Handball players push their prowess to the walls

Rambo’s son strides across the grassy field, girded for battle. He wears a T-shirt with the word “famous” all over it. Stainless steel studs flash in his ears.

Two women peddle tortas, crisps and bags of pumpkin seeds to more than 100 people filling the stands in Bristow Park at Commerce.

Ricky Ruiz enters the field. He removes his shirt, revealing a gold crucifix, which he swings to rest on his back.

His father, a muscular figure known as Rambo, walks through the crowd. “Who wants to bet? he is crying. Men peel $20 and $100 bills from wads of bills.

Ricky’s challenger Gilbert Rosales, 24, stands silent, looking like a 19th century bare-knuckle fighter with his mutton chop sideburns. They call him “Boxer”, because he was one.

Ruiz prepares to serve. The crowd calms down; the crinkle of the Flaming Hot Cheeto bags fades. With his right hand, he sends the ball against the concrete wall. Moments later, he fires a “kill” into a corner, like a sinking fastball, and takes a 3-0 lead.

Handball has been a feature of city life for generations, a pastime of laborers and lawyers, a fixture in parks, private clubs and prison yards, a passion that transcends class, religion and ethnicity.

In 1974, the poet Irving Feldman wrote of the “oiled and tanned sons of immigrants, the New World handball players” in New York’s Brighton Beach, “yawning, arguing, jostling, shout, who do not deviate from the path, seize the odds, jostle a handicap, all in crust, all in boasting, all in con and in appetite.

He could have described the scene today on the Southern California handball courts.

Ruiz, 21, is one of the stars of this kingdom. Early in the morning, he works for a traffic management contractor, putting up orange cones and closing streets. In the afternoon, the three-walled concrete courts invite you. Handball is also a job, and one he loves. When he is on his game, he can earn a few hundred dollars from bettors in just a few hours.

“I can’t sit at home. I have to get out of here,” he said. “I think I’m in my prime right now. I can just say. I have never felt so good before. If I play my game, I don’t think I should ever lose.

The best street handball players dominate a park, like gunslingers in a western. Ruiz’s home ground is Bristow Park, but he plays everywhere – in La Puente, Venice Beach, East LA, Lynwood, wherever he can find competition. His prowess is such that he sometimes plays with a handicap, just to coax an opponent into the field. It will spot a challenger’s points or allow them to use a racket. Or it will take two people at once.

Boxer was too strong a player to expect such concessions. Still, Ruiz had to win. The day before their match, he sat in the bleachers at Bristow Park under the floodlights, wearing suspenders on both knees, hoping to win some money in low-stakes matches while watching his father and brother play .

He didn’t feel unbeatable. He was hit. But not showing up for his match with Rosales would be unthinkable, like missing a big day of work with a lousy cold.

“We have reached an agreement. I have to introduce myself,” he said.

The next morning, his father, Martin “Rambo” Ruiz, used a T-shirt to sweep leaves from the field. Spectators filled the aluminum bleachers and crowded around the court. Ricky and Rosales would play a series of games up to 12 points each. The first to win two matches would be the winner of the match.

Handball is like tennis without rackets or net. Players hit the ball with their open hand or fist. You lose a point if you can’t hit a serve or volley before the second bounce.

Ruiz, Rosales and their associates placed bets between them for more than $1,000. Including the many bets between spectators, a sum much larger than that was at stake, even if no one was following her.

Ruiz got off to a good start, earning the first three points and prompting cries of “Go Ricky!” Rosales fired back, showing ballet grace. He wowed the crowd by appearing to change direction in the air to hit one of Ruiz’s volleys. One of Rosales’ supporters called the maneuver a “mini-Matrix,” a reference to gravity-defying acrobatics in the “Matrix” movies.

Within minutes, Boxer had taken the lead and momentum. Ruiz shook his head and swore under his breath.

“There, no pressure!” shouted one of Rosales’ supporters.

Then Boxer appeared to block Ruiz’s path, knocking him down another point. Ruiz responded by stepping in front of his opponent.

“If you want to play dirty, I’ll play dirty too,” he said.

The outburst of anger seemed to energize Ruiz. He tied the game at 6-6 but then slipped, landing hard on the concrete. He struggled to get back on his feet

“Raise him, Rambo!” someone shouted. The father looked worried but decided to stay off the pitch.

Ruiz lost the first match and then won the second, at one point blowing a playful kiss at the crowd. The decisive third game was close, but the momentum seemed to be with Rosales. Ruiz’s supporters looked sullen.

Give him a run, Ricky, they pleaded.

“We’re going to have soup out of a cup tonight,” Rambo grumbled.

