|First played||14th century|
Jai alai (//: [ˈxai aˈlai]) is a sport involving bouncing a ball off a walled-in space by accelerating it to high speeds with a hand-held wicker cesta. It is a variation of Basque pelota. The term jai alai, coined by Serafin Baroja in 1875, is also often loosely applied to the fronton (the open-walled playing area) where matches take place. The game, whose name means "merry festival" in Basque, is called zesta-punta ("basket tip") in the Basque Country. The sport is played worldwide, but especially in Spain and France, and in Latin American countries.
The court for jai alai consists of walls on the front, back and left, and the floor between them. If the ball (called a pelota in Spanish, pilota in Standard Basque) touches the floor outside these walls, it is considered out of bounds. Similarly, there is also a border on the lower 3 feet (0.9 m) of the front wall that is also out of bounds. The ceiling on the court is usually very high, so the ball has a more predictable path. The court is divided by 14 parallel lines going horizontally across the court, with line 1 closest to the front wall and line 14 the back wall. In doubles, each team consists of a frontcourt player and a backcourt player. The game begins when the frontcourt player of the first team serves the ball to the second team. The winner of each point stays on the court to meet the next team in rotation. Losers go to the end of the line to await another turn on the court. The first team to score 7 points (or 9 in Superfecta games) wins. The next highest scores are awarded "place" (second) and "show" (third) positions, respectively. Playoffs decide tied scores.
A jai alai game is played in round robin format, usually between eight teams of two players each or eight single players. The first team to score 7 or 9 points wins the game. Two of the eight teams are in the court for each point. The server on one team must bounce the ball behind the serving line, then with the cesta "basket" hurl it towards the front wall so it bounces from there to between lines 4 and 7 on the floor. The ball is then in play. The ball used in jai alai is hand crafted and consists of metal strands tightly wound together and then wrapped in goat skin. Teams alternate catching the ball in their (also hand crafted) cesta and throwing it "in one fluid motion" without holding or juggling it. The ball must be caught either on the fly or after bouncing once on the floor. A team scores a point if an opposing player:
The team scoring a point remains in the court and the opposing team rotates off the court to the end of the list of opponents. Points usually double after the first round of play, once each team has played at least one point. When a game is played with points doubling after the first round, this is called "Spectacular Seven" scoring.
The players frequently attempt a "chula" shot, where the ball is played off the front wall very high, then reaches the bottom of the back wall by the end of its arc. The bounce off the bottom of the back wall can be very low, and the ball is very difficult to return in this situation.
Since there is no wall on the right side, all jai alai players must play right-handed (wear the cesta on their right hand), as the spin of a left-handed hurl would send the ball toward the open right side.
The Basque government promotes jai alai as "the fastest sport in the world" because of the speed of the ball. The sport once held the world record for ball speed with a 125–140 g ball covered with goatskin that traveled at 302 km/h (188 mph), performed by José Ramón Areitio at the Newport, Rhode Island Jai Alai, until it was broken by Canadian 5-time long drive champion Jason Zuback on a 2007 episode of Sport Science with a golf ball speed of 328 km/h (204 mph).
The sport can be dangerous, as the ball travels at high velocities. It has led to injuries that caused players to retire and fatalities have been recorded in some cases.
Jai alai is a popular sport within the Latin American countries and the Philippines from its Hispanic influence. It was one of the two gambling sports from Europe, the other being horse racing, in the semi-colonial Chinese cities of Shanghai and Tianjin, and was shut down after the communist victory there. The jai alai arena in Tianjin's former Italian Concession was then confiscated and turned into a recreation center for the city's working class.
Jai alai was played in Manila at the Manila Jai Alai Building, one of the most significant Art Deco buildings in Asia that was demolished in 2000 by the Manila city government. Earlier in 1986, jai alai was banned nationwide because of problems with game fixing. However, jai alai returned to the country in March 2010. In 2011, jai-alai was briefly shut down in the province of Pangasinan when it was found to have links to illegal jueteng gambling, but it was resumed after a court order.
