After years of decline, the iconic Florida sport of jai alai gets another chance.

By Francisco Alvarado

A corridor away from the dizzy array of whirring slot machines and computerized card games, the revitalization of a forgotten game is in full swing. Roughly 50 spectators file into the jai alai fronton at Magic City Casino in Miami. The walls are adorned with black-and-white photos of a bygone era when the parimutuel sport dominated Florida’s entertainment landscape. 

Most of the patrons find seats on black folding chairs arranged in rows in front of a net that protects them from getting whacked by an errant pelota, the name for the ball, smaller than a baseball but as hard as a hockey puck. A few others mingle in a cordoned-off VIP section where a DJ blasts reggaeton and techno music. 

On this Friday night, the crowd is pumped for a six-match contest between the Cesta Cyclones and the Wall Warriors, two teams competing in the fledgling World Jai Alai League. Everyone is fixated on two jai-alai players in the cancha, the concrete-floored court that is lined with three walls, including one made entirely of plexiglass. 

Michael Carballo, a five-year jai alai veteran dressed in the Cyclones’ all-white uniform, white helmet and white sneakers, crouches near the back of the cancha. The pelota hurtles toward Carballo. He lunges forward, catching the pelota with his cesta, a slender, sickle-shaped basket strapped to his right hand. 

Using his cesta, Carballo catapults the pelota toward the plexiglass wall in front of him. Propelled by high-octane velocity, the ball ricochets to Carballo’s opponent: Julien Goitiandia, a Warriors player decked out in a black helmet, black jersey and white long pants. 

Scooping the pelota with his cesta, Goitiandia fires the circular projectile back at the wall. He scores a point when Carballo fails to snag the rebounding pelota. 

Carballo loses the second of three rounds against Goitiandia by three points. About 10 minutes later, Carballo rallies with a 6-3 win in the third set. And the Cyclones wind up winning five out of the six matches. As fans trickle out, Carballo reflects on his half-decade journey to restore jai alai as a mainstream sport. 

“When I first joined, management told us that this was one big experiment and that we may not be around in two years,” Carballo says. “Five years later, we’ve got local celebrities behind us, top players in the world playing here and our games are televised on cable. The future is bright.” 

Since forming in 2018, the World Jai Alai League has made some significant strides in invigorating new enthusiasm for what’s known as the fastest-moving ball sport on earth. The organization, founded by Magic City Casino chief operations officer Scott Savin, has a television deal to broadcast matches on ESPN3. Recently, Savin recruited star-studded personalities from Miami such as rapper Pitbull, retired NFL player Ray Lewis, retired Miami Heat player Udonis Haslem and UFC mixed-martial arts fighter Jorge Masvidal to sponsor World Jai Alai teams. 

“Next year will be the 100th year anniversary of jai alai in Florida,” Savin says. “And we don’t want it to go away. This sport deserves a second chance.” 

Deep Florida Roots

Jai alai originated in the Basque region of Spain and France more than four centuries ago. Europeans emigrating to the New World brought the sport with them. Jai alai gained a foothold in Mexico, Central America, South America and the Caribbean during the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s. 

In 1904, the sport debuted in the United States at the St. Louis World’s Fair. By the early 1920s, jai alai had spread to other states, including Florida, where pari-mutuel betting on the sport, as well as on horse racing and greyhound racing, became legal. 

In jai alai, the player serving the pelota against the front wall scores a point when the opponent doesn’t catch the rebound and the ball touches the floor more than once. The game can be played one-on-one or in doubles matches. To win, a player or a team has to be the first to score six points each round and must win two out of three matches. 

But jai alai is vicious on the body. Players are running and diving across a concrete floor, banging against concrete walls and chasing pelotas traveling at 150 mph. The sport’s physical brutality made it an instant hit among male bettors at frontons across the Sunshine State, author Paula Morton writes in Jai Alai: A Cultural History of the Fastest Game in the World. 

 “The men liked it because the speed and the force of the ball were inherently dangerous,” Morton writes. “Jai alai in Florida was more than an exciting spectator sport branded as an exotic import. It was a sports industry that brought in money and contributed to the economy.”

Benny Bueno realized jai alai’s drawing power at an early age. In 1972, when he was 10, Bueno and his parents moved to Miami from New York. His mother and father became regulars at Miami Jai Alai, a venue near Miami International Airport that was dubbed the sport’s “Yankee Stadium” and drew crowds of 15,000-plus fans on a regular basis, Bueno says. 

“They were big jai alai fans,” Bueno says. “Miami Jai Alai was the premier fronton in the U.S.” 

Bueno had a natural talent for baseball that landed him a scholarship offer from Loyola University, but his parents pushed him into jai alai, sending him to a training facility in North Miami after his mother saw an ad in a local newspaper. In 1980, when he turned 16, Bueno turned pro, playing in jai alai minor-league games in Fort Pierce and Ocala. Two years later, he made his debut at Miami Jai Alai. 

