They Call Her La Primera, Jai Alai’s Last Hope

Three decades ago, Becky Smith wanted to become jai alai’s first woman pro. Now the sport can’t make a comeback without her.

Britni de la Cretaz | Longreads | April 2019 | 19 minutes (4,863 words)

On a jai alai court in North Miami, Florida, 54-year-old Becky Smith was trying out for Calder Casino’s recently announced team. It was February 2019 — winter, but Florida winter, with temperatures in the 80s — and more than 100 men had shown up to compete with Becky for approximately 30 spots.

In the large warehouse along an industrial strip of road, Becky stood alone on the court, which she thought was odd. “How can you assess my playing skills if you don’t have me playing with other people?” Becky thought. “I think that they really didn’t think I could play.”

She’d expected to be nervous, but she wasn’t. She was ready. She’s always felt most at home on the jai alai court, but she just hoped that she could still rebote well. A rebote is a shot made after the ball, or pelota, has hit the court’s back wall, and it has always been her weakest throw.

After all, the game is second nature to Becky, who has been playing it for most of her life, and so Becky threw the ball. She caught the ball in midair and off the bounce. She demonstrated the various moves a good jai alai player needs to be able to make: a bote pronto (a catch off a quick bounce off the back wall), a dejada (change-of-pace shot). She was thrilled when she managed to scoop the ball twice, especially when she heard the “oohs” and “ahhs” coming from the crowd of men watching her. Her tryout ended after less than 10 minutes, and when she stepped off the court, she was unexpectedly greeted with a standing ovation from the male players.

Becky was floored. “All the men stood up and clapped, which was completely different from what I experienced 30 years ago,” she told me over the phone from her home in Country Walk, Florida, a small town southwest of Miami. Thirty years ago, Becky had to file a sex discrimination complaint just to get court time. Thirty years ago, Becky and her two sisters, Heide and Fancy, were told there was no place for them in the sport of jai alai. Thirty years ago, Becky put away her dream of being the first female professional jai alai player in the United States (possibly the world).

Jai alai, Becky explained, “is a man’s game.”

***

By the time I was wasting away my high school weekends at what was then called Dania Jai Alai (now The Casino @ Dania Beach), drinking dollar draft beers from a bartender who never carded, jai alai was a shell of what it had once been. The fronton, or building where jai alai (pronounced “HIGH-lie”) is played, had a capacity of about 5,000 people, but in the early aughts, the players were lucky if there were 30 of us spread out among the stadium seating. The pelota echoed off the walls in the empty room with crumbling paint, punctuated every few minutes by an elderly man in the not-quite-crowd yelling, “Mucho!” (It’s the jai alai equivalent of “Olé!”)

But there was a time when jai alai was a very big deal in South Florida (and, eventually, throughout the Northeast, particularly in Rhode Island and Connecticut). It began at a time in which other professional sports leagues were still in their infancy, and the notion that television would evolve as a broadcasting force was far from a reality. Jai alai — a variation of handball that originated in the Basque region of France and Spain — sought to displace baseball as America’s favorite pastime. Referred to as the “the fastest game in the world” — the pelota has been clocked at 188 miles per hour — the sport is played on a three-walled granite court (because even concrete cannot withstand the force of a speeding pelota), and the most agile players scale that wallso that the pelota doesn’t hit the ground. If a player can’t return the ball, they lose the point. It takes an extreme amount of muscle memory and body control to play jai alai, which is why it has been compared to ballet — a blend of sophistication and stunning beauty when played correctly.


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Jai alai migrated from the then-Spanish colony of Cuba across the Florida straits, though the first jai alai courts in the U.S. were unveiled at the World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1904. Success wasn’t immediate — according to Paula Morton’s Jai Alai: A Cultural History of the Fastest Sport in the World, the game failed to excite the American crowds who were more accustomed to players catching balls in leather mitts than long, scooped wicker baskets (known as cestas). Just two decades later, the Miami Jai Alai fronton debuted on a freshly drained former Everglades swamp in Hialeah, a town 10 miles northwest of Miami. (That fronton was then shortly leveled by a hurricane, so the stadium was relocated to near the airport, where it remains today.)

