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Howie Eisenberg Interview January, 2009

By ben thum

 

BT: One-wall appears to be taking root internationally.  Is this new development?

 

HE: It dates to 1994 when Tom O’Connor of Ireland although never even having seen 1-wall postulated that it was the most elemental form that would be easiest to adapt to by people playing disparate forms of the game in different countries, and therefore was the best medium for international competition. He arranged for a 1-wall demonstration at the ’94 World’s, laying out a 20X34 foot 1-wall court within a 30X60 foot 4-wall court at Croke’s Alley in Dublin. Tom hadn’t decided on what ball to use when on a visit to Ireland, I suggested using racquetballs again because they were the easiest to adapt to. The demonstration featuring Paul Williams and protégés Kendal Lewis and Joe Kaplan, was well received. The Irish, Welsh, Basques and others started playing 1-wall big ball and other countries followed suit.

 

BT: You attended the Federation Cup team1-wall championships in Nizza Monferrato, Italy last year in a role as USHA one-wall commissioner. How did this event come about and aside from an unfortunate bus incident was it a successful tournament?  Does it bode well for one-wall’s future as an international game?

 

HE: No question. The relatively low cost of construction of 1-wall courts, the basic simplicity of the game while requiring great athletic abilities together with its exercise value has made it attractive to governments promoting exercise as well as handball organizations. The Italians led by Carlo Berrino, Massimo Corso, and Mauro Bellero have run national tournaments for a number of years and in 2008 formed a non-profit entity, the Expulsim Ludere Association (ELA), dedicated to the propagation of 1-wall handball. The tournament in Nizza was enormously successful with 10 countries competing for the men’s and women’s Federation Cup using a Davis Cup format: 2 singles, 1 doubles. The success of the tournaments in Nizza and another in Ecuador with a like number of countries playing 1-wall big ball along with other forms of handball, are dramatic examples of where this game can go. The USHA Board has voted to recommend and the ELA has been gracious enough to allow this year’s Federation Cup to be held at the upcoming World Championships in Portland. Twelve countries will be participating in this event as well as in individual 1-wall events. With more and more countries playing 1-wall big ball, I believe that it is probable that the minimum 40 countries needed for consideration as an Olympic sport will be attained within a few years and it is within the realm of possibility that (court) handball will become an Olympic event some time in the foreseeable future.

 

BT: Depending on who you talk to the fate of 4-wall handball is seriously on the wane. Certainly the USHA’s membership numbers reflect this. Do you see one-wall as the future of the game in the United States even though it’s mainly a NY phenomenon?

 

HE: No question and it’s no longer just a NY phenomenon. It is being played in various parts of this country from Pennsylvania to Florida to Texas to California in addition to really breaking out internationally.  One-wall is now being played on 5 continents.

 

BT: We know the USHA was founded with a strong interest in 4-wall. But times change and organizations are forced to change as well. Why does the USHA continue to treat one-wall with the same coverage and attitude which has existed for thee past 50+ years? As the USHA’s primary one-wall ambassador, what is your educated perspective on this topic?

 

HE: My feeling is that 1-wall is the best hope for promulgating awareness and propagating the game. The USHA albeit reluctantly in some circles is devoting far more resources to 1-wall than it had previously. One-wall big ball is the medium used to introduce young players to the game. While the entrenched attitude had previously been that it was a means to the end of developing “real handball” (4-wall) players, there is growing acknowledgment that the skills required for 1-wall are formidable and that the game can be an end in itself. From the days when the coverage of 1-wall in Ace and Handball magazines was limited to just a few pages on the nationals, there is now extensive coverage of the nationals and many other 1-wall tournaments in the magazine as well as on the USHA website. However, as long as the preponderance of USHA members and contributors are 4-wall players, the primary emphasis will be 4-wall. As 1-wall is propagated, the USHA constituency will change and thus the emphasis will go in that direction. Four-wall and 3-wall are great games, each with its own inherent attraction. These games can also coexist and even flourish if promoted properly.

