It is nine o'clock at night, whc most sane people are at home safe any warm. You find yourself in a draftx concrete hallway, stripped to a pair of shorts and a top. alternate^ sweating and shivering.
A rumble like thunder comes through the heavy door next to you as the noise of pounding feet, the crashing of the ball, the groaning, all echo off the walls of the cage-like room. There are bloodstains at shoulder and knee height on all the walls. A constellation of black smears in the front half of the court shows the speed and assault of the rubber.
The noise dies down: your heart starts pounding. The weary protagonists file out of the court. It's your turn to play racquetball and you're about to become addicted.
Across the nation in the past few years, an explosion of interest in racquetball has occurred and San Diego is the focal-point. This is the home of the first generations of national champions.
Dr. Bud Muehleisen of San Diego is recognized across the country as Mister Racquetball. While the game was not invented here. Muehleisen and his disciples are responsible for its spread and subsequent growth in the late sixties. The first appearance of the game in pockets across the country is due to Muehleisen and his personal drive to introduce the sport: these hotbeds of early interest were seeded by Muehleisen‘s protegees.
San Diego hosted the first national racquetball championship, around 1969. and was still dominating the scene with the second wave of stars in 1970. These men. like Tom Carlyon and John Halvorson. are still active in the game. Some are involved in court ownership, give clinics around the country: San Diego is highly represented in the Masters and Seniors divisions in competition.
With the latest wave of interest sweeping the country, talent is show-ing up in different areas but it is all gravitating to San Diego. Of the current big names in the sport, most of them either started here or have since moved here. Serot and Keeley. for example, ran a national racquetball camp at UCSD last summer: they are transplants to the area.
But the superstar is indisputably Charlie Brumfield. San Diego attorney-turned-entrepreneur. He is a tough match for the best players in skill and strength, but. in mentally controlling the game, no one even comes near him.
He says of the migration of stars to San Diego: "They all came to play me because I'm number one in the country." The players' motives may be broader than that but Brumfield's claim to supremacy cannot be challenged. His detractors and his defenders agree on one thing: he is the best.
Don Kojis. a partner in Muehleisen Courts Inc. and a convert after his basketball career, believes racquetball is “the sport of the eighties.” With good television exposure, he says, it can attract a national audience and grow to the size that football and basketball are now.
The game is played in an enclosed court, 40' x 20' x 20', with a small rubber ball and racquets. It grew out of paddleball. resembles handball and tennis, and has advantages over all three.
From tennis is borrowed the stringed racquet, with a shorter handle for more control. The resiliency of the racquet allows for more variations and playing longer shots than in paddleball. The broad surface is an improvement over the bare hand in handball and helps equalize play between men and women.
The attraction of women to the sport is notable and their numbers are increasing daily. Some of the top pro women players live in San Diego, like Betty Johnson and Jan Campbell. Bette Weed owns the Helix Court House, a racquetball club.
The oldest courts in the city, that nurtured the first generation of players, are private facilities. The San Carlos Swim and Racquet Club has a $500 initiation fee and monthly dues of S40 to S45. Members can bring guests with them, for a fee. San Carlos offers six courts, jacuzzi. saunas, tennis and other activities for the money.
The Jewish Community Center includes use of the pool, gymnasium, two racquetball courts, and social and recreational events with membership. The annual fees are scaled from S25 for a senior adult to SI25 for a family. Members can bring the same guest twice a year without charge. The health club, which includes use of the sauna and jacuzzi, is an extra annual fee.
Two more of the early meccas for racquetball players are the downtown YMCA and the Copley Y. The YMCA at 8th Avenue offers a regular single membership for $85 and a businessman's membership for $140. They have two handball and two racquetball courts but women are not allowed on them because the showers are too close. A $2 fee is charged anyone (male) who wants to use the facilities for a day. These nonmembers cannot make reservations for the courts, though, and must take their chances getting an empty one.
