Looking at the rows and rows of seats, you can imagine a different time. There were thousands of people every night, men in dark suits and hats packed shoulder to shoulder. They’d be waving programs, downing brown booze, smoking cigarettes from cigarette cases or, better still, puffing thick cigars that would fill the room with pungent smoke and give the air just below the giant ceiling lights a ghostly blue haze. As the men on the court used oblong baskets to hurl a goatskin ball over and over against a granite wall, the men in the crowd would be hollering and belly laughing and slapping each other on the back. There was a time when the audience at the Miami Jai Alai fronton was so loud, the players on the court could barely hear their own thoughts.
Now though, the seats are almost all empty. On this clear-skied, 85-degree Tuesday afternoon in mid-winter, there are more players in uniform than spectators in the crowd. On the other side of the building, in the freshly renovated casino, there are plenty of people at the poker tables and parked in front of the more than 1,000 flashing slot machines. But in this massive auditorium, once the epicenter of the gambling action, it’s dead.
You can hear the scoreboard beeping, and it sounds like the entire building is on life support
With every throw, you can hear the ball—in jai alai, the pelota—crash against the wall with a thunderous, echoing boom. You can hear the scoreboard beeping, and it sounds like the entire building is on life support. What was once a five-star restaurant at the top of the grandstand, the Courtview Club, is almost always dark and vacant now. The skyboxes, once bustling with young women offering cocktail service, now gather dust year-round. Same for the sectioned-off rows that once comprised the sizable press box. Even the players’ names, they once sounded so exotic and intriguing. Now they just seem … foreign.
The few people in the audience who are actually paying attention to the action—there are no fans here, just bettors rooting for their wagers—feel comfortable yelling at the players by name, even when they are only barely pronounceable. “Goiko!” they yell. Or “Aritz!” Or “Paxti!”
An old Cuban man in a weathered leather jacket and worn blue cap stands up near the back, lifts his fist, and shouts: “Tevin! Make it happen!”
Now he’s the only American-born player left on the Miami Jai Alai roster. He’s the only American jai alai player he knows.
The player known as Tevin is named Leon Shepard. As is the tradition in jai alai, professional players are each known by one short nickname. He picked “Tevin” because he’d been listening to a lot of R&B singer Tevin Campbell at the time. Shepard grew up in Bridgeport, Conn. He’s been playing professionally for 21 years. Now he’s the only American-born player left on the Miami Jai Alai roster. He’s the only American jai alai player he knows. Last year at the World Championships in France, when organizers couldn’t find a second American player, he was paired with a Cuban-American partner.
“I guess they thought that was close enough,” he’d say later.
He has a long, narrow face, with eyes that seem calm whether he’s plunging toward the floor in service of a ball or patiently waiting his turn in the cage next to the court. At the moment, he’s wearing white shoes, white pants, a thick white helmet, a red sash around his waist, and a black jersey with a number 5 on the front and a 25 on the back. (The number on the back is a player’s permanent number, and the number on the front is his playing position, which changes every game like with a racehorse.) Attached to his right hand is a long curved basket—a cesta—handmade from steamed chestnut wood and woven reeds from the Pyrenees Mountains.
When it’s his turn, he walks calmly onto the court—the cancha. Imagine a three-story, three-sided 176-foot long racquetball court, with two cement walls, one on the side and one in back, one granite front wall on the end (granite is the only substance that can withstand the repeated force of a speeding pelota), and one chain-link fence through which the audience can see all the action. That same fence also protects the audience from errant balls, which are bouncing around the court sometimes faster than the human eye can track.
It’s hard to describe jai alai to someone who’s never seen it. It’s sweeping and whirling and violently fast.
It’s hard to describe jai alai to someone who’s never seen it. It’s sweeping and whirling and violently fast. Shepard’s opponent starts the point by whipping the ball against the front wall. In one smooth, continuous motion, as the ball takes a bounce, Shepard leaps to catch it in his cesta and whips it back against the wall so hard the collision sounds like a shotgun blast. His opponent whips it back, and this time it caroms off two walls at an angle, forcing Shepard to climb the side wall a little like an outfielder in baseball pulling back a homerun. He’s three feet off the ground, his torso completely parallel to the floor, when he returns the pelota with just enough velocity to get it to the front wall. It’s like a well-executed drop shot in tennis. His opponent can’t cover all that space in time. Point, Tevin. After the incredible display of athleticism, there are one or two aahs in the audience—a missed free throw in a meaningless NBA game garners a louder reaction.
