In handball, tradition holds court - The Buffalo News
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In handball, tradition holds court

Off the scuffed and battered court walls echo the sounds of heavy percussion and the hallmark calls of old-fashioned sportsmanship: the squeak of sneakers on sweat-slicked wood, cheers of encouragement, saucy jokes and inarticulate animal-groans expressing every kind of emotion.

The sport is indoor handball, a demanding and often painful game with rules similar to racquetball – minus the rackets – once popular in Buffalo and now relatively obscure.

The aim is to never let the hard rubber ball – smaller than a tennis ball and bigger than a golf ball – bounce on the floor more than once. All four walls of the court are in play, and a player’s hands are used as paddles, meaning that players have to be ambidextrous, agile, and – more often than not – ready for painful bruises.

And these players – a motley assortment of lawyers, teachers and Bethlehem Steel steamfitters – are almost all over 70.

Many of these men have been playing handball in the cellars of the Knights of Columbus – located at 506 Delaware in an orange brick mansion in the Second Empire style, with a steep mansard roof and peaked, austere dormers – since 1950.

The building is mostly obscured by trees, visible only as a flash of orange when passing on the street. A banner announces that the building is up for lease, suggesting that it’s just another empty Delaware Avenue mansion. Only a stone escutcheon bearing “Knights of Columbus 1915” hints at what goes on in the cellar below.

It’s 9 o’clock in the morning, when, as 60-year handball player Joe Heiney, 87, said, “most people are asleep.” By contrast, he is dressed in a sweatband, goggles and thin gloves, ready for action. “These guys here – we have to wait turns to play,” he said.

Sixty years in the ‘Cellars’

Few health clubs are housed in mansions, populated primarily by Irish and Italian men between the ages of 70 and 88, or equipped with a fully stocked bar.

As the members of the Delaware Avenue Knights of Columbus will proudly explain, the club also features a dining area, a lounge, a small library, a locker room, a weight room and a pool. But these men come for the camaraderie just as much as the exercise.

“Great playing, great people,” said Dick Murkowski, 77, a former Bethlehem Steel steamfitter.

Paul O’Hearn, who at a spry 70 considers himself one of the younger players, (and calls his older teammates “octobots”) was sure to add that “There’s certain people you don’t lend money to around here.”

This camaraderie – fermented, in many cases, after decades of playing together – is on full display on the handball courts, the door to one of which is decorated with a vintage Buffalo News welcome mat, announcing that this is “Where Life Unfolds Daily.”

The two courts are attached to a narrow hallway cluttered with the detritus of fitness: a punching bag, a stationary bike, a Curious George clock that may be connected in some way to the cellars’ time-warp feel and a machine that dispenses water despite not being visibly connected to any tank or pipe – perhaps, as some have suggested, Buffalo’s own Fountain of Youth.

Signs beside the windows warn that “Eye protection must be worn at all times while on the courts.” For the most part, the players obey – except for Al Rendoni, 87, who wears the goggles on top of his head, like some dashing WWI fighter pilot. The former player for the Buffalo Bills semi-pro football team, during their undefeated years, picked up handball when he left the “Bills.” Today, he plays three times a week.

“This is better than an insurance policy,” he said. “Just look around here. It takes all your worries away.”

Sure enough, the hall and the courts were filled with constant laughter, commentary and fond reminiscing.

A foursome streamed off the court, joking and backslapping.

“OK you turks! Court’s open!” called Tom Ryan, 78, Buffalo Sports Hall of Famer, star of basketball, baseball and football during his years at Bishop Timon and Holy Cross, and later coach of championship teams at his South Buffalo alma mater. He’s the sort of person former Erie County Sheriff Thomas F. Higgins, 83, also a longtime handball player, might affectionately call a “son of a pup.”

A new foursome took the court. Outside, the waiting players were quick to comment on their friends and competitors, summing up the strengths and weaknesses they’ve learned after a half-century of playing together at the Knights’ hall.

“Tommy Ryan walks in, drops his bag, pulls his shirt off and steps on the court,” said O’Hearn.

“He has one speed: Go,” said Michael O’Brien, who, in his 30s, enjoys spending his mornings with some of the saltiest dogs of Buffalo sports.

And Higgins added, “He hollers, whether he misses the shot or makes the shot.” Sure enough, Ryan’s shouts could be heard through the glass.

The observations extend well beyond each other’s quirks and mannerisms, giving credit where credit is due both on and off the court.

“He never sweats,” O’Brien said of Michael Caligiuri, 86, who, sure enough, looked cool and composed while playing his fourth game in a thick cotton sweatshirt. One wonders if he was this dry when he started playing handball at the Knights, in 1948.

And Higgins, at the window looking into the other court, said, “If Nick had knees he’d be phenomenal.” Sure enough, Nick Pierino, 88, a former lawyer who began playing handball in 1950, hooked a shot low and into the corner – impossible to catch.

Each of the men have their strengths: Heiney, though short, is a dynamo, while Caligiuri has the wingspan of an adult condor.

They also remember former players who’ve since left for the great echoing courts in the sky.