“Every time you stepped on to the court, it was electrifying,” Bueno says. “Miami Jai Alai had the best players in the U.S. Maybe the world. There was a lot of competition, a lot of tension and a lot of pressure.” 

In 1985, Bueno claimed the title for most jai alai wins in Florida. In 1992 and 1994, he won national championships for singles players. And in 2001 and 2002, Bueno won back-to-back singles titles. 

Bueno and Arrasate, shown here with "Miami Vice" star Don Johnson, had roles as jai alai players in a 1986 episode of the hit TV show.

“I think my career was successful and something that I’m proud of,” Bueno says. “And for the most part, I earned enough that I didn’t need another job.” 

Bueno competed against and alongside jai alai players imported from Spain, like Juan Ramon Arrasate, who arrived in Miami in 1978 when he was 16. Arrasate, who played 20 years at Miami Jai Alai, and Bueno had cameos in a 1986 episode of the TV crime drama “Miami Vice.” The plot revolved around a jai alai player who was forced to throw games because his brother was being blackmailed by drug smugglers. 

“I began playing jai alai when I was 12,” Arrasate says. “I was already good at playing racquetball and handball, so I quickly picked up jai alai.”

During his career, roughly  500 players from Spain and France played jai alai in frontons across the United States, Arrasate recalls. “Even though my family was reluctant about me coming to Miami, I wanted to play on the biggest stage, learn English and make good money,” Arrasate says. “At the time, Miami Jai Alai paid well and gave us two months of vacation. I accomplished my dreams of being a professional athlete.” 

Like Bueno, Arrasate won several singles and doubles titles. 

“Miami Jai Alai was considered the premier fronton in America,” he says. “The energy from the crowd was intoxicating. And I felt so much joy accomplishing the goals I set for myself since childhood.” 

Losing its Shine

Despite jai alai’s popularity in Florida, the game struggled to earn the same level of respect and authenticity as football, basketball, baseball and other professional sports, mainly because it was so intertwined with gambling. During Bueno’s and Arrasate’s heydays, Florida and Connecticut were among a dozen states that allowed people to place bets on jai alai matches. 

As a result, the game was exploited by organized crime.

For instance, in 1977, authorities in Connecticut arrested a player and three gamblers on charges of rigging and conspiring to rig games at a fronton in that state. One of the suspects, Paul Commonas, was a member of a gambling ring known as the Miami Syndicate, which allegedly made a fortune betting on fixed games in Connecticut, according to a Sports Illustrated article. Around the same time, Florida’s Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering was conducting an investigation into corruption of the sport, seizing hundreds of betting and financial records from the Dania Jai Alai fronton in Dania Beach. 

In 1974 and 1978, two frontons in Daytona Beach and West Palm Beach were burned to the ground by arsonists with suspected mob ties, according to press reports. And in 1981, Boston mobster John “The Executioner” Martorano murdered World Jai Alai owner Roger Wheeler in the parking lot of a country club in Tulsa, Oklahoma. At the time, World Jai Alai owned the largest network of frontons in the country, including Miami Jai Alai. Wheeler, an oil and electronics entrepreneur, had been attempting to rid his league of its connections to Boston mobster Whitey Bulger and his Winter Hill Gang.

When Wheeler bought World Jai Alai, which at the time was based in Miami, the league had annual revenues of $30 million and profits of $5 million per year, according to Morton’s book Jai Alai.

“Jai Alai as a professional sport took a hit from the adverse publicity generated by Wheeler’s gangland assassination,” Morton writes.

By the late 1980s, other events would further erode spectator interest in jai alai. The sport, which historically only competed with the Miami Dolphins professional football franchise for sports aficionados’ attention, now had to contend with the Miami Heat and Orlando Magic professional basketball teams formed in 1988 and 1989, respectively. In 1993, jai alai got more competition from the formation of Major League Baseball franchise Florida Marlins and National Hockey League team Florida Panthers. 

Floridians’ betting options also expanded when the state lottery began in 1988, the same year jai alai players went on a nationwide strike. Pari-mutuel facility owners complained to state regulators that the lottery was cutting into their profits and diminishing attendance. At the same time, jai alai fronton operators brought in less-talented players to replace the striking players, which further turned off fans. 

The strike ended in 1990, but the damage to the sport in Florida had taken its toll, Bueno says. “In the early 1990s, we had 15 frontons,” he says. “By the end of the decade, we were down to seven or six. Obviously, a lot of players lost their jobs.” 

Bueno was among the few players from jai alai’s glory years to play the game into the 21st century.  He retired in 2005 when he turned 42. The sport’s physicality had inflicted a toll on his body. “You are running on concrete, day in and day out,” Bueno says. “That creates a lot of injuries and stress. There are a lot of guys who got shoulder surgeries.” 

