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St. Petersburg jai alai addicts celebrate a first

ST. PETERSBURG

When the jai alai fronton officially opens Saturday at Puryear Park, it will be the first public court in the nation.

St. Petersburg Cancha, which includes a main court and three practice courts, got the green light from the City Council last year.

Paul Kubala and his small group of jai alai playing friends have been hiding in broad daylight for years. Visitors to Jack Puryear Park on those hot summer weekdays at lunchtime the past 20 years may have seen them.

They were the ones with a cesta (which looks like an oblong wicker basket) on one hand, throwing a red rubber ball against a tennis practice wall. The ball can reach more than 100 mph, and with no fence or netting to stop errant throws, balls frequently got loose.

"We were afraid we might hit somebody,'' Kubala said. "The only time we would ever play is from noon to 3 o'clock on a weekday. It's hot. There's nobody in the park except us. That's why nobody ever saw us out there, because nobody was ever there.''

Kubala and a friend, Tom DeMint, talked about the possibility of building a court strictly for jai alai. It would require a higher wall, an additional back wall, fencing and netting.

They initially approached Edgemoor Neighborhood Association president Stan Kordecki with the idea. With Kordecki on board, the trio approached former City Council member Bill Foster, who represented their district. The city eventually warmed to the idea and had an offer: If the group could come up with $10,000 to improve the court, the city would supply the labor.

That's where Jeff Conway came in. Conway, part of the jai alai playing group, owns Clearwater Enviro Technologies, which manufactures water purification equipment. Conway agreed to give $10,000, and the project was off and running.

Last June 18, work on the court began. The project got a financial boost when $39,000 was earmarked for court improvement from the Weeki Wachee fund. The fund is from the sale of a 440-acre recreation area in Hernando County in 2001. Money from the $15.9-million sale is to be used for park, recreation, beautification and nature preservation efforts.

The group used $29,000 to put up the fences and nets, paint the walls and get a new sign for the court. The rest of the money was put in an account to maintain the court over the next 10 years.

On Saturday, the court will be officially dedicated. As the first public jai alai court in the nation, "that's something we're proud of,'' Conway said. "Ideally, I wish the wall was a little higher and the court was longer, but we did as much as we were allowed to do. We're very happy with it.''

Tampa's Mark Beiro, a former announcer at the Tampa Jai-Alai fronton, will be the master of ceremonies for the event.

The goal is to expose as many people to jai alai as possible. Kubala envisions more people coming to the sport because of the new facility. He envisions summer camps, high school and college club teams, and perhaps the need to approach the city about building another jai alai court.

"Jai alai doesn't take much time or money to get addicted to,'' Kubala said. "It's going to keep kids out of trouble in my neighborhood. They'll be out there playing jai alai.

"The main goal for this whole thing is to provide a venue for people to learn this game. Nobody has had the chance to get hooked on jai alai because there's no place to play it. It's an addicting game.''

>>if you go

Opening day

The court is freshly painted. The service lines have been drawn. The netting has been secured. The court is finally fully loaded.

The grand opening begins at 10 a.m. Saturday. There will be jai alai demonstrations throughout the day. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker is expected to throw out the first "pelota.'' There will be live bands, raffles, children's activities and food. Tampa's Mark Beiro, a former announcer at the Tampa Jai-Alai fronton, will be the master of ceremonies for the event.

For information about jai alai at Puryear Park, go to national-jai-alai.com.

>>fast facts

What is jai alai?

• Jai alai, which translates in Spanish to "merry festival,'' originated in the Basque country of Northern Spain about 400 years ago. The first indoor court was built in 1798 in Marquena, Spain. Jai alai was first played professionally at the Miami Fronton in 1926.

• The game is played with a pelota (ball) that is roughly three-fourths the size of a baseball and hard as a rock. The core is rubber, and it is layered with nylon and hand-stitched with two goat skin covers. On the St. Petersburg court, a rubber lacrosse ball is used because the front wall would not withstand the beating of a regulation pelota. Regulation front walls are made of granite. It would cost $2-million to build an official court.

• The ball is caught with a cesta, or basket. It is long and curved and is hand-woven for each player. The basket is made of wicker and the frame is made of steam-bent chestnut.

• Cestas are not easy to come by. No sporting goods stores carry them. Most of the cestas used by the Puryear Park group are from players at the Tampa fronton, now razed.

• The court is called a concha. There are three walls. The Puryear Park court is not covered. It is also about half the size of a regulation jai alai court.

• Jai alai rules are similar to those of racquetball. The serve must land in a designated area, and receiving players must catch the ball in the air or on one bounce, then return it to the wall in one continuous motion. It can be played as a singles or doubles match.

• The Puryear Park league will meet on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. The court is open to the public at other times.

"The sport itself is in trouble,'' Jeff Conway said. "Parimutuel wagering is in trouble everywhere, no doubt. But we just want to let the public know that jai alai is more than just a gambling game. It's an actual sport you can play.''

St. Petersburg jai alai addicts celebrate a first 04/15/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 21, 2008 10:05am]
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