 

BT: Does the USHA plan to embrace and promote one-wall as a way to keep their doors open?

 

HE: The USHA has certainly not come to the conclusion that 1-wall is the only avenue toward sustaining handball and itself but it has made definite strides over the years in recognizing 1-wall as a valid form of the game and acknowledging its best players. In recent years, with the induction into the Hall of Fame of Artie Reyer, Joel Wisotsky, Al Torres, Joel Wisotsky, Kenny Davidoff, Wally Ulbrich, Joe Danilczyk, Albert Apuzzi and me, the USHA has made that acknowledgement. National junior tournaments are held on a continuing basis and the first national big ball championships were held last year and is a fixture going forward. This year a national Challenger’s (21 and under, 23 and under) and Master’s Invitational tournament was held.

 

 

BT:What was your earliest handball experience as a spectator

 

HE: 1942, at age 3, Brighton Beach Baths (BBB) watching along with many others: Vic Hershkowitz, Moey Orenstein, Morty Alexander and the other greats of the’30s and ‘40s playing in the “Sweeps” every Sat and Sun. Teams were put together from the best 16 1-wall players in the city ergo, the world, by picking from a hat. Essentially, quarters, semis, and finals were played with these “pros” getting an appearance fee which by the time I started playing in the Sweeps at age 16 in 1955 had grown to $5 with the winners getting an extra $10.  Vic and Moey, as the best players got an appearance fee of $10. Spectators initially watched from wooden stands behind the courts which eventually were supplanted by Garber Stadium, named after Joe Garber, a great player who was acknowledged as the best singles player of the late 30s until his death on his second bombing mission in WWII. Vic purportedly got better, but we’ll never know if he would have beaten Garber. Garber Stadium became the ultimate 1-wall exhibition court. With 2x6s supported by steel beams, it was the fastest court ever on which Hershkowitz and later Ken Davidoff, could hit serves that practically rolled over the short line. 1500 avid spectators would fill the 6 level concrete oval that surrounded the court with another 500 standing every weekend to watch the Sweeps at BBB from the ‘40s through though the ‘60s with many national championships being held there.

 

BT: Who actually first taught you the game?

 

HE: My brother-in-law, Arty Niederhoffer, who joined the NYPD after passing the bar

In 1941 because there weren’t many positions open for attorneys in the Depression, many policemen and firemen played handball in those days and for years afterward. Arty was just 1 level below the top players. Starting in 1945 when I was 6, he would play with me against Marty “Ace” Rosenfeld, another cop who was a top player known for his educated left hand, and his son, Jeffrey, who was about my age. Arty was an excellent athlete whose right arm was damaged blocking for quarterback Allie Sherman (later coach of the NY Giants) on the Brooklyn College football team. Niederhoffer, adapting to his inability to swing freely, developed an Irish whip serve which gave me fits until he taught me to read hooks, including those of Carl Obert whose huge hooks used to decimate me. Once Arty’s analysis of slow motion films of Carl serving revealed the “tell” in Carl’s motion, I never lost to him again.  This tutelage continued until Arty’s death in 1981.After his serve would elicit a weak return, Niederhoffer would go “off-the-wall” and fly-kill that return whenever he could. That also became an integral part of my game. Arty’s support and coaching at every important match I played starting with my first (12 and under) BBB championship at age 10 through my NYC NY Parks Department 17 and under junior championship win over Marty Decatur (1 day younger than me) to my last 2 national USHA open titles in 1979 and ’80 with Joel Wisotsky contributed greatly to whatever success I enjoyed.

 

BT: Who was your first handball hero?

 

HE: Vic Hershkowitz. Watching him play and dominate his opponents, many of whom were great handball players, and being told that he was the best player in the world, I wanted to be national AAU champion like him before I knew the difference between an A and a U. One notable exception to that domination was Moey Orenstein, who many felt was better than Vic in doubles, especially with money on the line. Moey probably won more sweeps than Hershkowitz over the years. However, it was Vic’s power and speed and ambidexterity and serve and shot making that captured the imagination.

