Basques, who invented it, call it pelota.
A game of great beauty and risk, it enthralls
betting crowds in six Florida cities now and
is attracting fresh athletes around the world
BY JACK OLSEN
Churruca, the best jai alai player in the world,
flings himself high into the air to catch a ball traveling at
150 mph. When he comes down, he will heave the ball to
the front wall, after which it will become the twisting,
caroming problem of his watchful opponents in white.
"My father he have chickens when I am a boy," said Francisco Maria Churruca Iriondo Azpiazu Alcorta, "and he also have porks. Every morning he goes to his work to make cheeps. Sheeps? You know, barcos that ride on the water? Si, ships! So he tell me you give the animals to eat while I am away. I make the chickens and the porks to eat, and then I drive my bicycle over the mountains to the jai alai. There I must play in the naked feet because if I hurt my shoes, my father will know I am in the jai alai that day. And that is how I begin."
Francisco Maria Churruca Iriondo Azpiazu Alcorta, known to his friends as Patxi, lives four months of the year in a second-floor apartment near the Miami airport and the rest of the year in a colorful home in Motrico, a Basque fishing village a few dozen miles from the Franco-Spanish border. He is a handsome man of 29, with sloping brown-green eyes, a slightly receding hairline and a vague resemblance to the actor Mel Ferrer. Churruca has difficulty with English because his first tongue, Basque, is not even in the same family of languages; he speaks Spanish, his second language, with somewhat greater fluency. He earns about $20,000 a year after taxes, more than anyone else in his sport. Francisco Maria Churruca Iriondo Azpiazu Alcorta, "Churruca" on the betting program, is the world champion of jai alai, a sort of supercharged three-wall handball played with long, curved baskets.
Being world champion of jai alai was, until recently, like being stickball king of The Bronx or downhill skiing champ of western Kansas. The sporting fraternity was inclined to think of jai alai as a gimmick (when they were inclined to think of the game at all), a mere excuse to get $2 down at night when the horses were in bed. But while nobody was looking, the game has achieved a measure of international prominence, and the person who still views jai alai as a local rite played by Basque sheepherders is missing something. The Federaci6n Internacionale de Pelota Vasca, ruling body of the game, is pressing to have jai alai (or simply "pelota," as it is called in the Old World) made a part of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, and may well get its way, as the Japanese did with volleyball. Every two years the Federaci6n runs an international pelota championship, drawing teams from countries like Argentina and Uruguay and Italy, as well as those old beldams of the sport, Spain and France. The demand for professional jai alai players has become so great that training schools have been established in the Basque country of Spain, where muchachos of 9 and 10 are carefully groomed for frontons in six cities in Florida, three cities in Mexico and professional arenas in Manila, Milan, Madrid, Barcelona and elsewhere. The game that once was considered on a sporting level with cockroach races now is attracting amateurs in many parts of the world, and even a gringo may rent all the necessary equipment to go out and look like an idiot at "America's Only Amateur Jai Alai Court" in north Miami.
The Miami fronton is 176 feet long, 55 feet wide and 44 feet high.
After it is thrown to the front wall, the ball may hit the side and back walls of the court and the floor.
It stays in play until it hits the floor for the second time or goes out of bounds.
One watches Churruca and his opponents-almost all of them Basques who were brought up around the frontons of the Pyrenees-and one gets the idea that the game is simple. The pelota comes bounding off the front wall. Churruca races into position, takes the ball with a resounding plop! in his cesta, and in one smooth motion slings it back to the front wall. And so the game goes until one player cannot make the catch-and-throw, and a point is scored.
