Maria Smith is a Little League mother. Or, more precisely, a jai alai mother. She takes off from her job as a newspaper pasteup artist to sit in the first row of the deserted Dania fronton in Dania, Fla., and watch her daughter Becky, 22, practice. "Aiiieee!" Maria cries and slaps her cheek when Becky muffs an easy catch and the pelota caroms untouched off a wall. Maria mutters to herself and shakes her head. "I hope we do better in the tournament."
Maria was born in Cuba and emigrated to Miami in 1962. She traces her ancestors back to the Basque provinces of Spain and France, where jai alai is believed to have originated in the 14th century. Today the game is played all over the world by thousands of professional players of many nationalities. Still, most of the best pros are Basques. And all of them are men.
That is even more reason for Maria to be anxious as she watches Becky practice for the Gold Coast Amateur Jai Alai Championships in Dania. There are rumors that agents from the major frontons will be at the tournament, ready to sign the most promising young players to pro contracts. Becky desperately wants to become the first woman pro in the history of jai alai.
The pelota slams the front wall and ricochets back off the floor at Becky's feet. She catches it with her cesta on a difficult short hop (called a bote pronto) and returns a change-of-pace shot (dejada) that becomes a kill shot (remate) when the opposing player fails to reach it before its second bounce.
August 9, 1987
"Oooh! Mucho! Mucho!" Maria shouts and claps her hands. Rarely does Becky show any emotion, except by an occasional furrowing of her thick eyebrows. Maria proudly watches her daughter return to her server's position for the next play. Becky is short and chunky, like her mother. Her play is mechanically good, but unimaginative. It is the game of one who has come to the sport relatively recently.
Just as Becky is rigid and serious, so her 23-year-old partner, Jackie Hernandez, is graceful and almost effervescent. After a point Becky moves dutifully to her position, while Hernandez leaps gracefully in the air to mime the shot that he has just made. They are almost exact counterpoints.
When Smith asked Hernandez to be her partner for the Gold Coast tournament she was surprised that he immediately said yes. Hernandez says he agreed for a number of reasons, not the least being the realization that teaming up with Smith, who has been featured on local television programs, would increase his exposure to agents.
But there was more than just Becky Smith's marquee value to prompt Hernandez into the partnership. "Playing with Becky has picked up my game," Hernandez says. "Sometimes she lets balls go she should try for. It makes me work harder. It's not that she can't make the catch, it's just that she's afraid to make a mistake. She's just not as strong in the upper body as men. I can show her how to be in the right place at the right time, to anticipate the ball to make up for things she can't do. She just needs practice and confidence."
Becky needs practice because she must make up for five lost years. She grew up in West Dade, Fla., where there simply were not many kids who played jai alai, and the best she could do was play by herself off a garage wall. When she was 14, Becky tried to enroll in jai alai school only to discover that no girls were allowed. Five years later, however, Becky's younger sisters, Fancy and Heide, also expressed interest in the game, and the World Jai Alai School in North Miami accepted all three of them. The school offered afternoon sessions in which the aspiring players learned shots such as the cortada (a low-angle shot), the chula (a shot that hits the base of the back wall and rolls out dead) and the picada (a ball thrown with English on it so that it bounces too high for others to reach).
Becky's sisters soon quit, but she had become even more interested in the sport and wanted to continue. The problem was that she knew she was falling behind the other students. She also thought she knew why. The World Jai Alai court was open for practice from 10 a.m. to midnight for its male students, but Becky was allowed on the court only when she was actually taking lessons. Howard Kalik, owner-manager of Miami Amateur Jai-Alai Inc. and the director of the U.S. Amateur Jai Alai Players association, is in charge of the World Jai Alai amateur program. He claims that his exclusion of Becky was based on her play, not the fact that she is a girl. "I discriminate on ability," he says.
Becky disagreed, and in February of 1985, when she was 20, she slapped a sex discrimination suit on Kalik. The next month, before the case came to court, Kalik agreed to let Becky have the same practice hours as the jai alai school's male students.
For the past 26 months Becky has been spending every moment she can muster trying to catch up to her contemporaries. Jackie Hernandez, for instance, has been playing jai alai for 11 years although he is only one year older than Becky. She has even dropped out of Florida International University and given up playing in a string quartet to try to make a career in jai alai.
"Becky has every right to try it," says Maria. "They tried everything to keep her off the court. I think it's all ridiculous. She has beaten a number of boys who have turned professional. I don't understand why some smart promoter doesn't see the potential in promoting Becky as the first professional woman jai alai player."
Kalik still doesn't see it the same way. "She could get killed out there," he says. "She plays the violin. She should stick to music."
When she arrived at the Dania fronton to practice for the Gold Coast tournament, Becky tried to enter through the players' entrance. Kalik, who was in charge of the tournament, stopped her. He told her one of the professionals was getting a massage and she would not be allowed to walk past him.
"So just close the door," said Becky, with Maria by her side. Kalik said it was too hot to do that. He told the two women that they would have to go around to the main entrance.
"What's the big deal?" Becky said. "It's just a naked guy."
Kalik himself walked the two women around the fronton. Once inside, they were forced to wait in the spectator seats while the boys practiced. Becky did stretching exercises to pass the time and looked wistfully at her competitors on the court. More lost time. Eventually Kalik signaled to her. Becky grabbed her equipment and ran into one of the ladies' rooms to change and finally got out on the court.
The tournament was played on a Sunday afternoon before a small crowd that consisted mostly of players' relatives and scouts. Hernandez and Becky played well at first and became crowd favorites. "Great shot, Becky!" someone called out. Becky just moved to the server's position. Hernandez mimed a catch as he drifted to his position.
Steve Bourie, the Dania fronton publicity director, was watching in the audience. He said, "I don't think she's a threat to play professionally yet. She's a good catcher, but she's too selective about balls that she'll go for. Still, she has beautiful form, and she learns quickly. And it's to her advantage that she doesn't have that macho male attitude. She doesn't try to throw the ball too hard and wild. To be honest, I don't see any reason why a girl would not eventually play jai alai professionally."
Jackie and Becky did not place in the top three in the tournament. Becky said she was "disappointed." Then she added, "But I thought we played well. One of the guys came over to me and said, 'I admire you for just being out there. It takes courage to play this game.' "
The rival player was referring to being locked in a 176-by 40-foot room with three other people, chasing down a rock-hard ball that comes ricocheting past your head at 150 mph. But for Becky Smith, who has dedicated herself to being the first member of her sex to become a professional in a game she loves, playing jai alai takes another kind of courage as well.
Pat Jordan, author of "A False Spring" and eight other books, lives in Fort Lauderdale.