The Ancient Game of Jai Alai

Most people who know me can you tell you that I am a competitor in every sport. When I heard that I was going to be able to learn a new sport, I was literally jumping for joy. All week long my fellow classmates have been telling me to quiet down because I was talking about Jai Alai so much. I find sports, especially sports made from work, to be the most exciting thing to learn about. There is so much history in every rule and movement. We saw one player fall to the ground while launching the ball towards the wall. This takes a huge amount of stamina and strength to pull off.

The game originated from a game called handball. This game is very similar to a childhood game I used to play: Off The Wall. The whole premise of this game is to get the ball to hit the wall. However, the difference between my childhood game and handball is that the Basque’s hit a leather/wood ball with their hand while I threw a tennis ball. One sport is for grown men and mine is for kids. When I saw the similarity, I was immediately hooked and had to try it myself.

When the day came for the Jai Alai demonstration I couldn’t help jumping when I heard we were going to be able to try the game. As I walked in the arena, I felt an overwhelming wave of emotions that could only be described as a fierce historic awakening. I could feel all of the blood, sweat, and tears that have passed through this great palace of Basque culture. I could hear the screams of all the people when the arena would be full and gambling would run rampant. When we walked in we saw two players throwing this tiny ball at a marble wall, and each and every time it struck the wall a gunshot – “Boom!” – would echo throughout the entire arena.

We sat down in the front row and learned a little history of Jai Alai. The whole sport was made as a brief diversion from work but eventually evolved into a huge gambling scene in America in the 70’s through the 90’s and even to this day. Miami, Florida is still a huge scene of Jai Alai. Games would show extreme strength, endurance, and precision. This enticed many rich investors to support the budding sport and made it popular in the USA for a few decades. Eventually this newfound excitement for the sport died and Jai Alai is now a very niche sport not well known to many people around the world.

After learning about this incredible sport we saw an exhibition match between two pro players. Red vs. Blue. This was not just for fun, no, we were playing for a prize. I put my bets on blue. As the game progressed we saw each competitor tire and start to slow down. Nevertheless, they both pushed on to the end. One last “Smack!” against the stone wall ended the match with blue prevailing 18-15. I was thrilled. The prize was a green backpack with little doohickies but the gambling essence is always flowing through Jai Alai.

We then moved on to my favorite part: practicing Jai Alai in the court. From the stands the court doesn’t seem too huge, but it’s massive. I put the cesta on, the curved tool used the throw the ball, and man was that thing strapped on tight. We started throwing the ball, or at least trying to with little success, and it was time for yet another competition. Who could throw the ball the farthest. Most of us were pretty bad at throwing with the exception of two colleagues: Mr. Zabalbeascoa and Jimmy Burke. Mr. Z placed first but forfeited the prize, a t-shirt, to Jimmy in good spirit.

Learning about this sport was truly incredible. We all loved playing and learning about Jai Alai. The sport brings together two of my top interests, sports and history. The pure adrenaline that all sports produce just increases when you are playing the fastest ball sport in the world. I used to play baseball and the speed I throw compared to Jai Alai players is laughable. Overall, we had a great new experience. The idea of experiencing new things has been the central theme of this trip for me. Adding a new sport to my library just excites me to learn more about this ancient sport.