AUSTIN (KXAN) — If you’re courting the decision to get your hands on something new this summer, you might consider a recreational sport that’s digging deeper roots into Austin’s backyard.
“I like the simplicity of it. It doesn’t require expensive equipment, it doesn’t require really anything other than a wall and a ball and a minimum of two people who want to play,” Daniel Navarro said.
The 45-year-old local Austinite is talking about the sport of handball. He started playing in 1995 during a spring semester at the University of Texas in Austin.
You could say he firmly believes in the notion of the famous movie quote, “If you build it, they will come,” from the 1989 film “Field of Dreams.”
That’s because, roughly three years ago, Navarro and others started talking to the Austin Parks and Recreation Department about building outdoor handball courts at a city park.
Near the beginning of May 2021, their dream will come true.
“They’ve got both walls poured and they just need to smooth out the surface, paint some lines, add a fence,” Navarro said.
The soon-to-be-completed one-wall courts are located at Mary Moore Searight Metropolitan Park in south Austin. The two walls were added to the edge of an existing tennis court.
“It means a lot for anyone in the city that enjoys the sport or wants to learn the sport. They now have a place to come and play it in a city park that’s open to everyone,” Navarro said.
“There are maybe up to 100 or so handball players in Austin that are really excited about it, and not just Austin. Handball players in other cities in Texas are excited about it, so we’ll be hosting tournaments here with players from Dallas, San Antonio, El Paso, Houston,” he said.
Navarro hopes for more handball courts at public parks in the future, including three-wall courts. He hasn’t played on any official one-wall courts in the city since about 2000. Previous courts were either bulldozed or turned into storage sheds, he said.
As he waits for the new walls to be finished, handball players have been using makeshift courts at local elementary schools.
Years ago, Austinites painted lines for one-wall handball at Kocurek Elementary and Josephine Houston Elementary in south Austin.
“These courts are outdoor courts and free to play on, which allows everyone to enjoy this great sport, not just those who have memberships to a health club with indoor courts,” Navarro said.
The ultimate goal is to increase accessibility, especially in underserved areas of Austin.
“I think it would help,” Navarro said. “I’m assuming people in underserved areas don’t have many opportunities for recreational activities that they enjoy doing… I think if we had more handball courts… they would get used pretty well and appreciate it.”
“I think one-wall is the gateway sport,” Mike Steele said.
Steele served 10 years as the president of the United States Handball Association (USHA) and coached for many years.
Steele is a retired professor at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon and he started the school’s program in 1977. He retired from coaching in 2015, and said he believes “one-wall has been a thriving sport for a long time and it’s probably the future of the game.”
He congratulated the City of Austin for creating these new one-wall public courts.
History of handball in Austin
Navarro said he’s one of many who have learned to play handball at the University of Texas in Austin — one of the oldest sports at the school.
The university erected its first handball court on campus back in 1916 when Berry M. Whitaker came to UT to formally establish an intramural program. Later on, the university formed a club in 1976. It plays the four-wall variation of handball. The school has hosted and competes in different tournaments all around the country.
Navarro played for the UT Handball Club and went to a couple of the national tournaments.
Every school year, UT students are able to take a beginner or intermediate handball class. In the past, Hall-of-Famer Coach Pete Tyson taught the sport at the school. As a player, Tyson is a two-time national singles champion, Navarro said.
“There are thousands of people who still live in Austin that remember his name and remember learning the game of handball at UT Austin,” he said.
Avery Shepherd, current president of the UT Handball Club, said her team usually practices outside Gregory Gym. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all normal practices are currently paused. The university is aiming for Fall 2021 to possibly bring sports like handball back.
Shepherd is “just itching” to play. She said now is the perfect time to build public courts, like those going up at Searight Metropolitan Park.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” she said. “The sport has been on a downhill slope in the past ten years or so, but there is a huge resurgence. It’s been neglected for a long time.”
Shepherd has volunteered for Shelley Damon’s “Lift Up Kids,” where she has taught students handball. Damon, the program’s executive director, founded it to coach the sport for elementary school-aged children at Title 1 schools. She trains and certifies UT students as coaches and mentors.
“There are rewards for people like the president of the UT program. We have some endowment money we use to offset expenses and maybe even pay them a small salary to work with the young players,” Steele said.
Shepherd said there have been more people wanting to be involved along with younger players emerging.
“Every couple of months we find new people that found our Facebook page and they’re like, ‘Man, I moved to Austin from New York or from California 10 years ago and I really missed handball and I didn’t know there was any handball here and finally one day, I decided to search it up and there you guys were,’” Navarro said. “And you know, they come and play with us the next day.”
He’s seen players as young as 10-years-old and as old as seventy and above in Austin. He’s currently teaching his kids to play.
During Steele’s time at USHA, he’s seen the sport become popular with Asian Americans and Hispanic youth, he said.
Navarro loves the sport for the opportunity it provides to all walks of life, including building relationships.
Many players come from diverse backgrounds. He’s seen lawyers, engineers, and businessmen playing. Some individuals were previously incarcerated. They learned to play handball in prison, where the sport is also often played, he said.
If you’re interested in handball and maybe want to play in the area, you can check out the “One Wall Handball – Austin, TX” Facebook group.