I find myself, yet again, sitting and waiting at the doctor’s office. It’s been nearly a year now of visiting doctors. I remember my parent’s routine, back in what they called their ‘golden years’. It consisted of going to the bank, attorneys and doctors. My wife, who is younger and in great shape no longer accompanies me on these medical visits. She tells me that I am a hypochondriac.

professional jai alai player

professional jai alai player

Three years ago we both began working out with trainers. After a year, I looked terrific. I could do 1000 jumping jacks broken up by sets of free weight lifting of over 100 lbs. I was looking and feeling great but always looked at training as a chore and a bore. You constantly get bombarded by society with the idea that exercising is the thing that one must do to maintain good health. Probably true enough but boring.

I started to notice I could no longer sleep on my right shoulder. I had terrible pain which was becoming increasingly worse, most likely stemming from old skiing injuries. The results of repeated falls skiing the black runs in Aspen during my youth had finally taken its toll. I stopped training and started with the cortisone shots that eventually led to a medical procedure to decompress the right shoulder. That was my first operation, save for the time that I had to have my finger reattached after a bad motorcycle accident. Not bad, I guess, for a 69 year old guy to have stayed out of hospitals for all these years. I had resigned myself to the fact that the extent of my active sporting life was going to be in rehab clinics. Soon I was off to the JCC pool to meet with an aqua therapist. Next I developed a painful new condition in my leg that eluded diagnosis for nearly a year. This led to appointments with a series of different medical specialists.

One day, having nothing to do while waiting to be seen by the latest Dr. of the month, I picked up a local newspaper. Leafing through it, I noticed an ad… “Free Jai Alai Lessons”. Wow! Jai Alai, a game that was so popular in South Florida back a half century ago. As teenagers back then, we would try to sneak into the ‘frontons’ where the pros played at night. These were the days when guys played football or baseball after school and rode bicycles as a form of transportation. Moms did not drive you to soccer games back then. There was no soccer and no SUV’s in those days. We did not stay home to play with electronic devices. We were lucky if our parents had a Hi FI or a Stereo. And we weren’t allowed to touch them. We were always outdoors playing sports or delivering the newspapers after school. It was a great life.

view of pro jai alai court

view of pro jai alai court

Some of us who had just gotten our license would borrow the family station wagon. We would all pile in and sneak into the ‘fronton’ to watch the professional Jai Alai players. Most of them were from the Basque country, a part of Spain. They played with their ‘cestas’, a wicker basket and hurled the ‘pelota’, a ball the size of a baseball and as hard as golf ball, against a granite wall at 180 miles an hour. It was played in an enormous indoor court 180 feet long. It was fun to watch not only for the exciting ‘partidos’ or games, but also for the chance to bet on the game and sneak a beer. Some of us went out and bought used cestas and played with a rubber ball on hand ball and racket ball courts. It was so much fun. It was an exotic and exciting game. The girls would come and watch us play after school against the wall of the local Catholic church.

Some of us got to be so good that we were invited to play amateur league in the regulation fronton where the pros played. This all ended abruptly because of an insurance issue that arose after one of the amateur players got hit with the ball and became paralyzed for life. Fast forward, 50 years later, I decide to look into the “Free Jai Alai Lessons” ad and revisit the passion I once had for the game.

How nuts could I be, to even think of playing this game again? After all, so much time had elapsed since I last played. I told my wife about my latest crazy idea. She was used to them. Not ever wanting to discourage me, she smiled and told me to check it out. We laughed over dinner at the thought. The most exercise my arm got was to lift a couple of glasses of wine during dinner.

I called the number on the ad and Brucio answered the phone. He invited me to come out and have a look and maybe take a lesson. I was trepidatious. Would I remember how to strap the cesta to my hand? What about my aches and pains, being out of shape for so many years? Certainly, I thought this was not one of my better ideas, but curiosity sparked my investigation.

I arrived at the amateur fronton, a much smaller version (90 feet) of the regulation court, expecting to see a bunch of young men playing the sport. Instead, I was perplexed and could not believe what I saw. I wondered if I had come to the right place to take my complimentary lesson. I was greeted by an older guy dressed in white trousers, a sort of uniform the pros wear. Brucio was one of the six ‘mature’ men flinging the ball at great speeds. I asked politely if I had come on the right day. He smiled. He assured me that I had and promptly lent me a cesta.

