Nelson Deida Paddleball Player Profile by Mike Melendez
He is known for his shot-making artistry, quick reflexes and powerful game, as well as for his confrontational on-court behavior that sometimes has landed him in trouble with referees and tournament directors. Nelson Deida is the Paddleball version of the great Hall of Fame tennis player John McEnroe, from whom he says he learned his passion for the game. Nelson, you can’t be serious!
Nelson was born and raised in the Bronx into a Paddleball family – both his mother and father were good players. They introduced him to Paddleball at the age of five at the Yankee Stadium courts and he quickly fell in love with the game. “It was the combination of the speed of the game, its competitive nature, and also the family atmosphere that is very unique and wonderful.” After the stadium courts were demolished to build the new Yankee Stadium, Van Cortlandt Park became his home park.
Nelson continued to play with his Mom and Dad until the age of twelve. At eight, he competed in his first kids’ tournament. This was the era of the Budweiser tournaments and Nelson played with one of his parents in these classics through the age of fifteen. (“Minors” were otherwise prohibited.) He then began competing in tournaments across the tristate area and as his game developed, the Paddleball community quickly took notice of this skinny kid with the afro from Yankee Stadium/Van Cortlandt.
A left hander, Nelson is a fearless competitor with all the tools required of a great Paddleball player. His powerful overhand service motion is unique in Paddleball, with the biggest advantage being his ability to disguise its placement. Known for very quick reflexes and deft hands, he possesses a superior front wall game. He describes his game as “power, touch, passion, excitement.” Indeed, he is an artist on the court with one of the most exciting games to watch. His favorite shot is the drop-shot.
Nelson has now been playing Paddleball for 35 years. He stopped for about four years in total, due to the lack of tournaments and the emergence of one-wall racquetball. Back in the day, he played 4 to 5 times a week until his late 30s, and now he still plays at least twice a week. In the winter season his Paddleball home is Zerega Indoor. In the summer he does not have a home park, instead he travels to different parks in search of tough competition and to get together with his close friends.
Nelson said he was fortunate to grow up playing the game where he was exposed to many different players and he was able to learn from them. He particularly recalls J.C., a very knowledgeable player from Yankee Stadium, who called everyone “Fish.” He taught Nelson how to use his opposite hand and imparted this wisdom: “In order to be good at this game you have to be able to adapt on-the-spot by changing your approach mid-game. To do that you must learn from your mistakes and be able to play different ways.” Among the players Nelson studied were, of course, his parents, as well as Freddy Diaz, who taught him how to use his reflexes and hands. Anita Maldonado taught him to focus on his “tenacity, toughness, dedication and to practice, play hard and have fun.” Kathy Guinan showed him how to use his quick hands, helped with his positioning and maintaining focus. Anthony Fiorino was the model on positioning and playing defense. Craig Ruiz showed him how to use the power game to full advantage. Richard McKnight, who was an important mentor throughout the years, helped him develop the drop-shot. Sammy Cesareo was instrumental in him learning how to play smart, while Frank Savino showed him toughness, speed, diving and turning defense into offense. Brandon Fason was a model for hard and tough play. Sue Stephen helped him learn fundamentals and how to play smart. Richie Miller taught him how to go for it no matter what, and precision. Finally, Ritchie Gonzalez, most importantly, taught him how to play together as teammates and to have fun.
I asked Nelson what he thinks of the sport of Paddleball, “The game of Paddleball is a sport that is not easy, it’s tough and fun and a great sport to play.” I also asked, what is needed to take it to the next level? He says Paddleball has a solid foundation, but “what is needed for the sport to grow is exactly what Mike Melendez and the PFA are doing. Their approach is the right one by bringing in the youth with the kids’ clinics, raising their awareness of the sport and getting them interested in Paddleball. This is so important because Paddleball helped me stay out of trouble. We also need to showcase the sport like Mike and the PFA are doing with the PowPows.” Nelson believes obtaining sponsorship is key, as well as developing a ball that is viewable on television to increase exposure. His advice to his Paddleball peers is to continue supporting the game, have fun playing, and maintain that family atmosphere.
On the personal side, Nelson is married with four beautiful kids. In addition to Paddleball, he plays baseball and softball and a little handball. His sports hero is Bo Jackson. He also claims that he is a good dancer!
Nelson’s dream has always been for the sport of Paddleball to make it big and he hopes that happens in his lifetime. “I would like to say thank you to the sport of Paddleball and the people who play, for giving me an outlet, and teaching me so much about life and for keeping me out of trouble.” Trust me, Nelson can be serious!
