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RUBEN GONZALEZ: Unbeatable

Growing up on 110th Street between Madison and Park avenues in Spanish Harlem, Ruben Gonzalez never imagined that he’d one day become a handball and racquetball legend.

Interview: Jason Lampkin
Photos: Courtesy of Ruben Gonzalez

Having played at the professional level for over 35 years now, and with over 40 titles worldwide to date, Ruben Gonzalez, age 59, is not ready to stop just yet. His goal this year? Ten by sixty, which in laymen’s terms means, look forward to seeing Ruben in the top ten of his field by the time he turns sixty in just a few months.

What got you interested in playing handball?

Actually, just watching some other older gentlemen playing handball and that kind of—I mean, I played every other sport: stickball, softball, stoopball and all that, but handball just kind of caught my eye. I saw these old guys play and I saw that competitive part of them. I think I wanted a piece of that…

Can you tell me about your early days playing the sport?

Well, my early handball playing days was just [me] trying to cope with playing and learning the game. [I] Was always looking forward to playing. [One day, I] Found myself playing pretty good and watching the crowd, the spectators, some kids— some people just surrounding the courts and watching me play. I think that’s when it all started. You know, I liked that. I liked people watching me; I liked the people cheering for me. I liked the people looking to see what Ruben would do next. And I think the whole key was that; not being a showman, but being wanted, I think. I think that being known as not just a hoodlum in the street, but as a “Wow, this kid’s good,” you know, I think I liked that.

You mentioned the idea of being looked at as a hoodlum in the street, and I don’t think some people will understand what you mean by that. Could you help put this in perspective?

As a young kid, we weren’t bad. We just hanged out. We were around with 20 kids: so 20 kids running around, 20 kids walking down the neighborhood, 20 kids walking up the block— that didn’t look nice. People looked at us like, “Wow, look at these bunch of kids. What are they up to? These kids are hoodlums.” We roamed the street, yes. We protected ourselves, yes. We protected each other, and the family and the neighborhood. So I think for them, we were more of a gang and hoodlums. For us, it was just a group of guys that people kind of maybe didn’t respect.

Why didn’t they respect you, why wouldn’t they respect you guys?

Well, you know, we were always in a park, drinking, breaking bottles, throwing bottles. You know, if any fights came up, we protected ourselves. We roamed the streets, we went through people’s yards, we went through people’s fire escapes, we went—in that type of neighborhood, you didn’t have yards, basically, you had apartment buildings, which had tunnels, or stuff like that, back then. You end up going through one basement, through the other to another, alleys and end up on the next block in someone else’s building. Now, let’s say if I go back with my kids, they play hide and seek and everything, they’ll jump from one fence to someone else’s yard, to someone else’s pool section. But for us, it was building to building, roof to roof, fire escape to fire escape, and that was the difference between us being [considered] hoodlums and these kids nowadays just playing hide and go seek.

That sounds ill and I can relate. But what did it take for you to become a handball legend?

It took a lot of playing, a lot of practice, a lot of moving around from court to court—challenging the best players from court to court. Moving from one neighborhood to another, and challenging what they call “King of the Hill”. The best player, you gotta come down and challenge this guy. If you get the respect because you challenged this guy, then they have to come to you. But first you have to pay your dues. They won’t come to you because they don’t know who you are. So you go to them first, you beat them, then they come back with two more other guys. “I got this guy that’s gonna beat you.” So they would come to my neighborhood [to challenge me]. So you get that respect as a great handball player from the neighborhood, off of the players that you beat. Then it became that you [had to] play national tournaments. You compete at some of the advanced tournaments that they were giving out like the Nationals, the Coney Island Open and all that. You start putting yourself out there and beating the best players. Just going out there to play, every day, 24/7, that was my life.

What made you go from handball to racquetball then?

