The handball courts loom high over the dirt running path in Forest Park. The last time anyone painted the twenty-foot-high wooden boards they were a soft canary yellow; today they're a sun-bleached gray. In lush green surroundings, the handball courts are a stern sight, rising from the lawn like industrial ruins.
The players, when they start to arrive around noon by foot or bicycle, show up with a racquetball and a pair of gloves. Rarely do they schedule games ahead of time.
"Somebody turned over a rock," a man calls out by way of greeting as the courts fill up on a recent Monday afternoon.
The casual, pick-up-game style of play doesn't tend to work for Jerry Raymond Jones, known better as Junior. He paces impatiently on the baseline, a cell phone to his ear, trying to get a friend to the courts for a game of singles.
The sun is high, and there's a group of players sitting in the shade; none is interested in going toe-to-toe with the sinewy Jones.
"I don't fuck with Junior," one chuckles.
"I ain't gonna play you no singles," another snorts. "You think I'm crazy?"
Jones, a fair, boyish-looking 29-year-old with a boxer's nose, grins immodestly. "I'm a flat-wall player, for real," he says. "But I'm good at this, too."
Jones learned flat-wall (single-wall handball) in a place where there is an abundance of them: prison. Handball is one of the few sports that are allowed and encouraged in many federal and state penitentiaries where bats and racquets are out of the question.
According to Forest Park Handball Club president R.P. Murphy, Jones is one of the best in the core group of about 100 who come out regularly.
"He's a fantastic young player," says Murphy. "When they are locked up like that, they really get a chance to really develop their game."
Regulars here estimate that about half of the players come to Forest Park after they learned the game in prison. Though the handballers often don't know each other's last name (in the case of doubles there's a racial prefix, "White Don" and "Black Don," for example), the jailhouse stories tend to trickle out during sideline conversations.
"I thought it was just a prison game," says Ram Burrows, who was released in 2009 for a drug sentence. "Then I came out and met these guys who've been playing since the '60s."
As Jones demonstrates his serve against the court's high wall, it's not difficult to picture him behind the concrete barriers at Greenville Federal Correctional Institution in Illinois.
"This really changed my life, for real," he says.
The fact that Illinois and Missouri's prisons have become a farm team of sorts for Forest Park only explains part of the reason why the crowd here — sometimes 30 or 40 deep, drinking beers, smoking, shelling peanuts between games — stands out compared to the preppy joggers trotting past. Beyond the former inmates, the courts have always attracted an eclectic mix: restaurateurs, doctors, lawyers, Imo's delivery drivers, construction workers, entrepreneurs, prison guards and the unemployed. Forest Park even (very occasionally) lures the man some consider the greatest handballer to ever live, St. Louis' own David Chapman. And no matter what their background, handballers universally describe the game the exact same way:
"It's an addiction," says Terry Huelsman, the owner of the Break Billiards in Cahokia, Illinois. "It's a poor man's country club."
But among so much openness and camaraderie, the players also keep secrets. This is a place where the men (there is currently only one regular female player) go to lose themselves. The things they keep private vary from tales of failed business ventures to chemical dependencies to violent crime.
Three decades ago the handball community in Forest Park was forever changed when one of its own was gunned down as he left the courts. Today the man's killer is a frequent visitor to the Forest Park courts, though he hides his identity from the handball players who continue to tell the story of the 1979 murder in almost mythic terms. But more on that later.
"Most of the people there are looking for an escape. There's a lot of damaged people out there," confirms Rick Nelson, a retired insurance broker and Forest Park regular of eight years. "It's really hard to think about something else when you're whacking a blue ball against the wall."
The shifting demographics at the Forest Park courts reflect larger trends within the sport, though Matt Stamp, the development coordinator at the U.S. Handball Association, says the sport may actually just be coming full circle.
"The four-wall game, there's talk that its roots were in prison — you were inside four walls," he says.
The park built its first two handball courts in 1929 just as the stock market was in a nosedive, and the game took off during the Great Depression that followed. In the 1940s and '50s, Jewish players dominated the sport — both in St. Louis and across the nation. Members of the St. Louis Jewish Community Center Association would play four-wall handball indoors during the winter and the three-wall game outside at Forest Park in the summer.
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.
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."
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.
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.
"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."
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.
The murder squashed the court-side gambling and scared away many long-time players. The story told around the courts today is that the two teen suspects met a terrible fate after being convicted as adults for Gordon's murder.
"Rumors are they didn't last long in prison," says Nelson. "They killed the wrong guy."
Faille never abandoned the courts. Instead, he named a Caesar salad after Gordon (the "King Julio") and continued to play. As he opened, closed and sold restaurants, he remained a fixture at the park with his Shih Tzus and his wagering. When the prison guys began to filter into the players' midst, Faille offered them jobs in his restaurants. When the Shih Tzus — Ari and Mia — died, he buried them under a tree next to the courts.
Faille's death of a heart attack in 2011 ended the era of open gambling at the handball courts, though since the departure of the high rollers in the late 1970s, the bets had long ago come down to earth.
"They'd play for a pizza or a salad or a dollar," recalls Tony of his dad. "He was always working on an angle."