Kim Avena Paddleball Player Profile by David Siegel
She has done a wonderful job furthering the cause of women’s paddleball. Kim Avena founded the Women’s Empowerment paddleball Alliance three years ago to give the ladies the chance to show off their talents and to compete in tournaments of their own. Until W.E.p.A., the only organized competition available to women in recent years was the “men’s” tournaments. Focusing on big ball, she has organized several very successful women’s and mixed doubles tournaments in NYC and Florida, including a fundraiser for the PFA. W.E.p.A. now has over 600 members, with many men involved too. Under Kim’s leadership, women’s paddleball has grown significantly, with more and more ladies becoming involved in our now flourishing sport.
Kim started playing paddleball at Dyker Beach at age 12 and soon was competing in real games on the “other side.” In a few years, she packed her paddleball bag and moved to the big time games at Bay 8th Street, which is her home park. She also is a regular at Hollywood Beach Garfield Park during the winter months. The move to Bay 8th was spurred by her interest in the many tournaments they conducted, although she couldn’t compete in them because of the demands of her job. Ironically, now that she has the time, she can’t play in the tournaments because of several nagging injuries. She currently is playing twice a week.
Kim has an outstanding game, sparked by two good hands, excellent anticipation and steady play. Her favorite shot is her topspin drop, which is a “heartbreaker” that she executes with either hand. One of her greatest assets on the court is her anticipation, enhanced by studying the angle of her opponent’s paddle during play. Because Kim has not been a tournament player, her skills on the court are not as well known as they would be if she had participated. However, those that have played with and against her over the years are very cognizant of her high level of play.
Who is her favorite player? The usual, but besides their obvious skills, she also sees some unique qualities in Robert Sostre and Kathy Guinan. Robert’s “eyes dilate and move like a bird’s while playing” and Kim admires Kathy’s “court sense, dancing ponytail and smile.” Also up there is Bay Lui, who happens to be her husband. She loves the way he perfectly combines offense and the ability to retrieve almost every ball. A commonality among these players is their outstanding sportsmanship, a trait that Kim values highly. I asked Kim if she has played much with Bay as a partner and how did they get along? Her answer tells it all: “Are you kidding!” She qualifies this by saying “It’s not him, it’s me!,” furthering the observation that paddleball teams linked by blood or marriage, more often than not, don’t work well.
Speaking of sportsmanship, Kim is also an active participant in the PFA’s ongoing efforts to upgrade the overall conduct in the competitive game. She was involved in the development of the Code of Conduct and serves on the PFA Disciplinary Committee. At her recent tournament at Zerega, she implemented the player signoff on the COC, which is an important step forward in addressing the behavioral issues of the few players that are holding back the growth of the game.
Like the leaders of the PFA, Kim is passionate about growing the game. She feels that the best way to introduce the youth to the game is by continuing the efforts to draw in the many handball players in their late teens and early twenties. More and more she sees them picking up paddles, and staying with our game.
So that’s the paddleball life of Kim Avena. What about her real life would we like to know? Well, she considers herself to be a highly intuitive person, and she’s not talking about anticipating shots on the court. She says everyone has the power, but only a few are able to use it to advantage. Sounds like something we want to know more about!
John Bruschi Paddleball Player Profile by Howard Hammer
The consummate professional and the ultimate team player. Those are the words that come to mind when describing John Bruschi. In the 1960s and 1970s, I had the pleasure and great fortune of having John as my doubles partner, and I could not have asked for a better partner on the court. The success we were fortunate enough to enjoy was due to how well we worked together, and that success would never have been possible without John. Our partnership continued into the 1980s, as we and Marv Rosenberg and Howie Solomon put on exhibitions throughout the tri-state area and beyond, spreading our love of the game.
John was always recognizable on the court, with his familiar eye protection and helmet. Although not the fastest player or the hardest hitter, his amazing success came from the neck up: John was one of the smartest and best defensive players in the game. He was often a step or two ahead of his opponents, setting up shots and never giving in. His trademark lob shot would leave our harder hitting opponents bewildered. Perhaps the best thing that one partner can say about another is that “he made me look good.” John always made me look good. I can still remember like yesterday his defensive play. John was never out of position, and he never “hung me out to dry.” Victory after victory, and championship after championship was his paddleball legacy.
People that remembered John playing can recall the greatness and effortlessness with which he played. I was lucky enough to be witness to it day after day, and tournament after tournament. John also never rested on his laurels. I can recall John calling me in the middle of winter to practice, and I’d tell him I’m not sure we should because it’s 30 degrees out! But that was John, whose dedication to the craft, and always striving to get better, is another one of his qualities.
So too was his class, and the always respectful way he conducted himself on the court. As our competitive days were winding down, the next great doubles team of Andy Krosnick and Bobby Schwartz had the good fortune to compete against John and witness his play, and they continued to uphold the mantle of John’s skill and class.
I’ve known John for a half century, and I am honored to have played with him and learned from him. Most importantly, I’m proud to call him a friend. I’m glad he is remembered as one of the greatest paddleball players of all time.