On warm summer days like these, it’s time to take advantage of our beautiful public parks and all of the sports equipment they have to offer. Many of us have used those courts with the big 16-foot wall for tennis practice, but few people know their true purpose: handball. Not to be confused with its European, soccer-esque cousin, American handball is more like racquetball in its approach. I met up with Vince Anderson and the rest of the Handballers of New Jersey at Columbus Park in Piscataway one recent Saturday afternoon to see this lightning-quick game in action.
When I showed up, a doubles game was well underway, so I stood behind the court to watch them play and snap some pictures. Every time the ball rocketed in my direction, a hand would pop up to hit it back; after a few rallies of this, it became clear that with the talent level on that court, there was almost zero chance the ball would hit me. The very fast game that transpired was remarkable to behold. Four players (two vs. two) hit a ball about the size of a softball, but softer, directly at the wall. To play, the opposing team must hit the ball back directly at the wall to keep it in bounds. If they let it bounce more than once, or if it bounces once and then lands out of bounds, the other team gets a point. Although the best way to think of American handball is racquetball without rackets, it actually predates racquetball by a few decades.
While handball may feel rather new to Central Jersey, it’s had a large following for a long time on the streets of New York. “I grew up in Corona, Queens, and we had a handball court in the school yard,” remembered Vince. With a court already there, all they’d need to play is a ball and they’d be occupied all season long. “We played in the morning before the bell rang, we played at lunchtime during recess, and we played after school until the bus came.” In this neighborhood, among his friends, handball was a part of life.
Vince eventually followed his career to New Jersey, and after getting settled in, desired some type of physical activity to keep his energy up and moving. Naturally, he looked for handball. Unfortunately, finding organized handball in the Garden State was quite difficult. “I tried everything; I have sets of tennis rackets and racquetball rackets in my car. I tried every single sport but they just weren’t the same as handball.”
While there wasn’t much organized handball here, there were players scattered around. Knowing the demand was there, Vince decided to start an organized club, Handballers of New Jersey. A couple of his first recruits were Al and his son Bernie from Lakewood who have consistently supported the organization through the present. Darlena Medley, a coworker from Vince’s physical therapy position, had never heard of the game before but would later become the manager. They took to the internet to find more people as well. He also, “traveled to different parks in New Jersey and just started collecting everybody’s number and email.” He’d go to one park, find three people playing, and get their information, then go to another park, find four people, and get theirs. People were playing handball all over, “but there was no central location”. Once he got enough players onboard, “I decided to do a tournament just to get everybody in one spot.” It was a great success, and the club has been expanding ever since.
Now the Handballers of NJ play almost every weekend in the summer (weather permitting), offering singles, doubles, male, and female competition. They’ll frequently go on the road within and even outside of the state. For instance, they usually compete in the DMV, named after the three states that host it, DC, Maryland, and Virginia. They couldn’t attend this year for good reason: they had been approved by the United States Handball Association to run a New Jersey State Championship. “They were very pleased that we found enough players in New Jersey because other people had tried before and they were unsuccessful,” said Vince.
He even has plans to expand the organization’s mission into giving back to the community through handball. Vince wants to start a camp that’ll also offer, thanks to his and his colleagues’ expertise, personal training and nutrition help to those who sign up. They’ve also done and will continue to do fundraisers for families in need. But it’s all made possible by the community of handball. Ready to play? Check out their Facebook page, facebook.com/handballers.newjersey, email email@example.com, or call 732-357-5642. See you on the courts!