Within seconds there is a new opponent on the court, and Shepard serves. Jai alai is played in a round-robin style, eight players (or pairs when they play doubles) at a time. When you win a point, you get to stay on the court. The loser sits at the end of the bench and hopes to get another chance. The game is over when someone gets either seven or nine points.
Shepard wins the next point. Then the one after that too. Nobody cheers though. Most people don’t even look up from their $1 programs.
Jai alai used to be a very popular spectator sport in this country. Presidents watched jai alai with their wives.
This is what a dying sport looks like. For decades, the Miami fronton was known as the “Yankee Stadium of jai alai,” a temple to the game, the site of the largest jai alai crowds in American history. Since the 1920s, the best players in the world have gathered here every winter.
Jai alai used to be a very popular spectator sport in this country, with frontons up and down the Eastern seaboard. Presidents watched jai alai with their wives. Ernest Hemingway bragged about getting to hang out with jai alai players. In fact, during World War II he concocted a scheme in which jai alai players would somehow lob grenades down the open hatches of unsuspecting German U-boats. Now, the sport seems like a relic, a vision into the past. It’s vestigial, like an appendix.
But the truth is, this could be the future of any number of sports that are popular today. With a few small twists of fate, in time, this could be baseball or hockey or even football. If rule changes—precipitated by concussions—lead to an erosion of the fan base, football, like jai alai, might one day exist only for the purposes of gambling. It’s not impossible to imagine someone looking back a few generations from now on the hordes of drunken, screaming fans who fill up Cowboys Stadium and tailgate in their jerseys the same way we see those old jai alai patrons, with their suits and bourbon and cigars: anachronisms, ghosts from another time.
After three in a row, Shepard loses a point and moves to the end of the bench. A minute or two later, since nobody has seven points yet, he gets another chance. But he bobbles a ball and loses the point. He finishes the game in fourth place, out of the money. (The top three finishers in each game get a bonus that ranges from $30 to $90.) The man who had cheered him moments ago didn’t even stick around for the end of the game. He’s back at the teller bay, ready to make a bet on the next game.
“It’s like we’re able to play beautiful music out there,” Shepard would explain later. “But nobody can hear the instruments.”
It’s not impossible to imagine someone looking back a few generations from now on the hordes of drunken, screaming fans who fill up Cowboys Stadium the same way we see those old jai alai patrons.
On most days, Leon Shepard wakes up early to get his kids, ages 7 and 8, to school on time. Then he goes back to bed. He gets back up around 11 a.m. After breakfast, he gets in his Chrysler 300 and drives from Miramar, the pleasant, tree-lined suburb where he lives, to the fronton, right next to the Miami airport.
He usually arrives for work between 12 and 12:15 p.m. He gets a massage and a stretch, and his uniforms (eight different no. 25 jerseys) are clean and waiting for him. There are no practice courts to warm up on, so 16 men at a time take turns flinging the ball against the front wall to loosen up. Though the speeding pelotas can do some serious damage—every so often a player has an eye knocked out—the most common injuries are to shoulders and elbows, similar to pitchers.
every so often a player has an eye knocked out
“I’m my own boss. We have insurance. And at the end of the day I get paid to throw a ball around.”
For the last five years, Shepard has come to jokingly call the fronton a “factory,” but he knows it’s not a bad job. He’s only at work four and a half hours a day—he’s usually home before rush hour. Most players play in five games a day, so all told, he’s only really on the court for 10 or 12 minutes, not a bad schedule for upward of 70 grand, even in bad years. Between the monthly base salary ($3,000 on average), the bonus for each win, place, and show, and the cut of the slot machine revenue players get as part of their union contract (around $2,000 a month), a few players in Miami make well into the six figures.