 

BT: In a nutshell, what made you a champion?

 

HE: It goes without saying that to be an exceptional handball player one needs superior hand-eye coordination, speed, reflexes. I was fortunate enough to possess all of those natural attributes. In particular, I believe that my reflexes were exceptional (I still catch things when they inadvertently fall out of my medicine chest or off the kitchen table). Although I wasn’t nearly as “quick” as some of the more diminutive players (it is an advantage in handball to be smaller), I had very good foot speed which enabled good lateral court coverage. However, I believe that the most important factor in setting me apart from others with similar attributes was my swing and associated mechanics (back swing, point of contact, wrist action, follow through) which wasn’t anything that I was taught but came about naturally from the combination of watching others and throwing and hitting a ball at an early age. It was this swing that ultimately provided the power that allowed me to serve and drive as hard as I did. With that basis, acquisition of particular skills of the game: 2 way hooks, low and deep serves to both sides, fly kill, reverse angle kill shot to the right, overhand angle to the left, deep court kills, underhand left hand loft service return, lefty sweep angle to the right, use of my own and my partners’ bodies to legally block opponents, anticipation, ability to exploit a weakness bordering on intimidation together with a strong will to win completed the repertoire that enabled me to beat most opponents. My primary deficiency was stamina. Blasting every ball as hard as I could with my right and running for every shot within reach, I played a very enervating game which was inconsistent with my level of conditioning which essentially was no conditioning. During the years of my prime (age 18-30), I literally didn’t know that there was a way to improve one’s stamina. I thought you were either born with it or not. Fortunately, with few exceptions, the points didn’t last long when I served. As a case in point, as films of the 1969 USHA 1-wall nationals reveal, in the quarters against Decatur and semis against Ruby Obert, my service points were over in 1 or 2 shots, an ace or kill or un returnable angle after the service return. However, with Steve Sandler in the finals (66-’69), some points lasted 28 shots with me exhausting myself as Stevie with his great anticipation and speed retrieved balls that the others couldn’t. As was our pattern, I won the first game, went ahead in the second and then hit the “wall” of fatigue with the customary result – another championship for Sandler, another second for Eisenberg.

 

BT: What role does handball play in your life now as opposed to in your prime champion years?

 

HE: In my competitive years there was a single minded motivation – to win. Finishing second in the country meant less than nothing to me. If you didn’t win, you lost! Second was abject failure to me. The internal pressure to always win precluded my truly enjoying the game. It may even have sapped some of the limited stamina that I brought to the table. I tended to regard my opponents as the enemy – especially my primary opponents early on, the Obert brothers. In retrospect, I can now appreciate that it was an accomplishment to be number 2. If not for all of those seconds in national open tournaments (21), I probably wouldn’t have been inducted into the Hall of Fame. When I came out West, I started playing 4-wall with  Dick Cias, Wayne Nordland, Danny Ane, guys who also tried to win, but for whom winning was secondary. Enjoying the game and joking and the camaraderie was what it was all about. This was infectious and after 40 years of my winning is the only thing attitude, I truly started to enjoy playing the game. Now in addition to the camaraderie that handball affords, I recognize its exercise value. Apart from some light swimming, handball is the only exercise that I get, so even though with my 2 hips that are bone on bone (probably replacements in ’09), and my wife calling me Hop-along Casualty (shades of William Boyd), I still play 3 times a week when I can even though it means that I limp around the days following. Also, with my election to the USHA Board of Directors and my reincarnation as 1-wall commissioner, I have renewed interest in propagating the game, especially 1-wall. Playing a part in far greater national and especially international exposure of handball via television and webcasting through expansion of pro events leading to inclusion of our game as an Olympic sport is a driving passion of mine

 

BT: When did you discover the 4-wall game?

