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Jai alai went bye-bye in Tampa 20 years ago. Here is its legacy

Nancy and Fred Kurtzman  have a variety of jai alai memorabilia, including this Durango jersey at their home in Tampa on June 20, 2018. Before it closed, the Kurtzmans would attend jai alai in Tampa regularly. MONICA HERNDON   |   Times
Nancy and Fred Kurtzman have a variety of jai alai memorabilia, including this Durango jersey at their home in Tampa on June 20, 2018. Before it closed, the Kurtzmans would attend jai alai in Tampa regularly. MONICA HERNDON | Times
Published Jul. 3, 2018|Updated Jul. 3, 2018

TAMPA — Framed on the wall as the centerpiece of Fred and Nancy Kurtzman's living room decor is a purple and yellow jersey worn by one of their all-time favorite jai alai players, an athlete simply known as "Aramayo."

Surrounding it, under the same piece of glass, is Aramayo's cesta and pelota — tools of the sport — and a program from the night these mementos graced Tampa's jai alai arena known as a fronton. The date: July 4, 1998, the final time professional jai alai was played at the Tampa fronton.

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That remains a sad day for the Kurtzmans.

"Jai alai in Tampa was like eating black beans and rice in Tampa," Nancy Kurtzman said. "It was just part of our culture. It's who this city was. We miss it."

Twenty years after the Latin sport transitioned from game day programs to Tampa history books, the Kurtzmans are not alone in still mourning the loss.

Fans, players and fronton employees continue to think fondly of the more than four decades Tampa hosted professional jai alai.

"The fronton was the place to be," said Mario Nunez, 59, a ball boy there from 1977-1979. "Standing room only and everyone dressed to the nines. There was nothing like it."

Located on the plot of S Dale Mabry Highway land that now hosts a Home Depot, the fronton seated around 4,000, but crowds double that size crammed inside to watch what was billed as the "fastest game in the world."

Smoke filled the building, legal bets were placed, Spanish music blared, and the crowd roared.

"It is the hardest ball in the world, but we couldn't hear it crack against a granite wall at over 100 mph," said James Herritt, 60, a Tampa player from 1984-1998. "That's how loud it was."

Glassware from the jai alai fronton in Tampa are on display at Fred and Nancy Kurtzman’s home in Tampa on June 20. Before the fronton closed, the Kurtzmans would attend games regularly. MONICA HERNDON | Times
Glassware from the jai alai fronton in Tampa are on display at Fred and Nancy Kurtzman’s home in Tampa on June 20. Before the fronton closed, the Kurtzmans would attend games regularly. MONICA HERNDON | Times


Pronounced “Hi-Lie” and meaning "Merry Festival" in Spanish, the sport was popularized in the Basque region of Spain.

Jai alai is played in singles or doubles on a court measuring 176 by 45 feet and that is surrounded by walls.

Players use long narrow curved reed baskets called cestas to hurl a rock-hard rubber ball smaller than a baseball and called a pelota at speeds up to 150 mph against walls. Opponents must catch the ball in their basket in the air or on one bounce.

Games are round robin. A point-winner stays on the court to face the next competitor, while the old opponent gets back in line. First player to seven wins.

It burst onto the American scene in the 1920s via Miami. And when it was time to "expand the jai alai footprint, Tampa, with its large Cuban and Spanish population, was natural," said Rodney Kite-Powell, curator of the Tampa Bay History Center.

The first game at the Tampa fronton was on Dec. 11, 1952, according to Tampa Bay Times archives.

"This was before the Bucs, Rays or Lightning," Kite-Powell said. "This was our first look at world-class athletes."

Tampa's roster of around 50 players competed among themselves five days a week during a season that usually ran winter to spring. Though, on special occasions, competitors from other Florida frontons like Daytona Beach and Ocala would come to take on the home team.

Because many players were from Spain and had long names that were hard for Americans to pronounce, they instead went by stage names — Aramayo, Bolivar and Rufino, for instance.

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"They used last names, cities they were from, these monikers were exclusive and unique, and we knew them and their respective player numbers by heart," ball boy Nunez said.

