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.
Keith Jackson Paddleball Profile By Dave Siegel
OK, let’s get you thinking. Who is the best father and son paddleball team in history? Wait, we must be politically correct. Who is the best parent and child team? Although I’ve been around the game for over 50 years, I admit I’ve not seen many such teams, but I’ll cast my vote anyway. Not counting Peter and Hank Grassi from my blog “The Incredible Day Howie Hammer and John Bruschi Met their Match,” Barry and Keith Jackson are by far the best. Barry Jackson is a Staten Island paddleball legend, one of the top Island players from the 70s through to the early 2000s. Keith is one of the elite big and small ball players in the game today and probably the best player ever to come out of Staten Island.
Barry introduced his son to the game at the tender age of five and by ten Keith was playing in the “men’s” games. As Barry nurtured him, Keith’s game improved by leaps and bounds through his teenage years, and they rose to become one of the most formidable teams on the Island. They almost always did well in tournaments, even off-Island. As is often the case with teams joined by blood or marriage, they were often very vocal with each other between points, but they meshed beautifully together during play. Once he got his driver’s license, Keith was off to new competition, mainly in Coney Island, but he remained a frequent partner of his Dad.
Keith’s game is highlighted by his deceptive power, which he unleashes with a compact swing, driving the ball with unexpected velocity. He is a multi-tooled player, with a large variety of shots, his favorite is to the right corner, which he can angle, kill or drop. He has excellent anticipation, is terrific defensively and his left hand is outstanding. I’ve seen him play since his teenage years and the most significant improvement is his mental toughness. In those early years, he could be beaten by him beating himself. But that is over and done. He now is not fazed by level of competition or the pressure of tournament play. Over the years, Keith has had several regular partners besides his Dad, among them Glen Winokur, Godfrey Brown, Troy Varsik, Greg Scarlatta and Adam Brodsky.
Keith still calls Staten Island his paddleball home where small ball is the game. He also plays occasionally at Clifton and he gets his big ball games at Bay 8th and Coney Island. Overall, he tries to play twice a week. Now in his mid forties, Keith is playing close to his peak, which actually is quite remarkable. His career has been marred by many injuries which have kept him off the courts for long chunks of time. He has had surgeries to his right shoulder (twice), left shoulder, left knee (twice), two back surgeries, and throw in carpal tunnel surgeries to both hands. That adds up to nine! He is now finally healthy and let’s hope it’s nine and done!
For those unaware of what Keith does in his spare time, he is a Doctor, actually a Dermatologist. For the past 14 years he has had a successful practice on Staten Island (trust me, the waiting room is always packed). Most of you also know that he was part of the three person team that saved the life of fellow paddleball player Tony Cascella when he was felled by sudden cardiac arrest two years ago. He also has quite a large family with 5 kids, ages 17 (twins), 15, 10 and 8. One of the twins, Shawn, a high school senior, is the top public school tennis player in NYC and has won a partial scholarship to Hofstra. Of course his proud father attends most of his matches. Keith is also a tennis player, plays racquetball and most recently has taken up pickleball.
We asked Keith for his take on the sport of paddleball and where it’s at today. He is concerned that there is a great deal of room for improvement in the overall behavior, particularly at tournaments and he feels that it is imperative that this happens for the sport to flourish. This is a belief held by many, and let’s hope that the present ongoing efforts being made by the outstanding paddleball leaders, as well as the paddleball community, reverse this blemish.
Mark Villarico Paddleball Profile By Dave Siegel
He’s one of the best players ever from Long Island – one of the 10 best small ball competitors in the game today. Mark Villarico has all the tools. He has great power and is exceedingly fast with his hands, using strong forearms and wrists to “snap” his shots. He is able to dominate the court using excellent footwork to position himself to mount his offense, especially off the return of serve. Mark has all the shots: killers, spikes, a devastating low well-placed serve, steady left hand and he is a winner. But who is he really? He is also low key, humble and most of the paddleball community doesn’t know much about Mark’s background. Also, I’m sure very few, if any, know something very, very remarkable about Mark’s late mother, but this profile is about Mark and paddleball, so you’ll have to wait.