 

HE: In 1956 at age 17, I was given a free membership to the Brooklyn Central YMCA and I played to a limited extent. It was the home court for Hershkowitz, so I got to watch him, Sammy Costa, Tom Fassano, then Phil Collins, Johnny Sloan, and Jimmy Jacobs at a national Y tournament. I didn’t care for the game much in those days, much preferring to be outside on a 1-wall court where my 90 MPH drives weren’t setups off the back wall. I didn’t know what I was doing in a 4-wall court and in spite of his greatness; Vic wasn’t very nurturing and spent no time with me as a mentor. I would play a little 4-wall each year later on when I was preparing to go to the national 3-wall tournament, and started to play in tournaments in the Southwest when I worked at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. I still didn’t know what I was doing but in 1967, Kenny Davidoff and I beat Bob Lindsey who was then national doubles champ with Pete Tyson in a tournament in Tulsa. Bob had a weak partner but we enjoyed the victory. In the early 70s, I started playing 4-wall at the 92’nd Street YMHA with Marty Decatur, Jacobs, Lou Cranberg, Steve Lott, Marty Katzen and started to get some insight into the game. Although Joel Wisotsky and I beat then current national 4-wall doubles champs, Kent Fusselman-Al Drews,  followed by a win over the next year’s champs,  Ray Neveau-Simie Fein easily, our greatest feat was splitting practice games with Jacobs and Cranberg who hit the ball harder off the back wall than anyone I have ever seen,

 

BT: Who had the most handball ability of any player you have ever seen or played against?

 

HE: Tati Silveyra. He was exceedingly fast, agile, hit just about as hard with both hands as anyone who ever played, and was physically stronger than any of the other greats. Tati would sometimes fade 15 feet beyond the long line on a 3-wall court and from 6 inches off the ground hit kill shots with his “off” hand. His great agility and athletic ability was demonstrated in a 1-wall match playing with me in 1996 against 2 time defending doubles champs, Eddie Maisonet and Paul Williams. The score was 19-20 and Paul was sprawled lengthwise on the ground in front of Silveyra having just returned a kill shot with a diving rekill. Silveyra dove over the 6’ 4 “ Williams whose outstretched arms added another 3 feet for Tati to dive over as he rekilled the ball. That shot was the most fantastic return that I have ever seen.

We lost 21-20, but Silveyra whose totality of 1-wall experience was a few practice games on a makeshift court almost succeeded in dethroning Maisonet and Williams playing with a 57 year old Eisenberg who was more than a quarter century past his prime.

 

BT: handball was one of the most popular street sports in New York from the 30’s to the 60’s. What

happened to change that?

 

HE: Its popularity was a function of the Depression. There was rampant unemployment and it was a cheap game to play. The thousands of courts in the public parks made it accessible to everyone. That spawned what I believe was the golden age of 1-wall with hundreds of thousands of men and women playing against each other every day and getting better and better. There were more great players in that era than in later years. Players like Hershkowitz, Morty Alexander, Joe Garber, Moey Orenstein, Marvin Hecht, George Baskin, Harry Goldstein, Ralphie Adelman, Irving Kirzner, Davy Small, Leo Block were just some of the greats of that era. When society became less impoverished, people started playing easier games like paddleball and tennis, so handball declined in NY.   

 

BT: There were many women players in the 40’s and 50’s including Carl Reiner’s wife, Estelle, and Fred Lewis’ mom. The decline in women handballers is puzzling, given that women today are far more interested in being active athletically. Witness the growth of Women’s pro basketball, tennis and slow-pitch softball leagues. I hear there’s a woman player being scouted for major league Baseball!

So why have today’s top women athletes retreated from the best ball game of them all?