The apparent ease with which Churruca and the rest of the troupe keep the pelota zipping for about as long as two or three minutes at a time occasionally leads the unknowing to shout, "Fix!" when a shot is missed or when a ball spins haphazardly out of the cesta of a star player. Such cynics should be sentenced to one hour on a jai alai court to try the game on for size, as I did. Then they will understand why a jai alai player must begin when he is a stripling, must play the game for six or eight hours a day and must bring himself to a peak of physical conditioning before he has a vestige of a prayer of becoming a professional. Anyone who has ever played tennis can take a crack at racquets or squash or badminton or table tennis without looking too much the fool, but attempting to throw a jai alai ball around without any experience is equivalent to sitting down to a mah-jongg game with your Chinese laundryman.
Not understanding or believing any of this when it was explained to me, I went to the Miami fronton to have a go at this most graceful and most difficult of racket games. My instructor, an amateur, strapped a cesta on my wrist, illustrated a few easy lob shots to the side wall and plunked the ball into my basket. "Duck soup!" I said. I wound up and flang the ball and fell back as it hit the floor in front of me and kazoomed up past my nose. On a second try the ball squiggled out behind me, and on a third it merely fell out of the cesta while I was planning the shot. After a solid hour of instruction, I was able to lob the ball underhand, like an elderly Basque grandmother with elbow chips, till it almost reached the wall. This, I learned later, is about the most an amateur can expect during his first few weeks of instruction. The normal overhand baseball delivery is useless; it only causes the ball to roll up the cesta and follow the curved end downward to the floor. The various methods of propelling a pelota out of the cesta and up to the front wall are so unlike the classical motions of other sports that the Miami fronton has had a standing bet with American athletes for years. The victim is rigged up in a cesta and placed at the service line, some 130 feet from the front wall, and challenged to throw the ball to the wall on the fly once in three tries. "We have lost that-bet once," said Louis (Buddy) Berenson, assistant manager of the fronton, "and then it was to a guy I think had played before.
Withal, the most difficult public-relations problem faced by the promoters of jai alai is the canard that every flubbed shot is a fake. Perhaps such cynicism is inevitable in the only game in which Americans are permitted to bet on human beings, but the fact is that in four decades of jai alai in Florida there has never been a public scandal attached to the game. This is not true in the rest of the world, where the system is different and lends itself to an occasional justified scream of anguish by the bettors. In Florida all bets go through a pari-mutuel setup, and when the game starts, all betting is over, diminishing any further chance of hanky-panky. In toteless places like Madrid and Mexico City, games are halted frequently to give bookies a chance to corral new point-by-point action; hence there is a tendency by players to keep the games close, to excite the crowd and increase the handle. But it is rare in any part of the world for players to lose intentionally; such shenanigans are just not in the Basque makeup. The last known attempt at a real fix took place in Cuba, back in the days before Fidel Castro closed the Havana fronton. Two doubles players agreed to go into the tank, bet heavily on their opponents and then got so excited in the heat of the contest that they won, thus losing their camisas and succeeding in being banished from jai alai forever.
Preparing to serve, Churruca scoops up the ball after bouncing it once.
In the same motion he will whip it against the wall, 130 feet away.
Still, one hears the sour grapes in Miami: "This game is as crooked as a cow's hind leg." "They're all brothers-in-laws, you know." "I know who's gonna win. My buddy went to the rehearsal." "This game is a benefit for No. 6. His wife just had a baby." There is no surer way to risk one's life and limb than to make such cracks in the presence of a jai alai player, who risks his own life and limb nightly for sacks of prize money ($62,000 at Miami alone this year) and, more important, for the fierce pride and integrity that come naturally to the Basque people. Even the mild Churruca is capable of outbursts of impropriety when the old "fix" charge is trundled out, usually by losers. Not long ago Churruca went with his wife to a Miami record store where a Spanish-speaking shopgirl recognized him and began carping. "She says to me the game is fixed," Churruca recalled, "and I do not say nothing. She gets worse and worse, and still I don't say nothing. 'Everything in jai alai is fixed,' she says, and I say, 'If you say so.' But she don't stop. So finally I tell her in Spanish, 'How many dollar do you ask for going to the bed?' She told me, you don't have enough money for that in the world. I say, 'Yes, I have. Fifty cents!' And my wife put down the records and we walked out, and I told the girl she is selling her last record to a jai alai player."
