The ball caromed off the front wall of the jai alai court at a difficult angle and at a speed of more than 100 miles an hour, but the front-court player, Joey, reacted instantaneously. He raced toward the ball at full speed, caught it in the basket strapped to his hand, and in a single motion flipped it toward the wall. The ball grazed the wall and dropped in for a point.
The special skills that went into that split second of athletic activity are ones developed for generations in the Basque country of northern Spain and southern France. Their jai alai is more than a diversion; it is an important part of the culture.
As does basketball in American inner cities, the game offers a possible route to a better life, for the most talented Basques come to the United States and play in the posh Florida jai alai establishments. The Basques have had ample incentive to master the game, and they have dominated it completely.
That, in part, is what makes Joey such an extraordinary player. He is Joey Cornblit, a nice Jewish boy from Miami, and he has made the sort of ethnic and technical impact on his sport that foreign soccer-style kickers did on American football.
The son of parents who immigrated here from Israel, he started playing jai alai at a local amateur court when he was 12. "I fell in love with it right away," he said.
He got professional coaching, and he spent a summer playing in Spain to broaden his experience. Because minors are not admitted to Florida parimutuel establishments, he watched the pros at the Miami Jai Alai fronton by perching on the roof and peering through a vent in the score-board. Four years ago, when he was 18, he signed a professional contract.
"He was right out of central casting," said Milt Roth, a publicist who for years had been trying to promote stars with unpronounceable names and no command of the English language. "Having a Jewish kid from Miami who talked articulately about the dedication you need to play the game was unbelievable. We had every television station in town at his contract-signing."
Skeptics who had seen some of the ungifted Americans who had previously played at Miami might have assumed that Joey's chief endowment was his marketability. The players might have thought so, too.
They learned otherwise very quickly. Cornblit did not merely beat the Basques at their own game. He changed their game, bringing to it a distinctly American aggressiveness.
"The Basques," he said, "are basically catch-and-throw players. You don't see an aggressive style in many of them. I wasn't taught that way." Whenever Cornblit would get the ball in the front court he would look immediately for an opportunity to make a kill shot. He would study the styles of his opponents and try to capitalize on their most minute weaknesses.
He has been the leading game winner at Miami Jai Alai for the last two years, and the combination of his success and his publicity has not endeared him to his fellow players. "They haven't shown a lot of animosity," he said, "but maybe deep down inside they're resentful. I suppose it's the same as if the Basques came to this country to play baseball."
An old jai alai hand here says, "It's worse than that. Joey frustrates them, humiliates them. You never used to see a guy go to his right and have the ball go to his left. And a lot of the Basques don't have the sophistication to realize that what Joey is doing for the game is helping them."
Even if the Basques don't appreciate him, they're going to have to get used to him, and accustomed to the idea that their monopoly of their sport is over.