Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Pelota in the USA

This article about the practice and enjoyment of pelota (the quintessential Basque sport) in the USA comes to us via The Miami Herald:Justify Full

Goiko is the king of jai-alai


The following scene occurred in the fifth point of the 12th game at Miami Jai-Alai on a Saturday night last spring.

It features two Basques using question mark-shaped wicker baskets fastened to each man's right hand to fling a small, smooth, very hard ball against a granite wall at lethal velocity for the delectation of a small crowd.

The taller of the pair is Inaki Osa, also known by his playing name, Goikoetxea (say Goy-koe-ay-chay-ah, Goiko for short). He's 27, 6-foot-3 and 204 pounds. He's winner of the last five jai-alai world championships and the best player alive, maybe the best ever. He's playing a guy named Jabi, who is no slouch but is probably not bound for jai-alai Valhalla, either.

They're on a three-walled (front, back and left-side) court that's 176 feet long, 40 feet tall and 45 feet wide, each trying to throw the ball so it hits the front wall and bounces twice or hits the side netting before the other can catch and return. Boy, are they throwing hard: two prosthetically enhanced Joba Chamberlains throwing the hell out of the ball and every time it hits the wall it cracks cold and hard and dangerous.

Backhands are exchanged. Six, seven, eight in a row hit the front wall halfway up with heavy topspin at 120 miles per hour and skid back along the side wall. Goiko throws backhand number eight, steps to the center of the court to cover the wide ball, then back in when he sees Jabi's ball hugging the side. He's poaching up, looking to grab this off the wall early.

Early's good, because it opens more angles of the court, and because it shaves Jabi's reaction time. Early's great, unless Jabi's ball -- because it hits some tiny shard of obtruded granite or because, this long into the rally, it's hotter and tackier than expected -- bounces hard off the side wall instead of skidding. And of course this is what happens, too fast for Goiko to make the catch, so fast all he can do is jerk his basket out of the way and swing around to face the back wall.

He's going to take the rebound -- a defensive shot, but doable, only now he's so far out of position he has to run back and his weight's still moving toward the back wall when he catches, twists and lofts the thing 130 feet toward the front wall in clear violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of certain laws of physics.

Jai-alai means ''merry festival'' in Basque, though Basques themselves call it cesta punta, "basket point.''


A few words about the state of the sport in America: it is sick. If it dies, future generations will gaze uncomprehendingly at documentary evidence of its existence consisting of one cameo appearance in Tron (1982) and those few seconds in the opening credits of Miami Vice (1984). ''What the hell was that?'' somebody will say, the way you would if you happened across a game of jeu de paume or SlamBall.

American jai-alai has no amateur participation to speak of, partly because it's difficult to play and every so often, somebody gets hit in the face. Sometimes this results in death or severe injury. Ernest Hemingway saw it in Havana:

"Red carnations began to spread on his white shirt. His face was completely crimson . . . he was bathed in blood and still he remained on his feet. The other pelotaris (players) and the judges ran up to him and led him to the infirmary. Frightened, I also ran to the treatment room and when I arrived I was amazed that the victim received me with a sorrowful smile. He shook my hand . . . and passed out.''

Jai-alai is expensive. All the baskets are handmade, come from Spain and cost $500 or more. A professional will go through one or more a month. Only six very good basket makers are still alive and all are older than 50. Balls are made from two flaps of English goatskin sewed around a core of Filipino rubber, cost $125 and might last a game before the goatskin needs to be repaired.

American jai-alai is a betting, not a spectator sport, sustained not by ticket sales and corporate sponsorship but the house cut of a pari-mutuel pot. The money's not in a broad fan base but in a core group of habitual gamblers. The handle rules.

To feed it, the Spanish partido format, which pits two players against each other in a contest to 30 or 35 points, was changed after its American arrival in the early 1900s to an eight-post, round-robin format that permits a greater number of bets and some baroque variations on the traditional win/place/show in the '60s. During the late '80s and early '90s, warm-ups were cut; off-season was eliminated in 1988. As many as 14 games were crammed into a single performance, with performances six days a week.

Sixteen frontons operated across the country. Opening nights in Miami, the largest, drew 14,000 people.

The business model was successful through the mid-1980s. Then the sport took a number of body blows: the 1988 players' strike, the spread of cable television and gambling cruises to nowhere, the introduction of the Florida Lottery and passage of the federal Indian Regulatory Gaming Act, which gave rise to two Indian casinos in South Florida that sucked people and money from the country's last two year-round frontons. Attendance and revenues have fallen steadily over the last decade, barely propped up by off-track betting and card room receipts.