The Copley Y has a membership fee of $125 a year for the use of the two courts, showers, lockers, and .the privilege of reserving a court up to two days in advance. There is also a nonmember hourly fee on a sliding scale: it is cheaper to play doubles and to play at non-prime hours. The nonmembers can reserve a court for use the same day: they have the use of the showers and lockers. The Copley Y has the lowest rate for renting balls and racquets: 25c apiece.
It was on San Diego State's courts that Brumfield started his athletic career. The use of State's and City College’s courts are limited to their own students, during non-classtime, on a first-come, first-served basis.
A middle aged facility, it is never named as an older location and it certainly isn't a newcomer, is Mel Gorham’s Gym in Pacific Beach. Of their six courts, three are reserved for the S340 a year members, three are available to the public for S2.50 an hour. They have showers, a sauna and weight room.
In the last two years, many facilities solely for racquetball have been built, capitalizing on the growing interest.
The Helix Court House, owned by racquetball pro Bette Weed, has been operating for about one year. Six courts are available for a S180 annual fee or a $2 an hour non-member fee.
Another one-year-old complex is the Chula Vista Racquet Club. They are all public: no annual membership. The hourly fees range from S2.50 prime-time, single person down to $1.50 for early morning hours. Doubles are cheaper per person. They have a ladies' day. student rates, showers, towels and lockers, and they rent racquets for 50c.
George Brown’s club, since he started three years ago. has expanded to three locations and a fourth is under construction. The three locations each have different rates because they have unequal facilities. The most expensive is Kearny Mesa at $300 a year or S3 prime time hour; they have a gym and weight room, a jacuzzi for men and a sauna for men and for women.
The 70th Street location has a nonprime-time membership but they are trying to encourage public use at their $2.75/$2.50 hourly rates. Out of a guilty conscience for not having a sauna and jacuzzi for women they have set up a women's early morning rate of $2.00 an hour.
With a pool, a gymnasium, and equal facilities for both sexes, the Greenfield (El Cajon) location charges a $265 annual fee.
All the courts report business is booming. A single court (and there are from two to ten in each complex) can bring in $800 a month. New courts are opening in Del Mar by Muehleisen Courts Inc.; Poway is getting a racquetball club. Condominiums are being built with racquetball courts as one of the main selling points.
The price of playing time certainly is not cheap; the equipment can run into a lot of money, too.
San Diego is also headquarters for two of the biggest manufacturers of racquets: Ektelon on Mission Gorge Road and Leach in Kearny Mesa. Leach has a “factory outlet" at its Kearny Villa Road offices. It consists of a box of sample seconds under the secretary's desk. The racquets only have cosmetic damages, nothing that will affect play. They have no guarantees and cost five to seven dollars below retail. Ektelon sells its seconds to schools.
Racquets without big-name brands and no guarantees can be found in many stores for about $10. Where quality has been sacrificed for economy in these racquets is in the strings and the handles. Many purchasers complain of handles and strings coming loose after only a month's use.
Wooden racquets are available but aluminum and fiberglass are taking over the market. The choice between the two is a matter of personal need.
The aluminum is more durable, gives more control, and is generally less expensive: starting at $15. The fiberglass gives more whip to the ball for serious playing. It is lighter than aluminum thus is recommended for women and lighter people. But the fiberglass is both more expensive and more fragile: an accidental knock against the wall can crack it. Prices start at about S20 and for both kinds can go well over $30.
Top-caliber racquets are sold in sporting goods stores and in some of the clubs. George Brown's carries racquets generally two or three dollars below other retail stores.
The black rubber balls cost about $1.50. Seamco makes a harder ball; some even come in sealed, pressurized cans to keep them fresh. Other name brands have softer balls for more general play and the prices never seem to go below $1.38.
For real addicts there are eye-guards, for protection against the ball and one's own and others' racquets, and gloves for better grip.
With San Diego top-heavy with talent, these national stars are practicing on local courts. So the next time you crash into the stained walls, missing a shot, be hopeful: the sweat of greatness may rub off on you.