Don’t bother trying to reserve the handball court at Lawrence Athletic Club at 11 a.m. on a Monday, Wednesday or Friday. It’s reserved from here to eternity, or so it seems.
There is group of Lawrence gentlemen who refuse to act their age and rock themselves to sleep for an afternoon nap and just won’t listen to the signals their bodies send them, all the way to the operating table at times. Knees, backs, shoulders, the usual.
Rick Spano, who teaches in the doctorate program at Kansas University’s school of social welfare, is the best player of the lot and not just because at 68 he’s on the young side for this group. He’s had eight surgeries. Larry Hatfield, 72, didn’t quite have the talent of his close friend, John Hadl, to whom he handed the football more than a half-century ago, but it’s difficult to find an athlete of any age more active and competitive. He’s had seven surgeries.
Max Falkenstein, the famous retired broadcaster, according to his birth certificate, is 88, but he thinks and acts like a man so very much younger.
“Our wives give us no sympathy,” Falkenstein said of the injuries they incur. “They say, ‘Why the hell are you still playing?’ Why don’t you quit.’”
And what do the injured athletes say to that?
“Give me the ice bag,” Spano said.
Dentist Ed Manda and attorney Eddie Collister join the group when their schedules allow. Everybody knows pain’s part of the deal, but in the long run, the benefits of exercise far outweigh the drawbacks of surgeries, they are convinced.
“You see so many guys my age sitting in the rocking chair, staring out the window,” Falkenstein said. “I feel for those guys. Of course, I could be there myself. I think a lot of it’s got to do with what you do with your body. Keep it busy.”
Falkenstein considers himself fortunate he’s not what he eats.
“I’m a terrible eater, a fast-food junkie,” Falkenstein said, “but all my life I’ve been very active. I do something almost every day for exercise: ride my bike six miles or play handball or play golf or walk. I used to jog. Now I walk.”
Piped in Don Green, 80, retired professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at KU: “I think our group is a testament to exercise.”
Green recently took a three-month hiatus from the game, but he did have an excuse. He underwent hip-replacement surgery.
Spano said handball, which is played without a racket and requires dexterity from both sides, burns about 650 calories an hour if you’re playing singles. You’re constantly sprinting and changing directions.
“Hatfield claims fellow real estate appraiser J.D. Cleavinger, 67, has an advantage because he’s left-handed, but Cleavinger, a former teacher and coach and quite the athlete in his day, wasn’t so sure about that. Falkenstein broke the tie.
“In handball, when you play a guy who’s left-handed, the ball spins differently,” Falkenstein said. “I used to play a guy in Topeka, when he served, that ball would spin so much it would hit you right in the face.”
All agreed that the game requires two strong hands.
“You’re a racquetball player, you play handball you get frustrated with your off hand,” Hatfield said, echoing his friends’ sentiments that it’s a more difficult game than the more popular racquetball.
Lee Ice, 56, youth sports director in Lawrence and softball coach at Free State High, is the baby of the eight-man group and a convert from racquetball. When former Glen Mason assistant Golden Pat Ruel left Lawrence, Ice lost his chief racquetball opponent and joined the handball group, some of whom have been playing together for more than 35 years.
“Every time Pat and I would go out to play racquetball, they’d give us a hard time, telling us, ‘Why don’t you play a real man’s sport?’ The first time I played the sport it was very humbling because the footwork’s different and hitting with the left hand is different,” Ice said.
To demonstrate how challenging the game is, Falkenstein shared memories of playing the sport on separate occasions with two of KU’s all-time great athletes, Gale Sayers and the late Charlie Hoag.
“Gale’s a pretty good athlete, don’t you think?” Falkenstein asked rhetorically. “I played with him first time he played the sport. He couldn’t play because he had no left hand.”
Of Hoag, Falkenstein said, “Charlie told the story many times of when we played against each other in the Class B flight of the Topeka city tournament. At one point he said, ‘Max, I’ve got to rest.’ He collapsed and was sitting on the floor with his back against the wall. He said he never was so tired in his whole life.”
Mastering the game requires more than top-flight conditioning.
“It’s a game of angles,” Spano said. “You’ve got to play it for a while. Pretty much after you’ve played for a long time, somebody hits a ball, you know where it’s going to end up and you go there.”
Spano said, about 20 years ago, he was at the same bar where KU men’s tennis players were reveling.
“They decided I should play handball against them, two against one,” Spano recalled. “They get two serves. I get one. We probably played for about 25 cases of beer. The scores were 21-0, 21-1, 21-0.”
Naturally, the guy telling the story was on the winning side of the lopsided scores.
The men are sincere about the factors that motivate them to continue to play, from the benefits of exercise to the camaraderie to their love of the sport. But the foremost incentive lies in the chance to compete. Check that, the chance to win.
“I was playing at the Topeka YMCA on the third floor once and I got so ticked off in this match that I ripped my shorts off and threw them out the window,” Falkenstein said. “I had to come downstairs with a towel wrapped around me.”
Boys will be boys.
“Everyone who plays this game, even in their 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, nobody plays this game to lose,” Falkenstein said.