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JewishJournal.com

July 19, 2013

Back to the racquet

http://www.jewishjournal.com/50_Plus/article/back_to_the_racquet

Jerry Hilecher, right, dives for a kill shot in a match against Andy Gross. Photo by Art Shay

Jerry Hilecher, right, dives for a kill shot in a match against Andy Gross. Photo by Art Shay

Fifteen years removed from championship racquetball, Jerry Hilecher decided to attempt a comeback in the sport that made him famous, put him in the conversation about the greatest players and earned him enshrinement in the USA Racquetball Hall of Fame.

He had had back surgery, two right-knee operations and two hips replaced — the price his body paid for competing at so high a level for so long. But in the past few years he felt healthy again, so the father of three decided to get back in the game and competed in various local tournaments and, this past April, a regional qualifying tournament. 

The dominance returned. Nobody scored more than eight points against him in any set of the latter (matches are best-of-three to 15, with the deciding set to 11). Still, as the Northridge man considered the prospect of seeking an national amateur singles title, the fact remained that he was 58 and more than 25 years past his prime.

But what a prime. 

From 1975 to 1987, Hilecher (pronounced hill-LEE-sher) was a top-10 player, finishing in the top four in 10 of those years, including No. 1 in 1981. He won 10 national and world titles, and played in more than 100 finals. He won singles, doubles and mixed-doubles titles.

With his boomer body feeling good, Hilecher in May entered the 55-and-over division at the 2013 Ektelon Nationals in Fullerton, Calif., confident he would dominate again.

“I had been playing great, beating everyone I played,” he said. “I had such great success in the last six months.”

Yet as he competed, something nagged at the edge of his mind: What have I got to prove? Why am I even here?

A True Great

Racquetball is more of a fringe sport now, but in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was wildly popular. Hilecher was there at the beginning and lasted longer than any of his contemporaries. He saw the sport’s meteoric rise and its equally spectacular crash. 

Few will disagree that Hilecher was one of the sport’s true greats from its golden era. He is enshrined in the Missouri Racquetball Association, Missouri Jewish Sports and USA Racquetball halls of fame.

Hilecher today. Photo by Lee Barnathan

Hilecher, who earned the nickname “The Maverick” for his style of relentless play and for his outspokenness, said he had the intensity of tennis greats Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. “I was never afraid to speak my mind,” he said, “but in speaking my mind, good and bad, in politics you’re going to rub people the wrong way.”

Still, “what I accomplished for as long as I accomplished [it] is worth mentioning,” he said. “I would do anything to win back then. I was the most competitive player you’d ever meet.”

In From the Beginning

Hilecher grew up in the University City section of St. Louis, then nicknamed “Jew City” for all the Jews who lived there. Since his home had no air conditioning, it was natural for Hilecher and his friends to hang out at the Jewish community center (JCC) pool, then go inside and play handball and racquetball.

Joseph Sobek had invented racquetball in 1950 in a Connecticut YMCA, but it became popular through its growth in YMCAs and JCCs throughout the country, including the one in St. Louis frequented by Hilecher and his friends Marty Hogan and Steve Serot, two future hall of famers.

“We were able to build our games up, and it was like we were in a tournament every day,” Hilecher said. This forced Hilecher to develop his intensity and even led him to alter the pronunciation of his name (hill-LAY-sher) as part of his racquetball persona.

Hilecher attended the University of Missouri and won the national intercollegiate title in 1973 as a freshman. He turned pro after that.

The mid-1970s was a time when interest in racquetball exploded. It left the Ys and JCCs and expanded into its own clubs.

“It was a ride where literally everyone you talked to played racquetball,” Hilecher said. “Celebrities played racquetball. We were part of charitable events. It was a great time to be part of that.”

However, with a rapid rise came competition and politics, and Hilecher was in the middle of it. In 1981, Catalina sportswear attempted its own eight-tournament racquetball tour and signed 12 of the top men’s players. A different company, Ektelon, sponsored Hilecher, who was president of the professional players association, and, despite being ranked No. 2 in the world, he wasn’t included.

Hilecher took legal action in San Diego, his residence at the time. He wanted a judge to impose a cease-and-desist order on his exclusion from the tournament, but the judge refused because he didn’t believe the exclusion would cause the sport irreparable harm.

At the time, non-Catalina players were allowed to play one event in their geographic area. For Hilecher, that was Los Angeles. So he entered — and won.

The next week’s event was an invitational in Winnipeg, Manitoba, which pitted the top eight American and Canadian players and was taped by ESPN. This was outside Catalina’s tour, so Hilecher competed — and won. 

Catalina subsequently extended an invitation to Hilecher.

Two years later, as racquetball’s rise continued, Playboy wanted in. Hilecher negotiated a 10-event, $1 million deal, only to have Playboy pull out over fears that not all of the top names would take part. Many top players had deals with other racquetball-related companies and wouldn’t or couldn’t break those contracts. 

Looking back, Hilecher said, the Playboy failure sounded the death knell of racquetball’s golden era. He stuck around until 1987 before going into sales, although he continued to play a bit on the Legends Tour and in selected local and regional amateur tournaments. In 1999, he started Gateway TelNet, which sells and services business phone and business computer networks. 

Now he lives with his wife and children in an expansive home, complete with guesthouse and pool, and he is very involved with his synagogue, Temple Ahavat Shalom. There are few reminders pointing to his glorious athletic past outside of his guesthouse, where visitors will find a desk on which only a small fraction of all the trophies, medals, pins, photos — and a Nike shoe with his name on it — tell the story of that part of his life.

Then and Now

But the Maverick couldn’t stay away forever, and in May he was in Fullerton vying for a national championship. Seeded sixth in the 16-competitor 55-plus age draw, Hilecher won his first match 15-1, 15-3 before losing to No. 3 seed and eventual finalist Glenn Bell in the quarterfinals,15-12, 15-10. 

What Hilecher found — and what surprised him — was how different it felt playing this time around.

“I didn’t have the same desire. It wasn’t as meaningful,” he said. “My play was lackluster. I enjoyed the match, and losing didn’t bother me, which was not normal.”

But even then, Hilecher still was recognized and respected as a legend. Bell said to him, “Jerry, it was an honor to play against you,” Hilecher recalled.

Hilecher has said that he’s done competing, that he isn’t entering tournaments like this again. But who knows?

“I can’t say never,” he said. “I might get the hunger because I didn’t succeed last time.”

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