Buddy Berenson, son of the man who made jai alai a financial success in the U.S., is another who bristles at the fix charges. "You'd never believe the gall of some of these people," Berenson said. "One night a guy I knew, a businessman, comes over to me in the audience, and he says, 'C'mon, Buddy, you know who's gonna win. Why don't you let a guy in on it?'
"I said, 'You sell typewriters, don't you? And of course they're all defective, right? And you charge people for typewriters and you take their money and then you don't deliver, right?' He says, 'What do you mean? You're calling me a thief!'
"I said, 'What the hell do you think you're calling me?' It had never occurred to him."
In recent years the fans in Miami, where the big money draws the best in the game during the winter season, have mellowed somewhat, and some have even come to appreciate the finer points of the game, even as the aficionados in Guernica and Barcelona and San Sebastián. One hears applause for players who have tried and failed to make the spectacular "gets" that call for mountain goat agility up the perpendicular wall, and a player who is injured is no longer excoriated as a fink but applauded as a fallen hero. "Sophistication was a long time coming," says Berenson, "but I think you can say it is here at last. Of course, we still have the elderly people out for a good time, the ones who can't even pronounce the players' names and keep everybody else in stitches. They call Chimela 'Shlemiel' and Mendizabal 'Matzo Ball' and Bengoa 'Benny' and Arakistain 'Rocky Stein.' One night I heard a woman rooting her head off for Francisco. She was saying, 'Come on, Franciscoleh baby!' "
A few years back the parimutuels were being distorted nightly by an excellent player named Isidoro who specialized in a "Manolete" shot. Just as Manolete used to pass the bull while looking somewhere else, Isidoro would catch the ball on the short hop and slam it back to the front wall while staring at a little old lady in the third row. Thousands would cheer, and the opponent would feel a whammy creeping over him. Shortly after the clever Isidoro arrived on the scene, word went out that he was Jewish; his name and his long (and typically Basque) nose were all the proof the fans needed. "He denied it," said Berenson, "but people said he must be Jewish with that name and that nose. They said he was descended from the Inquisition Jews who ran away to the hills and took the Catholic religion to stay alive."
From then on, poor Isidoro was an underlay in Miami. Two dollars bet on Isidoro's long nose would return only $2.50 or $3, partially because he was a star but mostly because he was an Isidoro. In the sports folklore of the Barney Rosses and the Sid Luckmans and the Al Rosens, Isidoro will be remembered as one of the greatest non-Jewish athletes.
To capitalize on the high percentage of Jewish spectators, the Miami fronton's archcompetitor at Dania, 22 miles up the road, once installed an "Israel" team in its "International World Series of Jai Alai." The two players on the "Israel" team, Egurbi and Ituarte, were as Jewish as Francisco Franco-which led Howard Kleinberg of the Miami Daily News to ask, "Could that be Irving Egurbi?" Soon after, the Israeli team was provided with a new country to represent.
To the minor annoyance of the jai alai purist, such artificial devices remain a commonplace in the vigorous competition for the tourist's dollar. Even the Berensons, merchants of jai alai but also ardent devotees of the grace and beauty of the game, are not above gilding the act. In a recent "World Series" game in their Miami fronton, the Berensons presented a team from "The Philippines," consisting of a Basque and a Mexican. The team from the "United States" was a Basque and a Valencian, and the players representing Italy, Mexico, France and Spain were all Basques. "We're not trying to kid anybody," says Buddy Berenson. "After all, the program tells plainly where every player's from. But we find it heightens interest to assign countries to the teams, and the purists still get a damned good game of jai alai." So far the Berensons have managed to resist the temptation to nominate an Israeli team-and have not been tempted at all to name an Arab one.