In its U.S. heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, a period in which jai alai was featured in the opening credits of an episode of Miami Vice, as many as 15,000 people, dressed to the nines, gathered in standing-room-only crowds to watch these acrobatic athletes fling the rubber ball covered in goat skin out of cestas strapped to their right hand.

But it’s popularity wasn’t just derived from the game’s speed and excitement: Before gambling was widely legalized, it was one of the few sports that people could legally bet on. In 1931, Florida passed what’s called a pari-mutuel law, which allowed betting on dog and horse racing. Four years later, jai alai was added. Even today, thanks to a longstanding loophole in Florida gaming law (which excludes tribal casinos), a casino cannot operate unless it has a pari-mutuel, and as a result, the sport has always attracted a wide swath of the population, including both tourists and the mob. (Boston mob boss Whitey Bulger’s most famous murder involved a jai alai deal gone bad.)

Jai alai’s growth, though, wasn’t sustainable. A nationwide player’s strike in the late 1980s essentially doomed the sport — as 500 players walked the picket line for three years, the fan base for what had already been a niche sport was gutted. Today, though, jai alai is experiencing a bit of a resurgence: Betting on animals isn’t as acceptable as it once was — in 2018, voters elected to end greyhound racing in the state of Florida — and to keep their gaming licenses, casinos in South Florida are resuscitating jai alai courts. Many only schedule games for 30 days a year, just enough to keep their license, but it is progress. Magic City Casino has begun to offer year-round contracts to former athletes from the University of Miami, spending a year to teach them how to play, and there’s a proposal for a Magic City expansion in the Edgewater neighborhood, which would include a jai alai fronton. Not to mention Calder Casino’s jai alai league, which will begin this summer. The game is a little different, too: The courts are shorter, the walls are glass or concrete, and the balls are plastic.

According to Joey Cornblit, who is considered the best American jai alai player in history, these efforts are just window dressing. “Anything to keep the sport alive is great,” said Cornblit. He played professionally for nearly three decades, and the sport’s biggest name is pessimistic for jai alai’s future: “I don’t see the sport coming back. I just don’t see it.”

One thing that hasn’t changed in all these years is the fact that jai alai is, as Becky told me, a man’s game. Most players have never even seen a woman on the court. Why is that? According to Dennis Getsee, who played professional jai alai, it’s a pipeline problem. If women don’t know it’s an option for them to play the sport, they don’t go out to try. “If there’s no women playing, then how can you choose a woman [for a team]?” Getsee asked. You can’t.

But to reduce the lack of women on the court to simply a supply problem is perhaps too simple an answer.

***

Becky Smith was born in 1964 in Miami. Her father, Art, was American, and her mother, Maria Julia, was Cuban. Art loved watching and betting on jai alai, and Maria Julia had worked at Miami Jai Alai when Becky was small. Maria and Art even had their first date at Miami Jai Alai.

Becky and her two younger sisters, Heide and Fancy, weren’t allowed inside the fronton while Maria Julia worked. There was gambling. But sometimes, late at night, special partidos — which are more popular in Basque country and are longer games than are usually played in the U.S. — were organized. These late-night matches didn’t involve gambling, so Art would take Becky and Heide, who were just a year apart in age, to watch. (Fancy, five years younger than Becky, was still too young.) Attending those partidos, Becky was hooked: The two would watch in awe as these men pelted balls off the wall and, in one fluid motion, caught them in their cestas before releasing them again.

When they got older, they wanted to play, “just to see what it was like,” said Becky. Their parents played for fun at an amateur court that was right down the street from Art’s air conditioning business in Medley, a small town in Miami-Dade County. When they were old enough to finally play themselves (Becky was around 14), they went to the North Miami court (the one in Medley had since closed), but its owner was insistent: No one had ever heard of girls playing jai alai, he explained to them. It’s a boys’ game.

