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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 interested.
"Your death 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.
Durso does 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."
"He's 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."
Durso grins 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.