By Paolo Uggetti
By 9 p.m. on a recent night in New York, St. Nicholas Park in South Harlem was nearly pitch dark. The basketball courts were desolate, and the few street lamps that worked emitted a faint orange glow that lit only a small radius beneath them.
The sole signs of life came from one half of the converted volleyball court in the middle of the park, where two floodlights shone down on a rollicking group of about 30 Ecuadorian-Americans. Every weekend, from Friday to Monday, they transform this tree-lined spot on the western outskirts of the park into their personal playground.
But it isn’t volleyball they’re playing.
“It’s basically the same group of people who come here every week,” said Jorge Juelle, a regular attendee, who spoke in Spanish. “Some have been coming for 20 years to play.”
You won’t hear the classic sounds of a basketball on a Harlem court on these weekend nights, or even of a volleyball being batted back and forth. Mostly, you’ll hear the jeers and cheers of middle-aged men playing a game called ecuavoley, a sport that is known almost exclusively to Ecuadorians.
“Tuya, tuya, tuya!”
“Your ball, yours, yours!” The common shout blared across the court as the players frantically scurried below the lights in search of the ball as it hurtled through the night air.
Ecuador didn’t send a volleyball team to the Summer Olympics in Rio this year. Nor did it send a beach volleyball team. As a country, Ecuador ranks 117th and 137th, respectively, in the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball rankings of the sport. It isn’t really a volleyball playing nation.
But this is ecuavoley, a popular variant of the sport played on cement courts rather than sand or wood-floor gyms. It’s played not with a team of five, but with three on either side of a very high net. Not with knee pads or uniforms, but in casual clothing and sometimes without shirts. And not with a conventional volleyball, but always with a soccer ball.
Ecuavoley deviates from the basic rules of the sport on which it is modeled. Rather than bumping the ball into the air with finesse, players palm it over the net using a technique that would be illegal in volleyball. With increased control, ball placement is paramount, and exploiting areas on the court by pushing it in angles that leave opponents frozen is the only way to win.
“It’s very popular now,” said Harlem native Julio Pelaez, the so-called leader of the group that descends on the park. “It’s played in the Bronx, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, even in California.”
If soccer is the most beloved sport in Ecuador and tennis is the sport of the upper class, then ecuavoley is the game of the common man. Going back more than a century, crowds have gathered to watch two three-man teams go at it, usually with food and music on offer as well.
In recent decades, it has made its way to the U.S. along with thousands of Ecuadorean immigrants—40% of those to the Greater New York area, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center report.
In Harlem, Pelaez and the core group arrive before sundown each evening to pitch a tattered net that has been stretched and pulled nearly to the point of disintegration. They also bring the leather-bound soccer ball, as the rules of the game require. A de facto referee keeps score on a styrofoam cup.
“We come around 4 or 5 in the afternoon, and I’ve talked with the cops, so they basically let us stay until 10:30, sometimes 11 at night,” Pelaez says. “A few times we’ve gotten kicked out because the people in the apartments nearby want to sleep.”
Nestled behind the court, picnic tables are filled up with plenty of food. On one recent Sunday night, the meal was carne asada, hot links, chicken and ribs. Those who frequent the location for either the game or the food speak highly of the variety.
“Fridays it’s hot dogs and french fries; Saturdays, it’s sometimes fish…$9 for a plate full of food is not a bad deal at all,” said Ruth Anguisaca, before being pulled away to play in an all-female game.
Music blared from a small speaker, ranging from slow ballads to lively salsa. One group took ownership of the small open area near their table and began to dance, holding cups of beer, enjoying the warm night alongside both old and new acquaintances.
“Everyone is family here,” said Pelaez, shielding himself of the smoke rising from a grill. He was on barbecue duty on this night, flipping meat with one hand and holding his phone as a light in the other. “This is a game that brings the community together.”
Ecuavoley’s primary purpose is entertainment. Spectators of all ages line up their lawn chairs around the court and poke fun at players who are so—locked in on the ball that they’re often oblivious to the cheers and jeers.
With only three players on each side in a best-of-three-set match (15 points wins a set), it can take on a reckless style, with players furiously trying to get in position to take and return shots. That volatility breeds excitement, but sometimes it isn’t quite enough. Often there’s some money on the line, with the cash prize in the hands of the referee.
“Tournaments happen all the time,” said Pelaez, who has been coming for 15 years. “Sometimes you bet $10, $15 just to keep it exciting.”
Credit: Wall Street Journal, www.wsj.com