But a couple of years later, when Fancy was 14, she, too, was interested, and so the Smith family tried again. This time, in 1984, all three of the sisters were accepted to the school at World Jai Alai in Miami. In a story that same year in El Nuevo Herald, the Miami Herald’s Spanish-language sister newspaper, an instructor at the school named Miguel Aparicio was quoted as saying, “They are there [at the school], they have all the facilities, like the boys, they are practicing.”

The experience of fully immersing herself in the sport with her two sisters was extremely beneficial for Becky. Even though each possessed a “distinctly different personality,” according to Becky, the trio supported one another; having the three sisters at the school meant that none of them ever had to be the only girl. “Being able to play, it was a lot of fun for the three of us to be able to do this together,” she said. “Because a lot of times there were things we couldn’t do together because there was the age gap between Fancy and me and Heide.”

Even though Becky and Heide were closest in age, Heide and Fancy were more alike. Becky described them as “like Itch and Scratch; they did everything together.” Becky was the studious one, the serious one. Heide was friendly and easygoing, and harbored dreams of becoming a teacher. And Fancy was “a rebel” but “so, so smart. Way smarter than me.” Even though Becky was an adult at the time, Maria Julia still supported her dream, attending each of her practices: “Number one fan, wind beneath [my] wings, all that.” Even though they were following a path that didn’t yet exist, even though no one knew whether there would be a payoff for them, Maria Julia dedicated herself to her daughters’ ambitions, braving the Miami traffic on a daily basis to drive them to their training sessions. “Becky has every right to try it [jai alai],” Maria Julia told Sports Illustrated in 1987.

Jackie Hernandez, now 55, was at the jai alai school with the sisters. He remembers Heide and Fancy, but mostly, he remembers Becky. What struck him about Becky was her attitude: It was one of wanting to learn, to grow as a player, and to be the best she could be. She was teachable, he said, and she brought her passion to the court with her everyday.

She also broadened her horizons beyond Miami’s frontons. During a 1984 trip to Spain, in which she visited with her cousins and uncle, Becky played jai alai in Barcelona, courtesy of a letter of introduction from Aparicio, her teacher. The court was much larger than the one Becky played on in the U.S. “I was out there by myself and I went almost everyday,” said Becky. “I wasn’t able to make the serve in Dania because I wasn’t strong enough, but because I practiced on such a big court, I got stronger.” By the time Becky returned to the States a few months later, she could make the serve at the Dania court.

“While [people] may argue I’m not strong enough — because for a real, large court, you have to have some strength to get the ball back and forth,” Becky explained, “one thing that everybody agrees on is that I have great form. That when I play, I play very pretty. I play very beautifully. I have a lot of style, I throw the ball well.” While the sisters’ playing careers had begun, the sport still didn’t accept them. In spite of her best efforts, Becky, a novice player at 19, was falling behind many of the other students, a consequence of being denied similar court time that the male students were given. At World Jai Alai, students were ostensibly allowed practice time on the court from 10 a.m. to midnight, which was something most of the male students took advantage of. But Becky couldn’t even strap on her cesta unless she was actually scheduled for a lesson.

As always, Maria Julia was her biggest advocate, and in 1985, she helped Becky file a sex discrimination complaint with the Dade County Board of Appeals against Miami Amateur Jai Alai, where the World Jai Alai school was located, and its owner, Howard Kalik. Kalik’s argument was that Becky shouldn’t be playing jai alai at all; he said the sport was too dangerous for women, and that Becky could get herself killed out there. News of the sex discrimination complaint ran in newspapers across the country. Before the case could progress and be heard by the board, though, Kalik capitulated and let Becky have the court time. But he wasn’t happy about it, and he wasn’t done putting roadblocks in her way.

