By Marty Fleischman
No one really knows the origin of the Basque race. The Basques have a unique blood type, not associated with any other in Spain or France. Their language has no roots in the Romance languages of the area and sounds almost like Chinese. They have such pride in their heritage that their drive for independence caused them to be an enemy of Spain’s dictator Francisco Franco, causing a ban in displaying their flag and a prohibition of speaking their language.
Yet, the pride and stubbornness of the Basque people has guaranteed their survival. Franco is no longer around. Spain now seems to embrace their culture, liberalizing their policies on this small region, roughly the size of Connecticut.
The sport of Jai-Alai began in this area of the world, first played against the church walls on fiesta days. It is called “Pelota Vasca” (Basque ball) and Cesta Punta (point of the basket) in that area. We adopted the name “Jai-Alai” in America, which means “Merry Festival” in Basque.
With La Palanca in our rear view mirror, Ernie Larsen, Tampa Jai-Alai’s general manager, my new boss, and I now headed for our destination, St. Jean de Luz, France. This small resort city, located on the Bay of Biscay, is just across the border in the French part of the Basque country. It would be the site of the 1971 World Amateur Jai-Alai Championship.
St. Jean de Luz was small and extremely picturesque. Along the water were multi-colored sail boats moored in rows, a sandy beach, and a casino complex for tourists. We were looking for Hotel Edouard VII where the U.S. delegation was staying. We found this boutique hotel located in a neighborhood of small French homes, about 4 blocks from the beach, casino, and Jai-Alai fronton. We could actually walk to each, if we wanted.
After checking into our separate rooms (thank goodness), I was given this huge room key on a key chain that had a brass ball on it. I couldn’t believe people lugged this thing around in their pocket while out of their room. After two days of that, I found out you were supposed to give it to the front desk when departing and get it back upon arriving. I can just hear the hotel personnel muttering under their breath, “Americains stupide.”
After checking in, we walked out the front door to a beautiful garden with tables and chairs, where some of our team were sipping French coffee and having a snack. At one table sat our players that would represent the U.S. on the court. Frontcourt amateur champion Kirby Prater sat with Katherine Harrington, who was PR Director for Dania Jai-Alai. They were accompanied by Les and Marilyn Blumberg, huge Dania Jai-Alai fans and avid lovers of the sport. They could be found at Dania almost every night.
At another table sat 15-year-old frontcourt amateur phenom Joey Cornblit. I had actually played with Joey one night at the North Miami Amateur facility during my first year of playing. Hearing guys moaning about the youngster (I think he was about 13 at the time) coming onto the court, I thought he was going to hold up the game with his poor play. But, after about 15 minutes of him destroying all of us and not losing a point, I realized that this kid was something special… and I had a long, long way to go in my quest to be a good Jai-Alai player.
Joey was sitting with U.S. Amateur Jai-Alai Association President Bob Grossberg and VP Fred Pettit. They organized and ran the amateur tournaments throughout Florida. They would both become very dear friends even to this day. They coordinated the U.S. participation in this world competition and were both good amateurs themselves.
Sitting at another table was one of our backcourt players, Charlie Hernandez. His parents, Mr. and Mrs. Rudy Hernandez had traveled all the way from Miami just to support their son in the tournament.
At their table sat the team “Head Coach”, the very famous and venerable retired Jai-Alai great, Piston (pronounced “pis-toan”). Piston will go down in history as the youngest player to turn professional. In 1922, he made his debut in the large fronton in Madrid at the age of nine. He went on to become one of the all-time greats in the sport.
He was now around 60 years old, a full head of black, neatly combed hair, and in shape to still go out on the court and play a few games. Piston’s job was to choose which of our players would play together and against which country in this five-country competition.
Ernie and I grabbed some chairs and joined Bob Grossberg’s table, talking about our visit to the small Basque villages on the way. There was no mention of La Palanca as one of our visits.
Then, walking toward us with a grin came the fourth member of our player delegation, Daytona Beach backcourt player, Charles “Nick” Nickerson. I mentioned Nick in one of my early articles, as one of the players that I faced the first time I walked on a full-sized Jai-Alai court in Daytona Beach.
Nick, with his deep tan, was wearing cut off shorts, a tank top, and beach sandals. He was your prototypical surfer of the ’70s but had a killer forehand that dominated the amateur ranks in U.S. amateur Jai-Alai.
He quickly pulled up a chair, looked at our coffee with disdain, and ordered a beer. This should have been a signal that there were storm clouds on the horizon, that the “proper” French culture was about to clash with the uncouth American.
Also, little did I know that we would come close to getting expelled from the tournament, and we would have such conflict within our ranks that one of the world’s greatest Jai-Alai players would nearly have a nervous breakdown in the middle of the tournament.