By Jeff “Laca” Conway
On Christmas Day, I got about two dozen texts. Most of them were from family and friends wishing me a “Merry Christmas”. But one of the text that came in was a little different than the other ones. It was from Carlo in Connecticut – Matt DiDomizio’s cousin. He helps out running the amateur court up in Berlin, Connecticut.
“I just booked a trip to Tampa!” the text read.
Then another text followed shortly. “See you around Valentine’s Day. I’ll be there with my wife and one kid on February 13-15. We’re visiting the University of Tampa, Florida Southern, and University of South Florida.”
I responded “I graduated from Florida Southern!” He responded in three quick texts – “Nice!!!”…. “We’re totally visiting that place”….”It looks super nice”.
I followed up with “Yes it is designed by a famous architect too”. He immediately responded “Yep, Frank Lloyd Wright”. Carlo had certainly done is homework. If I recall correctly, FSC has the world’s largest collection of Frank Lloyd Wright designed buildings.
Then I started thinking. Holy Shit!!! In February of 1974, I made a similar trip with my parents. I was looking for a college to attend and my final two choices were Florida Southern College (located in Lakeland) and the University of Tampa. Two of the same colleges that Carlo’s son is looking into. I grew up in Fairfield, Connecticut, about an hour away from Carlos’s house, just 50 miles from New York City. So, here we have two trips from the same state with the same motive – looking for a similar college.
But it was this very trip I made with my parents that would make a huge influence on my life. While staying at a Holiday Inn on Dale Mabry I came across a brochure or rack card that that was sitting up on the lobby’s desk. Being a huge sports fan, this brochure certainly caught my eye. It was nestled between Busch Gardens brochures, Disney World and others. The words “Jai-alai” were there and images of a huge sporting palace. I kept calling it “ji – a – lie – a” and had no clue what the sport was. Remember, I was just a 17-year old from a sleepy town of Fairfield Connecticut checking out perspective colleges to go in the following fall of 1974.
I thought, how cool this looked. Never heard of it, but my parents did. They told me how it was pronounced. “Hi -Lie”. Said it was very fast, an ancient game and that you could gamble on it. Now, I knew what I wanted to do one of the nights we were there! My parents had made plans somewhere I don’t’ remember –likely Bern’s Steak House or the Columbia or to the Physis Diller show.
My mother made reservations for me and my step sister who was on the trip also. My step father gave me a $20 dollar bill and “good luck”. I was a Friday night and I remember taking a cab ride to the fronton. I remember asking the driver if he knew where “Ji – a – lie was”. He laughed and said “yes”. I remember going down the bumpy road of Dale Mabry, looking at all the neon lights, strip clubs and everything else. Fairfield Connecticut’s Post Road US 1 was nothing like this! The short 10-15 minute trip then ended by pulling up into this huge parking lot and there is this huge building with traffic and people everywhere. I was thinking “Wow, this is amazing!”.
We made our way into the fronton after picking up our tickets at the “Will Call” booth. I remember they costed $2 each and I can still recall exactly where I sat that night in the fronton. By the time we’re seated, it was about 6:45pm and the place was filling up quickly. I’m looking out at this huge long 176-foot long court with very high ceilings and a massive crowd filling in. Then players were coming out onto the court with these weird looking baskets in their hands, firing a ball off a huge wall. The sound it made was awesome. The speed it went was something else. And I really thought that cool looking program I had in my hand was neat. That logo drawing of a jai-alai player on the cover in full color was the best. I use it on this website’s home page.
I recall watching the first game or two to understand what it was all about before making a bet. After watching a couple of games, I had a good idea about it. Here I am, February 8th, 1974 sitting in huge place in Tampa Florida watching something I had never heard of hours before. Out there were stars like Bolivar, Gorrono and Almorza which, at the time, meant nothing to me.
I made a $2 Win bet the last 10 games of the performance, losing every game. I remember the disappointed look in my stepfather’s face when I told him I had lost all $20 of that money that he given me earlier.
While in college, my friends and I would head to Tampa jai-alai quite often, which was only about a half hour away from Lakeland. I would go back home to Fairfield in the spring/summer months when school was out. However when I came back home in the spring of 1976, it was different. I had good news for my buddies in Connecticut. Jai-alai is coming to Connecticut!! They all said “what the hell is that?” If you go to the “Chronology” link on this website and go to 1976 you can watch the video of us entering Bridgeport Jai-alai on its first day. That’s me making a bet at the betting window – with no one else in site. I honestly thought I was the only guy sitting there that knew what jai-alai was all about! What incredible luck. I had jai-alai in both backyards – in Florida and Connecticut!!!
Then in 1978, my roommate in college came in with a cesta. I said “where the hell did you get that?” He said at the Tampa Jai-alai gift shop for $40. Sure enough, they had several cesta’s sitting on a shelf in a room behind the gift shop. I bought one and have never put one down since. We started playing off a wall at Seminole Middle School using a tennis ball. It soon evolved to a lacrosse ball, and soon by the mid-1980s, there were about 30-40 of us out there that would come out and play there. Guys like Tedrick, Paul Berglund and Chris eventually went pro. I would never imagine I would be playing 42 years later with a jai-alai museum, a couple of jai-alai websites and donating the money for America’s first public court (credit Paul Kubala and Tom DeMint for getting this pulled off) all under the belt with more to come.