Jai alai (hi uh lie), called the world’s fastest ball sport, has been waning for decades. Gone are the days of 10,000 fans packed into a grandstand watching players wearing hand-baskets sling and catch balls. But when you’re down, supporters say, the only direction to go is up.
Jai alai means “merry festival” in Basque. The game originated in the Basque Country, an area straddling Spain and France. Players strap long, curved wicker baskets, called cestas, to their wrists. They use their cestas to whip a ball at one of three walls, catch it, and hurl it again until someone misses or throws out of bounds. Goatskin balls, called pelotas, are smaller than baseballs but harder than golf balls and can travel at speeds of up to 150 miles per hour.
Planners of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair built the first jai alai fronton (court) in the United States. In its U.S. heyday during the 1970s and ’80s, frontons flourished throughout the country. But the game was most popular in Miami. Professional frontons there boasted big name celebrities and sold-out crowds.
Jai alai’s decline began during a 1988-1991 players’ strike. By strike’s end, fans had migrated to other sports, including south Florida’s newly arrived pro baseball, basketball, and hockey teams. The sport struggles to retain a fan base.
Now a group of committed devotees at Miami’s Magic City Casino is working to save jai alai. Magic City is the last place in the country where jai alai is played as a professional sport.
After Tanard Davis’ NFL career fizzled, he began playing jai alai. He’s grateful to don a uniform again. But he’s realistic about being an elite player. “I don’t stand a chance in the long run,” he says.
To reach a new audience, Magic City tweaked the game with a shorter court, a bouncier pelota, and a plexiglass wall instead of granite.
“We’re pretty confident there’s a future,” says Scott Savin, Magic City’s chief operating officer.
Chris Bueno recently tried jai alai at age 27. Now he plays at Magic City. “Everyone loves jai alai,” he says, quoting his dad, a former player. “Some people just don’t know it yet.”
Why? God’s plans for His people include exercise, entertainment, and enjoyment. But Christians should always ask whether such pursuits will edify them, show love to others, and glorify God. (1 Corinthians 10:23-24, 31) Prioritizing commendable activities over merely allowable ones helps Christians to follow Jesus above all else.