 

HE: I know that thousands of girls and women played handball in the ‘30s through the ‘50s, it being a product of the Depression. In the ‘40s at the Brighton Beach Baths where I grew up, there were a good number of women playing handball. The best of them was Hannah Rosenfeld, Ace’s wife. At some point those women switched to hand tennis and then to paddle tennis. The NYC Mirror Park Department had women competing from parks throughout the city into the ‘50s. Sheila Maraschick was a 7 time winner. Florence “Faggie” Abadinski, like Eisenberg to Sandler was the perennial bridesmaid coming in second to Maraschick a number of times. I think Faggie may have beaten Sheila once.  They were succeeded by Beverly Childs and her sister, two African Americans who may have had more athletic ability than Venus and Serena Williams. My 3’rd money game ever as a skinny 15 year old was against Maraschick who used to go around the city hustling. Sheila was built like the quintessential female athlete of the day – like a tank. I was very nervous playing her in Garber Stadium with 2,000 people watching and with her blocking the Hell out of me, she was ahead 16-7. Then, I dove for a shot through her legs and knocked her on her behind. She only made 1 more point after that Although my power didn’t come until a year later, Maraschick couldn’t reach my low serves. I believe that the number of women playing declined for the same reasons as for men. When society became more affluent, women started playing easier games. When things turned around and women started to participate in arduous athletic activities like marathons, triathlons, and truly full court basketball, handball was not among the sports presented to them. There has been somewhat of a renaissance in women’s handball in recent years with many playing big ball in the NYC parks and pockets of 4-wall players throughout the country. There were 53 players in the recently concluded Women’s (4-wall) Classic in Long Island. The best women’s players of today are more athletic, swing similarly to men, have good stamina and run better than their predecessors. Priscilla Schumate came closest to serving and hitting like a top male player as she dominated women’s play during her all too brief career. Anna Calderon also played the game in a similar fashion. There are a number of others who approach their prowess like Tracy Davis, Theresa McCourt, Lisa Fraser-Gilmore, Anna Christoff,  Megan Mehilos. Maybe, what women’s handball needs as a stimulus is a Billy Jean King- Bobby Riggs type match pitting a women’s champ against an aging male veteran. I am 2 hip replacements and possibly a brain transplant away from volunteering to be the party of the second part.

 

BT: How can the USHA best grow the game of one-wall?

 

HE: First by acknowledging that 1-wall is truly a great form of the game requiring physical skills that are valuable but not as essential in 4-wall.  I believe that that recognition is gradually taking hold in the handball community. The programs that the USHA have to teach the game begin with 1-wall so that’s a good thing. However, I believe the entrenched attitude has been that 1-wall is a means to an end, namely a way to introduce 4-wall. Big ball is the game that is growing in popularity not only in NY, but where ever courts exist nationwide, and internationally. Once this is acknowledged, a greater proportion of the limited funds available to the USHA need to be committed to the promotion of 1-wall and to 1-wall clinics, exhibitions, and pro prize money. Some other things to be done are enhanced support of major 1-wall tournaments like the 1-wall and big ball nationals, junior events, more exposure in Handball magazine and the USHA website, and international 1-wall events. Creation and distribution of videos of 1-wall tournaments to schools and other junior programs would stimulate interest. Promotion of interscholastic and intercollegiate handball competition modeled after the NYC PSAL and CHSAA should be pursued. The answer to growing all forms of the game is money either in the form of corporate or government sponsorship. There needs to be far more effective ways of publicizing the game and securing those sponsorships. What Dave Vincent is accomplishing in his webcasts, exposing the game to millions, is a tremendous step in that direction.

 

BT: What can be done to improve the fate of Four-Wall?

 

HE: Although its numbers have declined in recent years, there are some promising developments in 4-wall these days, namely recreation of the pro tour with significantly larger purses sponsored by Simple Green, webcasting to millions, more than 350 entries in the national intercollegiate, growing numbers in junior events. All of the following apply to promotion of 4-wall as well as 1 and 3-wall: Continue and expand the youth development programs of the USHA and other organizations like the ICHA. Supply equipment, training for instructors and players. Provide free or subsidized club memberships for kids. Conduct exhibitions and clinics by the pros. Hold more youth tournaments with articles and photos in Handball magazines and websites, Provide college scholarships. Proliferate exposure by webcasting and televising pro events and other pro athletes playing handball.

