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Bob Braine

San Jose YMCA
Inducted as a Player in 2018

Bob Braine
2018 Inducted as Player
San Jose YMCA

By Tom Fitzwater

Bob has played handball all his life dating back to growing up in New York City playing 1-wall.  And, it has finally paid off with his becoming a USHA Grand Master having won his 10th National Title.  However, it wasn’t easy since he didn’t win his first National title until he was 65 (in 2010 he won both the 3-wall singles and doubles titles in Toledo, Ohio with Jim Smith as a partner).  Singles, doubles, 3-wall or 4-wall it doesn’t matter since he has National titles in all of them.  This includes; two 3-wall singles, four 3-wall doubles, two 4-wall singles, and two 4-wall doubles titles.

Bob is noted for supreme conditioning and ceaseless drilling to refine his skills.  He is also noted for a very long reach making it difficult to pass him with the ball.  He knows how to pick a doubles partner and has wins with Jim Smith, Mike Meltzer, Mike Dirscoll, Joseph Pleszkoch, and Norm Young.  But, it is not all about doubles since he as wins over Ed Grossenbacher, Mike Discoll and Jim Smith.

2017:
Four-Wall, Orange County
75 Singles: Bob Braine
75 Doubles: Bob Braine/Norm Young

2015:
Three-Wall, Toledo, Ohio
70 Doubles: Joseph Pleszkoch/Robert Braine

2013:
Masters Doubles, Dallas
70-Plus: Jim Smith/Robert Braine

2012:
Four-Wall, Orange County
70 Singles: Bob Braine
Three-Wall, Toledo, Ohio
70 Singles: Bob Braine
70 Doubles: Bob Braine/Mike Driscoll

Three-Wall, Toledo, Ohio
70 Singles: Bob Braine
70 Doubles: Bob Braine/Mike Driscoll

2011:
Three-Wall, Toledo, Ohio
65 Doubles: Mike Meltzer/Robert Braine


2010:
Three-Wall, Toledo, Ohio
65 Singles: Robert Braine
65 Doubles: Jim Smith/Robert Braine

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BOB BRAINE BIOGRAPHY- 2018 (In Bob's words):

Bob has played handball most his life, dating back to 7th grade up in New York City where he played 1-wall schoolyard handball. He knew nothing of competitive handball, so only played with a few local kids.  This is where he picked up all the bad habits he had to work so hard to break 41 years later.

His early handball career was cut short by college where he fell in love with the romantic image of fencing and and loved the competitions he hadn't discovered in handball.  He continued competing in fencing until moving to California at the ripe old age of 32, in 1974.  His fencing accolades boasts one first place finish at the team event of the US fencing Nationals in 1969, as they say, it pays to pick your partners.

On moving to California with a wife and child on the way, he resumed playing club handball at the Supreme Court in Sunnyvale with some coworkers from IBM, only this time it was 4-wall handball.  After kicking around with club handball and playing at challenge courts for the next 17 years, he finally entered his first tournament at the age of 49, losing 11-10 tie-breakers in his first round and his consolation match, but he was hooked on competitions.

After trying age group tournaments and deciding “these guys are too tough” he switched to working his way up, beginning with C-level tournaments, finally winning one in Watsonville in 1992.  Next it was time to conquer “B” tournaments.

Well, maybe “conquer” is the wrong word.  He very quickly learned that his legs could keep him competitive in the C's, but these guys playing B's were too good, and while he could win matches in the B's his legs couldn't carry him to the final.  Time to start studying this game and see how it should really be played.  So he watched everyone, particularly the A's and Open players.  He very quickly focused on Open players.

In 1995, after 2 years of studying the game, and not knowing anyone who could teach him, he finally decided to get on a court by himself and see if he could retrain himself to do it right this time.  It was a gamble that depended on how well he analyzed what the Open players were doing.

Six years later Jim Peixoto noticed Bob seemed to be improving and suggested he might win the 60 B's at the nationals in 2002.  Having never contemplated playing in a national competition he thought “what the hell..”.  Surprisingly, at least to him, he won his first national title and was hooked.  Unfortunately winning a B title doesn't count towards earning 10 National titles, too bad.

Then in 2003 he hooked up with Sol Aber, and Sol confirmed he was on the right track and greatly sped up his learning process.  Until then he would try a technique to see how it would work out.  Learning a new way to hit a ball is not an easy task for the feint of heart. He had once heard that you have to hit a shot 6,000 times before you can call it your own (a quote he attributes to Navratilova, the tennis star). Being mathematically minded, he estimated that with his method of practicing it would take 1 ½ to 2 years to master each new innovation. “OK,” says Bob, “I can handle that!”.  Then he learned each time he wanted to try something different, the clock would be set back to zero.  With Sol Aber's help, he could bypass some of these long tedious lessons and delays.  It was after making this connection with Sol that Bob began to teach handball at San Jose State University in 2005, and continued to do so through this year.

During the next 6 years after his National B title, Bob fell in love with Consolation tournaments at the Nationals.  He enjoyed meeting other competitors and seeing how he stacked up, doing pretty well, but not winning any until 2008.  Perhaps I should point out why he loved consolation tournaments so much: for the next six years he went to the Nationals and got knocked out every time in the first round.  Playing in the consolation at least helped justify the money spent for just one match.  Consolation events allowed him to have fun even while losing.  A very important aspect of the game, no one can win without first losing, a lot.