Mark actually started out playing tennis in Newbridge Park in Bellmore and he couldn’t help but notice the adjacent competitive paddleball action. He just had to be part of it! He started playing the game at age 15 at Newbridge and continued until he was 17. A little historical note: Newbridge Park was the original mecca of paddleball back in the late 60s and early 70s (before Mark’s time), where the first successful paddleball organization, the American Paddleball Association (APA), originated. All of the early big tournaments were under the auspices of the APA. Getting back to Mark, he started playing paddleball really seriously when he was 25, traveling to many parks throughout Long Island, Queens and the Bronx. He had the good fortune to learn from some of the best players: Richie Miller, Anthony Fiorino, Donnie Ciaffone and Hoppy.
Mark’s game continued to develop and by the late 90s, he was among the best players. In 1998 he soured on tournament play and took a five year hiatus from competitive paddleball, after which he re-emerged once again as a serious player and his game continued to ascend. He has been playing at his present high level for approximately 6 years. Mark works hard to hone his skills. He exercises regularly to stay in paddleball shape, plays at least twice a week, eats well and he feels that his game is still improving. One of the factors that keeps him going is his desire to help the sport to flourish. He has great respect for the people who are leading the drive to accomplish this like Mike and all the hard work he puts in, including the kids clinics, as well as Jay and Charlene. He especially values the efforts to maintain professionalism, especially in tournaments.
Mark’s very early years were spent nomadically living in many countries, including several years in Italy, where he learned to speak fluent Italian. He eventually came back to the United States, settling in Queens, then Long Island. He is married, has 3 kids, ages 25, 13 and 8. Mark has been a successful home improvement contractor for 22 years. He also plays tennis, volleyball, baseball, softball, he mountain bikes and is an avid paintballer.
OK, what’s so astonishing about Mark’s mother? Well, in her youth, she lived for a time in Beverly Hills and one day she hid in the garage of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Yes, that’s none other that Elvis! And they hit it off!! They dated for several years!!! In Elvis’ later years, they even reconnected. All I can say is WOW!!!!
Lisa Michaelessi Paddleball Profile by David Siegel
When Mike Melendez asked me to write a profile of Lisa Michaelessi, I said that I was not familiar with her. Mike replied, “What!! you don’t know Lisa? She was a top player in the ladies division back in the 80s and 90s….one of the best women players, bar none!” Well, though I have been involved in paddleball for over 50 years, for most of the last several decades, I’ve been insulated from the paddleball world outside of my home parks. So I needed to find out who is this Lisa Michaelessi, apparently a great player that I knew nothing about. A little Facebook search yielded a telling comment from Donnie Ciaffone: “Lisa Michaelessi, in my opinion, the best female southpaw in the Game.” I went on to find out that she is a champion, having won many women’s and mixed doubles tournaments, mostly with the likes of Kathy Guinan and Robert Sostre. Not bad! And, she’s still winning tournaments.
Lisa’s paddleball career started unconventionally. Because paddleball is a “city” game, not an elite club sport like tennis, I would venture to say most of us picked up the game on our own, usually not until adulthood. We were attracted to it because it is readily available, inexpensive and a cool way to exercise and hang out with our friends. We never had lessons! But Lisa started at age 5, encouraged and taught by her parents who were dedicated players at Marathon Park. However, it’s been my observation that terrific young paddleball players invariably fail to emerge as the stars we think they can be. A kid starts out playing the game, becomes a prodigy and looks like he or she will eventually become the greatest of all time, but then as a teenager, discovers boys or girls, tennis or other interests and paddleball goes down the tubes. Mike’s Kids Clinics is a heroic effort to reverse this trend and we all are hoping for its continued success. But getting back to Lisa, this, happily for our beloved sport, was not the case with her. She loved the game and stuck with it! Her late father, Charlie, became her mentor, teaching her the intricacies of the game, how to control the play from the right side and even had her study the top lefties of the day, like Steve Rothfeld. She became an expert at positioning and learned to play offensively, shooting for her opponent’s weakness, patiently waiting for her shot. Charlie not only taught Lisa the game, but attended all of her tournaments and most importantly, encouraged her to always do her best. Charlie certainly was the right person for the job. He was a paddleball lifer, a top B player back in the day who got turned on to paddleball at Orchard Beach.
