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Jim Tamagni

Watsonville YMCA
Inducted as a Player in 2006

by Tom Sove

A grandson of a Swiss emigrant (that’s right, he’s Swiss, not Italian) Jim Tamagni started working in the family lettuce fields in Salinas during grade school. He’s loaded a lot of lettuce heads onto trucks, which he says is the source of his muscles. Jim first learned about handball via a Sports Illustrated article in the early 60s about Jim Jacobs that piqued his interest. He played his first game in 7th grade, at Palma Jr/Sr HS, on a brick one wall court with 2’ corner walls. They played during school with a regular tennis ball and no gloves. In 1970, Jim enrolled at Cal Poly SLO. It was here he was first introduced to what he refers to as real handball. Handball was a common off-season cross training activity encouraged by football and wrestling coaches, and Cal Poly offered handball classes in the P.E. curriculum. Jim loved the game and played as much as possible all four years with a group of friends.  

When he came home to Salinas he looked for courts to continue his new habit. The only ones around were four concrete courts at Hartnell JC. There he met other Salinas players, including his friend Toi Lagapa. This is where Jim learned to play, including his (in) famous hand signals. Jim’s first tournament was in 1977 at Quail Lakes AC in Stockton. C singles, 64 player bracket. Jim won, defeating Al Crosat in two games in the finals, winning $50. His first sandbagging experience, and hence the reason we don’t offer money in the A’s, B’s and C’s anymore.

By 1978, he was playing in the Open division, although it took over a year to win his first match at this level. He could give anyone a game. Often when he lost, the winner didn’t go much further because he was hurt by playing Tamagni. And thus came to maturity the Tamagni style of play: keep the ball moving and wear ‘em out. This style prompted one of the most famous quotes by Joe McDonald (after a loss to Jim): “Tamagni’s just a C player with legs.” He became so good at this that he still hasn’t developed a kill shot. 

In 1981, he went to his first Pro Tour event. Jim had a bizarre Pro Tour career, characterized by wins via injury, sickness, and weather. Jim made quite a few money rounds, but he never legitimately won a pro match. But, true to form, he gave everyone fits. Jim played on the Pro Tour through 1984, averaging 2-3 stops per year. He called it a career when he felt he was no longer competitive in singles at that level. The real reason: lack of a kill shot.

Before his Pro Tour career got started, Jim played a lot of doubles in tournaments, and it is in this discipline that he really found success. Jim credits Pat Bowen with making him the right side player that he is today. Jim would always get fired from the left side in their first games. Jim says the reason was because of his weak off hand. The real reason is he had no kill shot.

Jim Tamagni has been, and still is, a perennial national player and contender. He’s a highly coveted doubles partner. By his own count he has played with, and won with, over twenty different partners who have a national title in either 3-wall or 4-wall. He has two USHA national doubles titles, 1985 35’s with Dick David, and 1995 40’s with Rick Christian. From 1984 to 1998, fourteen straight years, he was in the national YMCA Open Doubles finals, winning eleven times. He put together two streaks of five straight titles, first with Rick Christian from 1985-89, then with Rich Dunne, from 1991-95. All this without a kill shot.

In Jim’s own words, he is living proof you don’t have to be a great handball player to be successful in handball. To be successful, do what Jim did: find out what you’re good at and specialize. Especially in doubles, where Jim became a great left-handed right side player. Give your open partner what shots they want; give ‘em the ball, they want it. When they get tired, then do your thing on the left. Otherwise, return the serve, dig the ball, and let the ball go; and above all, don‘t miss when the ball comes to you. As for that all-illusive kill shot: you don’t have to kill the ball on the right, just don’t give something the other guys can kill. And lastly, know something about every handball player who ever lived – something you can do if you don’t sleep at night.

Tamagni, welcome to the Hall of Fame!