But what gambling took away, it may yet return: slot machines are coming in the first quarter of 2010, which means more money, probably a lot of it. A Las Vegas corporation has already bought the Dania Beach fronton and others are said to be nosing around Miami's. Fans hope some of the new money will go toward advertising the sport and upgrading the facilities.

Some words on the best jai-alai player in the world: He earned around $90,000 in guaranteed salary and performance bonuses last year, drives a Volvo and lives in a subdivision outside of Miami. It's an un-gargantuan, un-flash, un-super-lux townhouse shared with his girlfriend and his older brother, Luis, another jai-alai player. The living room contains a television, a couch set and the amplifier for Goiko's electric guitar; the dining room has no furniture.

Goiko is aware that his standard of living, while comfortable, isn't in the same universe as that afforded to stars of other sports. ''There's nothing I can do,'' he said one morning, sitting on his couch. "The sport is almost gone. The sport is not well.''

The brothers don't talk much about jai-alai. The sport doesn't particularly interest Goiko when he's not playing.

Goiko's one of the only players in the world who finishes in the money more than out. He never practices, has never been injured, and has already been conferred bobble-head immortality. Luis is good, but he loses more than he wins, and management never paid to manufacture a line of dolls in his likeness. ''He has confidence always, everyday always,'' he said one night in the locker room before the games. "Not like me.''

In the early afternoon, Goiko gets a burger at Fuddruckers and heads over to the fronton, where he plays for about three hours, six days a week, double performances every Saturday. He does this eight months of the year and plays tournaments in Spain for the remaining four. He'd rather be surfing, which is what he does most summers between tournaments. But he's not good enough to surf professionally and jai-alai's what he has done since a scout spotted him at 16 on an amateur court in his hometown of Zumaya, Spain.

His mother painted, his father fished, and without jai-alai he might be fishing too. ''I went to school and my marks were everything bad,'' Goiko said. 'My father told me, 'You want to play jai-alai or fish nets?' I don't want to fish.''

So he rode the same jai-alai pipeline that has carried thousands of Basque boys from Spain to Florida since the 1930s, when pari-mutuel betting was legalized in the state. His path was Milan, Rhode Island, Orlando and finally Miami in 2002.

''Usually, at 22, they are not so strong as he was,'' said Michelena, the former star who's now player manager at Miami. "And from the beginning, he has been fast.''


His size let him cover great swaths of court with just a few steps and a lunge. His mechanics were raw but he was strong enough they didn't have to be perfect. He simply out-muscled opponents.

Add to this a couple of tactical innovations: he held the ball longer than usual, giving him time to size up the court before throwing; and he ran around his backhand, a Nadal-esque move that played to his great strength, the forehand.

A jai-alai forehand, less mechanically sweet than the backhand, begins with the hips and torso twisted clockwise and the wrist laid back. As the body uncoils, the elbow functions as a pivot; forearm, wrist and basket snap forward, and the movement ends with the right leg splayed out like a pitcher's on follow-through.

It requires more strength than the backhand but allows for better disguise and shot selection. Setup for an outside cortada -- a hard sidearm shot that hits the front wall low and cuts to the sidewall -- doesn't look different from a dejada drop shot, until it's too late to do anything about it.

The back-court star Benny Bueno, who played at Miami until his knee gave out in 2007, talked about Goiko's madurando el tanto, ripening the point: "His forehand is so good that he doesn't have to win the point on the first throw. He can throw a couple back to back until he really has you dead and then kill the point. He's on offense and you're on defense the whole time.''


But not at this very moment, when he's scrambling to get back in the point, very much on defense, possibly as amazed as everybody else that his ball actually hit the wall.

Jabi's all over this weak feathered thing and the crowd, seeing an upset imminent, hoots. He throws sharp wide to kill the point. This is a gimme putt, an open lay-up, the overhead a foot from the net: except Goiko, who sees all and apparently knows all, as if he's playing this game at all times a few seconds in the future, is already loping over to the side netting, very fast but not at all rushed, before Jabi even releases. He makes the catch. He fakes wider still with his forehand, sees Jabi bite and wrongfoots him, putting the ball away into the deep corner.

Now is the time to cheer, because something miraculous has just happened. But American jai-alai, a few years into its second century, has its own traditions and they don't involve much cheering.

Fifty people are sitting in the dark in a fronton built for more than 4,000. A few of them clap. Then there's just mutter, because in certain regards American jai-alai is just like the dogs and horses, and everybody's hustling to the betting windows to put their money down before post time.

.... ... .

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