In the United States, jai alai enjoyed some popularity as a gambling alternative to horse racing, greyhound racing, and harness racing, and was particularly popular in Florida and Connecticut, where the game was used as a basis for Parimutuel betting. Florida at one point had at least six frontons throughout the state: Dania Beach, Fort Pierce, Jasper, Casselberry, Miami, and Reddick. However only 2 frontons remain open.
The first jai alai fronton in the United States was located in St. Louis, Missouri, operating around the time of the 1904 World's Fair. The first fronton in Florida opened at the site of Hialeah Race Course near Miami in 1924. The fronton was relocated to its present site in Miami near Miami International Airport. The Miami Jai-Alai Fronton was the biggest in the world with a record audience of 15,502 people on 27 December 1975. and Dania Jai Alai which closed in November 2021. Seasonal facilities were located at Fort Pierce, Ocala and Hamilton. The Tampa Jai Alai fronton opened in 1952 and operated until 1998. Inactive jai alai permits were also located in Tampa, Daytona Beach, West Palm Beach, and Quincy. One Florida fronton, in Melbourne, was converted from jai alai to greyhound racing, although it later closed.
Jai alai no longer exists professionally in the northeastern and western United States, waning as other gambling options became available. In Connecticut, frontons in Hartford and Milford permanently closed, while the fronton in Bridgeport was converted to a greyhound race track, which too later closed. In 2003, the fronton at Newport Jai Alai in Newport, Rhode Island, was converted into Newport Grand, a slot machine and video lottery terminal parlor, which closed permanently in August 2018.
Jai alai enjoyed a brief and popular stint in Las Vegas with the opening of a fronton at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino; however, by the early 1980s the fronton was losing money and was closed by MGM Grand owner Kirk Kerkorian. The MGM Grand in Reno also showcased jai alai for a very short period (1978–1980).
After the 1968 season, players returned home and threatened not to come back unless the owners improved their work conditions. The owners, however, offered the same terms and started hiring inexperienced players instead of the world-class stars. The public did not notice the change. Later strikes were placated with salary rises.
In 1988–1991, the International Jai-Alai Players Association held the longest strike in American professional sport. The owners substituted with Americans raised locally, while the strikers picketed the courts for years. The players, 90% of them Basque, felt insecure submitted to the will of their employers. Spain was no longer a poor conservative country and the new generation of players were influenced by leftist Basque nationalism. The strike ended with an agreement. Meanwhile, Native American casinos and state lotteries had appeared as an alternative to jai-alai betting.
In an effort to prevent the closure of frontons in Florida, the Florida State Legislature passed HB 1059, a bill that changed the rules regarding the operation and wagering of poker in a Pari-Mutuel facility such as a jai alai fronton and a greyhound and horseracing track. The bill became law on August 6, 2003. In the mid-to-late 20th century, games could draw 5,000 spectators, a figure that fell to as few as 50 by 2017.
Although the sport has been in decline in America for several years, the first public amateur jai alai facility was built in the United States in 2008, in St. Petersburg, Florida, with the assistance of the city of St. Petersburg and private funding from Jeff Conway (Laca).
In addition to the amateur court in St. Petersburg, The American Jai-Alai Foundation offers lessons. Its president, Victor Valcarce, was a pelotari at Dania Jai-Alai (MAGO) and was considered the best "pelota de goma" (rubber ball) player in the world. Sponsored in North Miami Beach, Florida which was once owned by World Jai-Alai as a school that, in 1972, produced the greatest American pelotari, Joey Cornblit.
During the late 1960s, in addition to North Miami Amateur, at least one other amateur court from International Amateur Jai-Alai in South Miami professional players emerged at World Jai-Alai, regarded as the first American pelotari who turned pro in 1968 and enjoyed a lengthy career. In the 1970s and early 1980s, Orbea's Jai-Alai in Hialeah featured four indoor courts. Two of the courts played with hard rubber balls ("pelota de goma") were shorter than a standard court (75 and 90 feet (23 and 27 m), respectively) and used for training players and amateur leagues. In addition, two courts were played with the regulation pelota (hardball / "pelota dura"), one short in length (115 feet (35 m)) and one regulation length (150 feet (46 m)). Orbea's also sold equipment such as cestas and helmets.