“It’s a pretty cool gig,” he says, laid back as usual. “I’m my own boss. We have insurance. And at the end of the day I get paid to throw a ball around.”
Shepard is 6’2, a lean 180 pounds, with the chiseled right forearm and bicep of a man who has fired a ball like a rocket six days a week, for 21 years. Because of the configuration of the court, all cestas must be strapped to the right hand—even for natural left-handers like Shepard. So most pelotari (the traditional word for jai alai players) have a markedly different, more toned physique on the right side of their bodies. Shepard’s right bicep is 30 to 40 percent larger than his left.
It’s a game dominated by players from Spain, France, Cuba and Mexico. Some of the pelotari in Miami grew up riding their bicycles over the lush green mountainsides of the Basque country to play barefoot against the wall of a church. Shepard grew up playing baseball. Starting at age 5, he played center field. He could hurl the ball from the warning track to the catcher better than anyone he knew. He was a star through high school, and his mother was there cheering all the way. They would talk about how one day he would play in the major leagues. With his speed, they thought he might even have a chance at Ricky Henderson’s stolen base record. But by the time he was 18, he found baseball boring, unfulfilling.
“I didn’t feel challenged anymore,” he says. “There was nothing new to discover.”
Shepard was at a bowling alley one night with friends when he saw some local jai alai players in the parking lot tossing around a rubber ball with these strange looking baskets he’d never seen. Something about the way it looked intrigued him. It was a little like baseball, but not really. He asked if he could give it a try. Right there in the parking lot he strapped on a cesta and threw the ball against the wall of the bowling alley. Or rather, he tried to throw it. No matter what he did, he couldn’t get the ball to come out of the cesta and go the way he wanted. He was fascinated.
The game dates back centuries, to the rolling hills where France and Spain meet. There, jai alai is called, simply, pelota. It started in small town squares, a derivation of handball. By the 1800s, players were using essentially the same equipment as today (although now players also wear helmets), and gambling was already an integral part of the sport, just as it is in horse racing. Jai alai came to America in 1904, at the St. Louis World’s Fair, and to South Florida and the Northeast by the early 1920s, and over time the relationship between the game and gambling in the United States flourished. The Miami fronton was finished in 1926, designed to be bigger and better than anything that had come before. Through the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, and even into the early ’80s, business boomed. In 1965, the fronton was renovated and the grandstand expanded, from a capacity of around 7,000 to well over 13,000. In the 1960s and 1970s, as states began looking for more ways to make money, legal wagering on jai alai expanded, and the sport became tied to pari-mutuel gambling, sharing space with slot machines. But by the late ’80s, just as ESPN was ushering in a new era of sports entertainment, things had changed.
Through the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, and even into the early ’80s, business boomed.
Wanting to learn more, Shepard went to the local amateur courts in Bridgeport. Connecticut, like Florida, used to be a jai alai hotbed, because it was legal to gamble on the game. At the Bridgeport courts, 50 or 60 people would hang out there every day, some for exercise, some because they wanted to bet on themselves. He was told there was one rubber ball court and one that used a real pelota. A real pelota looks like a goatskin tennis ball. It’s slightly smaller than a baseball, and it’s harder than a golf ball. A top player’s serve can reach 180 miles per hour, easy. Shepard, looking for a challenge, opted for the court with the real pelota.
The first time he threw a ball, he whipped it overhand, the way he’d throw out a runner from center field. The pelota went straight into the ground, bounced up, and hit him in the face. As he sat in the hospital, after a concussion and seven stitches, his mother asked him if he was done with this silly game, if he could re-focus all of his attention on baseball.
“I looked at her and told her it was the exact opposite,” he says. “I was hooked.”
He started going to the amateur courts every day. It cost him $7 an hour, and he’d play eight hours a day. (After coming every day for a few months, they cut him a better deal.) He could borrow a cesta, and he loved strapping up and stepping onto the court. He loved getting the ball on his right side and using his left hand to help with an especially powerful reverse. He loved the way he could set up a point, moving a player around before going in for the kill shot. He loved the sounds of the impressed crowds as he got to balls that seemed impossible. Soon, much to his mother’s dismay, he dropped baseball altogether.
