caught dead playing racquetball," he says. Recently, while on the way to the handball court, he passed his college-age grandson hurrying to a racquetball game. "Give up that sissy's game and play a man's sport," Kendler said, slapping a palm with his handball gloves.
Kendler was a disadvantaged kid, forced to go to work at 12 to help support his mother and five brothers and sisters after his father left home. He was never involved with sports until he discovered handball as a grown man. That discovery took place around the time Hoover was moving into the White House, and by then Kendler was a wealthy young man about to become poorer. However, rich or poor, through the Depression and three wars Bob Kendler has played handball. "I love it," he says with passion. "It's the only game I've ever played."
Kendler has won a national doubles title five times with three different partners. Not coincidentally, he always played with exceptional partners. Nothing has ever interfered with his handball game. Recently Kendler had a laminectomy, vertebral surgery that left him with a stiff spine—and still he plays. The game is part of his formula for health and happiness. This begins with reading a daily lesson from the Christian Science text, followed by application of the old work ethic (a minimum of 12 hours a day). The formula includes extraordinary devotion to his second wife Evie, to whom he still writes poetry, and handball.
Kendler, who owns $30 million in North Shore property and almost that much in commercial buildings closer to downtown Chicago, spends a good part of his day playing handball. Time and trouble have always been the price he has paid for his passion.
Almost from the first time Kendler picked up a handball he was at loggerheads with the AAU, which ruled the sport for most of his early years in the game. Everything about the AAU's administration of the sport disturbed him. "They gave nothing to handball," he says vehemently. "Nothing. All the AAU cared about were those 15 or 16 Olympic sports. Handball was the stepchild." In the 1930s the handball clan would gather on the West Coast, where the game was warmed briefly by the attention of movie stars and personalities. Doug Fairbanks Sr. played it, and Harold Lloyd had his own four-wall court. Those moments in the sun were all too brief for the ambitious Kendler, who railed as the game returned to firehouse lofts and YMCA basements.
In 1943 Kendler was bounced from Chicago's exclusive Lake Shore Club because of an erroneous rumor that he was Jewish. That event proved to be the beginning of the great upheaval in this hitherto quiet game. Shortly after he got the boot, Kendler leased five floors in a Chicago hotel and built the Town Club, a handsome athletic facility. Naturally, the centerpiece was five handball courts, two of them exhibition courts with a glass wall, the first ever built. "I did it for Evie," Kendler says. "I made a spanking clean gallery and a place where for the first time wives could come and watch. Until then, it was a game men played in their dirty underwear with cigar stubs in their mouths and an aroma that was as tough as their language."
The fancy courts with their galleries were much in demand. War with the AAU was undeclared, but certainly the first shots had been fired. Meanwhile, Kendler continued his preparations. He brought in most of the rated players and put them to work for his company, Community Builders.
"Push Bob Kendler, and he is going to push back," says Jimmy Jacobs, six times national singles champion and one of handball's legendary figures. "With him it's a conditioned reflex. He is rich and powerful and loves a challenge." The AAU was to learn about those reflexes. In 1950 war finally broke out. "I just got tired of paying for nothing to have the AAU sanction tournaments," Kendler says. "That money never went back to the sport. I knew firsthand, since I had been an AAU commissioner myself."