Jai-Alai with a Miami Hurricanes swagger will make its debut at Magic City Casino on Sunday afternoon.
T en former University of Miami athletes six from football, two baseball, one lacrosse, one track — along with former athletes from Florida International University, Broward College, University of Virginia and Santa Fe College spent the past six months taking a crash course in Jai-Alai, the high-speed sport that enjoyed its heyday in Miami in the 1970s and 1980s.
A modern, smaller-court version of Jai-Alai is replacing dog racing at the casino this summer, and these reinvented athletes will compete for $430,000 in prize money during the five-month season. They will play Wednesday through Sunday at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. through Nov. 30 in the Stage 305 indoor facility.
Among the players on the roster: Kenny “The Legend” Kelly, the 39-year-old former UM quarterback and Major League Baseball player, who looks as fit as he was in 1999 when he led the Big East in passing. Another familiar face is 42-year-old Nate “The Great” Brooks, the gregarious Liberty City native who played cornerback for UM from 1994 to 1998.
There’s Coconut Grove native Tanard “Jeden” Davis, the former UM and NFL cornerback, 35 now, and in better shape than ever, ex-hurdler Les Bradley II, ex-pitcher Darryll “Tennessee” Roque and ex-lacrosse player Jason “J Liss” Liss. FIU football alum Saloney “Juice” Joseph is also a player to watch.
“Us UM Hurricanes are used to top-level competition and we have a certain mentality and attitude that we will bring to our new sport,” Brooks said. “We put our own spin on it. Even though we’re all friends and Canes, there will be a lot of trash-talking between us in the locker room, just like there was when we played football. Coach [Dennis] Erickson used to say,`We come here to play football!’ and now `We’ve come here to play Jai-Alai! I’m here to win all the prize money!”
During the past few months, the athletes have been learning to maneuver long, curved baskets (cestas) strapped to their hands, and hurl the ball (pelota) against the court walls at speeds up to 170 mph.
Rather than import seasoned pros from Spain’s Basque region — increasingly difficult with stricter immigration rules — Magic City CEO Scott Savin and the Havenick family, which owns the casino, came up with the idea of recruiting former athletes from UM, figuring they would catch on quickly and attract new audiences to the dying sport.
“This is a new era of Jai-Alai. This invigorated approach takes the best features of the ‘World’s Fastest Game,’ combines it with a state-of-the-art Jai-Alai court and weds these to the skill sets of many University of Miami athletes,” said Scott Savin, Chief Operating Officer of Magic City Casino. “These battle-proven athletes have been training under one of the Jai-Alai greats of the world and will usher in new spirit, athleticism and competitive fire to the sport.”
Kelly said “everyone was struggling” the first week of training, but they have made “unbelievable” progress.
Davis agreed. He said it took three weeks to understand the basic concept of the cesta, and he has been honing his game ever since.
“We will definitely show our personalities out there, but we can’t show too much because we’ll get fined,” Davis said. “We are taking the sport seriously, but once we get in the locker room, all bets are off and there will be plenty of trash talk.”