Philly’s coronavirus response

This lowkey street sport is one of Philly’s great community connectors

Players say handball provides them with a second family — one the pandemic can’t diminish.

Courtesy Angel Rodriguez

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Handball has a large following in Philly, with a community that’s blossomed since the game’s introduction in the ’80s, when players brought it down from NYC. With its relatively simple rules and inexpensive equipment, the lowkey, dynamic sport is played around the globe.

To many, it’s more than just a game. “Handball has given me opportunities that have opened up doors,” handball advocate and player Wally Amaro told Billy Penn.

Handball provides an opportunity to engage with friends and neighbors, proponents say, and the Philly scene is considered especially tight. “Other cities don’t have the bond that we have,” said handball OG Angel “Tito” Rodriguez. He and others have been able to build lifelong relationships, he said, and create something of a second family.

When lifetime handball player Luis Pagan played growing up, it not only gave him something to do, he said, it also provided opportunities for mentorship from the elders on the court. “Handball kept me in shape, kept me out of trouble, kept a lot of kids out of trouble,” Pagan noted. He’s excited about becoming mentor to the next generation. “Now I’m giving it back to them.”

All this positivity got majorly disrupted by the pandemic. The city-wide handball tournament that usually attracts hundreds of players and unfolds in multiple neighborhoods was called off entirely. Then there’s the stress-relief factor.

“COVID has a lot of guys stressed out,” Pagan said. “Handball has always been a way for them to let go.”

Like everyone else, Philly’s handball players are hoping for a return to normalcy. Until then, they’ll try to play scaled-down, social distanced versions of the game, and continue to stay in touch — just like any family would.

Hear from the players themselves in the video below.

Want some more? Explore other Philly’s coronavirus response stories.

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