Jai alai players come in a variety of shapes, but almost always they are Basques—dark-haired, dark-eyed people who are neither French nor Spanish, their roots sunk deep in the Pyrenees mountains that separate the two countries. They have names like Zulaica and Irigo and Marcoida, and the origin of the language they speak is obscure, a linguistic mystery. But there is no obscurity about them on a jai alai court: with slender, curved baskets called cestas strapped to their whiplike arms the Basques can send a ball caroming off the court's granite front wall with a sound like the crack of a rifle. No one can remember a time when Basques have not dominated this centuries-old sport.
And then on Dec. 21, 1972 came Joey Cornblit, a Miami high school senior, and nothing will nestle certain in the cesta any more. Still, the masters of the sport are not upset. "Thank God for Joey," says Pedro Mir, who manages the players at the Miami Fronton.
Professionals like Mir are genuinely delighted that the U.S. has finally produced a class jai alai player. They have been struggling for almost 50 years to get the game going in this country, but despite its natural color, speed and excitement—and the fact that it is a splendid vehicle for pari-mutuel betting—jai alai has never caught on here except in Florida, where all eight of the U.S. frontons are located.
In structure, the game is something like handball except that it is played on a gargantuan court walled on three sides: along the open side a high wire screen protects the spectators who bet on singles or doubles matches that proceed, round-robin fashion, through the evening. Play starts when a goatskin ball—the pelota, said to be the hardest and fastest used in any sport—is served off the front wall. The ball flies out of the cesta at speeds up to 150 mph and must be caught and returned either in the air or on the first bounce. This makes jai alai a dangerous game. Men have been killed playing it.
But Stanley Berenson, who heads World Jai Alai, recognized some time ago a major truth about the game: "As exciting as it is, it will never be accepted nationally as long as it is played only by Basques." And so in 1965 Berenson and his father opened a school for young Americans in Miami. "It was a gamble I knew I had to win," he says. "It was just a question of how many students I'd have to put in school and how many years it would take."
What Berenson got, and sooner than he expected, was Joey Cornblit. Joey's parents are Israelis who migrated first to Montreal in the late '50s and then to Miami. He grew up in the U.S. world of baseball, basketball and football.
"I was like any other kid," says Joey, who is now 17, stands 5'10½" and weighs 175 pounds. "I played all sports, even gymnastics. Then when I was 12 I discovered jai alai, and that was it. They had just opened some amateur courts, and I became a regular rat. They'd throw me off and I'd climb a fence and sneak back in. I couldn't practice enough."
Inevitably, Joey enrolled in Berenson's school and there displayed such fierce dedication that he was one of the first students selected to study under Epifanio Saenz, a former star. His development has startled everyone. "He has a solid basis to be a good frontcourt player," says Epifanio. "He pays attention to advice and he has the ability to apply it. And he has real aggressive power, the mark of a fine jai alai player. All he needs is time to develop his natural ability." In 1970, at 15, Joey was named to the U.S. amateur team for the international competition at St.-Jean-de-Luz, France. Never before had an American team finished better than next to last. Joey and his doubles partners won five of eight matches to earn a bronze medal. Their accomplishment did not create many waves elsewhere, but the jai alai world was stunned.
Last year, though only a high school junior, Joey signed a professional contract and spent the summer playing against seasoned Basque pros in Guernica, which during the Spanish Civil War had earned the dubious honor of being the first city ever destroyed by bombing from the air. Berenson runs a jai alai school in Guernica, a Basque stronghold, and it is from there that the Miami Fronton imports many of its players.
"Other Americans have tried jai alai, but they have never measured up to the Basques, who start playing the game almost before they can walk," says Berenson. "When Joey went to Guernica the people said, 'Oh, oh, here's another one.' And they smiled. But Joey's obvious talent and his amazing aggressiveness on the court—something you don't see in a young Basque—quickly won them over. He became a betting favorite. Every door was open to him. It was fantastic."
"I thought the other players might resent me," said Joey. "People told me they would. But they didn't. I made a lot of friends. And when a Basque accepts you, you become a part of his family."
When the brown-eyed, black-haired youngster made his debut in Miami in December, the hometown fans made him a strong 3-to-2 favorite. "It was ridiculous," says Milt Roth, the fronton's public-relations man. "His first game, and he was the favorite." He won. "And he's been the favorite ever since," adds Roth, shaking his head. The fans knew something: In his first 15 games, Joey won five, an unheard-of percentage for a rookie.
"It's his attitude," says Berenson. "The difference between him and the other new players is that he comes out aggressive, on the offense. They all have the shots, caroms and things, but none of them use them. They feel they don't have the experience. They hesitate. Not Joey. He used everything right away. He's not afraid to try anything."
"The frontcourt man, which I am, kills the point, outsmarts the opponents," says Joey. "He's like the quarterback. And I guess I'm something of a cheerleader, too. I get so caught up in the action, I'm screaming things most of the time. And the backcourt man likes that. It turns him on. The Basques don't make as much noise as I do."
"Three Basques don't make as much noise as you do," adds Berenson.
Being an American has turned out to be a major plus for Joey. The young Basque professionals of his own age or a few years older do not understand or think about the strategy of the sport as much. Joey, who was weaned on baseball, basketball and football, thinks about both strategy and tactics; he plays a different sort of game.
"The American who understands that psychology is very much a part of sport has a big advantage over a Basque," says Berenson. "Over there they just play and play. Joey knows that if one guy is here and another guy there, he'll win if he puts the ball over there. The young Basques don't think ahead that well. At 20 or 21 or 22 it comes. Joey probably learned a lesson from reading U.S. sports pages that has paid off for him in jai alai. Our sports pages talk about strategy and our kids grow up thinking strategy. Spanish papers carry great glowing reports, but they never really get into how things happen. They're strong on adjectives but short on meat."
In his first season at Miami, which ended a few weeks ago, Joey earned approximately $11,500 for four months play. He gets a base salary plus a fixed amount for games won, seconds and thirds, plus bonuses for exemplary play and for every million dollars in mutuel handle over a certain amount. This season each player's wagering bonus was $3,980. From the Miami Fronton, Joey will move on to Berenson's plant at Ocala where he should make another $5,000—fair income for a 17-year-old American youngster playing a game in America that most Americans do not understand.
"Some day they will all know jai alai," says Echaniz II, a veteran backcourt player. "Joey will teach them. If there were more players like Joey the sport would gain great acceptance with the American public and we would all benefit. Joey could be the best thing that ever happened to the sport."