Joe Durso has been
the greatest one-wall handball player for nearly a decade, but he's just as
well known for his ferocious verbal assaults against his opponents. For both
those reasons everybody wants to tear him down.
Today he's playing
a pickup game against Abdul from Albania, a hotshot high schooler in New York
City, where handball was once the preeminent adult participation sport. With
his pencil mustache and cresting pompadour, Abdul comes off like another young
Brooklyn stud on the rise. His mission: to whack Joe Durso and become Boss of
All Handball Bosses.
This drama unfolds
last summer on the municipal handball courts in Coney Island, where people
drink lime rickeys and egg creams on the boardwalk, a knish toss from the
center of the one-wall handball universe. Sea gulls whirl in crazy patterns
overhead. In contrast to the urban rubble all about, the courts are as clean
and white as altars. All the regulars are there to watch the match.
Durso, 35 years
old at the time, is ultra-fit and has male-model looks. At 6'1" he is the
tallest champ ever in a sport in which close-to-the-ground guys are thought to
have the edge—a concept backed up by the stature of most previous one-wall
champs. Durso lets Abdul build an 8-2 lead and then, reluctantly, gets
will be slow and excruciatingly painful," Durso taunts Abdul, beginning the
torrent of facile abuse that is his trademark.
Durso leaps, meets
a ball in midflight, seems to plunge to the right and then, with a feathery
stroke, taps the ball to the left corner. It strikes the wall about two inches
above the court, hangs there, and rolls out flat. Unplayable. Abdul can only
stumble helplessly after it.
variations on this theme until the score is tied. The mocking smile never
leaves his face. He doesn't sweat or even breathe hard.
"You can see
he's crushed," Durso says, laughing. "He's demoralized. All he wants to
do is crawl under the boardwalk and cry."
disasterizing the kid," says Stevie the Judo Man, one of Durso's cronies.
"I ain't storybooking it. Joe is the Da Vinci of handball."
wolfishly at Abdul. Crouching into a sidearm serve, he snaps the ball into the
far right corner so hard that the challenger doesn't even run for it. His
dominance assured, Durso starts creating three-dimensional aerial patterns
composed of ball-hitting-wall, ball-riding-air-currents. The effect is
breathtaking. Stars and trapezoids magically are drawn, only to vanish. Then
come other, even more complex, shapes as Durso wills them. The blue ball is his
paintbrush. The looming wall his canvas. Elaborate masterpieces are created,
vanish and are recreated in seconds.