Keeping Handball Alive at Flamingo Park
MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Nestled in the heart of South Beach, Flamingo Park has been a haven for handballers in South Florida since the 1970s. A half-mile from Miami Beach’s party scene, the quiet handball courts here have seen their share of world champions and are home to a consistent crew of players, most of them between the ages of 60 and 80. Fifty years of play have battered the once-vibrant pastel walls of the courts, which are now primed with a fresh coat of white paint. But you’re still likely to find the same motley crews and trash talkers of years past.
Aside from typical banter and arguments about the score, conversations often revolve around health — both physical and the health of the game. Hand surgeries, knee issues, bypass surgeries and car accidents are all fair game for the trash talking (and excuse-making). There’s an endearing camaraderie within the group that keeps people coming back.
The game has helped the current crew defy their ages, but some of them fear a lack of younger faces will eventually catch up to the sport. Concerns about the health of four-wall handball have seemingly been around for as long as the old courts of Flamingo Park, but the question remains: Can the sport survive with only occasional late bloomers joining the fray, or will younger players be needed to keep the game alive? For now, a group of older ambassadors will carry the torch.
Krowitz, 69, was born in the Bronx. After growing up in Miami Beach, he started playing handball there after he retired from being a lifeguard at 54. Krowitz also dabbles in other sports, including cycling, running, swimming, and tango and ballroom dancing. He has practiced martial arts for 55 years.
“I play handball because I like to challenge myself,” he said. “When I first started dancing tango, it took me six months just to become a beginner. I couldn’t hear the beat, and that’s what I liked. I like to be challenged. I need to improve constantly.”
Antonio “Tony” Gonzalez, 61, was born in the South Bronx and has been playing handball for nearly 50 years. A scrappy player who doesn’t shy away from trash talking, Gonzalez grew up playing at the courts on Jackson Avenue, which were known for gambling in the 1970s. Games were typically played for small amounts of cash, toughening up Gonzalez, who was then 14.
“I know guys in New York that have passed away on the court,” he said. “If your life has always been about handball, to me there’s no better way to go out than with your best friends playing the game you love.”
O’Rourke, 61, is one of the more athletic and competitive players at the Flamingo Park courts. Born in Killarney, Ireland, O’Rourke’s service motion is referred to by other players as the “Irish Whip.” He has been playing at Flamingo Park since 1996, and he has also played both recreationally and competitively in places like Brazil, Germany and Ireland.
“When we were here throughout renovations, you never knew how many people would show up or if you could get a game,” he said. “But I can see these younger guys coming for the last two weeks now that the one-wall courts opened, and it’s really looking like these renovations can liven the park up again.”
Fernandez, 83, is another New Yorker who found a home in Florida handball. Nicknamed “Chico,” Fernandez started playing the game in 1962 and had found his way to Flamingo Park by 1967. He is dealing with two replaced knees and an injured rotator cuff, but he opts to adapt his game to his body rather than take time off.
“I do things to adapt my game when I’m injured so I don’t hurt as much on the court, like modifying my swing,” he said. “I play through it, mostly because I know I’m going to feel better after I play. Especially when I win.”
Tauber, 86, started playing handball in 1954 while studying at the University of Michigan. A Detroit native, Tauber constructed a custom handball court in the middle of his home in Michigan — against his wife’s wishes. Working with an architect, Tauber designed a handful of options, including the finalized layout that featured soundproof walls. Tauber has recently begun dabbling in pickleball in search of evenly-aged competition.
“I attribute some of my longevity to the game,” he said. “I think the opportunity to play at a continuous pace after all these years has made a difference in my health and ability to function — both from a physical and mental standpoint.”
Gerson, 67, grew up watching his father play handball in Coney Island and took up the sport as a teenager. Originally from Brooklyn, Gerson has stayed active throughout his life with activities like cycling, diving, gymnastics, running and swimming. He has kept up with swimming one mile a day, a habit built during a 50-year career as a lifeguard. Gerson plays handball during the week while taking his lunch breaks from the pool where he works (allocating 60 minutes to handball and none to eating lunch). Despite a hip replacement and other small aches, Gerson hopes to eventually complete an Ironman triathlon.
“It’s tough on your body playing handball,” he said. “You get tired like you were in a boxing match afterward. People don’t come out in the summer as much because the room temperature gets well over 100 degrees. You get soaked in sweat and you can lose three to four pounds of water in a game. I love it.”