 

BT: You have been a part of this game for well over half a century. Talk about the great players you have witnessed and played against in all formats and end with the player you think was the best all-around exponent of all time. Take it by format. One-wall, three-wall and four-wall.

 

HE: It has been my consuming passion for 67 years. The best I ever saw in order:

Singles 1-wall: 1. Vic Hershkowitz, 2.Ken Davidoff 3. Moey Orenstein 4. Steve Sandler 5. Oscar Obert 6. Howie Eisenberg 7. Satish Jagnandan 8. Marty Decatur 9. Carl Obert  10. Al Torres 11. Joe Durso 12. Cesar Sala, 13. Albert Apuzzi.  I never saw many of the greats of the ’30s and ‘40s play singles but Joe Garber, Morty Alexander, Harry Goldstein, Solly Goldman and others all could possibly have been better than many if not all of the players named above.

Doubles 1-Wall: Orenstein, Hershkowitz, Morty Alexander, Oscar Obert, Wally Ulbrich, Eisenberg, Davidoff, Joel Wisotsky, Irving Kirzner, Davy Small, Marvin Hecht, George Baskin, Ruby Obert, Marty Decatur

Singles 3-Wall: Hershkowitz, Vince Munoz, Tati Silveyra, Marty Decatur, Nati Alvarado Sr., Fred Lewis, Lou Russo, John Bike, Jim Jacobs, David Chapman, Vern Roberts, Steve August, Paul Haber, Oscar Obert, Jaime Paredes, Carl Obert. I haven’t seen Sean Lenning or Emmett Peixoto play 3-wall but judging from their 4-wall games, they might fall between Oscar Obert and Paredes.

Doubles 3-Wall: Munoz, Decatur, Alvarado Sr., Oscar Obert, Bike, Roberts, Chapman, Dave Dohman, Joel Wisotsky, Ruby Obert, Haber, Russo, Richard Lopez Valenzuela, Billy Archival, Marcos Chavez,  August, Wally Ulbrich, Davidoff, Eisenberg

Singles 4-Wall: Alvarado Sr., Jacobs, Chapman, Haber, Silveyra, Paul Brady, Fred Lewis, Johnny Sloan, Healy, Hershkowitz, Stuffy Singer, Alvarado, Jr. Lenning, Peixote, Dennis Hofflander, Bob Brady, Pat Kirby, Decatur, Buz Schumate

Doubles 4-Wall: Jacobs-Decatur, Alvarado-Roberts, Sloan-Phil Collins, Fred Lewis-Gordie Pfeiffer, Chapman-Munoz, Silveyra-Bike, Oscar and Ruby Obert, Wisotsky-Eisenberg. There were other great players whom if paired with any number of players would have been among the best doubles teams. They include Haber, Hershkowitz, Singer, Russo, Alvarado, Jr.

 

BT: Was Jimmy Jacobs as great an athlete as many older players seem to believe he was?

 

HE: Jimmy was a tremendous athlete who was very strong, fast, great hand-eye coordination, and stamina. When he moved on the court his Converse All-Stars used to squeak like a race car going around a turn. His analytical approach and dedication to conditioning were unmatched by athletes of his day. He was a multiple sport star in high school, and a formidable amateur boxer who was rated as the greatest athlete of his time by a number of pro athletes like Bob Waterfield and Jim Bouton.

 

BT: Did you ever play him one on one?

