Jai Alai, Anyone? A Classy, Lightning Fast, and Possibly Fatal, Sport

George CashewContributor IMay 29, 2010

14 Nov 1989:  General view of the action during a jai alai game in Tampa, Florida. Mandatory Credit: Scott Halleran  /Allsport
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Maybe you've seen it on the opening of Miami Vice , just after the girls' breasts in the bikini, the horses, and the greyhounds?

Brett Favre just mentioned jai alai on one of his TV commercials.

The "World's Most Interesting Man" had a commercial clip of him flinging the pelota around, back in the day.

It is know as the fastest game ball sport in the world, where the pelota can reach speeds in excess of 150 mph after being hurled out of a basket that is attached to the player's hand (called a cesta) with a strap (called a cinta).

Dhani Jones (he of the Cincinnati Bengals) tried to go overseas in Spain (to the Basque region, where the game originated) and learn to play the game on his television program, and found out what it was like to be facing down a rock-hard ball (which is just a little smaller than a baseball and harder than a golf ball) with just you and a reed basket for protection.  

Before the casinos and lotteries became prevalent, jai alai was the place to be if you wanted excitement and gambling action in Florida, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.

The court measures around 175 feet long and has three walls; the frontis is made of solid granite blocks so as to withstand the force of the pelota, while the side, back wall, and floor are made of special pressure-applied cement. The court is about 50 feet wide and a fence separates the playing surface from the stands—where crowds numbered as much as 10,000, during its heyday.

"Ballet with Bullets" an author once called it, as players try to outwit their opponents with speed, power, and spin, climbing the side wall to make a catch and rocketing the ball back with frightening velocity.

The game is simple—one bounce. You must catch and return the pelota in one smooth motion—hitting the front wall with your shot and allowed only one bounce with which to do it. Your shot must hit the front wall and then the floor. If it flies off the court before hitting the floor—you lose the point.

There are eight teams (or post positions) each game and games can be singles or doubles, just like tennis. Typically games are played until either seven or nine points, with points doubling after the first round of play—once each team plays one time.

Play is very simple; the No. 1 team serves to the No. 2 team. Whoever loses the point sits down on the bench at the end of the pile, behind the No. 8 team. The winner serves to the No. 3 team...winner stays on, loser sits down...and so on and so on.

Games can go on for 15 minutes and bettors are usually never out until the winning point is thrown. 

Players wear a special helmet for protection—and that is all. Broken bones (and worse) are an occupational hazard.

For those of you (us) with a gambling inclination, betting is simple if you've ever watched The Kentucky Derby: win, place, show, quinella, perfecta, trifecta, and superfecta are all in play.

If you like to enjoy an evening's entertainment (including courtside dinner), I highly recommend a look at this classy sport. If not, it's still available in Florida and you can catch it online.