Retired players visited and played as well as highly skilled amateurs, pros from Miami Jai-Alai and various other professional frontons operating at the time. The contributions of the South Miami, North Miami, Orbea, and, later, the Milford amateur courts to what is generally considered to be the golden age of the amateur jai-alai player and the sport in the United States are impressive. In the late 1980s, at least one other amateur court was constructed in Connecticut.
Dania Jai Alai has a "Hall of Fame" that documents the best front and back court players.
There are currently two active professional jai alai frontons in the United States as of June 2022, at Magic City Jai Alai and Dania Beach Jai Alai. Both of these are located in the state of Florida. The Jai Alai fronton at Fort Pierce last held sessions in June 2019 and Miami Jai Alai last hosted sessions on January 2021, but neither have any plans to host jai alai matches again in the future.
|Dania Beach Jai Alai||Dania Beach||Florida||Closed in November 2021 but owners reversed decision and reopened in February 2022.|
|Magic City Jai Alai||Miami||Florida||Magic City Jai Alai|
It is said by one the character Benny Chico (played by Xavier Cugat) in Chicago Syndicate (1955) that boxing " . . . will never take the place of Jai Alai".
Bud Spencer’s character, Charlie Firpo, plays jai alai in a scene of the Hill/Spencer classic comedy Odds and Evens (1978).
The seminal sci-fi film Tron (1982) includes a game with elements from jai alai.
There is a brief glimpse of jai alai in the opening sequence of the 1980s US crime drama Miami Vice, as well as a multiple appearance in the episode "Killshot".
The Jai Alai Fronton was shown in a scene in the 1985 feature Stick, in which Burt Reynolds' characters lures the one played by stuntman Dar Robinson into there to beat him up.
In the Golden Girls first season episode “Blanche and the Younger Man”, Estelle Getty's character, Sophia Petrillo, says she is too short to play jai alai.
The murder of World Jai Alai owner Roger Wheeler (businessman) was featured in the first ever episode of Unsolved Mysteries, hosted by Raymond Burr.
Jai alai is briefly shown in the movie the Substitute with Tom Berenger (1996).
Jai alai was shown in the second season of the MTV series Jackass, where Johnny Knoxville and Steve-O were pelted by oranges instead of the usual pelota. Filming was shot at the former Miami Jai-Alai Fronton (now Casino Miami) in Miami, Florida.
Jai alai is mentioned and briefly played in a Season 3 episode of the historical drama Mad Men ("The Arrangements", S03E04), which is set in the 1960s.
Jai alai plays a role in the Season 1 episode of Archer (2009) entitled "Honeypot".
The Most Interesting Man in the World (fictional spokesman for Dos Equis beer) is shown in a commercial to be an accomplished professional jai alai player.
A jai alai game is seen in a season five episode of the spy TV series Burn Notice.
A jai alai fronton was the scene of a murder in a season four episode of The Glades, an American crime drama set in Florida.
In the Whitey Bulger biopic Black Mass (2015) The real life murder of American businessman and former owner of World Jai Alai Roger Wheeler is featured. James "Whitey" Bulger and other criminal associates allegedly used the World Jai Alai association as an embezzlement scheme and murdered new owner Mr. Wheeler soon after he uncovered their illegal activities.
"Helter Shelter", an episode of The Simpsons, features a scene were the titular family asks their friend Lenny if they can live with him for a while due to their own home being fumigated. They quickly change their mind, however, upon finding out that one of the walls in Lenny's apartment also serves as fronton for a Jai Alai court (the sound of which Lenny claims to find soothing). Jai Alai also appears briefly in the second season finale, "Blood Feud".
Since the 1920s at least four players have been killed by an jai alai ball...