According to Hernandez, Becky’s World Jai Alai school classmate, that was just Kalik’s way. “Howie ran the school and … if you were good with Howie, then things could be good for you, and if you weren’t good with Howie and didn’t go along with Howie or Howie’s crew, then things could be not so good for you,” he said. And Becky wasn’t about to back down.

The publicity from the sex discrimination complaint sent reporters to the Gold Coast Amatuer Jai Alai Championship tournament in Dania later that month, in March 1985. They wanted to see these girls play, and it was the first time any women had competed in the tournament. But instead of focusing on that milestone, reporters chose another angle to highlight: One story in the Tampa Tribune was headlined “Woman jai alai player loses.” Becky’s two-person team had lost, defeated by her sister, Heide. Betting on the match was reportedly intense: Apparently, some spectators had bet that Heide, then 19, would throw the match to let Becky, 20, win — a prediction that did not come true.

***

Of the three Smith sisters, Becky took the sport most seriously. While Heide and Fancy eventually lost interest, Becky set her sights on becoming the first ever female professional jai alai player. She dropped out of school at Florida International University and dedicated herself to training. She worked at Dania Jai Alai as a pari-mutuel clerk and was eventually promoted to assistant money room manager — one of the perks of the job was that Becky had access to court time. Late at night, after all the day’s games had ended, Becky would venture out onto the three-walled court and practice. Becky doesn’t do anything halfway; once she is interested in something, she throws her entire self into it. It’s who she is.

“They tried everything to keep her off the court,” Maria Julia told Sports Illustrated in 1987. “I think it’s all ridiculous. She has beaten a number of boys who have turned professional. I don’t understand why some smart promoter doesn’t see the potential in promoting Becky as the first professional woman jai alai player.”

There was press coverage, which Becky has to this day kept in binders, including the aforementioned Sports Illustrated feature. The story’s apex is Becky’s performance at the Gold Coast tournament that year, where she played with Hernandez, who would go on to play professionally for 13 years. He told the magazine that playing with Becky was a no-brainer; it would increase his exposure to the scouts and agents who would be in the crowd looking for players to sign to professional contracts. Ultimately, the two did not place at the tournament, though Hernandez remembers the two playing “quite well,” adding, “You know, we didn’t win, but you know what, we did what we could, and I was happy.”

He explained that his desire to partner with Becky wasn’t entirely conscious. He respected and identified with his teammate. As a Black Hispanic man, Hernandez knew what it was like to be discriminated against and to be told that there were things he couldn’t do and places he shouldn’t be — including on the jai alai court. “Seeing Becky experience some of those same things, you know, maybe even from some of those same people saying that women can’t play” made Hernandez want to help Becky prove that she could. “[Most players didn’t] have the confidence to think that they could be competitive with her on their team or that she could be competitive enough,” he said, “and I’ve never had that attitude.”

Becky’s old nemesis Howie Kalik makes an appearance in the SI story as well. When Becky arrived to the fronton to practice for the tournament, Kalik refused to let her enter through the players’ entrance, even though she was a player. He said one of the professionals was getting a massage, implying that Becky couldn’t see him in that state of undress. She requested that Kalik “just close the door,” adding, “who cares” and “it’s just a naked guy,” but Kalik wouldn’t budge, and he walked Becky and her mother around to the main entrance. “Once inside, they were forced to wait in the spectator seats while the boys practiced,” SI reported. “Becky did stretching exercises to pass the time and looked wistfully at her competitors on the court … Eventually, Kalik signaled to her. Becky grabbed her equipment and ran into one of the ladies’ rooms to change and finally got out on the court.”

For his part, Kalik stuck to his story about just being concerned for Becky’s safety, telling SI, “She could get killed out there. She plays the violin. She should stick to music.” He also defended himself regarding the sex discrimination complaint, arguing that he “discriminate[s] on ability,” not gender. (Kalik could not be reached for comment for this story.)