With a laser shot that jumped off the wall and sailed over Ricky’s head, the match ended. Ruiz slumped against the wall, sore, beaten, humiliated.

Just a few years ago, Ricky seemed destined for bigger things than street stardom.

He learned to play from his father, an East Los Angeles handball legend who is by turns disarming and intimidating, respected and feared, loved and hated.

The elder Ruiz, now 47, had frequent run-ins with the law as a youth and said he spent eight months in state prison for a drug-related offense. There he beat other inmates at handball; his trophies were Cup O Noodles instant soup mixes, cigarettes and chocolate bars. He believes his two sons’ early immersion in handball has steered them away from the kinds of issues that have ensnared him.

Rambo walks with a limp, following a fall from a three-story building when he was a window cleaner 20 years ago. These days, he teaches kickboxing and runs a samurai swordsman at his home in Downey.

Rambo’s sons were toying with their father for a serious change by the time they hit puberty.

“In a way, I’m glad I was trained that way by my dad,” says Ricky. “You need aggression on the pitch. A lot of people don’t have that. My dad is so proud when it comes to handball. That’s where I pulled it from.

As a teenager, Ricky trained with a respected coach, Tony Huante, who wanted to prepare him for professional play. Ricky has traveled across the country to compete in sanctioned tournaments, with authentic handballs – smaller, harder and faster than the favorite racquetballs in street play. He won junior championships, racked up trophies and was thought to have a bright future as a professional.

Ricky and his brother Braulio, now 22, were among the best junior players in the country, said Howie Eisenberg, a New York handball legend and commissioner of the US Handball Assn.

Then the brothers practically disappeared from the circuit. When asked why, Ricky said Huante expected the players to train like monks, seven days a week. ‘Tony thought there was no point in having a girlfriend’ , did he declare. “Handball is handball, but you also have to have a life.”

Then there was the money. Professional tournaments sometimes offer generous prize money, he said, but you have to travel at your own expense, often out of state, and you have to win first place to earn a living wage. Only a handful of the best players in the world can make a living from it.

In parks, it’s easier. Although most gamble for gas or food money, a very good gambler can win hundreds of dollars a day betting with opponents and spectators.

Huante, 81, a retired steelworker who has coached some of the best professional handball players, says Ruiz is wasting his talent on the street game.

“He may be known outside the parks,” he said. “Ricky has everything to be a champion.”

Lately, Ruiz has taken a step back in the professional field. Earlier this month he took part in a tournament in Orange County and qualified to play against some of the best players in the world in Detroit in May. But he is hedging his bets. He also applied for a job with the Los Angeles Police Department.

Three weeks after his stinging loss to Boxer, Ruiz rode 50 miles in a downpour to a warehouse in Ontario with racquetball courts. The scuffed concrete floor has been painted green. Flakes of plaster rained down from the ceiling. Electric wires were hanging from the ceiling.

More than 100 people were there to watch Ruiz take on local star, 23-year-old Benjamin “Benja” Jimenez. Some in the crowd drank cases of Modelo beer, settling in for a long evening. Ruiz and Jimenez would play a series of best-of-three matches. Jimenez, sweet and easy-going off the court, is known as a fierce competitor who dives for everything.

At the start of the game, spectators marveled at Ruiz’s skillful use of his left hand, his left hand. Still, Ricky grew frustrated by missing shots and making mistakes. He landed a close shot, an easy kill, but it bounced off his own leg.

Behind by a few points he started to struggle, but he lost the first game in three games and lost $100 to Jimenez. Even so, it was obvious to many in the crowd that his athleticism and stamina were superior to Benja’s. Compounding, Ruiz won the next four matches, displaying tremendous foot speed and ambidextrous power.

During a break, the two players shared a bottle of water. Back on the pitch, neither of them gave any quarter. After a grueling rally, Jimenez unsuccessfully dove for a rebound, then sat on his knees for a long time, his eyes closed as if in prayer. Ruiz slashed his knees on the concrete floor. Blood ran down his leg.

A glass-eyed drunk with money straddling Benja ordered him to “beat the….out of that kid!” Sometimes Ruiz loses his temper in the face of such provocations. But this time, he controlled his emotions. After nearly three and a half hours, he was victorious, winning five games out of seven.

Benja staggered to a chair.

este burro se canso, he said. This donkey is poop.

Ruiz slumped against the wall. He recovered $350 from his opponent. They sympathized and compared the pains like old men.

After a moment of silence, Jimenez said, “I’m going to play you on the left.”

Ricky could only smile.

“I can’t, brother. I can not. I wish I could,” he said. “My legs can’t move.”

Triumphant, he took off his T-shirt, took his favorite garment from a duffel bag and put it on.

“Famous.”

hector.becerra@latimes.com