By the time she was 13, Lisa’s skills had advanced to the point that she was competing in tournaments and she won her first Budweiser “B” in 1986 – the women’s singles. She continued to excel in paddleball over the years, winning many events. Except for a five year hiatus to raise her two children, she’s continued to play paddleball through to today, eventually switching to big ball, always calling Marathon Park home. She is still one of the top woman players, having won the W.E.p.A. tournament at Bay 8th St. and the Women’s Open Big Blue at Orchard Beach, both during the summer of 2016.
Lisa is an all-around athlete, combining paddleball with tennis, pickleball and softball. In the past, she was a baseball player (that’s baseball, as in hardball, not softball!), having played for 3 years and even tried out for the pros (“A League of their Own”?).
For these paddleball profiles, we ask the subject what is unique or interesting about their lives that the other players may not be aware of. Lisa has been steadfast in her response: “Nothing.” We doubt it, so perhaps others can share something we’d like to hear!
Dave Blatt Paddleball Profile By Jimmy Kandylas
“I’ll play with the kid”, I said, sentencing the kid’s mom to play with my dad. The kid and his mom played together a lot; they were a pretty tough team, but they were usually willing to split up for a “children vs. parents” game. We had played that same game a few times a week, every week, for most of the summer. We mostly played on the front courts at Bay 8th, in the late evening as the sun was coming down over the golf course across the street. It was always a fun game to close out the day. No matter how many games you’ve played, you can always gather up the energy to beat up on your parents. The kid was five foot nothing at that point. He was barely 12 years old. But, at twilight, with the sun at his back, he cast an impressive shadow, foretelling the man he would grow into.
“What side do you want, Dave?” Silly question. “OK, I’ll take the right; do you want to box?” Even at 12, he wouldn’t really dignify that with an answer, just a little shake of the head. No, he did not want to box. I would try to encourage him during the game. “Great try! You were right there! It’s OK Dave, that’s the shot, you keep going for it and it will fall. We’ll get them next time.” It didn’t seem to matter. Even at 12, he expected to hit every shot, make every get – win every game. As we got further into the summer, there was a lot less encouragement and a lot more praise. “Nice! Great shot! Amazing get! You make the last two.” The speed at which he improved was nothing short of astonishing. Before long, we were winning every game. His mom took it better than my dad. I’m sure that winning a mixed double tournament with her son a few years later further softened the blow.
I can’t claim all the credit, but I did give him some advice that summer. “This isn’t Tennis. Try switching to your left on the shots taking you off the court. If you want to get good, you need to give up that backhand.” Shows what I know. He never gave up that backhand, but wow did he get good.
Dave Blatt started playing 21 years ago at Silver Gull Beach Club, but Bay 8th is his home. For years the Bay 8th faithful knew him as “the kid.” Not a kid. Not some kid. The kid. Even when he was very young, you could see the athleticism in him, built up from years of sports ranging from gymnastics to tennis and other athletic activities, like ballet and tap dancing, which he practiced for 18 years, but has since given up.
But even more, you could see the drive – the competitive fire that few people have. As he got older and he started playing in tougher games, while still stubbornly refusing to give up that backhand, he morphed into “Federer” (although I’m sure he would have preferred “Nadal”, as Rafa is his sports hero) as he glided across the court, picking up shots that seemed un-retrievable and using his cannon of a right arm to blast balls by his opponents, sometimes in and sometimes not.
Now, as an undisputed top player in one wall paddle, big and small, as well as one wall racquet, the entire one wall community knows him as the “Hulkster.” And, thanks to Dave saying his prayers and eating his vitamins, like a good little Hulkamaniac, that cannon has become a much more reliable weapon and has been supplemented by a top notch serve and a deadly inside out forehand kill shot to the right corner. You can see the influence of a number of top players in his game; none more than Richie Miller, who Dave calls the best offensive player he’s seen in his life. But, it’s fair to say that Dave has a style all his own.
Although he only plays once or twice a week now, he has been able to continue to hone his game. He has had his ups and downs in his paddleball career, but he’s at a point where he has confidence in his shots and knows how not to beat himself, which was one of his biggest struggles when he first encountered top level competition. Dave’s advice, which he put into practice early on, is to play against better players, even players that will beat you badly, so that you challenge your body and mind to reach a higher level.
