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 5'10�" 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."