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Jai Alai: Off the Wall

Hectored by a players' strike and new Gambling options, Jai alai is still americas purest sporting experience
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
J.P. Morgan, Mar/Apr 00

Up close, it's easy to see that Andoni Echaniz is a star. He carries himself with an animal grace, pacing a hallway on the balls of his feet like a boxer. Yet he has the look of a model, which he happens to be on the side, and his quiet charisma fills a room.

A premier player at south Florida's Dania Jai-alai fronton, Echaniz comes from Spain's contentious Basque country, the Pais Vasco, where jai alai is the national sport of a nonexistent nation. Tonight at Dania, he competes only in Games 9 through 12, at the end of the evening, with and against the other standouts.

"My goal is to be the best in the world, nothing less," he says. He shakes his head for emphasis, his long curly hair flapping like a flag.  

But when Echaniz pulls on the purple shirt of Post 8 and starts his workday, he becomes anonymous. To the few hundred spectators scattered throughout the seats on a Wednesday night, Echaniz, who plays under the nickname Arriaga, isn't one of the finest young peloteros in the world, a 24-year-old frontcourt master who represents Dania in competitions against Miami, Milford (Connecticut), Orlando and the few other surviving U.S. frontons.

Instead, he and his partner for Game 9, Oyarbide, are merely a win ticket, or half of a quiniela: an investment no more personal than a mutual fund.  

If only this were 15 years ago, Arriaga thinks, before the poisonous player strike of 1988 sent the sport on a downward spiral from which it hasn't recovered. Before the tax-free gambling cruises to nowhere began setting sail from nearby harbors and the Lotto jackpots started to multiply and the Native American casinos opened for business with their $10,000 poker hands.

Before sports in the south Florida market grew from one major-league franchise to four and South Beach was transformed from a boarded-up slum to a major tourist destination. If it were the mid-'80s, when Dania Jai-alai once managed to gross a $50 million betting handle in a single season and more than a half million in a single night, when cigar smoke filled the fronton and you sometimes had to place bets a game in advance because the lines were so long, 5,000 fans, easy, would crowd the stands on this Wednesday, not just a couple of busloads of geriatrics and a few hardened regulars.  

That 5,000 would include in-the-know tourists, sharply dressed locals, even celebrities, because jai alai mattered back then. While not everyone would instinctively know from watching Arriaga that he has the innate sense of court space and the physical attributes--strong arm, quick feet--to become one of the sport's all-time greats, plenty would. They'd be betting him against all comers, running down the odds in game after game. They'd have come out just to see him, for God's sake, like they came out for Churruca and Joey.  

Not today. Not these people. "You stink, number five!" someone shouts from the stands at a frontcourt player known as Gallardo, who has just flubbed a seemingly simple catch. Because the fronton is so empty, so devoid of energy or life, everybody hears the heckler, and more than a few patrons chuckle in assent. Because that's what the players are to this perfunctory crowd: mere numbers, numbers that stand for faceless players with unpronounceable Basque names, numbers who change colored shirts and post positions for each game as the odds shift and slide.  

It's safe to say there's little appreciation in the house right now for Oregi's knack for playing the caroms, or for the canniness of the veteran Alberdi. Or for the nuances that make the sport one of the most compelling in the world for those who have come to appreciate it. "You'd be amazed how many of these people come here, and have been coming for years, and don't even take the time to understand the scoring system," says Brian Sallerson, Dania's public relations and promotions director.  

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