Joey, at 18, was already showing superstar status as he impressed the Tampa fans in the intercity Tournament of Champions. (shown here with Tampa backcourt star Gorrono.)
The battle was raging. Romance or rebotes. Here we sit, in the south of France, two beautiful young American girls starving for affection, and we are considering leaving this to see Ondarres, Churruca, Guisasola, and Goyogana?
“Neil, these ARE the top four Jai-Alai players in the world,” I whispered. The girls grew more impatient. And, it’s not that Neil and I had many previous opportunities for any amorous action, nor did we suspect there may be any in the near future, either.
“It IS Churruca and he is supposed to be the best, maybe of all time,” Neil said. “This may be our only chance.” And it may be our only chance here, too.
We stared at each other, reluctantly knowing the decision was made. We dropped the girls off at their small beach hotel and went straight to the St. Jean-de-Luz Fronton to see this 35-point partido featuring the world’s best. Yes, I would be able to tell Richie Berenson (son of owner Buddy Berenson) all about this great partido we saw. Yes, I would now get to say I saw the great Churruca. But, choosing Jai-Alai over sex, was it the right decision? For Jai-Alai addicts, absolutely!
The next morning, we jumped into our tiny Simca and headed across the French border to the Spanish Basque country. Two young guys wearing tank tops, long hair and mustaches, we had a problem at the border. They searched our car for drugs, scanned my rental car documents over and over, questioned where we were going and for what purpose. It took over an hour, but grudgingly they finally let us through.
San Sebastian was our first stop. This is a beautiful Basque resort city on the Bay of Biscay, just at the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains. The following day, our route was inland to the notorious villages of Durango, Markina, and finally Guernika. Most of our players were from these small mountain hamlets. Guernika was famous because Hitler used it as a test for his bombers before his onslaught on England. Yet, it survived and once again flourished. But, in our sport, Guernika is well known for producing some of the greatest Jai-Alai players to ever play the game.
When we arrived at the “central villa” or city center, we parked and found the famous Guernika Fronton. I had heard our young American player Joey was spending the summer there, getting some extra seasoning. He was facing the toughest roster in the world at Miami Jai-Alai and was told playing partidos (35-point, head-to-head matches) would help him. So, off he went. Alone, around 18 years old, speaking almost no Spanish, and thousands of miles away from home, Joey was probably questioning this decision. Remember, I had met Joey in the World Amateur Championship the previous year but didn’t really know him very well. I was hoping we could find him, at least to say hello.
Adjacent and attached to the fronton building was a small bar/café, Bar Las Vegas. I went inside and asked if anyone knew a pelotari (player) named Joey and that we were friends from America. The bartender said, “Si, espera,” which I only understood as, “yes.” We sat down and 5 minutes later, Joey runs through the door not knowing who was asking for him. He sees Neil and me, a giant smile comes across his face, and he gives us both big hugs, as if we were his long, lost relatives.
Joey explained that he had been there a month, been treated great by his hosts, but had not seen any Americans since he arrived. He missed speaking English, eating his Mom’s cooking, and seeing his friends. Undoubtedly, he was homesick.
He bought us a beer. We talked, laughed, and he told us stories about his experiences, so far. Neil and I had a great time in Bar Las Vegas that day. But undoubtedly Joey enjoyed it more.
Joey set us up at a hotel and even arranged for us to practice on the famed Guernika court the next morning. This was the only court we had ever seen that had a black marble front wall, and we were anxious to play on it. It would be like playing in Yankee Stadium for us.
The next morning, Joey met us at the fronton. We practiced for hours, noticing the pelotas (ball) turned black after banging against the black marble wall. When we were finished, we thanked Joey and said our farewells to the future Jai-Alai great. Little did I know that this was the beginning of one of the greatest sport’s careers of an American athlete. Nor did I realize that Joey would be one of my dearest friends for the next 50 years, and to the present.
Neil Einhorn and I departed Guernika and the Basque Country heading south to Barcelona. Having heard about one additional Jai-Alai fronton in southern Spain, we boarded a ferry to Palma de Mallorca. We found out that there were games that evening and the location of the fronton. After napping on the beach all day, we headed to Fronton Balear, in the heart of Palma.
As we sat in the small auditorium, we hoped to recognize some players from either Tampa or Miami playing there. But we knew they sometimes played under different names in Spain. Luckily, a name appeared on the scoreboard that I instantly recognized: Cruz. Cruz was an early game backcourt player in Tampa. Also, I saw the name Bascaran (a Tampa frontcourter) and Iturregui. Neil instantly said that he knew Iturregui from Miami Jai-Alai.
Between games, while the players were on the court practicing, we walked up to the screen and yelled their names. Cruz and Bascaran instantly recognized me and said to wait for them after the partidos had ended.
We met them outside. They welcomed us with open arms. Iturregui, maybe 5′ 5″, was an early to middle game player in Miami. When he found out Neil was from there, he treated him like they were brothers. The three of them insisted we stay with them at their beach apartment for as long as we were in Mallorca. I will never forget the kindness of Cruz, Bascaran, and Iturregui. I was quickly learning that the Basques were the most hospitable people on the planet. I was falling in love with the culture. I was hoping they were beginning to accept me into their tight-knit family. I would soon find out