Ancient sport looking for younger players

“Acceso verde!” reverberated throughout the area as the elderly man stepped up, ready to deliver his team to victory. Joe Artale left his cigar on the wall where 20 spectators lined the outside watching him, waiting for their chance to play.
He slowly moved into position needing to bowl his ball closer to the target - pelino - than the two red balls for his team to continue this informal, but still ultra-competitive, game of bocce ball.
Artale tossed his ball towards potential victory, but it hit a pebble and skipped off-course. However, it recovered, rolling along the side and slowly curled into perfect position like a Tiger Woods chip shot at Augusta National.
Cheers and insults in Italian spewed from both sides as the teams lined up to continue their game.
“We tease each other, but it’s a pretty relaxing game,” Artale said, after his throw.
Throughout the summer, people - mostly elderly Italian men - gather in Juniper Valley Park in Middle Village to play bocce ball. However, the two bocce courts serve as more than just a place to play a game; they are an informal community center.
Many of the conversations are outside the realm of bocce, revolving around work or the health of friends.
“It’s the interaction with the opponent that’s nice,” United States Bocce Federation President John Ross said. “The interaction makes the players very close, seemingly like family.”
Ross estimates more than 100,000 people play bocce competitively each year in the U.S. with millions more playing at family gatherings. However, the game is not as dominated by Italian players as it once was.
“When there was a big wave of immigration it was exclusively an Italian sport,” Ross said. “The second generation did not get to play the game early in their life.”
However, the courts at Juniper Valley Park - one of about 40 bocce courts in New York City - attract people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Many are first- or second-generation Italian immigrants, but there are Croatians, Germans, and South Americans who play daily.
Carlo Schelino, who is Italian but was born and raised in Argentina, said he learned the game when he was a child. He said bocce is extremely popular in South America.
“It’s mostly Italians who came from Europe who used to play,” he said. “But, now we have a whole mix of people.”
Schelino said the players do not separate teams by ethnic group and there are never any incidents between people from different backgrounds.
The only thing a visitor will notice about the melting pot of cultures is that all of the players are elderly and youth is hard to find around the bocce court.
“I think I am one of the younger guys, and I’m 65,” Artale said. “We have people into their 90s play here.”
For many of the elderly competitors it is a chance to get out of the house for a few hours every day.
On Saturday and Sunday, September 29 and 30 starting at 10 a.m., the 13th-annual city Bocce Championships will be held in Juniper Valley Park in Middle Village. On Saturday, the borough competition will be played, and the following day, competitors from all over the city will take to the courts.
The bocce ball courts are located in the western portion of the park at Dry Harbor Road and 63rd Drive.

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