Miami Vice made it official.
It came during the show’s opening sequence, between the windsurfer who dunks her head in the water and the cockatoos. The entire nation saw brief but exotic footage of an athlete in a yellow jersey (number 6 if you’re keeping score at home) propel a ball from a curved basket on his hand.
Week after week the top show in the country hammered the message home: Jai alai was a Florida thing.
We had arenas all over the place: Miami, Dania, West Palm Beach, Tampa, Orlando. Sure, they’ve hosted a couple of leagues in Connecticut and Rhode Island, but those were the exceptions, more like tropical exports. By and large, the Basque game has always been the province of the Sunshine State, Florida’s other Latin influence.
But this being Florida, with waves of transplants who’ve never seen a game, a quick primer is in order. It may appear complex when you first visit one of the arenas-called frontons-but just think of it like handball. The ball has to hit above a line of the wall, and the next player has to field it before it takes a second bounce. Except the ball is a rock-hard pelota, and the players regularly sling it over a hundred miles an hour with the cestas strapped to their hands. The players often use their momentum to run straight up the wall to snatch a tough shot, and the other players sometimes must duck so a hundred-mile-an-hour rock doesn’t hit them in the head. Other than that, just like handball.
Florida was the home of America’s first fronton, built in Hialeah in 1924, but it wasn’t until the ’50s that the sport really exploded. It’s hard to imagine now-unless you were part of the scene-but there was a time when jai alai was arguably the most sophisticated evening out in Florida. It was the Rat Pack era, cocktails and Cadillacs. You might see anyone courtside- movie stars and other entertainers were always showing up at games when they were in Miami Beach to perform or hang out. President Harry Truman often came during his Florida vacations. Ernest Hemingway called it one of his favorite sports (the Spain connection again). And Babe Ruth played during practice rounds.
I first noticed the glamour myself in the early ’60s. I was three. Jai alai night was baby-sitter night. It was the night the folks got dressed up in their finest clothes. Wherever they were going was a super big deal. Of course I was still awake when they came home, listening to them all abuzz about the bets they won or the fortune they just missed because of a dropped shot that was this close. They left the fronton programs lying around. I studied the dashing men on the cover. It blew my mind-they actually ran right up walls. I began attaching a reverence to jai alai players the way other kids admired football and baseball stars.
Then, the watershed. At the time, my mother was divorced and we were living with my grandparents. She started dating a jai alai player, and I began going with her to watch her boyfriend practice on Saturday afternoons at the West Palm Beach fronton. They even let me sit on the bench where the players rotated in and out of games. The bench was up on the court behind a protective screen and the action was right in front of me. I couldn’t have been happier, wedged in between my idols, my little, swinging legs not reaching the ground. Then one of the balls took a freak carom in the corner and flew behind the screen. It’s a vivid memory to this day. The ball went right by my face-cool!-then there was a big commotion as a couple of the players picked me up and ran me out of there to a safer vantage point.
Many other memories, too. I got the full backstage treatment, watching the old Spanish gentleman smoking a cigar and expertly wrapping a pelota on a special sewing machine. I was told it had to be much harder than a baseball, which would flatten and fall apart after the first couple of times it hit the wall. Then another room and another older gentleman hand-weaving the cestas. Then the locker room and a revelation. Large groups of men got naked in front of each other. This I did not know.
Following practice, we’d often go out for pizza at a place called the Cesta Inn, whose walls were covered with autographed action photos of my heroes.
So it is through this gauze of nostalgia that I’m probably mythologizing the whole jai alai scene. But it’s also something else. I grew up in a freshly developed area just north of West Palm Beach, spurred by the new Pratt & Whitney aircraft plant and the RCA complex. My family was transplants, like almost all my friends’ parents. Us kids were first-generation Floridians, and we were given no identity, growing up in a place that was neither North nor South, the land of the non-regional weatherman accent. Years passed and I grew into adulthood, creating my own sense of geographical identity by drawing upon my earliest and fondest memories. All the wonderfully ticky-tacky tourist attractions we visited, the beach cabanas on the barrier islands, the hurricanes we waited out in the central-most room of the house. In the middle of it all was jai alai.
After I reached legal gambling age, I started attending games in Tampa. My friends couldn’t understand how I could enjoy the sport without betting. I couldn’t understand why they had to. "Look at that technique," I’d argue. "It’s ballet!" I came to understand that among my friends I was alone in this passion.
Then, in 1984, a new TV show. The opening credits rolled on something called Miami Vice. I saw the jai alai player. Yes!
Vice even devoted an entire episode to the glamorous life of a star jai alai player. It was titled Killshot, after the sport’s version of the slam-dunk. A couple of years later, Florida devotee Carl Hiaasen included jai alai in his novel book Skin Tight.
One problem: The glamour had already evaporated. I still attended regularly, but it was clear that this was all epilogue. The sophisticated people were mostly gone, repopulated by serious Type-Triple-A personalities who often ended up in the simulcast room betting on horses in Baltimore. The future wasn’t rosy, but it had been building for some time: The West Palm fronton burned down, the Cesta Inn closed, players went on strike, attendance dwindled. Finally, the Tampa Fronton was demolished, and my favorite seats are now a pipe-wrench display in The Home Depot.
I thought the attrition would continue until all the frontons went the way of so many defunct roadside attractions. Luckily, I was wrong. The sport down-sized until it hit an equilibrium point, and at least a couple of the remaining frontons (Orlando, Miami, Dania) will probably be around for years, just like we’ll always have dog tracks.
But with the Tampa venue gone, I had to look elsewhere for my fix.
And I made a wonderful discovery.
I was supposed to have dinner with a friend in South Florida, and I suggested a place I’d never been: the Courtview Club at the Dania Fronton. The club is a swank, terraced restaurant overlooking the court, jai alai’s version of the sky box. And I couldn’t believe it. It was a Saturday night, everyone in the restaurant all dressed up and sophisticated like I was in a period movie. A waiter took our food order, and then another came around to take our bets.
I smiled. "Maybe next game." Then I turned and looked down at the court and the little bench at the end where the next players waited.