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Side wagers flying like balls at 3 Wallball finals

How many walls does it takes to make a proper handball court?

The press release for the 3 Wallball World Championships held in a parking lot across the street from the Stratosphere said three walls; so did the players from Southern California and the people from Southern California who were there to place side bets.

The players from New York, N.Y., where handball pretty much originated in this country, said one wall is all you need.

The players from New York also said handball isn’t played with Spaldeens anymore. A Spaldeen basically is a tennis ball without fuzz on it.

“That’s really old school,” said 24-year-old Danielle Daskalakis of Brooklyn after advancing to the women’s open division final on Sunday morning.

So is American handball, a simple sport — smacking a small rubber ball against a two-story wall, trying to make it bounce twice before the opponent can reach it is how points are scored — which traces its origins to 15th century Scotland.

King James I, the story goes, had a window in the palace courtyard cellar boarded up because it was messing with his handball game. It can be assumed that King James I didn’t play handball with a Spaldeen, either.

Racquetball and paddleball also were part of these championships, though most of the interest seemed to be on the handball courts of both the one- and three-wall variety. These courts were where most of the people were, including an ESPN camera crew, and where most of the money was changing hands.

Danielle Daskalakis said back in Brooklyn there are handball courts on just about every corner, and they only have one wall, made of concrete. The other two walls are superfluous, she said, especially when they are made of plywood and painted this washed-out aqua color, which I think was intended to make the courts look more urban.

The handball would strike one of those plywood seams, and it would take crazy bounces, and sometimes the handballs would come to rest out by the port-a-potties where other people from New York would shag them.

A lot of people at Court 13, the one-wall court, spoke like “My Cousin Vinny.” Even the women.

But the biggest crowd was at three-walled Court 10 for the pro division championship match between Juan Santos of Orange County and Ricky Ruiz “from the L.A.-area,” according to one of the tournament directors. Ruiz, I was told by one of the myriad spectators who wore Dodgers caps of various colors or a headband, is from Downey.

A lot spectators at this court ate apples and bananas and held up racquetball pamphlets to shield the sides of their faces from the early morning sun.

They also shouted stuff in Spanish whenever the guy they had made a side wager on made a good shot.

The guy in the green shirt and black pants (Santos) beat the guy in the gray shirt and black pants (Ruiz). Neither wore a glove. Old school. The young blonde lady from ESPN (purple shirt, snug red pants) interviewed the winner.

Up in the bleachers, money changed hands.

A friendly handball fan wearing a gray tank top with “Cali” on the front named Gilbert knew of the city parks where both finalists play their handball. This tournament is nothing, Gilbert said, compared to these pickup games called jugadas at El Camino Real Park in Orange, just down the road from Anaheim Stadium.

Gilbert was the guy who had approached R-J photographer Justin Yurkanin before one of the senior division matches to gauge his interest in making a side bet. Or perhaps they could just play for a few shekels themselves on one of the courts in back, if Justin was so inclined.

One of Gilbert’s pals hopped down from the bleachers after the men’s final clutching two $20 bills that, if one had to guess, did not come from the ATM at the Stratosphere across the street.

It would have been a lot more than twenties had Totoy made it to the finals, Gilbert said.

Totoy, whose real name is Samzon Hernandez, is one of the best handball players in the world. Guys were known to bet thousands when Totoy played handball at the parks in Hawthorne, Calif., at least before gentrification.

They tore those courts down, Gilbert said. “Too many drunk (expletives).”

Like poker played in dimly lit back rooms, there’s a culture about handball that seems pretty cool when you experience it in person. That goes for whether it is played against one wall or three.

Danielle Daskalakis said there are side bets back in Brooklyn, too. Brooklyn may have invented side bets.

Sometimes back home it’s two girls versus one guy on the pockmarked handball slab, because the tough Vinnies where she’s from like to talk smack about one of them being able to beat two girls, or even three girls, with one hand tied behind his back.

“It’s pretty easy to take $10 off of them that way,” she said.

Danielle Daskalakis was smiling when she insisted it was only for $10.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

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