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It is late afternoon, the start of rush hour. Workers who call Coronado home zip down Interstate 5 and onto the bay bridge. In the shadow of its on-ramp, two handball courts come alive.
The sharp rat-tat-tat of a rubber ball striking walls and calloused hands echoes in the chamber of so much surrounding concrete.
On one court, Kenny Verdugo bounds from left to right. He swings his powerful right arm with force to hit a small blue ball with his hand. It bounces off the back wall, and his opponent strikes it back. The volley continues. Sweat drips onto their long shadows.
A ball gets away from the game in the other court.
“Bola! Bola! Bola!” an eager player yells in Spanish, imploring spectators on a faded bench nearby to toss it back to avoid slowing the game. But the spectators are attuned elsewhere.
An older man thumbs through a National Geographic. Another, whom they call “Green Eyes,” takes a swig from a beer bottle wrapped in a paper bag. He peers through a chain link fence toward the street, where police are known to slow as they pass. He places the bottle strategically on the bench to block it from view.
There is “Hollywood,” who wanted to be an actor, his friends say. “Filipino” is really Mexican, but his eyes make him look Asian, he said, and his darker skin Pacific Islander. “Green Eyes” has green eyes, and Terry Money is known as “Guera,” which means white woman, the only one to frequent the courts.
The handball courts of Chicano Park are a loved institution in Barrio Logan. Every evening, a cast of regulars, old and young, shows up to play fast-paced games at the base of the bridge, to offer color commentary from the sidelines, to relax in the shade among company as the sun sets and cars zoom past overhead.
The rules are simple: Use your hand to hit a small rubber ball against the court’s back wall. Stay in bounds. If it bounces more than once before your opponent returns it to the wall, you win a point. First to 11 wins.
In Barrio Logan, the game has created community among locals, many with long ties to the neighborhood and the history of activism that led to the courts’ construction in the 1980s. Others travel from across the county to play at courts known for hosting competitive matches. Still others are brought together by a love of a game first learned, in many instances, behind prison walls.
Like Kenny Verdugo. He picked up his first handball in the prison yard, and has been playing at Chicano Park since he got out four years ago. He still hasn’t mastered the corners. In prison, he played against a straight wall.
Others, like 45-year-old Raul Gonzalez, learned in Los Angeles, where the sport thrives. They call Gonzalez “Topo,” meaning mole, because of his slight features and his work landscaping. But he is also considered the courts’ godfather: He protects them, he has improved them, and he has maintained them with a care befitting a father’s.
“Handball is my hobby,” he said. “It is very important in my life.”
He moved to San Diego from Los Angeles in 1990. For a year, he scoured the city and the county in search of handball courts. He was sure he would find them, given the sport’s popularity in Los Angeles. He found none. So in 1991, he moved back to Los Angeles to be near the sport he loved.
His nephew begged him to return.
“I told him I couldn’t go because there was no handball,” Gonzalez said.
Finally, desperate for familial ties, his nephew admitted that during the year his uncle had lived in San Diego, he had kept a secret from him. He had known all along about the courts in Chicano Park, but hadn’t told him because he feared for his uncle’s safety if he played in Barrio Logan, which had a reputation for violence and gangs.
In 1992, Gonzalez agreed to move back. For the last 18 years, he has played almost every day. He stops on his way home from maintenance and grounds work at a Clairemont retirement home. He plays in work clothes embroidered with his last name. Between matches, he maintains the courts and the area around them.
“The city doesn’t do it,” he said.
The courts were built in 1984. They were one of the last phases of Chicano Park, which the city constructed under the looming highway overpasses as a concession to the largely Mexican community of Barrio Logan. After Interstate 5 and the Coronado Bridge sliced and diced the neighborhood into quadrants, its residents demanded that the city mitigate the damage.
They were led by local leaders like Raul Portillo, who pressured the City Council to build the courts for the community in the early 1980s.
Now 73, Portillo still shows up to the courts aided by a polished wood cane for the strained back that slows his walking, but doesn’t keep him from the occasional game.
“I can’t play like I used to,” he said.
But he won’t stay away from Chicano Park, where Mexican residents of Barrio Logan take pride in a place they built. It is maintained by the Chicano Park Steering Committee, but also by people like Gonzalez, who have adopted little pieces as their own.
In the mid-1990s, he raised $800 to install a light on the courts so the game didn’t have to end at sundown. Each player donated $20. He’s made other improvements over the years. He added lights in the crevice between the top of the courts and the freeway overpass.
Last week, he installed a little patch of grass — left over from his job — in front of the sideline bench. It’s not doing well. He hopes plenty of water will save it.
Gonzalez has his eyes on the empty space to the left of the two existing courts. He dreams of at least two more, if ever the city would pay for them.
Handball courts dot the region. In Clairemont and Kearny Mesa, they’re at high schools and hard to access. In Tierrasanta, they’re where tournaments are held, and in Golden Hill, the competition is said to be less impressive. The courts in Imperial Beach lack side walls, and the rules at the Ocean Beach courts are different from the game Barrio residents play. The only other accessible courts, at San Diego City College, were shut down last year, to Gonzalez’s horror. They are being used as storage for construction and won’t re-open for at least two years.
“We need more,” Gonzalez said. “Sometimes you have to wait an hour to get into a game here.”
The handball in Barrio Logan is a special brand. More technical than the prison yard game usually played on a straight wall not intended for it, eliminating tricks like shots off side walls. Less technical than the handball played on other courts like Ocean Beach’s, where whites outnumber Latinos.
“They complain a lot,” Gonzalez said of those games. “If the ball goes close to the line and someone’s standing there and they can’t get it, they say ‘hinder!’ That means you got in their way. Then they say ‘take two!’ That means you play it again. We don’t say that stuff here.”
Here, everything counts.