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The Swift and the Dying

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Klier's wages haven't been bad, by working-stiff standards. He has generally earned 40 to 50 grand a year, which includes a bonus of $50 for winning a match, $30 for second place, and $20 for third -- all split in doubles matches.

What he really likes, though, is when the ballet transcends the paycheck and its neon-lit venue, when a spectacular play or an epic point draws people off their betting slips and pulls them back into the grace and elegance of the struggle. "If you can actually get a night where it's crowded and you get to have a great point where everybody stands up to applaud, just to show a little appreciation for once in this fucking sport," Klier says. "Just to have that feeling of appreciation, for me, that's better than winning."

Klier excuses himself to tidy his dinner setting and prepare for his first match. He turns a corner and heads to the cesta room. There, the baskets line shelves on a wall that borders the rear of the court, and you can hear the pelota pound the wall like a billiards ball. Klier walks past the old television playing Mexico's version of Family Feud and the posters of the Dolphins and Heat cheerleaders autographed to the boys at Dania Jai-Alai. He steps into the humidor that smells like a hayloft, where a hundred of the $350 cestas, with their reed skins woven around Spanish cedar skeletons, are piled like rifles in a weapons cache.

Scotty grabs his and descends to the ante room, where the players watch the action through a red chainlink fence. From this vantage, the ball's flight seems faster, more imminent. It curves in space like a knuckleball on nearly every trip.

"Welcome to Dania Jai-Alai," booms the announcer at 6:36 p.m., half an hour before the first game. "At this time, we'd like everybody to pause for the playing of the national anthem." Precisely 16 people in the stands rise. A young boy sings along in a squeaky voice.

A scant few more spectators amble in, and by 7 p.m., about 40 are on hand to see Scotty in the evening's first match. A jai-alai serve is a lit fuse -- the ball is bounced, allowed to drop in seeming slow motion, then is slung 40 yards in a nanosecond -- but Scotty's serve is unusual in that he swipes at the ball from the side, leaving the white speck visible for the tiniest instant while it's in the whirling cup of his cesta. "Let's go, Scotty!" a young person yells.

Scotty starts well, scores, hangs on. He has a shot at victory until a shot goes diagonally off the side wall, off the front wall, and onto the floor, out of his reach. As soon as it clacks off the floor, he trots from the court, his head down. The shot cost him first place and, with it, ten bucks.


Weeknights run together at Dania Jai-Alai. On "99 Wednesdays," admission, soft-serve ice cream, hot dogs, and 16-ounce draft beers run less than a buck, making it the cheapest evening of entertainment in the known universe. Otherwise, most days are indistinguishable from each other, and that includes the heckling. The voices must be a rotating cast, out there in the rows of mostly empty seats, but they're overwhelmingly male and most often in fossilized Jersey accents.

One night, from the safety of the stands, to all the players, as a ball rolls to a stop against the protective fence: "I'll challenge any one of you guys!"

To a Mexican player named Ulises: "Useless!"

To the Spanish Basque competitor Urtaran: "Throw it in the pad, bitch!"

To the 38-year-old Arecha, who drops a ball in a singles match, then makes an expression redolent of a pile of dishrags: "Retire, Arecha," and it's not even very loud in the gaping arena, almost conversational: "Retire."

To Burgo, also a Basque, who is 40: "Retire."

To Azpiri, after he misses a ball: "You're a fat bastard, Azpiri, that's why!"

From the rafters to Foronda, who bobbles a return: "Get a job!"

To the French Basque Carvalho: "You stink!" and as he tracks down a rolling ball between matches: "When I bet you, you don't do nothin'!" Carvalho stands behind the fence, close enough to look his heckler in the eye, and doesn't say nothin'.

To Scotty: "You run like a penguin!"

"Ah, Scotty! Shit, man!"

And sometimes, in quieter tones: "Fuck Scotty."

"You know that Scotty, he hardly wins," says a broad, bald fan from Miami named Reginald Wright, seated in the stands one Saturday night. "He's garbage. He never wins money for me. He's playing with a good player, so I have to play him. But he always puts it on the wood."

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Sam Eifling
Contact: Sam Eifling

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