Meet the Michael Jordan of Jai Alai

He's a nine-time world champion. His serve approaches 180 miles per hour. He has the chiseled physique and dreamy looks of a matinee idol. So why haven't you heard of Iñaki Osa Goikoetxea? Because this elite athlete plays the all-but-forgotten sport of jai alai. In another time and place, he could have been as fêted as Roger Federer or Tom Brady. Instead, he's just happy to have a job.

Top: Goiko gets his game face on at the Orlando-Seminole fronton; Goiko (No. 8) and his fellow players go to battle in a match at the Citrus Invitational in Orlando.

Top: Goiko gets his game face on at the Orlando-Seminole fronton; Goiko (No. 8) and his fellow players go to battle in a match at the Citrus Invitational in Orlando.
From October to June, Iñaki OSA Goikoetxea—Goiko to his friends and admirers—plays professional jai alai six days a week at a fronton behind the Miami International Airport. Built in 1926 and simply called Miami Jai-Alai, the ungainly sand-colored facility looks like a South Florida riff on one of Saddam Hussein's concrete palaces. When it opens at noon, the spectators, most of whom appear to be eligible for Social Security, begin arriving for the daily matinee performance. They hobble across the lobby's liver-spotted tile to the betting windows, where they place wagers on the action in the cancha, the caged playing court. Some never make it into the arena, instead slumping on black vinyl stools and watching the matches on closed-circuit TV like gamblers at an off-track-betting parlor. "Miami Jai-Alai is known as the Yankee Stadium of our sport," Goiko says. Then he pauses, considering what that reveals about the state of the game today. "Please, do not say anything bad about Miami Jai-Alai," he adds.
Goiko is 31 years old, six feet three, and 220 pounds, with dark, serious eyes and thick black hair that dips over his brow in a Superman curl. Like the sport he plays, he is Basque. He grew up in Zumaia, a humble fishing town about 20 miles west of San Sebastián. Since going pro, he's won nine world titles—five in singles, four in doubles—at the tournaments hosted in Europe by the International Federation of Basque Pelota, the closest thing jai alai has to a governing body. By common assent, he is considered the best player in the history of the sport. "It's even better than having LeBron," says Juan Ramón Arrasatte, the players' manager at Miami Jai-Alai and Goiko's boss. "With LeBron, you can talk about Kobe or others. In this sport, nobody else comes close."
"Jordan doesn't have nine titles," Goiko observes, sounding more stoic than boastful. "Kobe doesn't have nine. LeBron has none. Kelly Slater has eleven, so I have to catch up to him." He knows perfectly well that his sport is a speck compared with the NBA or even pro surfing. "I play jai alai," he acknowledges. "I am not exactly famous." Miami Jai-Alai pays him an annual salary in the five-figure range. He has no endorsement deals, no agent, no entourage, no groupies. He does have the single-word nickname befitting a champ and his own bobblehead doll, which he proudly presents to me as a gift. And despite his obscurity, he has the drive of a superstar athlete. "I'm always looking to find the monster in me," he says. "I win by finding the monster."
Cesta Punta World Championship opener.
Goiko was 7 the first time he picked up a cesta—the oblong basket of steam-bent chestnut wood and woven Pyrenees reeds that jai alai players use to fling the goatskin-and-latex pelota at up to 180 miles per hour (boosters call it the fastest sport in the world). "Jai alai wasn't even that popular in my town," Goiko says. "I played because my brothers played. I wanted to be a professional surfer." But he also wanted to get out of school and didn't want to work on his father's fishing boat, so when a scout from a now-defunct fronton in Milan offered him a contract at 16, he moved to Italy. Word of his talent spread, and in 1997 he was invited to play in Newport, Rhode Island. From 1998 to 2002 he played in Orlando, then took his talents to Miami.
At its peak in the 1970s, Miami Jai-Alai frequently drew crowds in excess of 10,000. But on this gorgeous, 80-degree Thursday afternoon in late January, 16 athletes compete in front of 15 spectators. The upper tiers of the arena aren't even accessible. Down below, the onlookers sit dotted along the 176-foot-long cancha. "Last call, place your bets," intones a voice over the PA system, followed by an electronic countdown of slow, irregular bleeps that make it sound as if the whole place is hooked up to a heart-rate monitor. The players wear numbered jerseys, heavy helmets, and white pants with red sashes. Using their cestas, they produce powerful, caroming shots that have blown out knees and dislodged eyeballs. (In a 1986 episode of Miami Vice, one even killed a man.) They dive to the floor and crash into walls trying to keep balls from bouncing twice or leaving the court, which would result in losing the point. Through the screen that protects the crowd, they look like video-game characters—high-def agglomerations of pixels that jump, lunge, and sling sine waves at the granite front wall.
