Two Phone Calls That Changed My Life
A look of shock was clearly displayed on the face of Richard Donovan, President and CEO of World Jai-Alai. Paul Rico stopped shuffling the cards. I looked at Donovan and said, “What?”
Rico, Chief of Operations for World Jai-Alai, a highly decorated retired FBI agent, and I had been summoned for our near-daily, after hours gin rummy game in the president’s office. But, today, this call would change our lives.
Roger Wheeler, an Oklahoma oil magnate and owner of World Jai-Alai, had been gunned down in the parking lot of the Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa. It was May 27th, 1981.
Another call, more than 10 years earlier, in December of 1968, would, also, change my life.
The phone rang at 9 a.m. at Ronnie Aranow’s house in Hollywood, Florida. I was a sophomore at UF. Ronnie was my roommate in the fraternity house and invited me to spend Christmas vacation at his house.
I awakened to Ronnie’s voice talking to another fraternity brother of ours, Bill Hoffman. “Wild Bill” asked if we would like to meet him at Miami Amateur Jai-Alai that morning and play some Jai-Alai. When Ronnie asked me, I said, “Sure, I’ve seen it before, looks easy, would love to try it.”
Yes, I had done what most of us did in the 60s, gotten a fake ID that said I was 21, and used it to sneak into Tampa Jai-Alai. I was a senior at Plant High in Tampa when my close buddy Bob Cohn talked me into it. He said it is really a lot of fun.
With heart pounding, and trying to look older than I was, the Chief of Security (which I later found out was Sheriff Deputy Olin Harrell, later working closely with him in Tampa and Ocala) scrutinized my ID. He scanned me suspiciously and said, “you’re not 21, get the hell out of here.” And, with visions of being taken to jail, I fled as fast as I could.
But, there were two gates of entry to Tampa Jai-Alai. The next week I tried the South Gate, manned by an elderly gentleman whose eyesight was suspect. I GOT IN!
I will never forget my first experience in the fronton… the sights, smells, and the sound of the crack of the ball against the wall. I had never heard or seen anything like it.
Then, we bet a quiniela after Bob explained to me what one was. We lost, but the excitement of the game was incredible. Later, we hit a quiniela. We won $42.00 for a $6 box, that was a lot of money in those days. But, that was the end for me, had to go up to Gainesville, begin college and a possible engineering degree.
Now, I’m getting the opportunity to actually play that intriguing sport that I had seen in Tampa. The pros at Tampa Jai-Alai make it look easy. I was good at tennis, raquetball, and even handball, how hard could this possibly be?
So, we entered Miami Amateur, rented a cesta for $.50, and walked outside to this small court, where about 10 guys were hurling this rubber ball at a fairly large, concrete front wall. Ron and I got in line, waiting for our turn to go onto the court, with no warmup, no practice.
When it was my turn, I was allowed a couple of practice throws. I did what I would soon find out everyone does, throw the ball straight down, to the left, and almost hit the guy behind me. What? How did that happen?
It probably was almost 2 hours before I finally hit the front wall with a catch and throw. It was the most challenging, exciting experience of my life, even though I was a total failure.
I woke up the next morning, with soreness in muscles I didn’t even know I had, barely able to get out of bed, and asked Ronnie sheepishly, “Can we go back and play some more today?”
I was hooked, but completely unaware that I was about to embark on a path, a journey that included working 41 years in a sport I love with all my heart.
The phone call in 1981 would begin my involvement with the longest unsolved murder in American history. But, the phone call in 1968…. it gave me the most amazing life I ever could have imagined. And, I will try to share some of those incredible experiences with you in the coming articles.