Cortez is supposed to have found the Aztecs playing jai alai, but its origins are as mysterious as those of the Basques, who play it best. In the U.S. it is seen only in Florida, where these photographs were taken. Basically handball, it is played on three-sided courts (called frontons) about 175 feet long, 50 feet wide and 40 feet high. The front wall is 12-inch-thick granite (concrete would chip under the pounding). The goatskin-covered hard rubber ball is driven up to 150 miles per hour by players using a cesta, a shallow scoop made of woven straw with wooden rib sections of chestnut.
Backflip catch and return of ball (below) calls for extraordinary speed and agility. Two schools in Spain supply most of the Florida players, 90% of whom are of Basque descent.
Smash from midcourt is common, but player may elect to make the spectacular rebote shot, in which the ball is taken off the back wall and returned to the front in one continuous swoop.
Gaping spectator behind protective screen (right) has good reason to be astonished, though waiting players (left) are blasé about the game's furious pace. This big Miami fronton will handle some $12 million in bets this winter—which explains why the promoters could afford to spend $200,000 just to build the court.