But the spectators don't cheer for the heroics on the court. They cheer for their wagers, which fall under almost every betting scheme imaginable—daily doubles, quinella boxes, exacta perfectas. "Let's get this shit together," one woman shouts at Goiko as she paces the barren aisles. "I've been here for 40 fucking years. Get his ass out! Work it, baby!" The crowd's indifference to the players' efforts can make jai alai seem like the loneliest sport in the world.
Because his serving shoulder is bothering him and he wants to be ready for the Citrus Invitational, a major tournament in Orlando this weekend, Goiko plays conservatively and wins only one of five matches. "In Spain and France," he remarks afterward, "they treat you like a professional." He still plays the sport in the Basque region and Biarritz from July to October. There he can earn as much as $15,000 a month playing in front of fans who pay up to 50 euros for tickets to epic matches that end at 35 points. In Miami, where admission is free, the matches end at seven or nine points and are played in a round-robin format designed to maximize betting opportunities: Eight entrants (either singles players or doubles teams) compete, with two facing off at a time and trying to score a point that will let them stay on the cancha to face the next seed. "Here, it's hardly a sport," Goiko complains, "and they treat you like you are nothing."
Michael Schmelling
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.
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."
Michael Schmelling
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.
Michael Schmelling
A sign displays the round-robin brackets.
Because Goiko and Lopez are the highest-ranked, they enter play last—which leaves them little margin for error. In the round-robin format, it's possible for the lowest-seeded team to rack up six points before Goiko and Lopez even get in the game. "And if you lose your first point from the eighth post, you might not even get back in," Goiko had explained earlier. "You might be instantly dead." Two teams reach four points and another scores five. Then Goiko and Lopez start their run. They rack up five points before Hoey finds a way to knock them out. Goiko would never curse on the court, though his eyes yell fuck. But the round-robin cycles all the way through, and Goiko and Lopez get another chance.
By now, Goiko's serve has become truly mesmerizing. He coils like a discus thrower, putting all his weight into it, and achieves a combination of speed, spin, and ball control that's as incredible to behold as any LeBron dunk or Messi goal. Tactically, Goiko's like Federer, preventing his opponents from finding a rhythm on the baseline. He whips the pelota so fast and tight the other players can barely track it. At match point, Goiko wins the tournament for his team with a knockout ace.
Back in the locker room, Hoey's limping out the door shirtless, in ripped jeans and flip-flops. He yells for everybody to come over to his place. "I'll get beer," he calls back. "I'll cook some shit on the grill." It's 2 a.m. Goiko clutches his sore right shoulder, finally showing his fatigue. He vanishes into the dimly lit, dungeonlike shower, then emerges in a towel, stretching. "I'm just waiting for Santi to bring me my money," he says. "Then we're going to Denny's for cheese sticks and Sprite." Now that he's won, he admits he was more nervous than usual. "Before the match," he says, "I was thinking I had to do something special here or jai alai would look like shit and never get another story. But as the game got going, I stopped thinking about you. I stopped thinking about Slash. I found the monster."
Once Goiko has changed into his street clothes—black jeans, black canvas high-tops, and a T-shirt with a print of laundry irons—the defeated start shuffling up to pay their respects. Some are old and grizzled, while others look like altar boys and gaze at their idol with awe. They hold out the night's program for him to sign. They ask him to pose for pictures. "Goiko," they exclaim, "stand here with me!" Goiko drapes a ropy arm around two of them, smiles modestly, and waits for the flash.
Watch the athletes of Miami Jai-Alai in action.

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