Unfortunately for Dave, that doesn’t work anymore because there just aren’t players that consistently beat him badly. For years, Dave has played regular games against the best of the best, including Rob Sostre, Freddy Ramirez, Richie Miller, Nelson Deida, Keith Jackson, Glen Winokur. Troy Varsik, as well as other top players and has been able to give as good as he gets. His success hasn’t come easy. He has had some injuries. He isn’t quite the same guy that was able to show up at Zerega at 8 am after a night of partying (which followed, of course, a day of playing at Carmine street) and was still able to crush his first game against top competition. But, as his recent tournament results, which include open wins in the 2017 AF Pro Series tournament in Rockaway and the small ball open tournament held in Marine Park in July, show, he isn’t that far off either.
Dave is disappointed by the fact that Paddleball isn’t as popular as it was in its golden years, when a good tournament would generate 128 entries, but he hopes that having events that showcase top talent will be able to attract sponsors and grow the sport back into the force it was in 70s and 80s. To that end, the High Heat events that he has thrown over the years have been a great platform for top paddleball players to display their talent. And, for anyone looking to watch some of the best games of the last few years, search “Davetallica” on YouTube, where Dave posts his videos of the events he attends. Dave hopes to one day have a unified governing body for paddleball, which is in line with the mission of the Paddleball Family Alliance; and if that happens, I have no doubt that he’ll be a big part of getting it off the ground.
Lest anyone think that Dave is a single-minded, one-wall machine, the “kid” has also grown up to be a devoted husband and father; he can set people up on a chess board as well as he sets them up on the court; he can play piano, and if you get a few drinks in him, he can even show off some of the ballet and tap moves that he developed over his years of training. Any man that can crush a spike to the corner and pull off a “petit jete” is truly a force to be reckoned with. Now, if he would only give up that backhand . . .
Susan Stephen Paddleball Profile By David Siegel
Meet Susan Stephen, the winner of the last two major women’s paddleball events. In September, she, along with her partner, Kathy Guinan, won the 2017 Las Vegas Paddleball Tournament and this past Oct. 7, again with Kathy, she emerged victorious in the Columbus Day Weekend “On the Beach” Big Ball Paddleball Tournament, held in Hollywood, Florida.
Susan may be new to recent championships, but she is not new on the paddleball scene. She has been playing continuously for over 40 years, ever since coming to the United States from England, where she spent the first 11 years of her life. In the early days, she played both handball and small ball paddleball at Brooklyn’s Wingate Park and Lefferts High School. She started playing in paddleball tournaments in 1979, including several Budweisers, and back then was considered one of the top woman players. Eventually Susan turned to big ball paddleball and now calls the 40th St. Padegat courts her home park, where she has again emerged as one of the best woman players in the game. Back in the day, she played forever, but now Susan plays 2 to 3 times a week in the summer and less in the winter.
On the court, she a fierce, never-say-die competitor, and very steady. Her strategy is basic: get in front of her opponent, hit the ball to the opposite side and drop the ball in front of her when she has the opportunity. Her role model for her positioning skills is Anita Maldonado.
Susan has great love and respect for the game. Her sports hero was the late Steve Smith, who she says was “respectful, had great talent, and was, at the same time, mild mannered.” She too is subdued off the court, a trait she believes is not well known to her competitors. She sincerely hopes the sport can grow and greatly admires the accomplishments of our Mike Melendez, with the innovative mentorship program and the Pow-Pows that bring the paddleball community together. Susan feels improving overall player conduct is also essential for continued growth.
What about the non-paddleball life of Susan Stephen? In her younger days, she played basketball, which was her first love, until her bothersome knees made it difficult. But she claims she can still beat anyone in a shootout! She loves to cook, having learned from her grandmother, and her favorite dish is salmon and vegetables. And how about this: During the trip to Las Vegas for the tournament, she also got married! Immediately after winning the tournament, she hustled to get ready for her 8:00 PM wedding with Carl. For those of you wondering if this is a new paddleball mixed doubles team? No, sadly, Carl is a basketball player, and doesn’t play paddleball. Nevertheless, the best of health and happiness to Susan and Carl!