Chapman, who grew up in Long Beach, California, was a prodigy almost since the time he could walk. By sixteen he joined the pro tour, competing in nationally and internationally ranked tournaments, including the most important stateside event, the United States Handball Association Championships. Although going pro in handball is hardly the same as being signed by the NFL, Chapman's mastery of the sport at such a young age was unprecedented. In the world of handball, he was an instant international celebrity.

"He was a very unusual case," says Burnett, Chapman's college handball coach who first saw Chapman play when he was eleven years old. "Dave has visual gifts. Most of us have them and start losing them in our mid-teens. There are some people who retain them well into their thirties. Those are going to be your Michael Jordans and your Dave Chapmans."

By seventeen years old, Chapman was ranked No. 1 in the world. At nineteen, he was playing on Venice Beach with Ed O'Neill, a notorious handball nut who was at the height of his fame from Married... with Children. Chapman recalls the day he and O'Neill were walking off the court and some female fans asked for autographs — on their breasts.

Jerry Jones, a.k.a. Junior, dreams of a career as a pro handballer.
Jennifer Silverberg
Jerry Jones, a.k.a. Junior, dreams of a career as a pro handballer.
"Not any of us would know each other if it wasn't for this blue ball," says Sandy Daniels, a car-dealership owner and the only regular female player.
Jennifer Silverberg
"Not any of us would know each other if it wasn't for this blue ball," says Sandy Daniels, a car-dealership owner and the only regular female player.

"You know, they're like, they want any kind of a signature!" says Chapman.

At the pinnacle of his handball fame, Chapman says, he made about $120,000 in prize money. In 1995 Sports Illustrated declared Chapman the "new king of the pro court."

While studying at MSU (then called Southwest Missouri State University), Chapman drove to St. Louis with about $2,000 in cash to see if he and his buddies could make a little money at Forest Park.

"They said, 'You can't beat our best player.' I ended up betting...about $800 against their best player there," recalls Chapman. He won handily.

Chapman retired for the first time at 29, physically taxed and out of love with the game. He returned four years later and, after a year of working his way back, reclaimed his No. 1 world rank despite his age and time off. Chapman walked off the court a second time in January 2011 and has no immediate plans to return. At the age of 38, he has settled into a more normal life as the general sales manager at Tri-Star Mercedes in Ellisville, though he still misses the siren song of professional handball fame.

"When you achieve that high of a level of sport, you're always looking for that high again," he says. "Probably my vice is going to Vegas a lot...It doesn't really ever get there. There's nothing that really gets to that big championship and a lot of people and the recognition and all the things that go with it."

After managing to beat Chapman in Greenville, the big championships are exactly what Jones has set his sights on. After his release in August 2012, he headed straight for Forest Park to see how he stacked up against free people.

"I played twenty straight games, burning everybody, all their best players, everybody they had — murdered all of 'em," he recalls. "I like my chances."

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


The first story everyone at the Forest Park courts wants to tell is about the murder. The second is about the gambling that once took place there. The former, they say, caused the death of the latter.

In the sports heyday of the 1970s, spectators packed a row of bleachers (long since removed) behind the courts, and the side action was just as lively as the play on the court. Two of the most active gamblers were Jule Gordon, a retired truck driver, and Mike Faille.

Faille earned his nickname from the Jewish players who dubbed him "the Talayna," an approximation of the Yiddish word for "Italian." He later used the moniker as the name for his area pizza parlors and restaurants.

Faille played as hard as he gambled, wearing tiny pairs of shorts and pulling back his thick Chachi Arcola haircut with a sweatband. Gordon, the story goes, was purely there for the action. He wore gold jewelry and dressed every day in solid colors — down to his underwear. He reportedly drove to the park in brand-new Cadillacs and carried large sums of cash in his car to wager on the games.

Some claim that the stakes occasionally climbed into the thousands of dollars.

"They'd have legendary money games," recalls Tony Faille, one of Mike's sons. "The money was just like a, you know, just like a little add-on to the game, and oh, they'd be out there, they'd argue and fight and scream."

Some people claim the gambling gave a pair of teens the idea to rob Gordon. According to articles written at the time, Gordon was at his car getting a friend an $8 entry fee for a tournament when a black juvenile approached him. There was a struggle. ("Jule was not one to give up his money," says Rick Nelson.) The suspect shot Gordon twice then jumped into a waiting getaway car. Police officers who happened to be on the scene shot back at the fleeing vehicle. Between the cops and the dozens of witnesses standing just feet away, police arrested the teens within days.

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11 comments
Katherine Annemarie
Katherine Annemarie

I love seeing the dudes in the handball courts when I run in the park. They always look like they are having so much fun. I will definitely read this.

JenCraze
JenCraze

Must read article for Handball players...murder, redemption and Handball community coming together has been my experience being a Handball groupie for 15+ years now. 

JenCraze
JenCraze

Must read article for Handball players...murder, redemption and Handball community coming together has been my experience being a Handball groupie for 15+ years now. 

cdmccrea_
cdmccrea_

HORRIBLE TITLE!!!

Makes folks think that only ex-con's are playing and then they show a skinny guy with a tattoo and a black woman.   OUCH!

And the MAJORITY of handball courts are in South City and of course the main one in Forest Park.

Again, OUCH......bad title(s)   Ex-Con  and Misfits.....come on!!!

Craig Richason
Craig Richason

Great article. I miss playing handball down there, myself.

egolterman
egolterman topcommenter

Nothing wrong with this 're-definition' of Forest Park.   The vicious choking of the MUNY to 7 lousy weeks, denying METRO express to the residents of St. Louis County, and fraudulent use of the peoples' money and resources by those who control  the institutions of the Zoo-Museums district are not good re-definitions of Forest Park.  An obsessive number of festivals-killing the restaurants.

 
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