Following an impressive play, such as climbing a wall to get to the ball, the crowd would chant the stage name.

"We were rock stars," said Herritt, known in jai alai as "Corky," a childhood nickname. "It was like performing on a stage."

Former jai alai player James “Corky” Herritt poses at his bowling alley June 27. Pinarama Bowling is across the street from where the fronton was located, and Herritt often gazes over at the site of his glory days. MONICA HERNDON | Times
Former jai alai player James “Corky” Herritt poses at his bowling alley June 27. Pinarama Bowling is across the street from where the fronton was located, and Herritt often gazes over at the site of his glory days. MONICA HERNDON | Times


When games were over, said Paula Murillo, whose late-husband Jose Murillo competed in Tampa 1961-1968, girls waited by the fronton back door.

"Every daughter was brought to meet the players," Murillo, 77, said with a laugh.

Five-star restaurants gave them marquee tables without reservations. Fans hounded her husband, a native of Spain known as "Murillo" for autographs.

"He was a celebrity," she said.

But it came at a physical cost.

Her husband nearly lost an eye when hit by the ball. Herritt had his nose broken on multiple occasions and said other players ruptured spleens or developed blood clots in their brain after a shot smacked them.

"The danger and athleticism it took to play was underrated because so much of the focus was put on gambling," Herritt said.

Akin to betting on horses, wagers were made on who would place first, second or third in a game. There were also exactas, trifectas and so on.

Though bets as low as a dollar could be made, Mark Beiro, fronton announcer from 1979-1994, said, "We'd have nights where over $300,000 was wagered."

Rumors abounded that games were fixed, allegations that still bother Biero. "I'd have been rich from picking winners," he said.

Ultimately, that needed link to gambling aided its demise.

The Florida Lottery began siphoning the fronton crowds upon its 1988 introduction.

"You could buy a scratch-off with milk," former player Herritt said. "Why go to the fronton if gambling is that easy?"

Still, "the crowd was already diminishing [before the lottery]," player wife Murillo said. "It wasn't like the heyday where everyone was a star."

A strike that began in 1988 and lasted two years exacerbated the situation. Replacement players were used, but the quality of play diminished.

"The strike was the beginning of the end," fan Frank Kurtzman, 70, said. "Without the best players, the games weren't as good."

Fans found other forms of entertainment and many never frequented the fronton again.

In 1997, the fronton tried to win back the crowds by offering a 26-table poker room, but a swoon of gamblers did not return. They preferred the Seminole Casino.

Nancy and Fred Kurtzman pose at their home in Tampa on June 20. Nancy says that “jai alai in Tampa was like eating black beans and rice in Tampa.”  MONICA HERNDON | Times
Nancy and Fred Kurtzman pose at their home in Tampa on June 20. Nancy says that “jai alai in Tampa was like eating black beans and rice in Tampa.” MONICA HERNDON | Times


And by 1998, when the area had a full plate of pro sports, the fronton struggled to fill a quarter of its seats. So, it shut down.

"It was a part of the entertainment fabric of Tampa," Kurtzman said. "Then one day, it wasn't."

There has been interest over the years in erecting a new fronton and giving jai alai a second chance. But former player Herritt doesn't think it would succeed. "Fans from way back would come back, but that's it," he said.

Today, Herritt owns the Pinarama Bowling across the street from where the fronton was located. There, memorabilia can be found encased in tables.

And, Herritt admits he often gazes over at the site of his glory days.

"It was a special period for Tampa," he said, "and it's something we'll never have again."

In this file photo, a patron stands before the odds board at the Tampa Jai-Alai Fronton, which closed 20 years ago — on July 4, 1998 — after 53 years of operation. The fronton's land on S Dale Mabry Highway now hosts a Home Depot. [Times files (1998)]
In this file photo, a patron stands before the odds board at the Tampa Jai-Alai Fronton, which closed 20 years ago — on July 4, 1998 — after 53 years of operation. The fronton's land on S Dale Mabry Highway now hosts a Home Depot. [Times files (1998)]

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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