If you're driving on Tucson Boulevard just south of Grant Road, you might be surprised to come across a building with a sign that says it is the headquarters of the United States Handball Association. Even Matt Stamp, the group's marketing director, says he remembers driving by—before he joined the association—and wondering why the organization was in Tucson. The association moved from Chicago to the desert in the early '80s, because a local athletic club was becoming a handball center for players from across the country. For information, go to ushandball.org.
Why did the association move to Tucson from Chicago?
Back then, there was a place called the Tucson Athletic Club. It no longer exists, but it was considered big-time for handball. There were lots of players moving here, and it seemed like the right place to go at the time. Now the place for handball in Tucson is the Tucson Racquet (and Fitness) Club. It's where pretty much everyone goes to play handball. We have a league that plays every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. About 50 to 100 people play, and we have other tournaments there with even more players. It's a great facility, with 11 to 12 courts.
Are there any public courts in Tucson?
There's one at a school off Prince Road, and at other schools, but there is a set of courts at Pima Community College West. Those courts are free and open to the public.
What is it about the sport that folks like?
It's one of the best sports for exercise, and you work both sides of the body and brain, using the right and left hand. It's extremely good physically and for endurance. But it's also known for its camaraderie among handball players. You can travel anywhere in the country and get a contact number (for) where people are playing and call. You will find someone you don't know who will want to play. Everyone treats everyone with a lot of respect.
I always think of the sport as urban, with an early immigrant history. Is that true?
It's really big in Ireland and started in Ireland, and is considered the oldest sport played with a ball. It goes way back in ancient times. There are pictures of people in drawings playing a form of handball. Even the Aztecs had a similar game. In Ireland, it became big, and then in the late 1800s, when Irish immigrants came in, they brought it to urban areas. New York City has more than 5,000 courts all over the city.
How does the organization operate? Are you membership-based?
Yes, we're a membership-based nonprofit. We have close to 7,000 members across the country. Basically, our mission is to promote and spread the joy of handball. ... It's a niche sport. We realize the benefits of it, and we're the governing body for the sport across the country and at tournaments across the country.
Is there a benefit for Tucson having the association here?
A lot of people in handball know Tucson as one of the best places to come and play. We also have this great relationship with the Racquet Club, and do national junior tournaments and host a local tournament that brings in people from Arizona and California. Plus, a lot of the top pros live here and train here. And the Hall of Fame is here. The other advantage is we sell balls, handball gloves and apparel that get shipped out of Tucson, and people stop by to get what they need.
Do you think it's a growing sport?
I think more people are discovering handball, and what helps is that there are different forms of handball. Right now, there's a form that uses a big ball that is soft rather than the hard ball that is considered the official ball. That game is growing and is huge now in California and New York. As a whole, we've always stayed fairly consistent in our membership.
It's a male-heavy sport. Do any women play?
There are quite a few women players, but there are more males. There are women's divisions, and there's a women's pro group. In Tucson, there are always women playing.
Do you play handball?
Once I started working here, I began playing. I love it. It's my main source of exercise and cardio. I love playing and love the competition. We have kids as young as 9 and (younger) in our youth tournaments, and then guys in their 80s and 90s playing. You don't have to be the most fit or the tallest. It's a game for everyone.