The game itself, remotely akin to squash, handball or jai alai inasmuch as a ball is projected to rebound off a wall, is enjoyable, even elegant to play or watch. What really makes it interesting, however, are its extremely local character, its originality in comparison to other games, and the fact that for a simple ad hoc kind of game invented by schoolchildren, it has rules that, though not written, are nevertheless comprehensive, rational and well established. They represent an astonishing modern example of an oral tradition, and this entry is as much about modern juvenile ethnology as it is about sports.
though it is certain that the game was conceived and developed by 9 and 10 year olds “in situ”on the WUES playground, its beginnings are for the moment, shrouded in a recent but immemorial past. For children and teachers presently at the school, the game has “always” existed; teenagers from the area can attest that the game was already well established in the 1990’s. Yet for an earlier generation who attended the school in the late 1960’s the game is completely unknown.
One can only speak of a “court” in the loosest sense, as there are no boundaries to the playing surface. The zone of play is defined by the “wall”, which is a standard 4’ by 8’ sheet of plywood attached horizontally to a cyclone fence with its bottom edge at a height of 14’’ from the ground. All shots must touch this wall.
The game is played with a regulation rubber volleyball.
Number of Players
the game is generally played between two players, but three or even four can play. In this case, it is not a matter of doubles; every player plays for himself. The decision to play at three or four is based on how many are waiting in line to play.
The game is played to ONE point. The winner (or winners if more than two are playing) stays on the court, the loser goes to the end of the line, and is replaced by the first in line. Good players can stay on the court a good while, even for the entire recess, but no score is kept concerning this.
The child first in line waiting to play is sole arbiter.
Striking the Ball
The ball is projected against the wall by each player in turn. It can be hit with one or both hands, but not held in both hands. It is allowed to hold the ball momentarily in one hand, in the manner of a basketball player “palming” the ball. This is in fact, the most common way to play the ball, but it can also be punched, kicked or struck with another part of the body. As I have said, the game only remotely resembles handball; in some ways it evokes just as much the ancient ball game of the Maya.
The ball can by hit on the volley or on one bounce as in squash, but a crucial difference is that the ball must hit the ground once before touching the wall. Thanks to this, a game which would otherwise be a simple smash contest becomes a subtle tactical battle. Sometimes the ball is played as far as 30 feet deep; some exchanges take place only inches from the wall.
The court has no boundaries, neither is there any fixed zone or line to serve from or into. To counter the immense advantage this would give the server, an original rule exists: in the same way that a failed serve in tennis is only a fault and not a point, the point cannot be won on a missed serve OR return of serve. This is not called a fault, simply called “one”.
A further originality, the point is not awarded at “two”, but at “three”; a triple fault in other words, but the idea goes even further. Interfering bodily with your opponent in his attempt to play the ball, voluntarily or otherwise, is also “one” (or two or three, depending upon the state of scoring). example: the game begins with a service “winner”: ONE. The next serve is returned and an exchange takes place until the receiver commits interference: TWO. The point is restarted. Here an ace wins the point as THREE.
Now for a rule that may seem illogical to a reasoning adult: as explained, each shot must touch the board which delimits the wall; a shot that is high or to the side loses the point. But a shot that hits the 14” area under the wall on one bounce does not. It is not even “one”; it is “do over” (hitting this area full toss loses the point, the same as hitting the wall without bouncing would). Interference by a player on the neighboring court or a distracted bystander is also “do over”.
Another seeming inconsistency: although the court has no boundary by rule, one of the courts (two exist in the playground, side by side) is limited in one corner at a distance of about 25 feet by the edge of the blacktop. The dirt section is not out of play, but if the ball hits the edge, it doesn’t bounce true. In the same way, a shot that hits the very edge of the wall or a stray stone on the court and ricochets wildly is “cheap”. “Cheap is neither “one”nor “do over”; the point is lost, with this consolation: when you lose the point on “cheap”, you go to the FRONT of the line.
As inappropriate as these rulings may seem to us, no wallball player questions or errs on them. Even more astonishing, older boys who haven’t played in years recognize them. When you think that no written rule book exists, this is an astonishing demonstration of the tenacity of oral tradition!
Here is another amazing tidbit for ethnologists: the organization of Washington Union School district is such that a child only goes to WUES in 4th and 5th grades (9 & 10 year olds). This means that this tradition must be imparted anew EVERY year if it is not to be lost.
It’s often said there can be no “rite sans mythe”, that a ritual without its underlying myth would be hollow and meaningless, but this game, played only for the sheer pleasure of it, seems to be one. No pantheon of great wallball player exists or can exist; no memorable games with memorable scores are ever played, since a game in process has no score, and once there is a score, the game is over and a new one begins. The wheel turns with every point, players enter and leave the game, wheeling, graceful shots are applauded for a few seconds and forgotten before the bell. And yet watching it played, it seems very far from meaningless.