The Pelota Years

We have lost a lot of great people this spring. The sad list includes two dear friends who had been chairs of the board of US Squash (Lenny Bernheimer and Alan Fox) who I spent hours together with on the phone and on the court; Ann Wetzel, the Hall of Famer; and the great Frank Stella. I produced remembrances of all four:

I miss them all. I think I only write obituaries now.

But another wonderful member of the community also left us, someone perhaps not as well known. In March David Body died at the age of eight-four.

David was born in England, went to Sheffield University to become an architect, sojourned in Toronto for a few years and moved to Los Angeles in 1969. He became one of the world’s leading sports facility architects. He designed forty-two collegiate recreation centers, including the John Wooden Center at UCLA. He was able to insert more than a hundred squash courts into these facilities.

In grammar school in England he played tennis and lacrosse at a high level. He picked up squash as a teenager after joining Manchester Northern Lawn Tennis Club—but barely. He didn’t own a car and it took him a long walk and an hour’s bus ride to get to the club, so his progress was, as he said, “not mercurial.”

When he arrived at architectural school at Sheffield, he found that they had two squash courts. He played on Sheffield’s squash team for four years, becoming No.1 on the ladder and eventually one of the top five collegiate players in England. It was club squash: there were no coaches or administrators to schedule matches and transportation. The squash team had the dubious pleasure of sometimes traveling with Sheffield’s men’s rugby team. After graduation, he returned to MNLTC, playing on their second team and traveling across northern England for league matches.

In Toronto, he joined the Cricket Club, learned hardball singles and doubles and rose up, as he said, to become the worst A player in the club

He was a galvanic leader in Southern California squash. He played a lot, winning and losing with a smile. He was a mainstay in the Copa Wadsworth, playing every year for three decades, as well as the Cate Invitational and California state tournaments. His favorite quote was “I’m not consistent enough to be bad all the time.” Three squash pals—Alan Fox, Barry Seymour and Murray Smith—were groomsmen when he married Stephanie DeLange (he first met her when he looked up from a squash court into the gallery). David was a prominent member at more than a half dozen SoCal squash clubs that eventually closed—the fate of so many squash clubs in LA—including Pasadena YMCA, University Club, Squash Club International, Center Courts and the Venice Squash Club, with its infamous coed showers.

The trunk of his red Volvo P1800 overflowed with lacrosse, squash and tennis equipment. And also pelota gear. In 2010 I started corresponding with David about how it came about that he was an international practitioner of various Basque country games.. In 2013 he wrote up a scintillating sixteen-page memoir, My Pelota Years.

The story started in the early 1970s when, through a squash friend, he met Bob Falkenburg. The American had famously saved three championship points before winning the finals of Wimbledon in 1948. He owned a house in Bel Air and built in a hillside below the house a trinquet, a four-wall Basque pelota court.

Body played in the trinquet about three days a week. Occasionally, there were tournaments, including when Falkenburg annually hosted a U.S. v. Mexico match. Stars abounded in the gallery: tennis players like Jack Kramer, Frank Sedgman, Vic Seixas and Tony Trabert all watched, as well as Sugar Ray Robinson. Once Body accidentally broke Falkenburg’s nose with an errant shot—Jerry West, who was watching, helped take Falkenburg to the emergency room.

Then there was some exotic, exciting and exhausting travel for pelota championships: Body was on the U.S. team that went to Mexico City in 1973 (where he was awarded a trophy for “El Major Deportivo” for taking a day off from play due to exhaustion); Montevideo in 1974; Biarritz and Bayonne in 1978 in the world championships (the TV commentator referred to him as “L’immense Body”); Buenos Aires in 1979; and Mexico City in 1982.

Falkenburg eventually sold his home in Bel Air and the trinquet court was now inaccessible and David Body’s Pelota Years alas came to a close—another example of how obscure racquet sports can lead to lifelong friendships around the world.