Ed Murphy, a former regular at the courts who now spends most of his time traveling out of state, recalls newcomers rarely got playtime in the park until they proved their worthiness. But life on the sidelines could be just as fun.

"My jaws would hurt so bad from being there, from laughing so hard," he says. "I found Jewish humor to be very dry. They were smart."

The sport reached its greatest popularity in the 1970s and '80s with a diverse new crop of players mastering the sport. Today the top names are Irish, Hispanic, African American. One-wall is a hugely popular sport in New York City where there are thousands of courts sprinkled throughout the boroughs. Four-wall handball, long considered a "businessman's sport," remains the game of private club members.

Photography by Jennifer Silverberg

Location Info


Forest Park

Highway 40 (I-64) & Hampton Ave.
St. Louis, MO 63110

Category: Parks and Outdoors

Region: St. Louis - Forest Park


Though no statistic can cite how much the swelling prison populations have affected an interest in handball in this country, anecdotally, it's clear that handball associations have taken note.

USHA arranges "outreach" trips into prisons with professional players. Dr. Tom Burnett, an emeritus professor and a legendary handball coach at Missouri State University with eleven national championship teams to his name, says he opened his indoor courts at the college to a group of ex-cons after they came to him asking permission. While he could not convince the local parks department to build new handball courts in Springfield, the former inmates succeeded.

"They keep their guys focused, and handball is their tool," he says. "Out of every twenty kids I can get out on the court, I'll keep one or two. The rest will get discouraged.... If you get someone with a lot of perseverance, one of those people who will not give up, they'll learn the game."

Slideshow: Handball Brings Together Players of All Stripes in Forest Park

In 2010, Jerry Jones was halfway through a four-year sentence on meth-related charges when the prison opened its doors to a very special guest.

"I got to play Dave Chapman," recalls Jones. "They bring the 35th ranked dude with him and the 29th ranked dude and him — he was the number-one ranked."

Prison officials learned that Chapman lived just a short drive away in suburban St. Louis and figured the inmates might be interested in meeting one of the world's greatest handballers.

"They just called me and said, 'Would you come out and play with our guys?'" recalls Chapman. "So I did."

Jones can still vividly remember the day the nine-time U.S. national singles champion and ten-time doubles champion arrived in the yard — but before that, Jones had to earn the privilege of playing Chapman on just a year's worth of handball experience.

The one and only time Jones played handball before landing in Greenville was shortly after his father — a long-time heroin addict — was released from prison and tried to reconnect with his eleven-year-old son by teaching Jones a little game he'd picked up in prison. At the time, Jones was more interested in football and baseball.

His natural athleticism proved helpful when Jones eventually followed in his father's footsteps and got locked up in a federal institution over a complicated web of drug charges. At Greenville prison, Jones spent nearly all his free time on the handball courts.

"I kept playing, kept playing, kept playing, and it just turned on. The ball would do exactly what I wanted to do with it. Started winning all the tournaments."

It also didn't hurt that Jones was making money for the other inmates. Why mess with him if betting on him to win was so much more lucrative? Jones says games of "meatball" or "changa" (as some of the other inmates called it) that pit two races against one another made the most money — blacks, whites and Hispanics all bet on their own with few exceptions. Jones claims he made the equivalent of $500 on one game, though the only currency available was books of stamps, cigarettes and contraband.

In order to win the right to play Chapman, Jones says he successfully battled a gauntlet of other challengers. When Chapman arrived — a bespectacled, slightly chubby man in a yard full of convicts — Jones was the one feeling nervous. But in the end, Chapman was out of his element.

"I killed the ball fifteen straight times and it was over," Jones boasts. "He's like, 'Hey man, can we play again?' I said, 'Yeah, c'mon, man, that cannot be all you got, man. Ain't no way.'"

After Chapman picked some redemptive wins off Jones, the pair discussed Jones' prospects if he were ever to go pro when he got out.

"He doesn't look real pretty when he plays, but he gets the job done," says Chapman. "If he wanted to do it, I would take him to New York and kind of let him experience how real pros play." Chapman stops himself and adds: "I don't know if his parole officer would let him."

Like Jones, Chapman first learned the game from his father. But the similarities between two of St. Louis' best handball players ends there.

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