There is also a slight overdose of hoopla about the perils and pace of jai alai ("fastest and most dangerous game in the world") aimed at intriguing the unknowing spectator and making an interesting game more interesting. To be sure, the pelota does come off the wall at measurable speeds in the range of 150 mph, the fastest of any sporting object in the world (if one discounts bullets, golf balls and racing cars). But the ball usually travels something like 200 or 300 feet before it is caught and returned, giving the receiving player a chance to get set and thus eliminating many of the high-speed reflexive battles that one sees in close-up sports like tennis and football. There is somewhat more substance to the claim that jai alai is highly perilous. In weight and hardness, the pelota lies somewhere between a baseball and a snooker ball, and when it thuds into a player at top speed a shudder goes through the most untutored audience. Front-court play can be downright homicidal. Erdoza, a famous player of three decades ago, once slammed the ball into the front wall at close range. The rebound knocked out all his front teeth. In the 1930s a player named Ramos was hit by a ball that had traveled all the way to the front wall and 176 feet to the back wall before bouncing off and hitting him in the skull. "You could hear it all over the fronton," Buddy Berenson said. "He walked off, but there was no blood showing and that is a bad sign. Whenever a player is hit, the others rush up trying to laugh it off and praying for the sight of blood, because blood means a glancing blow. Ramos died several hours later in the hospital. There were splinters of skull in his brain."
Another player, Carlos de Anda, was beaned in the Miami fronton, taken to the hospital and operated on to relieve pressure on his brain. "His is the only case of its kind I know," said Berenson. "He had always been an austere type of person, but after the operation he became very jolly and outgoing. He's retired now, a bookie at the fronton in Mexico City, and he's the happiest person there." The great Churruca was hit, too, but it did not make him any happier. Taking a rebote (rebound) shot off the back wall, he misjudged the curve of the ball. It smacked off his cesta and caromed into his temple. "I do not think I am hurt very bad," Churruca remembered, "but then I see that I am sitting down and the door is 'facing first one way and then another way, and then I am not seeing nothing at all."
Like pilots who crack up, jai alai players are rushed back into action as soon as they are ambulatory, to reduce the chance of a permanent phobia. According to Berenson, there has never been a quitter in the pro game or one who permitted cowardice to shade his play. One might conclude that all such tendencies to be chicken (or "jellow," as Churruca puts it) would long since have been bred out of the players in the frontons of the Basque country, else they would not be playing professionally at all. "The closest we had was a player who was terrified of the ball, but being a Basque he didn't even know this himself," Berenson said. "He went out on the court night after night, playing a good game, a brave game, and all the time he was scared on another level of his mind. Pretty soon the symptoms began. He'd get dizzy on the court. He'd get double vision and headaches. We took him to a psychiatrist, and the psychiatrist said he was frightened deep inside. We had to send him back to Spain. To this day he doesn't think he was afraid."
The same sort of inner discipline keeps the new breed of jai alai player from letting his emotions show on the court. In the old days certain players would flail their cestas on the floor and pound the wall and shout "Dios!" after blowing a shot. But managers discouraged this. "It gets too much like the way wrestlers act," explained one, "and that's the last image in the world we need." Nowadays a player will miss a shot, smile sportingly while the crowd screams, "Bruta! bruta!" and hurry to the privacy of the players' room to exact revenge on himself. "They are locked into that room from 6:30 to 12:30 every night," said Berenson, "and when they get back after a poor performance, that's when they let the tigers out of their bellies, as they say in Spain. Pedro Mir once butted the wall in the players' room and split his head wide open. I saw another player pick up an iron chair and throw it up as high as he could and then stick his head under it. It knocked him cold, and he played the next night. A great player named Guiliermo lost a big championship game and came storming back to the players' room. His cesta was still strapped on his right hand so he lifted a 10-gallon water jug, crooked it in his left arm and broke it on the ceiling. Then he let all the broken glass and water fall down on him."
