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Jai alai: a portrait of a game

Jai alai, often called the world's fastest ballgame, might be compared to an extremely fast-paced version of handball or racquetball. The 103-gram ball _ or pelota _ travels up to 180 mph and is bounced off a wall at the end of a court; points are scored when the opponent misses a return. Singles or doubles are played, and bettors risk money on their favorites. It's played in the bay area at the Tampa Jai-Alai fronton at 5125 S Dale Mabry. Here's a look at the game, its equipment and some of its people.

The game

Players wait in a cage (above) for their turn to play, while the celebrated Laca II leaps to throw a ball off the front wall. Laca is the winningest player in Tampa Jai Alai history and will have his number retired Saturday night after playing 23 years in Tampa. Laca is from Spain, as are many of the players.

The tools

Miguel Tello (above) enlarges the leather finger holes in his cesta _ the device used to catch the pelota _ by pushing a stick through. Pelotas are wrapped in stages with strips of rubber, which must harden for 10 years before plastic yarn and two goatskin covers are sewn on (right).

The take

After the matinee, Cleve Williams of Clearwater sits on a bench just outside the fronton and arranges his money for the evening games. He must wait about an hour before the doors open again.

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