 

HE: I played Jim the first time I ever played 3-wall at the nationals in Detroit when I was 19 and he was 29 in 1958. The game was close enough to 1-wall for me to be in the game until he got me tired. Two years later, I visited LA and we played a number of times on the old 3-wall courts which had 1-wall dimensions and short side walls at Venice Beach. Because that game was very close to 1-wall, I won the first few times we played but after a while Jim would win game 2 or 3, again asserting his far superior stamina. We played 4-wall once where Jacobs let me make 20 the 1’st game; spot me 10 and let me make 20 the 2’nd, and spot me 20 where he left me in the 3’rd. Even later, after I learned to play 4-wall, I’m sure that I would have had trouble scoring against Jim in singles. As a case in point, 15 years later, playing doubles against Jim, I blasted a Jacobs serve back then lost the point anyway. Jim turned around and asked me if I read that hook and I said yes. Jacobs had 2 standard sets of swings, his original Irish whip swings, and a set emulated from studying Hershkowitz. He used neither of those on his next serve using a swing that was so way out that it must have come from Pluto. Mars was too close. Needless to say, although I took pride in my ability to read hooks, this “supernatural” natural fooled me bouncing into my stomach as I poised for the apparent reverse.

 

BT: I’m sure you, like others who knew him, have many stories about Jimmy Jacobs. Which is the most memorable?

 

BT: Jim had started a boxing training camp with Cus D’Amato, former manager of world heavyweight champion; Floyd Patterson and light heavyweight champ Jose Torres. One day Jacobs invited me and several others to come to the Feldt Forum adjacent to Madison Square Garden where we could watch his and Cus’s first fighter, Cyclone Hart, who “was going to be the next middleweight champion of the world”. Marty Decatur, Steve Lott, Lou Cranberg, I and some others took our ringside seats in eager anticipation of watching this great fighter. The bell rang, and the Cyclone stormed out of his corner right into a right cross that floored him in 2 seconds. There was 1 more knockdown in the 1’st round before Mr. Hart was floored for the count in round 2. Although this wasn’t the most auspicious start, Jim enjoyed tremendous success as a fight manager going on to manage Winifred Benitez and Edwin Rosario to multiple championships and together with D’Amato, nurtured Mike Tyson into the heavyweight champion of the world. I treasure the ice bucket that he was awarded as boxing manager of the year in 1986 and the medal awarded to Cus D’Amato on his induction into the boxing hall of fame that I obtained in an auction of Jim’s boxing memorabilia.

 

BT: There may be more Paul Haber stories than there are grains of sand on the beach at Coney Island. What is your favorite Paul Haber story?

 

HE: This was told to me by Jack Gordon, Johnny Sloan’s mentor and first national champion partner. Johnny and Jack owned a bar in Chicago where Paul was drinking one evening. While talking, Haber bumped the rather diminutive fellow next to him several times. The guy asked Paul to please not bump him to which Paul sneeringly responded, “Do you want to step outside.” The guy obliged and both were outside the bar for about 5 minutes when Johnny said to Jack that they better go out there because Haber might be hurting the man. When they went out they saw the guy on top of Paul pounding his head into the pavement. The guy was an ex-boxer who had floored Paul and might possibly have killed him if Sloan and Gordon didn’t intercede.

 

BT: You knew Vic Hershkowitz very well. Your BEST Vic Hershkowitz story?

 

HE: When I was 10, I used to play hand-tennis with Vic at the Brighton Beach Baths. Because it was a small court and Vic would often hit the ball too hard to stay within the lines, I was actually competitive with him. One day, I told Vic that I didn’t really care about hand-tennis and that I wanted to be a handball champ like him and asked him if he would watch me play and tell me whether I would. He watched me for a minute and then proclaimed, “No, you’ll never be a good player because you don’t hit the ball hard enough.” which was an interesting assessment of a 90 pound 10 year old. Later when I started winning kid’s tournaments, Hershkowitz still minimized my chances for success for the same reason. I don’t know if it was this pronouncement that spurred my lifelong obsession with hitting the ball hard, but the ultimate vindication was when Vic asked me to play with him in my first national tournament at age 18, telling me, “Kid, you’ve got some arm.”

 

BT: Your BEST Steve Sandler Story?