Towards the end, I think I had won every national title. I was a competitive player, so it took years to come. And I think I needed a change. I didn’t know if I was just going to quit handball and just have a real job. Cause I was getting into that stage where I was getting older, and I had a family, so these five dollar side bets didn’t cut it. But that was part of the challenge is five dollars here, five dollars there. It adds up before you know it. You know, part of your rent, part of your food. So towards the end, I met a guy, well, he was a handball player himself, just an older player who was business-wise. He proposed to me, saying, “Hey, you know there’s a new sport out there. We’re looking to build a racquetball club on Staten Island.” And I’m like, ‘Ok… Racquetball…’ So what I did was, I went out and bought a ten dollar racquet and in between my handball, I started kind of practicing.

The whole key is, my friends built a racquetball club. He tells me, “C’mon, let’s switch.” I investigate it. It’s been out there already for 10 years. People are making money. People are traveling the world. People get a chance, you know, they’re getting sponsored. I said, ‘Wow, I like that,” because the only time [you get to travel] in handball is only [from] park to park. You live in Spanish Harlem, but my biggest trip was going to Coney Island challenging. Playing at the Coney Island courts, that was my traveling. So I got away, not knowing there was another life out there, not knowing there was California. All I lived was in that cubic…

The bubble…

…The bubble right there in the handball courts, you know, in Spanish Harlem. So he built a racquetball club, and I was still living in The Bronx. I am traveling from The Bronx to Staten Island to practice, which means I’m taking the train, I’m taking the Ferry and then the bus to my destination. Two hours to practice, and to play. Didn’t know what I was doing. Had no idea—no lessons at all. I just said, ‘I’m just going to wing it.’ I did that for about a year because my determination was, “This is a new sport, I want to get good. I want to be the best in this sport, too.” So I’m just going back and forth until he said one day, “Why don’t you just live out here?” [But] I had nothing back then. He said, “Nah, we’ll get you a job at the racquetball club, working behind the desk, giving out towels, picking up the phone. “People on court two at 2 o’clock’, you make the reservations. You work behind the desk. You practice. You’ve got the club to yourself.” That’s how it all started.

Awesome.

Yeah. I started working at the racquetball club, practicing. They had in-house tournament, I won those. Came a couple of big tournaments, I lost those. That’s ok. I lost 21-1, 21-2, but I paid my dues, little by little. They knew me as the quickest guy, the fastest guy, I had no back– No forehand, no backhand. All I said to myself, “Just get to the ball, get everything and you’ll be right there.” And, you know, I got sponsored by the club, and then all of a sudden I got sponsored by Ektelon. All of a sudden I see myself traveling, which I would have never done in racquetball. All of a sudden, have the chance to go to Chicago, wow. On their dime…

What were some of the challenges you faced coming from handball to racquetball? You mentioned being on a roof, doing something….[Laughs]

Well, yeah. I needed to learn the game. So I was up on the roof taking a hundred forehand swings, a thousand forehand swings, a thousand backhand swings. [I was] Getting on the court and just practicing, watching, learning from some of the other best players. I think the key was not being afraid to lose. And that could’ve been a big challenge to me because I was always a winner in handball. I had won 15 years straight in handball, playing competitive, and I was well known as the best player around. So I easily could’ve just backed off and said, ‘Ahh, I can’t do this. These guys are too good.’ So I think the competitive part of me said, ‘Don’t give up,’ because I knew in myself that I was gonna be the best. And I did that; I came through with that. But I never knew that racquetball would’ve taken me this far as another legend, a godfather and a master of this sport—as a Hall of Famer of the sport. No way at the beginning, when I first started, did I think that I was going to be in the Hall of Fame. No way that I would ever have my own signature racquet. So, again, getting back to the challenge thing, it was just learning the game, learning the sport.

When you started, were there a lot of Latinos playing racquetball?

Not at all. I was the only one.

And you were once ranked as the world’s #1 player?

Right.

Did you encounter any racism during your journey?