He does have to make a confession too.  In spite of winning 10 national titles, and playing 4-wall hand for 36 years before his first title, 4-wall handball is not his strong suit.  Growing up as a 1-wall player he hated the back wall.  It was definitely not his friend.  He would do whatever he could to keep the ball off the back wall.  But that wasn't all bad.  In 2005 Todd Taylor talked him into trying 3-wall handball, and he found all his bad 4-wall habits were an advantage in 3-wall.  It was such a big advantage he won his first of three 3-wall titles in 2010 and 2011, before finally winning his first in 4-wall title in 2012.

By the way, he discovered something strange about himself in 1995.  He was very surprised to find he enjoyed practicing.  He enjoyed it so much that he would practice for 1 ½ to 2 hours each day before he played.  The reason he liked practicing for that long, particularly immediately before playing is he noticed that he could actually manage to put a practiced shot into the game for maybe the first 5 minutes.  Next time it might actually be a part of his game for 6 minutes, until eventually he could use the shot for an entire game.

But for Bob, handball is about far more than winning tournaments.  Winning tournaments is nice, but handball has been a way of life for Bob.  It helped keep his sanity through a particularly nasty divorce and the subsequent destruction of his relationship with his daughters, as well as numerous other of life's trials.  But even that isn't the full story.

Bob was born hard of hearing.  He didn't begin talking until around 32 months, and only then because his younger sister helped teach him.  With poor hearing comes a very slow social development.  It was so bad he had no friends at the age of 14 and feeling the isolation of such a lonely life.  Handball gave him assistance and helped him turn around his life after those dark years.  It provided an environment in which he could share his love of the game, even when it was so difficult for him to share his feelings in other ways.

Of course any sport will help people like him, which is also why he was drawn to fencing, (it wasn't just the romantic 3-Musketeers image of fencing that drew him in).  One of the biggest complaints he gets from competitors is about the length of his arms.  He likes to joke about being the only handball player who can stand in the center of the court and touch both side walls at the same time.  His real secret is his fencing lunge.  It extends his reach by a foot or two in either direction, and fencers have to be well trained to lunge properly, otherwise it can severely damage the knees.

Some of you may have notice that he isn't all that sociable between handball games, occasionally staying on the court practicing rather than coming out and engaging in conversation, but it is very hard to be sociable when you can't hear what is said.  Consequently he has long preferred his social contact on the court rather than off-court.  At competitions he has an extra reason to do that, it helps maintain his focus between games.

So not only has handball provided a wonderful activity for his physical health, it has provided him with emotional health and stability.  It is really difficult to estimate how much he owes to the sport.  Handball has been a pillar of his life since those early days on Staten Island, in New York City.

As for his National titles.  He was only the 3rd player to win a B tournament then go on to win at the Open level.  The second was Ed Campbell who managed the feat a mere half hour before Bob.  Since he couldn't be second he was particularly pleased to slam at the 2010 3-wall Nationals in Toledo for his 1st and 2nd titles.  After winning in singles he and his doubles partner, Jim Smith of Watsonville, took home that trophy as well.

His 3rd national title was doubles the next year, again in Toledo, with Mike Meltzer.

The following year was the high point of his handball career, as he turned 70 and won the 4-wall singles title at Los Cab, followed by his first 1-wall tournament ever at Coney Island (winning one singles match before getting knocked out in both singles and doubles), and earning his second slam in Toledo, taking the doubles with his partner Mike Driscoll.

He was pleased to receive the McDonald award from NCHA in 2012, and followed that with winning the Masters doubles 4-wall Nationals with Jim Smith in Arlington Texas.  Jim was the only partner to enjoy a 2nd title with him, but perhaps that doesn't count because their first title was in 3-wall.

For the next 2 ½ years Bob had a long dry spell with health problems and was stuck at 7 titles.  Finally he got a surprise doubles win with Joe Pleszkoch in the 2015 Toledo 3-wall Nationals, after Joe's partner Kieth Thode had to withdraw.  Bob only went to Toledo to play in the singles, but Joe changed Bob's mind by beating him in singles and offering to be his doubles partner.  That made it six 3-wall titles, and two 4-wall titles.  Like he said, he is a better 3-wall player than 4-wall.

To balance it out a bit, numbers 9 and 10 came last year at the 4-wall nationals where he earned his third slam at the ripe old age of 75.  Last year's event was at Los Cab again, and while he had some hope of winning the 4-wall singles, he felt his chances in doubles were not-existent.  Not only were he and his partner Norm Young playing the team that took them apart 2 ½ months earlier at the Cincinnati Masters Nationals, but he and Norm just weren't gelling as a team, even after 8 practice sessions in Columbus where Bob was visiting Colinda, the new love of his life.  Somehow, over breakfast on the day of the finals he and Norm gelled as they came to a better understanding of what was wrong with their dynamics.  Who says breakfast isn't the most important meal of the day?

With that win by Norm and Bob over Ed Grossenbacher and Vince San Angelo, Bob achieved his dream of the past 5 years, that of earning the title of Grand Master.

It is hard to express how important that victory was, as Bob has been grounded 3 times since then and missed every subsequent National until the Worlds in Minneapolis.  Playing handball over 70 is not easy, as a player's ability to rebuild after every injury and illness becomes of paramount importance.

His philosophy in life:  Enjoy what you have when you have it.  Having goals gives you something to look forward to in the future, but take your pleasure in the moment.  And handball has given Bob a great many moments of pleasure.


 

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