Topflight handball traditionally has been a plodding game of endurance. The best players, however quick or canny, usually preferred hitting lobs and safe, high-percentage shots off side walls and the ceiling rather than going for winners—"kills" and passes—off the front wall. The modern master of the deliberate game was Paul (Haby Baby) Haber, who won five national championships between 1966 and 1971. Haber trained mostly in bars and crushed out his cigarette just before entering the court to snuff out his opponents. After Haber came six-time champion "Steady Freddie" Lewis, whose name described his style. Steady Freddie, 34 and now semi-retired, has all the flash of an accountant, which is what he is.
But last month in Tucson Naty Alvarado, who usually forgoes defense for an aggressive, catlike attack, defeated Steady Freddie, the defending champion, at his own methodical game to win the U.S. Handball Association's Four-Wall championship. With Vern Roberts, Alvarado, the No. 1-ranked professional handball player in the country since 1977, also won the doubles, becoming the first in 17 years to have a hand in both titles.
Alvarado, 26, came to pro handball six years ago from Juarez, Mexico, where his father, a former picador, is a railroad clerk. The younger Alvarado is called "El Matador" in his hometown, but he should be called "El Atila del Sur" (Attila of the South), the sobriquet the renowned Mexican revolutionary, Zapata, chose for himself. Since December 1976, Alvarado has waged his own guerrilla warfare on the courts; he has won 35 of the last 45 pro tournaments. Whether he'll continue to dominate the tour depends on whether there will be a tour to dominate; earlier this year it lost its sponsor, and is still searching for another.
Alvarado and Lewis orbit above every other handball player. For the past six years they've met in the finals of the nationals, with Alvarado winning four times. Still, not even Lewis can seriously challenge Alvarado on most occasions. Of the 34 tournament matches the two have played since 1975, Alvarado has won 27.
"Naty is the greatest four-wall player I've ever seen," says Jimmy Jacobs, the last player to win both the singles and doubles at the nationals and now co-manager of WBC junior middleweight champion Wilfred Benitez and other prizefighters. Indeed, Alvarado may be the best handball player, period, since an Irish immigrant named Phil Casey brought the game to Brooklyn in 1882. In those days, handball was played against one wall. The one-wall game is still played today, as are the two-wall and three-wall versions (Alvarado has also won the three-wall title two of the last three years), but big-time handball is played against four walls.
This year's nationals were held at the Tucson Athletic Club. The court has two glass walls that give it the appearance of an exhibit at one of the more modern zoos. A sound system amplified every bang and bounce for the 200 or so fans in the bleachers; the room reverberated with a continuous rumble.
In his six matches, Alvarado stationed himself at midcourt and drove his opponents into flailing ineptitude. "It was as if I wasn't in the game," said Glen Carden, after diving, leaping and losing to Alvarado 21-7, 21-7 in the quarterfinals. "I heard it all looked exciting. I just wish I could have participated."
The players who get pounced on by Alvarado have another name for him, El Gato, which means The Cat in Spanish. El Gato prowls the court with feline grace; he's always poised, perfectly balanced and intensely alert. "I like to think of myself as a puma or a panther," says Alvarado. "I'm just ready to jump on the ball, ready to kill it. I'm hungry. They say a hungry lion hunts better."
Alvarado was still a kitten when he saw his first handball match. The game was rebote, a two-wall Mexican variation his father played. Alvarado's family wasn't as poor as you can be in Juarez, but as one of 11 children he had to share a bedroom with seven brothers and sisters. Alvarado's first and only coach, Chuy Burrola, is a little round C-level player from across the border in El Paso. When Alvarado was 13, Burrola, then 34, beat him in a tournament. Alvarado was impressed by Burrola's dazzling moves.
"I was a real skeeny kid then," says Alvarado.
"He was real skeeny," says Burrola. "Like a little pony."
Burrola brought Alvarado along in much the way Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi introduced Luke Skywalker to The Force. Burrola showed Alvarado how to harness his. "Rhythm and power will come as you grow older," Burrola told him. "Speed will bring you power, and power is magical."
