What’s Jai-Alai? A nearly extinct sport worthy of saving, these ‘Canes say

It’s a Wednesday morning, and one by one, the familiar Hurricane faces make their way into the non-descript North Miami warehouse near the corner of N.E. 150 St. and 19th Ave.

In walks Kenny Kelly, the former University of Miami quarterback and Major League Baseball player. He still looks as lean and fit as he was in 1999, when he led the Big East in passing. The gray whiskers in his goatee are the only clues that he is a 39-year-old father of four.

And, wait, who’s that? It’s Nate “The Great” Brooks, the charismatic Liberty City native who played cornerback for UM from 1994-98, the guy best remembered for scoring a game-winning touchdown off a blocked punt with 29 seconds left to beat West Virginia on the road in 1996. Brooks, who had a brief stint with the New England Patriots, is 42 now. He’s a bit heftier than he was in his playing days — the price, he says, for owning ice cream trucks.

There’s Coconut Grove native Tanard Davis, the former UM and NFL cornerback, 35 now, and in better shape than ever. And former speedy UM and NFL receiver Tony Gaiter, and ex-Canes pitcher Darryl Roque, and ex-hurdler Les Bradley II.

These former Canes have been gathering at the warehouse five days a week since late-January and strapping on helmets. They are on a serious mission: to become professional Jai-Alai players.

Yes, Jai-Alai.

Now nearly-extinct, Jai-Alai was once hugely popular up and down the Eastern seaboard, especially in Miami, where the fronton was known as “the Yankee Stadium of Jai-Alai.” In its heyday, in the 1970s and early 80’s, crowds of thousands showed up to drink, smoke cigars, and see their favorite one-named stars, with long, curved baskets (“cestas”) strapped to their hands, hurling the goatskin ball (“pelota”) against the court walls at speeds up to 170 mph.

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It is similar to racquetball, but with high-speed acrobatic catches and throws. And if you’ve never seen it, you will get a chance starting July 1.

Magic City Casino owners are doing away with greyhound racing this summer and reviving Jai-Alai on a smaller-than-regulation court they are building in the casino’s Stage 305 concert hall.

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.

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