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Even before he reached the finals of the 40th U.S. Handball Association (USHA) national pro championships, in Atlanta last June, 35-year-old Naty Alvarado had revolutionized the rally-oriented game with his shoot-to-kill style off either hand. In the process, he had earned wide acclaim as the best player ever to strap on a pair of gloves. Like a menacing pistolero in a Clint Eastwood Western, Alvarado entered the Atlanta Sporting Club with his skilled palms itching and vengeance on his mind.
In the semifinals of the '89 tournament, he had lost to Poncho Monreal, his 26-year-old prot�g�, thus ending a streak of seven straight U.S. four-wall titles. At the awards banquet after that tournament, the chummy handball set gave Alvarado a standing ovation and urged him to speak. He walked up to the dais and spoke softly to the crowd. Bob Peters, the executive director of the USHA, repeated the message for all to hear: "Naty said to tell you, 'It's not over yet.' "
"I don't know how many days after that I cried and thought, How can this happen?" recalls Alvarado, who grew up in poverty in Juarez, Mexico, and learned the sport hustling bets for his father on two courts with warped floors and crooked walls at the neighborhood bathhouse. "If you didn't have anything to play for, you didn't play," says Alvarado. "So there was always something on the line."
As soon as his tears subsided, he began a rigorous training regimen aimed at regaining the U.S. title. He put himself in the hands of Dr. Van Toogood of Victorville, Calif., who started him on a strict nondairy diet and designed his workouts so he would peak at the national tournament. After each match in Atlanta, the 5'11", 172-pound Alvarado would lie on a table while a corps of sports trainers wrapped his limbs, mummy-style, in long strips of thin rubber to ease his soreness and then encased his upper body in ice packs. Clearly, more was at stake for Alvarado than the $3,500 first prize. "The wanting-to," Alvarado declared with a fixed stare after vanquishing top-seeded John Bike, 24, in the semifinals 21-11, 21-12. "That's what I have."
Alvarado's opponent in the title game was Jon Kendler, who had ousted Monreal in the semis 21-9, 21-9. A 6'3", 185-pound lefthander, Kendler, 27, had plenty of "the wanting-to" as well; he had lost in the finals the last two years. Kendler has tried to emulate Alvarado, whose reservoir of devilishly spinning shots and shrewd gamesmanship typically send his opponents ricocheting around the 20' x 40' court. "You fall into Naty's traps more often than he falls into yours," said Kendler, who makes his living leasing commercial real estate in Concord, Calif. "We call him Houdini, because you can never pin him down."
That quality also developed in the years before Alvarado obtained his green card, the document that gives non-U.S. citizens permanent resident status. In 1976, he came to the U.S. from Mexico seeking fame and, for him, fortune, though the paltry purses of the pro handball tour would hardly qualify as bonanzas to most pro athletes. As a 20-year-old in his first tournament, in Tucson, he defeated Fred Lewis, the No. 1 seed, in the semifinals and went on to win the top prize of $1,200. (Even now, prize money alone can't support the dozen or so touring pros who compete at six stops across the U.S., for a total of $150,000.)
In 1979, Alvarado settled in Hesperia, Calif., near Victorville, with his wife, Lupe, and their two children, Naty Jr., now age 17, and Lupe, now 18. He continued to refine his game, and over the next decade he dominated the pro handball circuit, averaging between $40,000 and $50,000 a year from prize money, exhibitions, sponsors and endorsements. In 1982 he began selling life insurance for Equitable of Iowa, which provided some financial security apart from handball, and the next year a third child was born.
The snag in this American dream was that Alvarado had entered the U.S. illegally and had never applied for permanent resident status. "I had nightmares all the time," he says. "The border patrol chasing me, people asking me for my papers. Every time I got on a plane, I worried so much." Once, in 1982, he spent five days in a Seattle jail after being turned away at the Canadian border while on his way to a handball tournament. He was eventually deported to Mexicali, but sneaked back into California a few days later. When he wanted to make a round-trip visit to Mexico, he would print up a phony invitation to a handball tournament in the U.S. and mail it to himself in care of Los Ba�os Romas, the Juarez bathhouse. Then, when crossing back into the States, he would present the formal-looking invitation to U.S. border officials as his reason for entry.
That all changed in May of 1987, when the U.S. government announced a yearlong amnesty program that would eventually lead to permanent resident status for thousands of illegal aliens. Naty, Lupe and their two oldest children were quick to apply for their green cards (Adriana, now 7, born in the U.S., is a citizen). A year later Alvarado won his record 10th national championship, surpassing the mark held by Joe Platak, who held the title from 1935 through '43 and again in 1945.
Then came Alvarado's defeat in '89, and the confused feelings that eventually spurred him toward Atlanta. "This last year I even thought about not playing, because it hurts inside, it hurts so bad," he said the day before the final. "But that's why I worked so hard. I don't want to retire. I want to do my best so I don't have to worry about it later on."