I didn’t see it towards me, and I think the reason why was I was well-known. So I think I got that type of respect for that reason. But I only saw it once. We were walking into a racquetball club, and it was just all of us. One [of us was] African-American, a racquetball player, and the lady just kind of said, “Excuse me, excuse me, excuse me. Can I…?” You know, like went straight to him. I said, ‘He’s part of us… What are you doing? You didn’t ask all of us…’ So that was it. You get a lot of envious [people], of course; You get a lot of jealousy. But, no I don’t think I see/saw that [a lot]. Maybe I was blinded, because I don’t see that, and I don’t wanna see that. I’m just open-minded with everything.

So how many racquetball titles do you have? Which ones mean the most to you?

Um, wow. That national, actually winning the amateur nationals, too. But that [nationals] meant a lot because I qualified to be on the Olympic team in that tournament. So by me being part of the Olympics was big. Being a gold medalist, that’s big. Going to the Pan-Am games and being the flag-bearer, that meant a lot.

You’ve got what over 40 titles or something like that?

Yeah, more than that.

Can you tell me about how you came about getting your pro signature racquet? How’d that happen? Was that an endorsement deal with Ektelon?

It was everything combined. It all started when my agent put up all the money through Ektelon to have my signature racquet [made] because he worked at a warehouse where they sell racquets. Ektelon gave me a salary, gave me the opportunity to travel, and we kept that racquet for about two and a half years. Now with this new one here, Ektelon saw the opportunity and how my racquet sells. And they know, with my name on it, anything sells. So this time, they came up with the, “Let’s put your name on the racquet. Let’s sell it; Let’s promote it. Let’s do it all through Ektelon. We send you out; we make the posters.”

Have you ever been injured?

Yes, I snapped my achilles not by playing racquetball. I’m watching a pickup basketball game for fun with some friends. I’m just sitting there, I don’t want to play because I don’t go swimming. I don’t go skiing. I don’t play basketball. I don’t do anything that would jam my finger, my thumb— anything. So I was always cautious because of my career, because this is my job. Okay, I’m watching a game. Someone doesn’t show up. “C’mon Rube, let’s play.” I go up there. I go up for a layup. I come down. [I] make the first move to run full court. Pop. Snapped my achilles.

I was ranked #3 in the world at the time. My contract was up two months after that and we were in the process of negotiating my biggest contract ever [at the time]. [It] Didn’t go through: I lost my ranking, I lost my contract and I was out for two years with the achilles [injury]. So my #3 became #25, #27. By the time I came back, I was just never the same. I came back as close to like #12, but you already had these young kids coming up. You know, they already had two years in the game, and I had to start all over again. But [I] never gave up. I stood there in my cast, crutches, stepped on the court, and just dropped and hit. Drop and hit. Went to my backhand, drop and hit. Never gave up.

Can you give us insight into what these next two years are going to be like for you and why?

I’ll be able to play, but competitive-wise, I’m getting [a] little older. And my position was to give Ektelon an opportunity to [be] seen and recognized — to have a player that could break records. And the record is, I told them was, I’d love to keep playing ’til I’m 60 [years old], and I want to be in the Top 10 by the time I hit 60. And I gave them this proposal, that this could be a big thing for racquetball— a big thing for me, a big thing for the sport. And I do it all, everything for [the] sport. So if we can do anything to help the sport to make it better, not just black and white, but put some pizzazz into it, make it exciting, here I am. So I said, ‘Look, if you sign me, we can work on this “[Top]10 by 60[years old],” go back on tour full time and see what happens. Let the followers follow me.’ “Ruben’s gonna be in New Orleans, this could be his last hurrah. Give him the support.” You know, they loved the idea, but it’s a challenge for me. It’s a challenge to see what I am capable of doing. How far can I get? And everyone’s looking at that, “Can Ruben do it?”

So what’s the difference between handball and racquetball?

Handball is more of a recreational game, racquetball is more of a business, you know. You can take handball, you can go to the park and play. This [racquetball] is a business, this is where you get your sponsors. Pepsi’ll come over, they want to sponsor you. You know, it’s like a race car business. You can race your little cars around, but when you get to the Indy 500, that’s the big one. That’s the difference.

Images courtesy of Ruben Gonzalez. The Ruben Gonzalez raquet can be purchased at Racquet World.

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