“An avid handball player, tenacious,” said Heiney, “Jimmy Griffin, mayor of Buffalo. One of the toughest you’ll ever play with.” The others nodded in agreement. Sure enough, “Jim Griffin” appeared on a plaque heralding the “Knights of Columbus Handball Hall of Fame,” along with other ubiquitous Buffalo names such as Amigone, Burke, Montante and Palisano.

Other handball legends are not so well known outside the Cellars.

A tackboard was hung with old clippings lauding the likes of R.P. Williams, who went undefeated for more than 14,000 matches in the late 1890s, or Walter Plekan, a Buffalo native who captured the first-ever United States Handball Association championship in 1951.

A disappearing pastime

Since those days, handball in Buffalo has been slowly disappearing. The men remembered playing at the Boulevard and Eastern Hills malls, the Buffalo Tennis Center formerly located where the Elmwood Home Depot now stands, and courts on the waterfront that have been long since demolished.

Gary Boyes, who recently returned to the Cellars after a 15-year absence, remembered playing one-wall handball on outdoor courts growing up in the Masten District. This jogged other memories – the men recalled 10-cent rubber balls, or appropriated tennis balls, used during their younger years learning the sport.

Caligiuri said that the sport has fallen out of favor because kids need to be taught growing up. His generation, however, came into the game on its own, as their fathers were stevedores or bricklayers. “All those poor guys did was work,” he said, and the others agreed, remembering similar childhoods.

Today, though, children have no opportunity to learn on the playground.

It seems that handball’s waning popularity has been in part because of the vicious cycle of court closures, and in part because it’s just too hard. For one thing, “it’s a real mental game,” as Rendoni pointed out, and players need to be virtually ambidextrous – if an opponent senses a weak hand, you’ll be done in minutes. But the sport is also physically painful.

“It hurts,” O’Hearn said. “You get bone bruises when you’re learning.” That means that these men have carried the same calluses for 60 years.

“You’re bound to get hit,” Higgins said. But this, he added, should only deter the faint of heart. “You play right away,” he advised. “You don’t nurse it. It’s instantly gone.”

This is good advice, but doesn’t apply to the more gruesome war stories: the men recalled one player who broke both of his wrists at once, and another who broke his leg.

And yet they wear no padding aside from their gloves, which are nothing like lacrosse or hockey gloves, but closer to golf gloves with padding where the palm meets the fingers – at least in most cases. Some look like they were found in the back corner of a garage.

Some younger players have joined – like O’Brien and Sal LaPuma, in his 50s – but these men had to get over handball’s barriers, both inherent and specific to the Knights.

“I played years of racquetball,” said LaPuma, who for years thought handball wouldn’t be enough of a workout. Then he tried it. “I said ‘this is unbelievable.’ I was dying. From that day, I got the bug. I gave my racket away.”

The men of the Cellars, however, didn’t intend to let him ease into it “These guys are all cutthroat, they’ll kill you,” he said.

“That’s the way you learn!” Heiney called from down the hall.

The handball lifestyle

“Jack LaLanne,” said O’Brien, referring to the American “godfather of fitness” and pointing to Joe Heiney. “Call Joe Heiney Jack LaLanne.”

It was an apt comparison. Despite bearing hip and knee replacements, aching joints and hearing aids, the men of the K of C buck the stereotype of the octo- or septuagenarian.

That doesn’t mean they aren’t above making fun of each other’s weak spots. “Hey Nick, how ya doing?” called Sheriff Higgins, with a laugh and a wink. A few inches away, Nick continued to complacently watch the game. “Nothing,” said Higgins. Then he tried someone else. “Hey Joe, how ya doing?” he asked. “Nothing.”

Aurally capable O’Hearn caught on. “You should talk!” he said, “You can’t count. You gave yourself three extra points every serve.”

All the joking in the hall covers up an eagerness to be back on the courts. Ryan hopped on the stationary bike while he wasn’t playing, and Higgins went for a walk. Pat Curley, sporting very few of his “original parts,” grew anxious after too long off the court, and another only showed up after playing nine holes of golf.

These men just don’t stop moving. “I work out every day, seven days a week, swimming, L.A. Fitness, jogging, weights,” said Joe Heiney. “I get up at 5 o’clock in the morning, I do an hour of yoga. I’m playing with the younger guys, I have to be ready to go in a moment.”

O’Hearn was ready to go home – arguing that he wanted to save up some energy for the next day – when a few of his buddies dragged him back onto the court for another round. “Just when I thought I was out, they puuull me back in!” he said, quoting The Godfather Part III. “Eh, that was an awful movie,” he added.

All agreed on the benefits of getting over the barrier that stops so many from staying active. Their logic? If your knees hurt: run. If you’re tired: run. “The more you do it, the less tired you get,” said Heiney.

And as Higgins pointed out, the men are living proof. “There’s over a thousand years here!” he said, perhaps a conservative estimate of the men’s composite age.

“It’s a high,” Heiney said. “When you make a good shot – it’s so stimulating, it’s like cocaine or something.”

Two hours later the courts were vacated and the men hit the locker room for a shower, a change and a few swigs of Irish whiskey.

“Everybody has their booze in their locker,” O’Brien explained.

Some would head to the Arby’s across Delaware for a coffee and a snack. Some would head home to family or other obligations.

Many would return the next day, for more handball.

Mike Caligiuri, however, was in the weight room, pumping iron.

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