 

HE: Stevie had beaten me in the finals of the AAU national singles in 1966 and then in the USHA finals in ’67, ’68, and ’69 usually winning the 2’nd and 3’rd games after I won the 1’st. We played a game for 50 bucks in Coney Island which he won. He then spot me 2 points in the 2’nd. For the 1’st time in my life, I had been trying to do some conditioning, running the 3 mile boardwalk for the previous 3 weeks which paid off as I won the 2’nd. We played the 3’rd even for another 50 which I also won. Steve said, “OK, now spot me the 2 points.” I told him, “No way, you’re the national champ and everyone knows that I get tired in the 2’nd against you”. We played the 4’th even for 50 more and after I won that, flush with this miracle, I immediately ran 3 miles on the boardwalk. Two days later, I ran 3 miles on a 28 lap to the mile track at the 92’nd Street Y and pulled a groin muscle with the constant turning. In the national AAU 10 days later, still injured, I lost to someone that I should have beaten. Stevie didn’t talk to me for 3 months because I wouldn’t give him the 2 points in game 4, and I was so upset with being impaired for the nationals that I didn’t run for another 10 years.

 

BT: Oscar Obert is considered one of the very best all-around players. Your BEST Oscar Obert story?

 

HE: Twenty year old Ken Davidoff and I, 3 years older, were playing Oscar and Ruby Obert in the ’62 national AAU finals. We had won the 1’st, lost the second, trailed 14-18 before taking a 19-18 lead in the 3’rd. There was a long rally in which Oscar hit a ball between his legs followed by an un returnable Davidoff angle kill to the right. Oscar was a very powerful man who could crush beer cans then made out of steel with 1 hand. The 155 pound skinny Davidoff then got in Oscar’s face and said, “Hit the next one through your nose.” Oscar showed great restraint in not pulverizing Kenny as he did the beer cans. We then ended the match to win our first national championship precluding any further opportunity for Oscar to have second thoughts about letting Kenny off the hook.



BT: Joe Durso is one of handball’s most colorful and controversial characters. Your BEST Joe Durso Story?

 

BT: I was 41 and Joel Wisotsky 37 in 1980 and were defending USHA National champs slated to play 25 year olds, Durso and Albert Apuzzi in the semi-finals. Joe approached me saying, “You old bleeps don’t think you have a chance against us, do you?” I told him to get up $500 and shut the bleep up. He did, betting $200 of his own which was a major part of his net worth at the time. The score went to 17-18 in the 3’rd with Durso serving when I hit an overhand drive off the court. Joe looked at me and smiled as if to say, I know how to beat you, just make you hit overhand. Joe hit his next serve high, but a little too high as it went right over the wall. We got up, made the 3 points and defended our championship the next day.

 

BT: Your BEST HOWIE EISENBERG story?

 

HE: Marty Decatur and I were playing each other in the 1956 NYC Daily Mirror Park Departments junior tournament at Central Park. There were about 500 parks represented with about 10 players per park in those tournaments totaling 5,000 entrants in those days. Park winners would play for the district, then the borough championships, and finally the city championship. I had just won the 1’st game when I overheard Decatur’s father, Jack, tell Marty, “Hit it to Howie’s right. He hurt his finger. I looked at my hand and saw it was bleeding where I had scraped it through a hole in my glove. It was no big deal but the thought that I could possibly beat Marty with just my left was ludicrous. After I won the 2’nd, I played the Queens champ who scored about 4 points in 2 games. After that my father, Sam Eisenberg, topped Jack Decatur’s comment, telling me that he liked the way that kid played and that I should copy his style. My dad was referring to his pausing before serving. Although this was even more hilarious than Mr. Decatur’s remark, ironically, some years later on Jimmy Jacob’s advice, I integrated that facet of the game into mine. Pausing 8 or 9 seconds before each serve allowed me to catch my breath, focus on the serve hitting fewer off the court, and as a side effect, drive some opponents to distraction.




 
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