For two years, he was an amateur court regular. He worked until he was comfortable with his right hand, until he found a natural balance. His speed and his strength—his ability to get balls nobody else could, and to return it from all sorts of twisted postures—made up for what he lacked in experience and knowledge of the game.
His first offer to play professionally came not from his hometown fronton in Bridgeport, but from the fronton in Orlando. He drove down there by himself and met with the players’ manager. Shepard was asked what he wanted his jai alai name to be. On his entire drive down, he’d only had one cassette tape: Tevin Campbell. He heard it over and over. Ever more, he’d be known as Tevin.
But before his first game in Orlando, a fronton in Connecticut called him with an opening closer to home. Just like that, he was headed to Milford. There had been some American-born players, starting in the late ’60s. By the mid-’70s, what was probably the sport’s peak in popularity in America, a few American players had even become crowd favorites. There are 25-year-old clips on YouTube of the famed “Joey” – Miami-native Joey Cornblit – that have thousands of views.
Shepard started his professional career in 1992, when he was 20. That was at the tail end of a long players’ strike, when the sport was already beginning to die, well past the days when men couldn’t even get into the fronton without a jacket. Still, he was getting a starting base salary of $2,200 a month to play a game that thrilled him.
He played 10 years in Connecticut. He started in the matinee performances. (In most pari-mutuels, a set of races or games is called a performance.) The game was so popular, there were two performances a day, with the better players generally slotted for the evening games. He quickly moved up to the later games, where in a few years he worked his way up the standings.
In 1996, he won the World Series of Jai Alai, a large tournament featuring some of the best players from casinos all over the world. He won it again in 1999, and a third time in 2000.
He moved to Miami 11 years ago. The job allows him plenty of time with his kids, which is important to him as a single father. (He also has two older children who don’t live with him.) Once a year though, he still enjoys the chance to go to Europe to compete in a few world championships. The crowds are much bigger, often more than 7,000 people, and the games are that much more intense.
“It feels more tense than a tight tennis match,” Shepard says. “That feeling when you’re on the court and the building is packed and you make a great play and everyone goes crazy—it’s just awesome.”
When he started playing, in the early ’90s, people would recognize him every so often outside of the fronton. Now it’s pretty rare.
He doesn’t talk about his work much. When he mentions it to someone new, there’s always an early, inevitable question about whether the games are fixed. After all, this is the only professional sport specifically designed for men to bet on men. Shepard says people inquiring about fixing games have approached him three times in his career. It’s always been away from the fronton, at a club or a diner. Each time, he says, he politely explains how difficult it would be. To fix even a simple win, you’d need at least half the field in on it. That might be eight different players who would want an equal cut—and that’s a lot of people to keep quiet. Plus, these days if there’s anything even remotely suspicious on the court, the guys upstairs review the tapes. They call players into the offices. They’ll get rid of anyone who causes any kind of trouble, no hesitations. Shepard has seen a few players kicked out over his career.
“It’s just not worth it for anybody,” he says. “All that risk—for what?”
There’s a small museum of sorts near the front doors at Miami Jai Alai. Most people pass it on the way to buy a beer or one of the surprisingly good Cuban coffees, and they never look in. There are handcrafted figurines from 60 years ago. There are old pelotas and cestas from significant games over time. There are framed magazine and newspaper articles, some from as far back as the ’30s, some from as recently as the ’80s. Collectively, the room seems to chronicle the rise and fall of the game in this country.
In 1965, Sports Illustrated ran a long feature about how jai alai was beginning to steal great young athletes from other sports. (Indeed, the first American-born professional debuted three years later.) “Anyone who has ever played tennis can take a crack at racquets or squash or badminton or table tennis without looking too much the fool,” the story says about the keen physicality required of jai alai. “But attempting to throw a jai alai ball around without any experience is equivalent to sitting down to a mah-jongg game with your Chinese laundryman.” The same article also recounts a tale of a player in the 1930s who died after taking a pelota to the head, and another story about a man who, after a head injury, went from being “an austere type of person” to “very jolly and outgoing.”
