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The Swift and the Dying

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So he convinced Ken to back his newfound passion, and three days a week, Scotty and his father drove to train at Miami Amateur Jai-Alai in North Miami, where the boy learned his mechanics, his technique, his strength. Soon, he took a job making minimum wage as a ball boy at Dania, practicing between performances, as only employees may.

He flopped at his first tournament, the U.S. Amateur Championship at Miami Jai-Alai, when he was 16. Before traveling to his next competition, the 1995 Ocala Invitational, Scotty asked Ken not to attend. Ken Klier protested -- what difference would his presence make? The son said, believe me. He returned from Ocala with a first-place trophy as big as a wedding cake.

"My dad always encouraged him to do his best," Rapp says. When told her brother recalls a great deal of pressure from their father, she hesitates, choosing her words slowly. "Let me see how I can say this," she resumes. "He always wanted to see him do his best."

Then he won another tournament, the Orlando Invitational, which earned him a tryout at the Fort Pierce venue, which is called a fronton. A few months after he graduated from Piper High School in 1996, while he was still a ball boy at Dania, Scotty got the call: Fort Pierce wanted to hire him to play pro. Scotty appealed to the managers at Dania, where the competition is tougher and more experienced. That was on a Wednesday. Two days later, Ken Klier predicted Dania would offer Scotty a contract. Sure enough, the manager called him into the little office overlooking the court and presented him a deal worth about $1,800 a month. Scotty was so excited, he sprinted around the parking lot. Ken recalls his son was actually nauseous with joy.

His parents took him on a vacation to California just to help him clear his head. "If this plane goes down and I don't get to play pro..." he protested at the time. But he had much to consider. The same week, he got to the top of the waiting list for the Broward Fire Academy. Two years before, when he was a high school sophomore, his mother had signed him up as a way to safeguard his future.

"I said to hell with the fire academy; I'm going to play jai alai professionally, in Dania," he recalls. "Back then, it was like, holy shit, that's Dania Jai-Alai." Besides, how many fire academy cadets get to look into the stands and see high school buddies cheering them on? And what teenager could turn down something he'd been chasing for a third of his life?

The heart of the gritty game at Dania Jai-Alai resides on the second floor of the players' area, around the corner from the cestas. Inside a little brown room with just enough space for a desk littered with Café Bustelo cans and the tar-like guano of countless sugary espresso splatters, there's an ancient worktable where a gentle, bespectacled ballmaker named Julio Anchia has for 30 years rebuilt the pelotas that ricochet around the fronton. His implements -- a pair of curved scissors, a greasy knife, a balance scale with 107 grams of weight on one side -- line the top of his table, which is itself bandaged in untold layers of decomposing duct tape. Beneath the table sits a small bucket of water where strips of goatskin soak, waiting to be stretched and sewn with nylon thread across the core of wound rubber.

"The most important part," Anchia says, holding a brown spherical core, "is this. The rest, we can do."

Balls are ruined when the kinetic energy from those mighty tosses turns to heat energy upon impact. Rising temperatures force bubbles to the ball's surface, warping it, making it unpredictable. Then the ball must be re-covered so it flies straight; the pelotas survive dozens of these operations. Anchia's craft is critical to the game and, like so much of the rest of jai alai, is swiftly becoming an anachronism.

The game's origins are uncertain. Its DNA traces back to ancient Greeks playing handball. By the 15th Century, Basques were competing in variations with bare hands, then gloves and racquets. The first modern jai-alai cesta arrived about 130 years ago, and the game traveled wherever Basques went. In 1904, the St. Louis World's Fair introduced the game to the United States. Some of the players -- and fans -- commuted between South Florida and frontons in Cuba.

Miami Jai-Alai opened in 1926, the nation's first professional fronton. Dania Jai-Alai followed in 1953. "Back in the glory days, just about every celebrity came here," Sorensen says. "Roger Maris came here after he hit 61 home runs. Joe Namath came here after he won the Super Bowl." Jackie Gleason, Larry King, and (no surprise) Pete Rose were regulars. Through the '80s and into the early '90s, jai alai was a well-dressed, well-heeled, and well-attended affair: A 1993 Sunshine magazine cover story said no sport drew more spectators in South Florida in 1992.

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Sam Eifling
Contact: Sam Eifling

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