Lawrence and Douglas County

Lawrence and Douglas county

Lawhorn’s Lawrence: Group looking for a hand with handball

March 10, 2013


From left, Lawrence residents Ed Collister, J.D. Cleavinger, Don Green and Max Falkenstien play a game of handball Friday at Genesis Health Club, 2339 Iowa St. Many in the group, which has been playing together for close to 40 years, would like to see more gym space in Lawrence for those wishing to play underrepresented sports like handball.

From left, Lawrence residents Ed Collister, J.D. Cleavinger, Don Green and Max Falkenstien play a game of handball Friday at Genesis Health Club, 2339 Iowa St. Many in the group, which has been playing together for close to 40 years, would like to see more gym space in Lawrence for those wishing to play underrepresented sports like handball.

I may have just beaten Max Falkenstien in a game of handball. I’m not sure.

I’m mainly just glad he didn’t bust my glasses. When I walked into the room with him and shut the door behind me, he looked them over pretty good.

“I’d be worried about those,” he said.

Great. Not that I didn’t already have enough on my mind: Like these gloves. I’m wearing a pair of thick leather work gloves, and apparently that is not the height of fashion in the world of handball.

In my defense, they’re not my gloves. Lawrence dentist Ed Manda has loaned them to me. He’s plays handball three days a week, and always with leather work gloves instead of the specially-made and more expensive handball gloves.

His choice has not gone unnoticed.

“Why don’t you play with mittens, Manda?” a locker room passerby asked him a few moments earlier.

Maybe he will some day, because, if the age of the room is any indication, he still has plenty of years left to play the game.

Falkenstien is 88 and he may well be the dean of Lawrence handball. He’s played the game for about 70 years, and he's now part of a group of about a dozen other guys who routinely meet three times a week at the former Lawrence Athletic Club (now Genesis) to play handball.

And I just beat him. Perhaps. This is of some importance because I have heard the story of how Falkenstien — the legendary voice of the Kansas Jayhawks — once beat All-American football player and KU/NFL icon Gale Sayers in a handball game.

So, I just beat the guy who beat Gale Sayers. Perhaps. (At least that is how I will forever tell the story.)

Dying sport

Handball — in case you haven’t ascertained by now — is a sport I have never played before. That explains why I didn’t show up with the proper eye protection and now appear well-equipped to stack a cord of firewood.

I soon got a lesson in the sport. Rick Spano, who ended up serving as my partner, told me handball definitely is a two-handed game.

“You have to have an off hand,” Spano explained. “That takes a long time to develop. At least 50 years, near as I can tell.”

These days, it appears, a third hand would be useful in the sport too — one to wave it goodbye. Group members said the sport — in Lawrence, anyway — is at risk of fading away.

“Even our youngest are old,” Falkenstien said. “There are no young people playing, and it is a shame because it is the best game in the world.”

That’s saying something, because Falkenstien has seen a few games in his time.

This group doesn’t plan on letting the game fade away without a fight. Manda and others have been writing letters to city officials urging them to add a couple of handball courts to the proposed 181,000-square-foot recreation center in northwest Lawrence.

Currently, the city only has one handball court — at the Holcom Recreation Center — that is open to the public, and getting on the court can be difficult during prime leisure times. Genesis has two courts open to members. A handful more are available at KU, but those courts aren’t open to the general public.

Group members think a lack of easy-to-access courts has hurt the game.

“How is anybody going to learn to play the game if there is no place to play?” Falkenstien said.

Who knows if that is the culprit. It may be that people discovered you could play racquetball and save your hand the occasional pain. (No worry for me. “You could hit a shovel with those gloves and not hurt your hand,” one member observed.)

It appears most handball players aren’t interested in making the switch to racquetball.

“You have to trust the people you play with, and these are not trustworthy people,” Spano explained. “I’m not going to give them a stick to hit me with.”

Worth a shot

At this point, changing the design of the recreation center to add handball courts is probably going to be difficult. Ernie Shaw, leader of the city’s parks and recreation department, told me handball — or racquetball, for that matter — had not come up often when the department has asked the public about its recreation desires.

There’s some talk among group members about getting KU officials to add a community class in racquetball, but there’s nothing firm on that.

Who knows, perhaps just this group and a handful of others will continue to play the game and appreciate its simplicity — “You can hit a bad shot and it still comes back to you,” Manda notes — and then it eventually will become a memory.