“The lobby used to be so packed every night, people could barely get to the window.”
A teller named Bertha has sold and cashed betting tickets here for nearly 40 years. She started on Christmas Day in 1974. Back then there was a strict dress code. A man couldn’t even get in the building without a jacket and tie. Women would come in groups, she remembers, and shout out the names of the players they thought were cute. Yes, there was a time when jai alai was rife with groupies. Boxers would come to the fronton to be seen after winning fights at the Fontainebleau. There were regular appearances from celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason, and later, David Letterman and Sylvester Stallone.
“The lobby used to be so packed every night, people could barely get to the window,” she says. “And the people who came here back then really, really loved it.”
Above the small museum sits the office of Daniel Michelena. He is one of the game’s all-time greats. A Basque native who debuted in 1983, he won each of jai alai’s highest honors at least once. He retired after 19 years and nine Triple Crowns—when a player at one fronton ends the year leading the roster in singles, doubles and overall wins. Now he’s 50 and he’s the director of player personnel in Miami. He still has a broad chest—the right side is still slightly more developed than the left—and when he talks about jai alai, it’s clear he wishes he could still play.
“It’s the most spectacular sport in the world,” he says with an accent that sounds a little like a French Canadian adopting a Spanish lilt. “When you play it right, there’s nothing more exhilarating.”
But it also wears down your body. After only a month off, it might take three weeks for your arm and shoulder to re-adjust to flinging a pelota. That’s one of the reasons South Florida became such a popular jai alai destination, it was somewhere European players could come to stay sharp during the winter.
These days at the fronton, Michelena recruits and signs players, he assists with immigration papers, and he helps with labor negotiation. But he ultimately considers himself an ambassador of the game. On his wall is a colorful photo of his home in the Basque country, where the sport was born. On a table behind his desk sit a series of detailed jai alai player bobblehead dolls. Each has a tiny cesta, a sash, a helmet and a different player’s face. They were part of a promotion about 10 years ago. There are still plenty left.
Over the years, in an effort to coax out every possible gambling dollar, jai alai wagers grew increasingly complex. That meant young people didn’t find the game as accessible as previous generations, and casual gamblers were confused and less inclined to give jai alai a try. To try to expand the potential customer base as much as possible, the fronton dropped the dress code requirements, which meant the game also lost a bit of the upscale allure it always had and the real high rollers stayed home.
With more gambling, there came more affiliation with organized crime. There’s a dark side to jai alai’s history that’s a little hazier than the stuff in the small fronton museum. It involves meat grinders and brutal murders and the infamous Boston mobster Whitey Bulger. There were FBI investigations, federal indictments and plenty of frontons shuttered. And more and more, potential patrons worried that the games were fixed. Soon other gambling options sprang up. First, there was the state lottery. Then came the Indian casinos and the so-called “cruises to nowhere” (boats that take gamblers into international waters for a night of government-free wagering and return to port a few hours later). There were just too many places that made it simpler to bet on things that didn’t seem so susceptible to corruption.
And while jai alai was never as culturally entrenched as baseball or football or basketball, at the height of jai alai’s popularity in the ’70s, football and basketball weren’t nearly as popular as they are now. Miami only got the NBA in 1988. The region didn’t have major league baseball until the Marlins in 1993.
The last straw, what history might record as the fatal blow for jai alai in America, was a player’s strike in 1988. It stretched out over three years, and as the fronton brought in inferior replacements, there was some picket-line violence and an exodus of patrons. By the time Shepard turned pro in 1992, the strike was over, but the industry never completely recovered. A sport that in the 1970s was growing, and once seemed on the verge of breaking out, had become moribund.
With the rise of fantasy sports and office pools and the massive modern sports entertainment complex, jai alai got left behind.
With the rise of fantasy sports and office pools and the massive modern sports entertainment complex, jai alai got left behind. Now, unless there’s an old movie or a gambling-inclined uncle involved, there’s almost no way a young person would ever even be exposed to jai alai in this country. ESPN doesn’t show it on television in the US or cover the sport on the dot com. Even in Basque, more and more kids are playing rugby and soccer. And on the rare occasions when someone does come into contact with jai alai and shows a slight interest, the equipment is far from cheap. One pelota costs $100 and only lasts 20 minutes on the court before it cracks and splits and needs to be thrown away. A cesta is about $600.
