AGAINST THE WALL : Alvarado, the Best Handball Player in the World, No Longer an Illegal Alien

Times Staff Writer

Natividad (Naty) Alvarado kept having this nightmare: The immigration officer is approaching, requesting papers showing proof of residence. This will be the time Alvarado gets caught.

In the dream, Alvarado, recognized as the best handball player in the world, has no papers. He is an illegal alien, about to be sent back to Mexico, which he left in 1976 as a 20-year-old seeking to make his mark on the pro tour. Then, just before he is caught, he awakens and the nightmare is over.

Except that it never really was over. The nightmare was reality. Asleep or awake, Alvarado lived with the fear of being sent back.

"I'm always looking back," he says now. "It's been that way all my life. In sports, there is always someone trying to take titles away from you. It's the same with the border patrol trying to take you away. I would always worry. When I went to the airport, I would worry.

"I couldn't go to San Diego and a lot of other places that might have check points. I probably could have if I had a nice car to drive there in, to fool (the immigration officers), but I didn't want to chance it."

Alvarado, who lives in Hesperia, doesn't have to hide his background any longer. Now 32 and called by some the Babe Ruth of handball because of his domination over the last 12 years, he and wife Lupe received their green cards in February at the Legalization Center in Los Angeles.

Moreover, the couple and their two oldest children, 15-year-old daughter Lupe and 14-year-old son Naty Jr., were granted permanent residency status under the federal illegal alien amnesty program. The youngest, 4-year-old daughter Adriana, has automatic American citizenship, since she was born here.

The one they call El Gato, the Cat, begs off any questions about his move across the border for fear of getting friends in trouble. But he is specific on why he chose that time to come to America: To compete in a United States Handball Assn. stop in Tucson.

His journey from Juarez, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Tex., was long, but his impact was immediate. After winning two matches to qualify for one of the tournament's four at-large berths, he beat four professionals, including Fred Lewis, the No. 1 player on the tour, and won the championship, surprising even himself.

Alvarado, married at 16 and the father of two at 17, made his way to California, settled in Pomona and continued to play, the threat of deportation hanging over him all the while.

He won his first national championship in 1977 at St. Louis, and he has been the top player ever since.

How far has he come? Saranac, a sporting goods company, markets the El Gato handball glove. He has also had a job for seven years at Equitable of Iowa in Santa Ana, where bosses allow him to take time away from the insurance game to train and travel for the handball game. A friend, Scott Gunther, also acts as a sponsor to help offset costs.

"Everything is good," Alvarado said.

Indeed. He has a job to fall back on in case of an injury from handball, which, in turn allows him to play harder.

The fear of deportation is gone now and he can become the first person to win 10 U.S. national titles in a career when the 1988 competition opens today in Berkeley, where he is the clear favorite.

"Mentally, right now I'm playing my best ball," he said. "I have more confidence. . . . My body is not as young as it used to be, but the mental parts will take over for that."

They always have. Ask anyone close to the sport about El Gato and they talk of his blazing, low-line-drive serve and his mental toughness, which together frequently brings him back from near losses.

"It's an old cliche, but he gets that fire in his eye when the going gets tough," said Vern Roberts, who has won four national doubles titles with Alvarado and has lost to him in the last three singles finals. "If you saw that fire in his eye, you knew everything was going to be all right, that things would turn around for the better. It was that simple.

"He's got such an air and so much class that it's hard to tell when he is struggling. You could be serving for match point, look back and not even know if he was nervous. Most of the guys have had match point on him and then he pulls his Houdini act and comes back to win. That's when we have to wonder if we really know how good he is."

The main competition in Berkeley, a tournament that will runs through June 25, figures to come from three players: No. 2-seeded John Bike, No. 3 Jon Kendler and No. 4 Pancho Monreal of El Paso, Alvarado's protege. Bike and Kendler are roommates in the Bay Area town of Millbrae.

In a sport where players can be successful in their late 30s--Lewis is still going at 40--Alvarado figures he has about five years of competition left in him.

"I have accomplished a lot," he said. "But there is still more out there."

So the journey continues. For Alvarado and his family, who have come so far already, it is just getting good.

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