By Marty Fleischman
The Jai-Alai fronton in St. Jean-de-Luz, France was unique. First, I was amazed that this tiny resort/fishing village on the southwest corner of France had any kind of a Jai-Alai fronton. All the frontons we had visited in the Spanish Basque villages were surprisingly small, except for the court, that is. Most professional Jai-Alai courts are between 174 and 180 feet long, with one in Mexico reported to be almost 200 feet. But, the viewing areas for the fans in the Spanish Basque towns were comprised of about 5 rows of seats. There’s a long, wooden bar running the length of the arena with mostly men leaning on it, cigars in their mouths, and betting slips in their hands.
Another amazing aspect of the Spanish frontons was the fact that tennis balls were flying all over the place. I don’t mean on the court, but in the stands. You see, this is how you bet on the sport in Spain. Men in jackets stand in front of those 5 rows, called corredores, yelling out odds on either the red or blue teams (they play head-to-head matches in Spain called partidos). When a fan wants to place a wager, he signals the corredore, who then writes the bet on a slip of paper and inserts it into a sliced flap in a tennis ball. He, then, tosses the ball to the bettor in the audience who removes the slip and throws the ball back. Thus, tennis balls “flying all over the place.” No money changes hands until the match is over. If you lose, you put the money in the tennis ball and throw it back. I always wondered what would happen if the fan just left… without paying. Would this system work back in America? No way!
But the St. Jean-de-Luz home of Cesta Punta was very different. First, it was larger than most of its Spanish counterparts. The stark contrast between American frontons, which seat from 3,000 to 5,000 fans, and the Basque frontons went even further. I could not help but notice sponsorship banners painted all over the side and back walls. This was never done in American facilities. All of our frontons had large, painted green walls, with nothing more than line markers painted on them for a frame of reference. Also, the screen or fencing that protects the fans in the audience from the rock-hard pelota was merely a fabric fishing net. Betting on Jai-Alai in France is illegal. It is strictly an amateur sport and fans watch the big pro matches strictly as exhibitions. So, no tennis balls flying around, just fans mostly cheering.
One of the most exciting plays in the sport is when a player makes a catch and climbs the screen to make a difficult return throw while still suspended in mid-air. But here a player running to the “screen” cannot climb or bounce off it, he actually tumbles into the first row of seats.
The first match of this world amateur competition was scheduled for tomorrow night as we watched the teams’ practice. All courts are different, and our guys, Kirby, Joey, Charlie, and Nick needed to get the feel of the court before facing off against the Philippine team, our first match of the tournament. Yes, Jai-Alai is played in the Philippines, probably because of the long Spanish heritage there. Many of our pros had played in Manila prior to getting a contract to play in the U.S.
After observing the practice, Piston, the “Head Coach” of our contingent, made the decision he would start Kirby Prater in the frontcourt and Nick Nickerson as his partner in the back. Piston, knowing the United States had not only never won a medal in the past world amateur tournaments, but they had never even won a game. But, with Kirby’s experience and Nick’s power, maybe we could, at least, make a good showing.
The following evening, we all met at the fronton, wished our guys good luck, and sat together in the small seating area. Piston, visibly nervous, stood in the player’s quarters near the bench, to coach the team during a time-out.
The tournament adhered to the Partido format, the physically challenging, 35-point head-to-head match. This is quite different from the U.S. version of Jai-Alai where the games are to 7 points, using the round-robin format, with usually eight post positions In our games, if you lose a point you sit down and wait for your turn to return to the court. Here, there are no breaks, no sitting, with two one-minute time outs allowed during the entire match. Endurance is a major factor in winning or losing a match.
Our guys got off to a good start. The Filipino team had trouble with Nick’s unorthodox style and big forehand throw. Kirby was steady, keeping the ball in play, occasionally throwing a kill shot to score. But Nick was keeping the ball deep, often throwing the ball past the frontcourter, and with such power that he was scoring points, too. This is unusual in Jai-Alai as most backcourters are defensive, keeping the ball in play, waiting for his partner in the front to throw a kill shot.
When it was finally over, Kirby and Nick had upset the Philippine team. This was not only a great win for the U.S. team, but it was the first win ever of a single game in the history of the tournament! We were all standing and cheering, knowing we had witnessed amateur Jai-Alai history.
There was another match to be played that evening, Spain versus Mexico. So, we all sat back down, waiting for our guys to shower and join us in the audience. Eventually, Kirby and Nick emerged from the player’s quarters. We greeted them with hugs and congratulatory applause for pulling out the first win for us.
Nickerson proceeded to find the fronton bar and brought back a large beer to the seats. Sitting directly in front of me and wearing his cut-offs and sandals, he promptly settled back in his seat and draped his legs over the chair in front of him, his near bare feet dangling. All eyes from the French fans turned from adoration to disgust as he displayed such a lack of respect. We were guests of their country, bringing amateur athletes to compete in Olympic style competition, and set an example for their young kids who were aspiring amateur Jai-Alai players. But this was Nick. Surfer, devil-may-care, huge forehand, beer drinking Nick.
With all of us still feeling the glow of the big win, we still had a long way to go… with Mexico, Spain, and France coming up. And now Nick’s behavior was causing an embarrassing situation. I could see the pained look on Piston’s face. He was known as a first-class gentleman of the game, the consummate professional. Having been the coach for the first U.S. win ever, how was he going to deal with his star backcourter’s unorthodox, classless behavior? This would prove to be only the beginning of his problems.