A jai alai player tapes his serving wrist.
Jai alai, which is nearly three centuries old (its name translates to "merry festival" in Basque), arrived in the United States in St. Louis in 1904 and spread to Miami in 1924, drawing large crowds of dignitaries and women who wore peacock feathers in their hats. Harry Truman went three times as a senator, and Eleanor Roosevelt received an honorary trophy from a South Florida fronton for her loyalty. By 1966, the sport was popular enough for Miami Jai-Alai to get a million-dollar face-lift that included "a new court, new seats for spectators, wall murals, [an] enlarged dining room, fancy appointments in the betting areas and the capacity increased from 7,000 to better than 11,000," according to a Miami News article. Mad Men paid tribute to the game's blue-blood appeal with an episode set in 1963 in which the ad agency Sterling Cooper takes on a wealthy client who's so convinced jai alai is the sport of the future he wants to start his own league.
"It was rocking in the sixties. It was huge in the mid-seventies," recalls Larry Hamel, who covered the sport for the Orlando Sentinel and later became a pro player himself. But as the frontons introduced more betting, they devolved from exotic, upscale coliseums into seedy gambling dens, which in turn invited mob meddling. In Florida, the place in America where jai alai was always most popular, the sport suffered a double whammy: In 1988, the state launched its lottery, which gave people easier ways to gamble, and that same year, a players' strike thoroughly sabotaged a sport already in decline. "These guys were pretty much all Basque separatists," Hamel says. "They came over knowing how to build bombs." When the frontons brought in replacement players—most of them American-born, some with shady backgrounds of their own—strikers reportedly slashed the scabs' tires and attacked their wives. The sport's growing criminal element scared off what crowds remained.
Goiko knows jai alai's glory days are over, but he holds out hope that its fortunes can improve. He meets me after the match, freshly showered and dressed in plaid shorts, a Quicksilver T-shirt, and aviators, outside the adjacent casino, an $87 million addition to Miami Jai-Alai that opened the previous day. It isn't exactly the Wynn, but compared with the decrepit fronton next door, it sparkles. Inside, there are 1,050 slot machines, many named for catastrophes that destroyed civilizations. Here, Pompeii and Krakatoa could end up wiping out jai alai, too.
We get into Goiko's Audi and pull out of Miami Jai-Alai's parking lot. "If the casino goes good," says Goiko, whose English is less refined than his game, "I think they'll put some money into the jai alai. They need the jai alai to get the casino license. So they need us." But the fronton in Newport, where he made his U.S. debut, is now devoted entirely to gambling and no longer hosts the sport. It's possible to imagine Goiko, the greatest jai alai talent the world has ever known, finishing his career playing in front of an audience of narcotized lever pullers praying for their cherries to align.
I meet Goiko at 9:30 a.m. the next day at the mango-hued duplex in Doral that he shares with his wife, Antonella, a 28-year-old Peruvian-Italian optician who's already left for work. They got together in 2002 when she sold him a pair of sunglasses at a mall. They were married last year, and the sign-in board from the wedding sits in the front room next to Goiko's Les Paul guitar and a big Miami Jai-Alai trophy with two teddy bears nestled inside the cup. Goiko sticks two $800 custom-woven cestas into garbage bags with a little water to maintain the proper humidity, then carries them out to the car and carefully stacks them in the back seat. We're headed to the 23rd annual Citrus Invitational in Orlando, one of the biggest events on the American jai alai calendar. Goiko is the reigning doubles co-champion. As we drive on Florida's Turnpike, the Less Stressway, he shares his decidedly average-Joe concerns: gas prices, the English and physical-therapy classes he takes at Miami Dade College to prepare for a career after jai alai, and the guitarist Slash, whom he idolizes. He matter-of-factly mentions frontons along the route that have met tragic ends: One in Daytona Beach burned down in a blaze that some claim was Mafia-related. Another, in Fort Pierce, used to be owned by a fronton magnate who was allegedly murdered by Whitey Bulger's Winter Hill Gang.