Racquetball and Father-Son-Son Time

Dad taught Cheo and I how to play racquetball. I remember in the late 1970s-early 1980s how Dad would take us to his Saturday early morning bouts at the club near Lloyd Center in Portland. Back then the sport was nearing its peak in popularity, and the clubs were luxurious. There were floor-to-ceiling glass-paned tournament courts, well-appointed locker rooms, upstairs viewing areas, and TVs in what we would today call a smoothie bar. Back then they just called it a snack bar.

Dad would meet up with a friend (or two if they were playing “cutthroat”, which is one-on-one-on-one) and they would sit outside the court doing their preparation rituals: Stretching, donning safety goggles (Dad had some cool rubber and metal ones that made him look like a bird), putting on racquetball gloves, and tying on court shoes. Meanwhile Cheo and I would go into the court, ducking through the small portal, to hit balls with Dad’s spare racquets. (Cheo was so little then he didn’t need to duck.) Looking back at the short, skinny racquets used then, it’s laughable how long and wide the racquetball racquets are today. Back then one actually had to have some accuracy and skill to even connect with the ball. Today the whole racquet is a “sweet spot” and you could hit kill shots with your eyes closed.

In that day racquetball was for those men who didn’t play golf, or lived somewhere where “golf weather” days were few and far between, like Portland. It was where business could be conducted between matches and friendly competition built business relationships just like those hours in a golf cart chasing a little white ball around someone’s huge backyard.

Dad was a photocopier salesman for Xerox at that time, so racquetball in lieu of golf in Portland was a way for him to get face time with clients and potential prospects – more so than basketball, his true love as far as sports. Cheo and I got to tag along with Dad and if we were lucky we might get something from the snack bar for our trouble. Meanwhile, the seed was planted for us siblings to develop a love for the sport which blossomed to fruition later.

I remember taking up racquetball in the late ’80s, when I finally got my own racquet and glove. By then, our family had moved from Portland to Dallas for Mom and Dad to attend Christ for the Nations Institute. Dad no longer worked for Xerox so he wasn’t on the court as often any more. I was a cheeky teenager and wanted to prove my manhood, so I challenged Dad to a match. Although racquetball had precipitously declined in popularity there was a small gym nearby that had two courts. We went out to the gym and paid our fees and did our preparation rituals…

I got trounced. Every. Single. Time.

Dad had this speedball serve that would come off his powerful forehand, straight toward the back wall on the right side, make the required bounce just in front of the back wall, then ricochet off the back straight toward the front with enough velocity that I had to sprint toward the front wall before it bounced twice. On the rare occasion that I was able to get my racquet on it, I was so off balance that Dad had an easy setup to make the point. Years later when I learned how to perform that same serve on other opponents I nicknamed it “Off to the Races” and I would internally giggle as I watched my opponents sprint to the front as I used to do when Dad played me, or rather “schooled me”.

Cheo also took up racquetball when we lived in Dallas, but he really came into his own when he was at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa. He played often, and he raised the level of competition more than a notch. The word “beast” comes to mind when thinking of Cheo’s style on the racquetball court. Diving, rolling, power shots, speed and quickness were all part of his repertoire.

Cheo played a lot with Matt Waters, our Sigma Tau Sigma wing mate from Maine. Matt and Mike were about the same age as Cheo and I, so we would sometimes play doubles. ORU had three racquetball courts and a squash court at the Kenneth H. Cooper Aerobics Center. (Thank God for it being built in the ’80s when people still knew what racquetball was.) Cheo and Matt had some fiercely competitive bouts, and it was awesome to watch. If Cheo had a powerful serve, Matt had an even more powerful serve, and the ball would make noises I hadn’t even heard before. The maddening thing about it was that he made it look easy and he would smile and laugh as he effortlessly blasted the ball at speeds over 100mph, I’m sure.

I never did beat Matt…

Cheo’s consorting with Matt on the court made him a better player, and when he and I would come back to Dallas, our matches with Dad were on a whole new level. While my solo practice consisted of me serving the ball to the wall and chanting to myself, “Beat. Dad…(POW!)…Beat. Dad…(POW!)” the three of us would have war on the court, with both Cheo and I aiming to best our teacher in game after game of cutthroat. Then we would take turns in one-on-one, best two out of three matches, to try to beat Dad. After the three of us were spent, having exuded buckets of sweat, we’d go out to 7-Eleven for a round of Slurpees on the way home. Good times.

Eventually, after many hours of solo practice, casual matches and intramural competition, victory over the Grand Master, Dad, was hard-fought and won. It took years, but that made it all the more glorious.

And Dad was actually trying.


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