50th Anniversary of the Day that Changed Everything – Part 1 of 2
Today is the 50th anniversary of the day that would eventually change everything in my lifestyle.
On Friday, February 15, 1974, I went to see jai-alai for the first time in my life. Today, 50 years later, I would never have imagined what would take place after that.
Here are the details as I can remember:
I was a senor at Roger Ludlowe High School in Fairfield Connecticut and had narrowed my list of colleges that I wanted to attend down to two. One was in Tampa at the University of Tampa, and the other in Lakeland at Florida Southern College. About 35 miles apart from one another.
I flew down with my parents from JFK to Tampa International. Upon stepping off that plane in Tampa, I was impressed. Wow. Look at this airport. It was gorgeous. The NY airports and Dallas were the only ones I had been in before. And the airport was only a few months old on top of it. And then stepping outside, wow! 72 degrees and sunny – in the middle of the winter. So far, so good I thought.
We checked into the Holiday Inn on Dale Mabry, and in the lobby at the counter was a rack card of a bunch of things to do in Tampa Bay. Busch Gardens, Sunken Gardens, the Reds spring training, and so on. But one caught my eye. It had to do with sports. It was about jai-alai. I said “what the heck this – not pronouncing it as “hi-li” but with a “J”. Just like in the Magic City promo by one of the players. The guy behind the counter and my parents all pronounced the name properly and tried to explain the game. And they added you bet on it. I didn’t really care about the betting aspect. I loved sports and especially baseball. It was the reason I picked those two colleges to scope out in the first place.
I was mesmerized by the drawing of the court and how big it was. Wow! I never had heard of it before. I found out it was only in Florida and in big cities like Miami, Dania/Ft. Lauderdale, Tampa, Orlando, etc. Interesting.
So, we made reservations to go that Friday night. I was with my stepsister and my parents had reservations already at Berns Steak House. We were flying back to JFK Saturday morning.
I remember getting into the taxicab and telling the driver where we were going. Again, I misspelled the word jai-alai. I asked him “You know how to get there?”. He laughed and said, “Of course I do!”. Today, you ask someone about jai-alai and they tell you “Oh you mean the beer?”.
I also remember the 10–15-minute drive there like yesterday. Lots of traffic. The click-clicky sound on Dale Mabry Highway. All the bright lights, nude clubs. Nothing like the Post Road in Fairfield!
Then we make the right into the Jai-alai Fronton. Wow! Look at this! A huge building, lots of cars coming in. We get out and talk up the Will Call window, where we get our tickets. I think they were $2 each and were about ½ of the way back on about the 4 line. We got there about 6:45pm and the place was filling up. Thousands of people. Players were practicing. I am thinking, this is “really cool”. The distinct sound of the ball hitting the wall was awesome. The worlds “fastest game” game in front on me!
My parents gave me $20 to bet for the night and I remember making my bets off the way the players practiced before the game. My first mistake.
I quickly picked up the game, but my stepsister was confused the whole night. The roar of the crowd is what made it. The athleticism. The huge court. The ball hitting the ball. Seven thousand people with many around bars and watching on TV sets. Unbelievable excitement. There were more people here than were going to Yankee games in the Bronx back then in the last year at the original stadium. On the court were greats like Bolivar, Almorza, Laca and many more. I lost every game I as there from 1-10. When we got back to the hotel, our parents asked how we did, and I told them the money was all gone. Oh well, wasn’t the only time that was going to happen.
I ended up choosing Florida Southern College in Lakeland, and one of the first things my friends and I would do is head over to watch and bet jai-alai. There was nothing to do in Lakeland back then.
Now, 50 years later I would never imagine how jai-alai has changed my lifestyle.
Part 2 coming soon