I don’t know. But I do know I enjoyed it. I’m somewhat ambidextrous, and, not to brag, I have quick hands. Actually, I would love to brag about it. I can put 50 cents worth of dimes on my left elbow and catch them in my left hand before they hit the ground, but there are only so many times you can do that at a cocktail party until people start refusing to give you any more dimes.

But here is a sport where such a skill might actually come in handy. Group members really thought I had played before. I kept waiting to hear some trademark Max Falkenstien commentary on my game, but I never did. Just as well, because I understand it is a bit different than what he offered at Allen Fieldhouse anyway.

“He saves his commentary for when you are his partner and you miss a shot,” Spano said. “Most of it you can’t print.”

I missed plenty of shots, but I made a few, too. Enough to beat Falkenstien. Perhaps.

You see, one thing I didn’t quite get about the game was the scoring. I thought I had it figured out, but then I returned my mind to the important task of not getting hit by a rapidly moving ball. It was almost like I needed a professional color commentator to explain the scoring system to me, but where are you going to find one of those? (Now that I’ve read the rules, it doesn’t seem complicated. The gloves must have thrown me off.)

Regardless, when the game was over, I wasn’t sure who had won. I didn’t want to look like an idiot, so I didn’t ask. I assumed subsequent conversation would give me a clue. But it didn’t. Thanks to my partner, though, I knew the game was close. So — in case I haven’t mentioned it — I beat Max Falkenstien. Perhaps.

Either way, I had a good time playing a game I would have never thought to play. And, heck, I learned something too: If you don’t try something new in life, sometimes the game passes you by before you even find it.

Well, that, and don’t borrow gloves from Ed Manda.

— Each Sunday, Lawhorn’s Lawrence focuses on the people, places or past of Lawrence and the surrounding area. If you have a story idea, send it to Chad at


elliottaw 5 years, 3 months ago

I know a lot of people that wrote asking for racquetball courts, they choose to ignore it

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 3 months ago

Yea, it'll be a shame if they really spend $25 million on a new recreation palace, and don't put in at least one handball/racketball/wallyball court. The one at Holcom is almost always busy.

"“You have to trust the people you play with, and these are not trustworthy people,” Spano explained. “I’m not going to give them a stick to hit me with.”

In games of racket ball between experienced, good players, it's very rare that anyone gets hit by either the ball or the racket. If someone gets hit, it usually means someone is either playing out of position (otherwise known as a "hindrance,") and/or hitting the ball badly.

chicago95 5 years, 3 months ago

I played handball all through college and loved it. I wore the right gloves, but still had the occasional swelling due to a poorly executed shot. As a two-handed game (in contrast to nearly all racquet sports) it was uniquely challenging and uniquely fun. And in handball, you get to bounce your own body off the walls from time to time! (Don't knock it till you've tried it.)

Put me down as one more belated vote for additional public handball courts.

Robert Dewhirst 5 years, 3 months ago

I find it hard to believe that courts haven't come up in the discussion of the new rec center. I know the Kansas Racquetball Association demonstrated to the city that new courts at the center could actually be a revenue stream by hosting tournaments. I also know other local players have conducted PERSONAL discussions with city commission members on the subject (lack of courts). If those discussions aren't making it over to parks and rec, I wonder what other topics are getting ignored in the project? It also means that parks and rec is ignoring the perpetually overbooked single public court at Holcom and not bringing this up in discussions.

Part of this problem may be that the general public doesn't realize handball, racquetball and wallyball courts are the same thing. There are a lot more voices to be heard than just handball players.

broddie 5 years, 3 months ago

There's an easy way to solve this problem: open up the handball/racquetball courts at KU's Robinson Center on weekends. There are 7 courts there and they sit empty much of the time.

UneasyRider 5 years, 3 months ago

Who cares what Les is blabbering about. If his product is so great, why won't anyone buy it?

hedshrinker 5 years, 3 months ago

OK, put me down as someone who knew nothing about this sport and was fascinated to know about several players well beyond my senior status who share this passion,enjoy competition with one another and stay fit in the process. Then I had to be subjected to comments fr some single-minded soreheads bemoaning the elite media and politics (subjects I am known to comment on frequently as well)....once in a while it's nice just to take things at face value....that's what the REST of life, apart from politics, is hobbies, art, friendship, health, etc. Chad proves his journalistic chops regularly keeping us posted about business and development locally, often scooping everyone else...let him have some fun once in a while! Les, get a life!

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