As I looked around, I realized that I was one of the youngest guys there. I was unfamiliar with these new surroundings. The ‘cancha,’ or court, while a smaller version was, nonetheless, impressive in size. I took the cesta and was surprised that I intuitively started to strap this basket to my hand.

Everyone greeted me and then, promptly, got out of the way. They handed me the hard ball and told me to try and hit the front wall. Tears came to my eyes as it seemed a dejavu of a past lifetime. To my astonishment, I hit the front wall with a strong thud some 70 feet in front of me. That was the lesson.

pro doubles jai alai

pro doubles jai alai

The guys came over to introduce themselves and to welcome me: Brucio, somewhere north of 70; Sol the Jewban (short for Cuban Jew) the elder of the group, maybe 80 and a five-time ping pong champion; Harry, an actor, well into his seventies, who brought his retired racing greyhound; and Byron and Jeff, the youngest, but still seniors and the best players of the group. It was just unreal that these guys, at their age, could be playing any kind of sport, much less one as strenuous as Jai Alai. Why had they chosen this game, to entertain themselves or to stay in shape? Why not golf or maybe dominoes? With my free instruction over, my confidence began to build as the day went on. Memories of my youth came back. The love and the passion I had for this game started to fill my senses.

At the end of the day I signed up as a member. I bought a cesta for a $100 bucks at the old fronton where the pros still played to a miniscule audience. This is a real bargain as they are all, painstakingly, hand made. It takes a week to make a cesta and all the material still comes from Spain. The real ball, that the pro’s play with, only lasts through 20 minutes of hard play.

Now, I get together with the rest of the oldsters three times a week. I am hooked again. We all have a story of the past and how we got here, but most important we are all still in the game and having fun while getting an intense workout and reliving an old passion. It is a fabulous exercise. Some days I lose two to three pounds, mostly sweat. It is also gratifying when you do a difficult shot like a ‘rebote pronto, a chichak or a chula; it makes me feel like a pro. Most important, I no longer focus on my ailments but look forward to getting together and feeling as I once did.

As far as my pains and the doctors…I am leaving all of that for another life. It’s no longer part of my schedule. I refuse to go back to that life and wait for the aches and pains of old age. I have a new lease on life.

(Edit: for those unfamiliar with jai alai, here are the rules:

The court (or cancha) for jai alai consists of 3 walls (front, back, and left), and the floor between them in play. If the ball (called a “pelota”) touches the floor outside these walls, it is considered out of bounds. Similarly, there is also a border on the lower 3 ft (about 1 m) of the front wall that is also out of bounds. The ceiling on the court is usually very high, so the ball has a more predictable path. The court is divided by 14 parallel lines going horizontally across the court, with line 1 closest to the front wall and line 14 the back wall. In doubles, each team consists of a frontcourt player and a backcourt player. The game begins when the frontcourt player of the first team serves the ball to the second team. The winner of each point stays on the court to meet the next team in rotation. Losers go to the end of the line to await another turn on the court. The first team to score 7 points (or 9 in Superfecta games) wins. The next highest scores are awarded “place” (second) and “show” (third) positions, respectively. Playoffs decide tied scores.

professional player scoops up the pelota

professional player scoops up the pelota

A jai alai game is played in round robin format, usually between eight teams of two players each or eight single players. The first team to score 7 or 9 points wins the game. Two of the eight teams are in the court for each point. The server on one team must bounce the ball behind the serving line, then with the cesta “basket” hurl it towards the front wall so it bounces from there to between lines 4 and 7 on the floor. The ball is then in play.

Teams alternate catching the ball in their cesta and throwing it “in one fluid motion” without holding or juggling it. The ball must be caught either on the fly or after bouncing once on the floor. A team scores a point if an opposing player:

fails to serve so the ball bounces between lines 4 and 7 on the floor
fails to catch the ball on the fly or after one bounce
holds or juggles the ball
hurls the ball out of bounds
interferes with a player attempting to catch and hurl the ball
The team scoring a point remains in the court and the opposing team rotates off the court to the end of the list of opponents. Points usually double after the first round of play, once each team has played at least one point.

The players frequently attempt a “chula” shot, where the ball is played off the front wall very high, then reaches the bottom of the back wall by the end of its arc. The bounce off the bottom of the back wall can be very low, and the ball is very difficult to return in this situation.)