King of Handball

by

01/24/2012

Neighborhood: Brooklyn Heights

King of Handball
Photo by National Library of Ireland

By any standards, Mark Margolies, who is now in his late sixties, lived an uneventful life. He was modest and soft-spoken. Even after he graduated from Brooklyn College, he lived with his parents until he was 30, mainly staying in his room, working only sporadically, and reading philosophy books. Then, on a weekend hiking trip, he met Gabrielle, the teacher who was to become his wife. She helped him get a job as a lab assistant, which he kept for the rest of his life. The two of them proceeded to raise two children.

Margolies, however, had one overriding passion. That was handball. He loved any kind of handball – one-wall, four-wall, black ball, pink ball – and its derivatives like paddleball and racquetball. Even when he was a kid, once the exercises were over in gym class, he’d head to the handball court.

Once I asked Mark, whom I met when I worked near his co-op in Brooklyn Heights, whether he played any other games, like basketball or softball. “Well, I learned to swim because I had to. Once I tried touch-football,” he said. “It was horrible!”

When I asked him how he got into handball, he said his father, a working-class Jew from Brownsville, worked for the Post Office, but his passion was boxing. “He was a boxer,” Margolies said, “and he trained for boxing by playing handball. He would go to the Betsy Head handball courts in Brownsville, and I’d go with him and watch.” At the same time, because Mark was very shy and had no friends, he never got into sports like the other kids.

“You know the last time I went to a baseball game? The last year the Dodgers were in Brooklyn—1957,” he said. “My brother took me. I sort of enjoyed it, but I never had any real desire to go again.”

Soon afterward, his family moved to the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn. From there, it was an easy walk to the Brighton Beach handball courts, the mecca of New York City handball. “Everyone,” he said, “played there—kids like him, guys in their seventies, A-level tournament players, beginners – everyone.” Sometimes he’d have to wait a half hour to get on a court, but he didn’t care. He was hooked.

“When I was playing handball,” he said, “it was like I was taken to another dimension. There was such high energy, I was in such a state of ecstasy, that it was like I was removed from the world. Many of the courts had lights, so sometimes it would be midnight and I didn’t even know it. My parents had to come down and get me. I’d play singles, doubles, sometimes two against one – it didn’t matter, as long as it was handball.”

As time went on, playing on the neighborhood courts got a little boring for him. So he’d get on the trains and go to different neighborhoods all over the city. Even after he got married and moved away from Sheepshead Bay, he continued to go to the courts in Brighton Beach, where the best, most competitive handball players held forth. He went to neighborhoods that most of his peers considered dangerous, like Bushwick or Central Harlem. “Are you kidding?” he’d answer, after someone feared for his safety. “The guys there are some of the best players. They put their all, every part of their body, into it!”

He stopped playing for a few years after he had kids, but when the children got a little older, he went on his handball trips every Saturday and Sunday, while Gabrielle stayed home and pursued her own interests.

 One time I asked him if he’d gone to all five boroughs to play.

“Well, I went all over Brooklyn and all over Manhattan, up to about 168th Street. I never went to the Bronx – it was too far. I didn’t like Queens, didn’t play there except when I worked in a school there. I’d play on my lunch hour, in the schoolyard. The other teachers loved to play me, the custodians loved to play me, even the kids played me. They thought I was over the hill, but when I started to play, they couldn’t believe it!”

Hearing this story, I asked whether he was an “A-level” player. “Definitely not—I was a B-level player. But who cares!” he answered. “Besides, A-level players in handball don’t get that much recognition anyway—it’s just that they get into the record books.”

When Mark was about 45, his wrists were beginning to go, so he switched to racquetball – “not paddleball,” he’d say, “the wooden paddle was too heavy for me.” He joined the Eastern Athletic Club in Brooklyn Heights and played there. When his legs and his back started to go, he switched to ping-pong, but soon, he wasn’t even able to do that.

I saw Mark recently sitting at a counter at the Park Plaza Diner in the Heights. His hair was white, his beard was gray and he had a cane at his side.

“Been playing any ball lately?” I asked politely, thinking that the answer was no.

“No. My doctor forbids it—you know, my back,” he mumbled.

“Do you go to the handball courts at Brighton Beach to watch?” I asked, trying to salvage something good for him.

“Yeah,” he said, sighing. “But that’s all I can do.”

“Well, that’s too bad,” I sympathized.

“I’m not sad,” he said. “Handball gave me more than 50 years of fun. I’m can’t complain!”

And I said goodbye to him and walked away, satisfied that he had lived his life exactly the way he wanted to; that he had done something with it that he considered worthwhile.

Raanan Geberer is an editor at a local newspaper in New York and lives with his wife Rhea and his cat Bonnie in Chelsea. His hobbies include vegetable gardening, working out at the gym and playing rock music with friends. He is a lifelong railfan and has an overriding interest in politics, religion, history and literature.

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§ 4 Responses to “King of Handball”

  • Bonnie Walker says:

    4 STARS
    I LIKED THIS STORY VERY MUCH.

  • Phil Englander says:

    I’m sorry there were only 5 stars to give you. Great story.

    Thank you,

    Phil

  • Schoolyard daze says:

    Bayside High schoolyard in Bayside, Queens in the 1960’s was always packed from spring to early autumn w/handball, paddleball, stickball, softball, & pavement 2-hand touch. Their names are mostly lost to history, but I gotta tell ya’, they had a bunch there who knew up from down. Needless to say, it was a real competitive schoolyard! There were two or three handball players there in their primes I’d match against anyone.

  • Floraine Kay says:

    Hi,
    My uncle also played handball in Sheepshead Bay. In fact, he won a championship one year. I would like to reach out to Mr. Margolies to see if they might know each other. I am also looking for photographs of the courts and, ideally, an article about my uncle’s victory. He was probably competing in 12 and under. His name is Marty Fisher and he is now 76 years oldm

§ Leave a Reply

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