Contrary to the version of the story told courtside, only one of the men involved in Jule Gordon's murder died in prison. The other, the gunman, is at the Forest Park handball courts almost every day. None of the other handballers know this.
"Please understand, I don't want to be looked down upon," he says, the first time he discusses the incident openly with Riverfront Times. "There's a lot of people out here that don't know that I'm that guy."
L.D., his former street name and the name he asks to be identified by, is a tall, broad-shouldered man with heavy-lidded eyes. Seated on a bench, a baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, he is just a stone's throw from where he shot Gordon. He looks too young to have spent 28 years in prison; it's likely one of the reasons he's been able to keep a low profile.
L.D. does not dispute his guilt. On that day in 1979, he and his best friend, James Bausley, cruised the streets of the Central West End looking for someone to rob. L.D. states unequivocally that he was the leader of the operation.
They spotted Gordon in the park walking to his car, just a few yards away from an active handball match. L.D. got out of the car, approached Gordon and pointed a gun at his chest, demanding cash. When Gordon refused to give up his wallet, the two struggled. L.D. shot him.
"I kind of, like, pulled the trigger more out of fear," he recalls. "As far as the man's face, I remember like he's right here today. I remember his face."
A woman screamed. Plainclothes cops opened fire on the car as L.D. jumped into the vehicle and Bausley hit the gas. L.D. made it home with just enough time to run into his father — a recent widower working multiple jobs to keep the family afloat.
"He said, 'I don' t know what you done done, but if you need to leave, I got some money.' He had three cars. He said, 'Take one of those cars and go. Go deal with yourself,'" recalls L.D. "I was coming out the house, and they swooped down. They came from everywhere. Swooped down and locked me up."
L.D. was sentenced to life but spared lethal injection by pleading guilty. In 1983 he got word that Bausley — who'd been given a ten-year sentence in exchange for his testimony against L.D. — was dead. Another inmate stabbed him to death in the prison yard after they argued over a portable television.
"Had it not been for my choice, then he wouldn't been there to die then," says L.D.
He says Bausley's mother died without forgiving him.
"She stayed angry," he adds. "One time she told me, 'Make sure my son comes home all right.' Sometimes when I bash myself I feel like I let her down."
He initially avoided the handball courts in prison because it reminded him of the man he'd murdered. But eventually he started participating when older inmates took him under their wing and started to teach him the game.
"Whenever I was playing sports, I wasn't in prison," he says.
L.D. was paroled in 2008, and he found himself drawn to the park.
"When I came out I was acting like I was John Doe," he recalls. "I was asking a lot of questions about Jule, and I never heard a bad thing. Never heard a bad thing. He was an awesome friend, awesome father, just awesome person all the way around. Awesome handball player."
(Gordon's 1979 obituary mentions only a wife and two siblings.)
L.D.'s life after prison has been a struggle. Estranged from his family (his father died long ago), he has been homeless at times. Currently he is out of work. But through the quiet, ask-no-questions handball community, he says he's been offered jobs, even clothes and food when things were dire. He surmises that some of the handballers may have figured out who he is, though they have never said anything. He sticks to a very clinical description of his crime: "In the commission of a robbery, a man lost his life." He fears if the others know, he won't be welcome anymore.
"I've actually walked over there several times to where it happened, and it's kind of like...I don't want to say calming, but it's kind of like an old projector comes on. I get teary-eyed," he says. "I never really talk to anybody about it happening over there."
As he's talking, another handball regular, one of the older guys who's been coaching L.D. on his game, walks up the path.
"I'm ready for some more information today," L.D. calls.
"Did I help you yesterday?" the man asks.
"Yes, you did, thank you very much," L.D. says.
Another regular approaches and says hello as he goes to drop off his gym bag. The rhythmic sounds of the handball popping against the backboard starts with the first game of the day.
"See how it is?" L.D. says turning back. "See how people just walk up and don't worry about who you are? They're just open."
Jerry Jones — a.k.a. Junior — is frustrated again. He's fresh off an early-round loss in the handball club's first tournament of the season — a so-called "mad hatter" event that forces the very best players to team up with the worst in doubles matches. As one of the very top guys, Jones got paired with someone who didn't even know how to serve. Naturally, it was a blood bath.
"I don't play to lose," Jones says testily.
Fortunately, he has the Mike "Talayna" Memorial Singles Tournament to look forward to in late June, and after that, he's scraping together the entrance fees for outdoor tournaments in Las Vegas and Coney Island. He's hoping he'll be able to stack up to some of the pros, maybe make a name for himself.
In the meantime, he's working landscaping, going to school to learn heating and cooling installation, living with his girlfriend in a quiet, secluded apartment in Chesterfield (far away from the temptations of his old life) and playing as much as he can — all hours of the day and night between classes and work.
And even if his dreams of going pro are never fulfilled, the Forest Park courts have already provided something he's rarely ever had — a support network.
"I had a couple of them that call and say, 'Hey man, you want to work for me today?' There was one time period where I was laid off from my job," he recalls. "They all try to keep me in line and that's good... 'cause everybody needs help occasionally. It's real easy to get off track. It's real easy. You just gotta surround yourself around good people."
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.