Bueno developed knee tendonitis. “In the last eight years of playing, I was starting to physically deteriorate,” he says. “In December 2005, I got hit in my left knee with the ball. I couldn’t bounce back from that.” 

Hanging by a Thread

The 2000s and the 2010s brought more misery to jai alai. Only the frontons in Ocala, Dania Beach and Miami remained open. In 2004, Florida voters passed an amendment to the state constitution allowing Las Vegas-style slot machines at parimutuel sites in Miami-Dade and Broward counties as long as such facilities continued to feature jai alai, horse racing or greyhound racing. Casinos with frontons were required to have a minimum of 40 jai alai matches with eight games per match annually. 

Another amendment in 2018 banned greyhound racing and eliminated the restriction requiring pari-mutuel facilities to host horse racing and jai alai to operate casinos. Yet Bueno and Arrasate clung to the sport they loved playing. After retiring in 1999, Arrasate became manager of player development at Casino Miami, the former home of Miami Jai Alai.

At Casino Miami, Arrasate was in charge of 45 players who each earned roughly $3,500 a month in salary and bonuses. “It’s been very hard to find young guys who want to play jai alai,” Arrasate says. “There are also a lot less diehard fans. And casino owners are more interested in getting their customers to play the slots and card games.” 

 Arrasate left in 2018 when Casino Miami shut down jai alai operations. 

In 2010, five years after he hung up his cesta, Bueno started his current job as jai alai manager at The Casino at Dania Beach. Bueno is working hard to keep a struggling jai alai operation from shutting down. “The landscape of the sport has changed in the last 10 years,” he admits. But his players, most of them from Spain and France, where the game flourishes, remain enthusiastic.

“It’s been a surprisingly fulfilling experience to have this opportunity to develop young players,” Bueno says. 

Last year, casino management decided to have only two months of jai alai after having matches throughout the entire year in 2021, Bueno says. And he’s managing about two dozen players compared to nearly four dozen when he started working at Dania Beach more than a decade ago. 

Yet the last year has renewed his hopes for the game.

“We did a two-month season to see if there is still interest from diehard fans and if we can build interest with new fans,” Bueno says. “It worked out so well that this year we decided to do a three-month season.” 

Arrasate found a new landing spot training players for World Jai Alai League at Magic City Casino. Formed in 2018, the league features former University of Miami football players and ex-baseball minor leaguers who had never stepped onto a fronton in their lives. 

“In the beginning, it was a disaster,” Arrasate says. “I had 10 guys. I had to show each of them, one by one, how to put on and use the cesta.” 

Scott Savin, the casino’s COO who founded the new league, is confident that jai alai can recapture some of its old Florida glory. “We now have 32 players and five teams,” Savin says. “Some of them are coming from Spain, France, Mexico and the Philippines. I’m talking about some of the best players in the world.” 

Michael Carballo, the jai alai player on the Cesta Cyclones, saw an ad for players in the Miami Herald when the league was formed and called up the casino. The 32-year-old athlete was drafted by the Chicago White Sox in 2013, but his professional baseball career fizzled after one season with the team’s minor league club. 

“I had no clue about jai alai,” Carballo says. “I later found out my dad used to work security at Miami Jai Alai when the sport was a big thing. Jai alai has allowed me to extend my athletic career.” 

Anderson Correa was another jai alai newbie who joined the league at the same time as Carballo. Correa, who is now 29, tried out after getting a call from a family friend working for World Jai Alai League. “They needed players,” Correa says. “I had never seen a jai alai game. When I got there, they told me I can only use the cesta on my right hand. But I’m left-handed.” 

Five years later, he’s become a decent player, Correa says. “I rank somewhere in the middle,” he says. “But I love it. It has been a blessing to be in this locker room with all these guys. They are like family.” 

He’s also learned to appreciate the cultural history of jai alai, Correa says. “If you ask anyone who is still alive from that era, going to a jai alai game was like a kid going to Disney World,” he says. “If you traveled to Florida, you would go watch jai alai.”

Considering the sport’s checkered past and the vigorous competition posed by new sports teams and new forms of gambling, it’s unlikely jai alai will ever recapture its peak popularity, when tens of thousands of spectators packed frontons across the state. But a century after the game appeared in Florida, devoted enthusiasts like Arrasate, Bueno and Savin are betting that a new generation of players and savvy marketing will attract enough fans to keep pelotas flying in Florida casinos in the century ahead. 

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Francisco Alvarado is a Miami-based print journalist whose work has appeared in The Real Deal, Florida Bulldog, The Washington Post and The Daily Beast.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2024 Issue of FORUM Magazine. Visit our collection at the USFSP Digital Archive by clicking here.