SOUTH PORTLAND – In the gymnasium at the Long Creek Youth Development Center, a 15-year-old boy in tan pants and a white T-shirt dives to the floor, swatting a small blue handball off the back wall as other players shout cries of approval.

The boy had played his first game of handball the night before. Now he and his teammate were deep into the winner’s bracket of a round-robin holiday tournament.

Ron Cramer, a retired U.S. Treasury agent and San Francisco police officer, refereed the tournament and provided an occasional coaching tip. He introduced the sport a few months ago to the kids at Long Creek, the state’s juvenile detention center for southern Maine.

“It went viral. The kids just love it,” said Cramer, who now runs a computer service. “The enthusiasm I saw on these kids’ faces once they started hitting the ball was just extraordinary.”

One of the beauties of handball, he said, is that it is a great equalizer, requiring no fundamental skills beyond basic athleticism and good hand-eye coordination.

“There is no equipment other than your brain, feet and your hands,” Cramer said, noting that a popular slogan for players is: “One ball, any wall.”

Cramer taped off a section of the gymnasium wall and floor to reflect the dimensions of a single-wall handball court, 20 feet by 40 feet on the floor and 20 feet high.

A server smacks the ball toward the wall. The closest opponent must then bat the ball back off the wall, some wincing at the sting of hard rubber on the soft flesh of the palm. If the serving team wins the exchange, because the opponent failed to hit it back to the wall or it went out of bounds off the wall, the servers earn one point. If the opponents win, they get to serve.

This first holiday tournament included 13 teams of two.

The prize for winning: Gatorade and a candy bar.

“It doesn’t seem like much, but to these kids it’s quite a lot and they get bragging rights for a while,” said Kim Deering, recreation director for Long Creek.

Deering said the sport has become very popular after just a few months.

“More and more kids got into it and they wanted to play all the time,” she said. “We were playing up until 10 at night sometimes.”

Within the detention facility, recreation time is treasured as an enjoyable outlet from the thoughtful, introspective work of school and rehabilitation. Teenagers play outdoor sports in warm weather and basketball in winter.

Handball has no prerequisites, and girls and boys compete on equal footing. It’s competitive without getting confrontational.

“It’s really high-powered and it’s a gentleman’s game,” said E.J. Rosario, 20, of Waterboro, who said he wrestled competitively in high school. Rosario said he is at Long Creek because of an addiction to painkillers that led to burglaries to support his habit.

Cramer arrived after he was asked to officiate a soccer game for H.R. Gould High School, learning on game day that is the name of Long Creek’s high school.

“The kids were great sportsmen and sportswomen. It was probably one of the most enjoyable games in officiating I had done all year in soccer,” he said.

Cramer started coming Tuesday nights to share handball videos and teach. He also passed on some of the sport’s perks.

“There’s a certain esprit de corps among handball players,” he said. Cramer said he can be traveling anywhere in the country and can usually find a match.

The teenagers are fond of “Mr. Cramer,” a wiry balding athlete whose love of the game is infectious,

“It’s really fun to have him in here. He’s pretty cool,” said Shane Carland, 18, of Portland. He said he is at Long Creek after getting in trouble often, the last time with kids who started fires.

Deering said she has applied for a grant to build four outdoor handball courts. She said she also is lobbying gyms and fitness clubs to let kids play handball.

“This is the stuff they can be doing out there,” she said, gesturing to the world outside the walls of the Long Creek gymnasium.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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