The best jai alai player in the world does not engage in any such feats of masochism, but then Patxi Churruca does not lose many big matches, either. "I have quiet, happy days as a boy in Motrico," said Churruca, "and perhaps it is difficult for me to become angry." The maestro's long journey from barefoot boy in the seaport town of Motrico to undisputed world champion of jai alai is a sort of Francisco Merriwell story committed to memory by the little Basque boys now padding over the mountains to play in the same church courtyard where Churruca first strapped on a cesta. As a national hero of Spain, Churruca goes first-class when he returns home, in marked contrast to the relative anonymity of his life in Miami. When the American season is over, he plays matches to as high as 45 points before howling crowds in Spain and the Basque country of southern France. Once each year Franco goes to see him play in San Sebastián, a beautiful Basque town, and Churruca regards this as a command performance.
But of all the rewards of his life, the one that satisfies Churruca the most is that he has pleased his father, "the strongest man in Motrico," as the proud son describes him, "There are some people in Motrico they say Arakistain's father is the strongest, but many say is my father. One day in my father's bar-he owns a bar now and he does not make the cheeps any longer-one day two fishermen break glasses, and my father throws them out. And soon one comes back and he says, 'Why you think you do that?' My father say, 'Out!' and man grab hold of the door. My father go boom and knock the door off the hinges, and the man does not come back."
Fifteen years ago there came the inevitable scene when the boy Churruca wanted to go off to the world of professional jai alai against the wishes of the strongest man in Motrico. "A jai alai promoter came from Corunna to Motrico when I was 14," Churruca explained, "and he visited the basketmaker in Motrico and he sees us play in the little fronton. He say to the basketmaker, 'Which one is that?' pointing to me. He say he would pay me 1,100 pesetas (about $20) a month and buy me free shoes, so I sign the contract. My mother said, 'You are crazy! Now go tell your father what you do.'
"My father was angry. He says, 'Why do you do that?' But the basketmaker saved me. He say to my father, "If you don't let him go now, he is remembering you all his life, that his father don't let him to start playing. Let him go, it is only four months. If he is no good he is going to come home, and he is going to stay happy.' With that word, father say O.K."
Churruca went from Corunna to Zagoza to Acapulco to Mexico City and finally to the big show in Miami at age 20. Now he is in his ninth season in Miami and his fourth as champion. His father owns the biggest cantina in Motrico, and Churruca is the idol of the Basques, a magnet for customers at his father's place. A few years ago Churruca married a Basque artist, Laura Marie Zambruno from Ondárroa, just over the hill from Motrico, and with her assistance he is battling the last despair of any traveling Basque's life: homesickness for the bays and mountains and valleys of the Pyrenees. In their apartment in Miami the Churrucas read El Diario Vasco, the Basque newspaper, published daily in San Sebastián, and pore over hordes of picture postcards showing the orange-tile roofs and the skinny quays and twisting, climbing streets of their home towns. It is all but impossible to call on the Churrucas without spending hours going through their pictures, sipping the anise wine of their homeland and partaking of the hot chorizos and saffron paella that sustain them. "Now, if I could walk a mountain here," said Churruca recently, "it would be much more better. We love Miami, my wife and 1, but always is flat. I want to walk sometimes in the morning, so I go to the shopping center and back. Is only about 500 yards and feels like nothing, so I do it again and two or three times, and then all the people start looking to me and saying, 'That one is suspicious. What do he doing always for walking?'
"But I am not meaning harm. In Motrico you take two steps and you are walking up, down. Always up, down. I miss that one. Someday my wife and I will go back to stay, and I will help in my father's bar and play a little soccer and a little jai alai, and then maybe I will miss the days here when I am champion and making money." He paused and riffled through the deck of picture postcards. "Is easier things to do," said Francisco Maria Churruca Iriondo Azpiazu Alcorta, breaking into a grin, than satisfy a Basque."
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