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For many people, being at the top of your game means having a corner office or a flashy car. But if you're Michael "Handsome" Costanza, and the game in question is dodgeball, you know you've made it when you're surrounded by hordes of adults in elaborate costumes hurling rubber balls at each other.
That's a typical day in the life of Costanza, founder of the World Dodgeball Society. On the court he goes by "Handsome," and if you're into skinny, scruffy-faced guys in '80s aviator eyeglasses, you'll fully endorse his moniker. But don't let his slender physique fool you. "On a good day, I can throw as hard as anybody," he says. "Kids used to ask me, 'How do you throw the heat?' If you're going to use me as a benchmark, stop working out, don't do anything."
Costanza started the WDS in 2003, when he was working art department jobs full-time. Back then, dodgeball was merely a hobby. It wasn't a sport he believed anyone could take too seriously, since most people stop playing after elementary school. "Nobody was a varsity dodgeball player," he says.
It was always meant to be about fun. As an old man in a bar, who claimed to be a pal of Charles Bukowski, once told him, "L.A. is a cool place in the sense that you can live the life of a child but make a grown-up's living." That struck a chord with Costanza. When it came to dodgeball, "I think that was always in the back of my head."
And they do have fun. Dodgeball players almost universally wear short shorts, and their teams have bizarre names, such as Cabbage Snatch Kids, What Would Jesus Dodge? or Ball-N-Oates.
Many are themed out. The first team to go extreme was the West Coast John Cougar Mellencamps, who wore all denim: cutoff shorts and vests without shirts underneath. "Maybe not sanitary, but it was a lot of fun," he says.
Costanza's favorite? He once played on a team called Tijuana Si My Balls and the Great Wall of Vagina.
From the beginning, it was important to its founder that the WDS be a creative, community-oriented program. He loves that it brings people into community centers and gyms. He loves the social aspect of it — the comedy nights, drunken spelling bees, bingo games, junior high dance parties — and uses members to help deejay or photograph an event.
Instead of cash, Costanza prefers to put together prize packages of donations from community businesses. "I don't want someone out there bringing negative energy because they're playing for their car payment or rent or, since we're in L.A., possibly cosmetic surgery," he says.
About two years ago, riding high on WDS' success, Costanza decided to run dodgeball full-time.
Today 14 leagues play all over Los Angeles, with new divisions forming in New York, Chicago, Baltimore and Mississippi. It's become a dodgeball empire — the dream of many a fifth-grade gym class hero — and the novelty is nowhere near wearing off.
"Seeing somebody get hit in the privates, whether it be a nut shot or a vagina buster, is still as funny seven years in as it was the first day," he declares.