At Miami Jai Alai, all the balls and baskets are made in-house. If you take the winding, musty staircase up from the locker room, past the old wood paneling and a dark room full of plastic furniture, you’ll find two doors. Behind one, there’s a Basque man crafting pelota after pelota out of rubber, latex, and sheets of goatskin shipped from England. Behind the other door you’ll find two men, Wagi from Indonesia and Carlos from Mexico, who have cut and carved reeds and wood for four decades each. Every day, they sit in the same seats, in the same dimly lit room, making and fixing each cesta used on the court. On the walls hang the kind of antediluvian tools horror films are made for. Most of the time, Carlos doesn’t need all those tools though. He prefers to cut and shape the reeds the way he’s always done it: with a piece of broken glass.
As they sit there, day in and day out, Carlos and Wagi don’t say much. Every once in a while they’ll watch a visitor fumble around with a cesta and a pelota. Mostly though, they watch a flickering 13-inch television, which at the moment is playing old Seinfeld reruns. Neither man speaks much English, so they’re not too sure what’s going on in each episode, but they smile when they hear the laugh track.
One of Michelena’s biggest rivals from two decades ago was a man named Juan Ramón Arrasate. On the court, he went by “Arra.” For years they would duel every day, always close to each other at the top of the annual standings. These days Arrasate is still at the fronton, too. He’s clean-cut, with glasses and an accent similar to his old rival’s, and he’s the fronton’s players’ manager. He sets the schedules and oversees the operations behind the scenes. Around here, he’s part father figure (especially to the handful of guys under 30), part coach and part cat herder.
Arrasate’s office is right next to the locker room. On his desk are several incredibly intricate wood carvings. One looks like an ancient tree god. One looks like an elaborate puzzle-toy Santa Claus might have brought children during the middle of the 19th century. Each one of these has taken 30 to 40 hours of labor, he explains. Shaving, carving, sanding, working slowly over time, one thing becomes something else completely.
The game only exists in America at all because that loss is well worth it for casino owners.
These days, the casino is losing money on jai alai. The game only exists in America at all because that loss is well worth it for casino owners. Without jai alai, there would be none of those lucrative slot machines or poker tables on the other side of the building. See, aside from the Indian casinos, the only places you can gamble in Florida are pari-mutuels, which in order to offer casino-type gambling, by law must also feature a sport like jai alai or horse racing. Florida law dictates that a fronton must present a minimum of 40 performances—with eight games per performance—to maintain its license. Until the law changes—and there are lobbyists on both sides pushing legislation every year—jai alai will have some breath left.
But last year the president of the fronton in Ocala, Fla., seeking to abide by only the letter of the law, quietly fired all of the professional players and support staff and hired two locals—one of which was a former University of Florida placekicker. (The law doesn’t require a minimum number of players.) While professional jai alai players came from all over the state to protest outside the fronton, the two men inside played each other over and over behind a black curtain. It’s a future everyone at Miami Jai Alai hopes to avoid.
There are trophies on Arrasate’s walls next to old photos and a beautiful portrait of the village where he’s from in Basque, where the sport is still pure. A lot of the Basque men at the fronton have photos of their hometowns, and while they all appear relatively similar to an outsider (they all look like picturesque isle villas tucked into where the lush green mountains meet the sparkling blue sea), the men all argue among themselves over whose hometown is the most beautiful.
He, too, has seen the game change over the span of his career. It’s not all for the worse either, Arrasate points out. For generations, smooth, poised pelotari have graced the frontons. There were a few especially large lugs over the years, but the best have always disposed of their opponents with style. It’s only been in the last two decades, Arrasate says, that the really great athletes have turned to jai alai.
“Look at someone like Tevin,” he says. “He started with only raw skills, but he had that pure athletic ability and that drive to succeed.”
