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The Swift and the Dying

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Slip in the anonymous back door of Dania Jai-Alai before a match and ascend a couple of flights of musty stairs with handrails so worn that bald iron shows from under the paint. Turn a corner and, in a barren lounge as big as a 7-Eleven parking lot, there's Klier sitting on a blue plastic couch pulled up to a beat-up Ping-Pong table, gnawing meat from fried chicken wings. A plastic Publix sack, his makeshift dinner plate, collects his bone pile.

"It's a fuckin' graveyard," Klier says with dark congeniality. "Yeah, you can start off the article, 'I walked into a fuckin' dump up here, and this guy's eating fuckin' lo mein and chicken wings. He was eating off a fuckin' Ping-Pong table and these couches from 1944. '"

Pardon the French, but Klier just finished his games in a Tuesday matinee and has only a few minutes to inhale his fuckin' lo mein before strapping on his cesta for the evening round. Between six weekly performances and his thrice-weekly classes at Broward Community College, where he is studying to become a physical therapy assistant, he sometimes doesn't eat well. He displays the wound-up countenance of an athlete in mid-workday, bouncing a knee as he sits. A violet nebula bruise on his calf marks the spot where an errant shot popped him a few nights back. For jai-alai players, pain comes wrapped in goatskin.

How this kid came from a comfy Sunrise neighborhood to the major leagues of this sport from the Pyrenees baffles even him sometimes. He was always a tough kid, according to his eldest sister, Lisa Rapp. When he was 3 years old, neighborhood boys three times his age would knock on the door to ask if Scotty could play. Once, when the kid was about 7, he started beating on his other sister, Bonnie, his senior by four years. Lisa used a clunky phone receiver to deter him. "I was pounding his back," she says, "but he was not even stopping."

Naturally, Scotty channeled his toughness and athleticism into sport. He started playing soccer around the time he began T-ball, and he always enjoyed football. Says his cousin, Jack Tacher, who grew up on the same block: "He probably lost some of his childhood from playing so many sports. A lot of his time got eaten up, baseball and soccer and this and that." Klier played on some sharp league teams as a boy. At age 12, his baseball team of hand-picked talent won Florida and traveled to St. Louis to play for a national title.

Klier's father, Ken, took the boy to his first jai-alai match when he was about 12. Back in those days, just 15 years ago, the numbers were large enough that the father-son pair had to linger for the crowd to thin so that they could upgrade from the rear to box seats, right against the fence.

"I thought it was scary," Scott Klier recalls. "I thought it was mysterious. When I see something mysterious, I get curious."

The sport's speed, the movement, the individual workouts, all appealed to Klier. "It's like tennis but a lot more complex," he says. "This game makes tennis look like a pussy sport." Over time, tendonitis in his shoulder forced him to limit himself to either baseball or jai alai. Klier picked the latter.

His father guesses that, had the boy stuck with baseball, he might have earned a scholarship to a junior college, then perhaps transferred to a four-year university. "He really didn't have the great hitting ability," Ken Klier says. "He was probably above average, but nothing really special." The boy's forté was fielding and throwing; he played shortstop well. "I went out and spent, like, a thousand dollars on a machine to throw balls not only for batting but [so that] he could field them automatically," the father recounts. "Thousands and thousands of gyrations of throwing balls. He wasn't born with that ability."

Says the son: "Story of my life. Catching balls."

But baseball for Klier always meant pressure -- from dad, from his teammates, from his coaches. Jai alai was... release. Ken Klier, of course, pushed Scotty, but friends and neighbors didn't really comprehend the game. It was outside of their experience. And it was the kind of solitary pursuit in which a sensitive, talented introvert like Scotty could be himself.

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Sam Eifling
Contact: Sam Eifling

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