Cornblit, who remains close with Kalik to this day, said he wasn’t aware of Becky’s mistreatment. He was too busy on the pro circuit. And while Cornblit said he can’t speak for Kalik, he doesn’t think Kalik’s attitude would have been all that uncommon at the time. “I just don’t think that many of the players thought that any woman would be able to play professional jai alai with the guys,” he said. “I think if you asked a bunch of them, they would probably say that. That was the mentality back then, and things have changed, obviously.” He likens it to a woman trying to join the NFL; if there had been a women’s league, it might have been a different story.

***

What crushed jai alai’s momentum as a sport is the same thing that stalled Becky’s dream of having a professional career: the 1988 player’s strike, which lasted three-and-a-half years (the longest labor strike in sports history). Also, the creation of the Florida Lottery, coupled with the opening of the state’s first tribal casino, made gambling much easier and more accessible. Becky was in a precarious position: While she supported the players and their cause (the dispute was over unionizing, in pursuit of better pay and benefits), she was still employed at Dania Jai Alai, and she couldn’t openly discuss or campaign for the strike.

The strike tore apart the sport. Cornblit, who chose not to strike, said it was an ugly time for jai alai. “A lot of [the other players] stopped talking to me, a lot of them insulted me, as well as my family,” he said. “There was tension; it created a lot of tension.” But he had a contract to fulfill, and he wasn’t about to walk out on his commitment to Dania Jai Alai, where he was signed at the time.

By this point, Heide had gone to cosmetology school and was working as a hairdresser. She had recently married Mario Mercado, an aspiring pro she met at the World Jai Alai school. When the strike began, Mercado saw it as his chance to finally become a professional, and he became a scab, crossing the picket line to play. Becky disapproved, and her family knew this. The easiest thing to do was to just not talk about it. “Like politics,” she explained.

But in August 1987, Heide and her 8-month-old daughter, Ashleigh, were killed in a car accident. She was in the car with the wife and child of another player, having just dropped their two husbands off at the Fort Pierce fronton, when Heide, the driver of the car, hit a truck. She and her daughter were killed; her passengers walked away from the accident. Becky’s world was shattered; she describes that day as “the worst day of [her] life.”

Getsee was at the fronton when Mercado learned about the deaths. From that moment, Getsee said, “his entire personality changed.” Before the accident, Mercado was a “happy-go-lucky” guy, but he became serious and very religious. He stopped engaging with his teammates, ignoring the locker-room banter and horseplay. According to Getsee, the joy in the sport that Mercado had always experienced had disappeared (attempts to contact Mercado were unsuccessful).

At the funeral, both sides of the jai alai world — striking players and scabs — came together. There was no tension or arguing, just mourning Heide and Ashleigh. Becky was at a crossroads and, for the first time, was openly considering whether to continue pursuing a future with the sport: She was a 23-year-old still living with her parents and without a full-time job. At the funeral, she realized her passion would never become a steady job.

“I was supporting the players who were on strike and … I didn’t keep it a secret,” she said. “And [Dania Jai Alai] pretty much fired me. They said they were letting middle management go, but nobody else got let go.” A switch flipped, and just like that she gave up the sport, enrolling in dental hygiene school, had a daughter, and dedicated herself to being a mom and dental hygienist.

Fancy, who Becky describes as “a rebel,” was arguably the most talented of the three sisters, but she too outgrew jai alai and went to school to get a degree in criminal justice. “We always said that Fancy would make a good lawyer because she could argue so well,” said Becky. But she never completed her degree. Instead, she got married, and her husband, a Miccosukee tribal member, supported her.

In 2015, Fancy died of an overdose of Xanax and Percocet. She was 45 years old. Both Art and Maria Julia have passed away, as well.

