Miami casino works to save beloved jai alai from extinction

MIAMI (AP) — The world’s fastest ball sport has been dying a slow death for decades.

Now, a group of committed enthusiasts is doing all it can to save jai alai, a game that originated in the Basque region of Spain and France but took root in Miami during the go-go days of the 1970s and ’80s.

What could be jai alai’s curtain call is playing out at Magic City Casino, the last place the game is played as a professional sport. Gone are the celebrities like Paul Newman and John Travolta who used to crowd into sweaty, smoke-filled grandstands on a Saturday night to watch elite athletes fling a goatskin ball called a pelota in a three-walled fronton, or court, at 130 mph (210 km/h).

Instead, just a few dozen family members and die-hard fans turned out for a recent match. Live wagering, which long drove the sport, has dried up in the era of YouTube and online gambling. And many of the game’s top players who used to make the journey across the Atlantic have hung up their wicker cestas — curved baskets for catching and throwing — leaving a void that a roster of local, homegrown talent is hard-pressed to fill.

But the one advantage of having fallen so far is that the only direction left to go is up.

“We’re pretty confident there’s a future,” said Scott Savin, the chief operating officer of Magic City. “At least there’s a present, so that means we have a fighting chance at a future.”

The fate of the sport depends on the shoulders — and overextended rotator cuffs — of Magic City’s roster of 28 athletes. Seven of them — from Spain, France and the Philippines — were hired after nearby Dania Beach Casino’s fronton ended its seven-decade run last year.

One of the foreign players, Inaki Goitiandia, took up the sport at age 10. Jai alai was a favorite pastime growing up in the small town of Markina-Xemein in northern Spain. But as an adult, he and his brother Julen followed their father and grandfather’s footsteps to Miami, which for decades was a magnet for the game’s top talent.

“This is the only place where you can make a living playing jai alai,” Goitiandia said, wiping his brow after winning an exhausting round-robin doubles match.

The remaining players are former high school and college athletes who learned the game as adults and still struggle with basics like catching the ball.

Tanard Davis, who was signed by the Indianapolis Colts after playing football at University of Miami, saw his NFL career fizzle and moved to Atlanta to pursue a career in law enforcement. In 2018, he was among the Hurricanes alumni who answered an email blast looking for volunteers from Magic City’s owners, the Havenick family, who are also major donors to UM athletics.

Davis is grateful for the opportunity to put on a uniform and get the adrenaline flowing again.