Halfway to Orlando we stop at an Earl of Sandwich, where Goiko orders a ham and cheese. "Can we sit over there?" he asks, tray in hand, nodding at a bank of empty booths in the back. "I think those seats are only for the Wendy's." You might expect a champion who makes a living by flinging a ball at Formula 1 speeds to plunk himself down wherever he wants. But Goiko worries about things like service-plaza seating rules. "I like Tom Brady," he says, "but I am not Tom Brady."

The Citrus Invitational takes place the following day inside a big-box structure faced in corrugated metal and crowned by an enormous sky-blue sign that reads JAI-ALAI ORLANDO-SEMINOLE FRONTON. Before the evening performance, the sport's retired elite—most in oversize blazers flanked by wives in animal prints—greet Goiko with hugs and back slaps. "This is one of the best nights of the year in America," Goiko says, enjoying the attention.

The players' manager, a 69-year-old Basque named Santi Echaniz, welcomes him with some affectionate ribbing. "My prodigal son has returned!" he exclaims. "I brought him here to play and then he just vanishes," referring to Goiko's defection to Miami a decade ago. They embrace. "I can't imagine anybody beating him," Echaniz says. "I played against the best of my time. Churruca moved like a ballet dancer on the court, beautiful. But I cannot picture him beating Goiko."

In Echaniz's office, there's a photograph of him taken after a match in 1962. Jayne Mansfield, showing about a foot of cleavage, is presenting him with a trophy, but his wide eyes are frozen in time ogling her breasts. "Look at how I was looking at her," he says. "We came to the U.S. and were idolized. We enjoyed the company of young girls and parties. We went from eating foreign-aid cheese and drinking powdered milk back home to sailing across the ocean with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Burton was a drunk and would hang out with us."

Goiko keeps slightly less rarefied company, he admits. "Paris Hilton's publicist comes to a lot of the games in Miami. That's about as famous as it gets."

A trainer stretches Goiko out before a tournament.

•••


By 12:30 that night, much of the talent in the locker room looks wasted and wounded. Most players have competed in both the afternoon and evening performances—about 10 hours of jai alai. Now all that's left is the 13th and final match, which will determine this year's Citrus Invitational doubles champions. A 37-year-old American named Warren Hoey stoops in front of his locker. He's rubbing Icy Hot on his shoulder, which bears a tattoo of the Tasmanian Devil grasping a cesta. "My body fucking hates me," he says, an unlit cigarette dangling from his lips. He reminds me of Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. I snap a photo. "For your caption," he says, "put 'Guy at the end of his career.'

"I turned pro in '91," Hoey recalls, continuing to apply the rub. "Making $75,000 at 17? I thought I was the man. But I had no idea how fast the sport would die." Nearby, a player is digging his fists into the quads of a teammate lying on a lumpy vinyl-covered trainer's table. Another stands pantsless in a blue-and-red plastic barrel, up to his waist in ice. "You devote your life to something because you love it," Hoey says. "But half of us here will end up in wheelchairs."

Unlike the others, Goiko seems as fresh and composed as when he arrived, and his play has only gotten more impressive. Earlier, his shot placement put one ball-chasing opponent into the metal barrier and forced another, desperate to execute an impossible backhand with no room to spare, to slam into the back wall. His performance has actually become quite Jordan-like: Goiko has taken over the Citrus Invitational by virtue of his talent and his will.

Each round so far has begun with the players walking onto the court to the accompaniment of Spanish folk music, but before the last match Echaniz announces, "I'm sick of this pasodoble crap. I'm going to bring them out to 'We Are the Champions.'" At 12:45, as Freddy Mercury sings, "I've paid my dues/Time after time," Echaniz, in a jacket and tie, leads them onto the cancha. Goiko and his partner for the night, Imanol Lopez, bring up the rear. The venue was fairly full earlier, but the crowd has dwindled to 200 or so hard-core enthusiasts. They give the players a tepid ovation.