***

When I tracked Becky Smith down, she thought it was because I heard about the Calder Casino tryouts. I hadn’t. I was calling her to talk about 1987; she wanted to tell me about 2019. At 54, her hair is still jet-black; her round race and dimples make her appear younger than she actually is. She’s short, just 5’2’’. Getsee describes her as “diminutive;” Becky goes with “short and stocky.” But on the court, “she is a technician,” said Getsee. “She didn’t lose any of that.”

This past December, Getsee called Becky to see if she had any interest in trying out for Calder’s team. Becky hadn’t thought about jai alai in three decades, and she thought at first that it might be a joke. But Getsee was serious. Calder was building a league, and they’d already constructed a women’s locker room in the hope of having both women’s and men’s teams.

Becky was reluctant. The casino was a far drive — 35 miles each way. She was tired. She was busy. But while her drive as a 19-year-old had diminished over time, it hadn’t flamed out, and she felt the urge to show up and see what happened.

Her 27-year-old daughter was incredulous; she has never known her mother as a jai alai player. Becky found her cesta, which had been in a closet since 1988, and once she stepped back on the court, her passion for the game returned. “I got there and I started throwing the ball around. It all came rushing back, why I liked it,” she said. “And I don’t like to exercise. I hate it. I hate going to the gym. I think it’s boring as hell. … But jai alai, you get me on that court, I’ll be out there for a couple hours until I drop.”

She began training several days a week after work, picking up right where she left off. In a totally foreign experience, men at the practice court sometimes fight to be her partner. In her head, she thinks, ‘This never happened in the ’80s.’

On February 26, Becky signed a contract with Calder and officially became the first female professional jai alai player in U.S. history. She finally accomplished what she first set out to do more than 30 years ago. Professional jai alai players are always identified by a short, snappy nickname — Cornblit’s was, succinctly, “Joey” — and the name Becky will wear on her back is a nod to the history she will make every time she enters the fronton and steps onto the court — “La Primera.”

“She’s good enough. She’s aggressive, she’s skilled, and she deserves it. More so than … some of the guys that are playing, she definitely deserves it more,” said Getsee. “She really put in the time.”

When Becky begins practice this month (Calder says the season will start once construction on the fronton is completed, which is projected for May), she’ll experience a vastly changed environment: The court is 50 feet shorter than it was when she last played. The playing field will also be a bit more equal: Many of her competitors are her age. Even though management capitulated to the demands of the striking players, ending the strike in 1991, the sport was already on a downswing. The pros, those who had built jai alai to its pinnacle, didn’t teach the sport to their children; there was no future, so the next generation never learned its intricacies, like how to catch a bote pronto or hurl a rebote to win the point.

“The quality is a lot different,” Cornblit said of the sport as it’s played today. “I’m happy for those [players, but] to me it’s not the actual game as I know it and as I lived it for so many years.”

For the foreseeable future, Becky will also break boundaries by herself. There are no other women on Calder’s roster, because finding women with a skill set equal to Becky’s is near impossible — Getsee estimated that there are maybe five or six women playing at all in the entire country. Even though a lot has changed, this one thing has not. Jai alai, for now, is still (mostly) a man’s sport.

“When Becky breaks this barrier … she’ll be the first because she put in the time and effort and, to some degree, that goes back to their mom,” said Getsee. “Their mom was a driving force. … The whole family put in the effort, not knowing if there was ever gonna be a payoff.”

Depending on the source, jai alai either means “joyful celebration” or “happy festival,” and both translations aptly describe Becky’s mood when she announced her accomplishment to her circle of friends, posting a screenshot of the email from Calder telling her she’d made the team. “Mommy, can you see me now?” she wrote. “I finally did it!”

For an audio companion piece to this story and to hear more about Becky’s jai alai journey (and the initial phone call that led to this article), download this week’s episode of the Longreads Podcast.

***

Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance sports writer living in Boston. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, espnW, Bleacher Report, and more.

Editor: Matt Giles

Fact checker: Samantha Schuyler

Copy editor: Jacob Z. Gross