And then there’s Goiko, full name Iñaki Osa Goikoetxea. He’s won nine triple crowns, and at his age (32) and the rate he’s going, he could easily snag an additional five or six, maybe more. Details magazine ran a short profile of Goiko last year, calling him the “Michael Jordan of Jai Alai.”
“We didn’t have guys who had that combination when I played,” Arrasate says. “They were either big and powerful or they could climb the walls and get to the hard shots. But he’s both. It’s impossible until you see it. He’s really incredible.”
Shepard agrees. “He’s the single most dominant player I’ve ever seen in my career,” he says. “He’s powerful and technically skilled. Possibly the best to ever play the game.” He adds: “I just always try to give him a hard point. It’s all you can do.”
This is the strangest irony of a dying sport. As frontons close, or switch over to simulcast betting only, the talent pool has been consolidated over the years. Then these bigger, better athletes face off against each other every day, sharpening the skill level even more. It’s as if all the talent in the NHL were concentrated on only the rosters of the original six teams, or if there were suddenly only 16 major league teams, or a dozen pro football teams, and they all played in near empty ballparks and stadiums.
“Some of the best jai alai ever played is being played right now,” Arrasate says. “And almost nobody’s around to see it.”
Imagine if a hundred years from now, the best shortstop, or the greatest point guard of all-time comes along when no one watches the game anymore. What if the best quarterback ever to play the game—the man who goes on to win 10 championships—is playing in Super Bowls at a time when the game is no longer televised? Maybe by then fantasy football players will have transitioned into future markets and peewee leagues are scarce. Maybe nobody cares by then, because there are new sports and new distractions and entertainment our naïve 21st century minds can’t begin to fathom.
There are already plenty of serious problems in sports. Boxing has withered from the single most popular sport in the country 100 years ago, with much of the blame going to the weak, disjointed sanctioning bodies and the suspicious, contemptible promoters. Certainly, an undefeated record in the ring doesn’t mean as much as it once did.
In just the last few years, the game of football has been party to a bounty scandal, performance-enhancing drug allegations, concussion-related suicides, rapes, murders, drunken driving deaths and at least one child-molestation scandal. The NBA has had a referee go to prison for betting on games he officiated. Baseball’s own Hall of Fame couldn’t find a single living player worthy of induction this year. And the NHL’s audiences and revenues have spiraled downward thanks to a number of labor disputes and games now appearing on cable channels nobody can find.
It probably seems like the sport you love will never die, because there so many fans and they are so passionate and die-hard, and how could that ever fail? Except that there were once passionate, die-hard fans of jai alai. In time, most of them did in fact die.
As the Tuesday afternoon goes on, Leon Shepard changes shirts several times. The games tick by. One minute he’s in purple, then he’s in red, then it’s green. He wins a doubles game, then he finishes another singles out of the money. Then another.
Shepard is 41 now. He’s not as fast as he was. His body gets more sore than it used to, and it seems to take a little longer to recover. But he still has a family to feed. There’s one pelotari on the roster who’s 49. Shepard figures if he takes care of himself he might be able to last that long. He has other plans too though. He and some friends have a business concept he can’t give too many details about. He says they have a patent pending.
He also has some ideas about how to save the game. If the fronton ever offered him a PR job, he’d take it in a second, he says. He’d try to bring in basketball players and baseball players to make publicized appearances in the offseason. He’d like to try to reach out to the South Florida sports community more. He’d also make sure the nicknames sound more relatable.
“This sport doesn’t have to die off in America.”
“I know we’ll probably never get back to the crowds we had,” he says. Right now, at the busiest, the fronton is lucky to get 500 people. “Maybe we could get that up to 3,000, or 2,000, or even 1,000. This sport doesn’t have to die off in America.”
In his last game of the day, Shepard takes an early lead, but then loses a point. As it cycles around this time, he wins two more points before losing again. It’s good enough for third place and a small bonus. Surely, someone in the room has bet on him and just won money.
But at the moment, there are no cheers. Nobody’s paying attention. There’s nothing but the long, lonely echoes of men throwing a ball against a wall.
Photo Credit: Getty Images
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