Burrola taught Alvarado to use his whole body in his strokes, so his arm wouldn't burn out the way that of a pitcher with a faulty windup does. Burrola also helped develop Alvarado's offensive style, a relentless barrage of hard, low, hooking returns that baffle opponents like Fernando Valenzuela screwballs. But what makes Alvarado especially effective is that he can belt the ball equally well with either hand. Most pros favor one over the other.
Alvarado played mostly in the Juarez area until he won the first of his three U.S. junior titles in 1972. Then Burrola told him it was time to move on. Alvarado agreed. "There are lots of very good players from where I lived," says Alvarado. "But they never got any better because they got stuck in Juarez."
Above all, Burrola instructed, never make excuses. "You can fill up a swimming pool with excuses," he said. "Some players lose and blame it on the roosters croaking, or say they had the fever, or that the mariachis played too late and kept them from sleeping. Once you find excuses or become ashamed of losing, your progress stops."
So Alvarado left Burrola and barnstormed as an amateur on the newly formed pro tour. His English was a little skimpy. Once when he refereed a match, he stopped a game at 12. "I can't count any higher than that in English," he said jokingly.
Haber tried to intimidate the hotshot teen-ager at the 1973 nationals in Austin. After a point, Haber watched the ball roll dead. "Hey, kid," he shouted, "pick up the ball for me." Alvarado shrugged and pretended he didn't understand. For the next 10 minutes Haber and Alvarado stared at the ball while the crowd howled. "I knew he was the greatest player in handball," Alvarado says, "but I wouldn't give in. It was a matter of pride." The ref finally had to come into the court and pick up the ball. The kid went on to win the first game, Haber the second, and Haber took the third, known in handball as the tiebreaker, 21-20. "At least I earned his respect," says Alvarado. He won his first pro tournament three years later.
Even though Alvarado rules the handball courts, he made only $15,700 in prize money during the 1980-81 season, the most anyone has ever earned on the pro tour. In 1981-82, with the tour living hand-to-mouth, he made a total of $8,000 in four tournaments. That would put him eighth on the pro racquetball circuit. Handball players tend to regard their racquetball counterparts with disdain. They argue that racquetball is a lot easier, that almost anybody can step out onto a court and play a pretty good game. The ball is bigger and softer and doesn't hook. And you hit it with a racquet; you don't have to scoop out 90-mph shots with your hands.
At the Tucson Athletic Club, a poster credits Lewis with saying, "If God had wanted man to play racquetball, He would have strung his fingers." A lot of handball players think racquetball is played by corporate lawyers in designer T shirts. Most pro handballers have to hold part-time jobs. Alvarado sells life and disability insurance out of Santa Ana, Calif. His balletic doubles partner, Roberts, once supported his handball habit by working as a disco dancer and model.
It was a chance to make $5,000 that lured Alvarado into doubles at the nationals this year. AMF Voit, which sponsors Alvarado, promised him five grand if he won both the singles and doubles titles. If Alvarado had won only the singles, he would have received just the $2,000 purse the USHA scrounged up from private donors. There is no prize money in doubles.
In Tucson, Alvarado was still smarting from his loss to Lewis in the title match of last year's nationals. But Alvarado was so sure he'd win that he brought his mother, three sisters, three brothers-in-law, a brother, his wife, Lupe, and his two children, Lupe and Naty ("We chose those names because they're easy to remember," he says). Burrola watched from the stands. "They play for the whole marble," he said.
Steady Freddie shunned his usual defensive game and tried to take the offensive, but El Gato parried every smash with the nonchalance of a tiger brushing aside a fractious cub. "Lewis is trying to use power against power," said Burrola, shaking his head. "But Naty has not begun to show his magic." He didn't have to. He kept Lewis off balance with finesse and ball control, and won 21-6, 21-9.
Upon winning the final point, Alvarado leaped halfway up a 20-foot wall, "I used to be a skeeny kitten," he said later, "but now I'm a fat cat."