Tag: jai alai

March 24, 1980: Death of Pierre Etchebaster, greatest real tennis player in history

If you haven’t heard of real tennis or court tennis, then check it out . Not only is it the forerunner of modern or “lawn” tennis, but it has a long and important history. Evolving out of hand ball games not unlike the Basques’ very own pelota, it was the sport of the royal houses of Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the famous 1789 Tennis Court Oath in the French Revolution was taken in a real tennis court. And real tennis reputedly has the longest line of consecutive word champions in any sport, dating back to 1760.

Pierre Etchebaster in 1928, wearing his customary txapela. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Pierre Etchebaster in 1928, wearing his customary txapela. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Arguably the greatest real tennis player of all time, at least in the modern age, was a Basque, Pierre Etchebaster. Born in Donibane Lohizune (Saint-Jean-de-Luz) on the coast of Lapurdi, in 1893, he naturally grew up playing several of the different types of pelota. Aged eighteen, he was already champion of France in the chistera/xistera variety, the equivalent of what we know today as jai alai or zesta punta. After serving in the French army in World War I he returned to the Basque Country where he continued to excel at pelota.

In 1922 he took up real tennis and became head professional at the Paris court club after auditioning for the post the first time he picked up a racquet! In 1928, already in this thirties, he won his first world championship, wearing his customary blue txapela or beret as a sign of his strong Basque identity. This began a remarkable run of world championship victories, winning his last title in 1954 aged sixty years old! In the meantime, he also spent the 1930s in the United States, where he was a resident professional at the prestigious Racquet and Tennis Club in New York City, where he resided until his retirement in the 1950s.

An excellent athlete, he enjoyed a full and active retirement. He was awarded France’s highest award, the Legion of Honor, in 1955, and went on to publish a coaching manual about the game in 1971. In 1978 he was inducted into the tennis hall of fame. Etchebaster died in the town of his birth, Donibane Lohizune, aged eighty-seven.

Check out this fascinating article on Etcebaster by the New Yorker in 1953.

See also the fascinating book by Olatz González Abrisketa, Basque Pelota: A Ritual, An Aesthetic.

From the Seeds of Jai Alai to the Streets of London

We could say that without the “pilota”, this meeting would not exist, ex professional Jai-Alai player and New England Basque Club integrant Aitor Aldazabal concluded.

By Iñigo Medina Gracia

Aitor Aldazabal, Juan Mari Aramendi, Riki Sotil, Raul Blanco, Edu Arrieta, Patxi Gandiaga and many others gathered in New London CT the 23th of June as organizers during the celebration of the New England’s annual Basque Festival. They were nostalgic but heartfelt when considering this statement.  As the ones who have loved loyally the ancient Basque sport of the “Fronton” in its “Zesta” modality and have to leave it sooner or later, life could be expressed as a set of steps where each one takes you to a different, eventually, completely unexpected one.

Those steps are the ones they experienced after playing at the main frontons of Jai-Alai (or Hi-Li) in Miami, Dania Beach, Hartford, Orlando, Milford, Newport and others. The events occurred during the late 80’s and first 90’s, as the players were on strike, the parallel development of other sports-show competence and the decay of the betting business forced them to reinvent their selves. After getting introduced to some of the organizers or assistant ex-pilotaris and knowing a bit more about their American experience, I noticed that somehow what happened was a recent chapter of Basque emigration history that has not been considered as it deserved to. As multilevel sociological phenomenon, maybe the Jai-Alai 80’s strike and the previous genealogical events which triggered it did not acquire the needed echo within the Basque migration movements. And for sure, it has been and still is, a very interesting individual and collective story.

  

One of the many products of this route synthetized with the creation of the Rhode Island Basque Club in 2003, when some Roberto Guerenabarrena and other Basque-Americans ex “pilotaris” decided to run a Basque Club. This Euskal Etxea later gathered other Basque Diaspora members from states of Connecticut and Massachusetts, finally establishing the New England Basque Club. New England’s Basque Club has been an active chapter of the NABO federation from 2011, celebrating amusing Basque Festivals each year and running different cultural activities always enforcing Basque culture in the East Coast. This time, the place chosen was New London a “well connected enclave between big cities like Boston and New York. This has encouraged other Basques to visit us and join the celebration” organizer Juan Mari Aramendi assessed. In this sense, not only North East coaster Basques came to the meeting. Formers from other Euskal Etxeak or Basques communities like Montreal and Quebec, Florida, California and Nevada could be found onto the about seven hundred assistants.

The meeting was hosted thanks to the collaboration of the New London’s City Council who set the license for the celebration, the main sponsor Thames River Greenery who offered a sale selection of Basque products in this store and obviously the voluntary support carried out by all the members of different Euskal Etxeak. First step of the agenda took place on Friday afternoon at Thames River Greenery, where the visitors had the chance to taste some typical Basque products as cheese or white, rose (Txakoli) and red wine (Rioja). After this, the “Trikipoteo” (a popular run of bars in the Basque Country which always goes with an itinerant live performance of “Trikitixa” or Basque accordion and tambourine or “Pandero”) moved to the Hot Rod Wings bar in Bank Street. New England Basque Club invited the assistants to a tasty dinner based on the specialty of the house: many different types of sauced chicken wings.

Next morning, last steps of the setting up were figuring out at 11.30 when a parade conformed by visitors, dancers and musicians began from the City Hall to the Parade Plaza. The institutional reception lead by the Mayor Michael Passero, and accompained by Juan Mari Aramendi the New England Basque Club president and Iker Goiria from the Regional Council of Gipuzkoa, took place in front of the Nathan Hale Schoolhouse. After the welcome “Aurresku”, Passero gladly received all the visitors and underlined the value and importance of the coexistence between communities that the city of New London has hosted from its foundation. He also remarked the naval-harbor connections and strong whaling tradition similarities between both Basque and New England’s histories.

Bars were opened at the Parade Plaza offering different “pintxos” elaborated by Mikel de Luis from the Amona restaurant (NY) and Fernando Zarauzfrom the Txikito restaurant (NY). Also the paellas started to get cooked thanks to the good work of Bonifacio, Danny and Jean Pierrefrom Miami with the cooperation of different voluntaries from the New England Basque Club.

As the day went by, different music and dance performances started within the celebration premises. Musicians brought from Gipuzkoa made more enjoyable if possible the festive atmosphere breathed in the Parade Plaza. The dancing groups this time were “Gauden Bat” from Chino CA, “Zazpiak Bat” from San Francisco CA and “Ardi Beltza” from Lamoille NV. They offered a magnificent and inclusive demonstration (the visitors were allowed to join the dancers and learn Basque “dantzak”) which came with detailed explications about the origin and meaning of each dance. Meanwhile, the “Paella” was ready to get served just before the turn for the “Herri Kirolak” or Rural Sports came.  Woodchopper or “Aizkolari” performances were developed by Juan Mari Aramendi, Riki Sotil and Patxi Gandiaga, being Riki the first courageous contender to chop six trunks in a row and becoming winner of the challenge.

 

Time for the little ones to try some “txinga-eramate” (a Basque rural modality which consists in carrying a heavy dumbbell in each hand within a track. The person who succeeds in making more comebacks with no limit time and without leaving the dumbbells touch the floor, wins) started afterwards. We had the chance to see great young runners before they changed the dumbbells for the rope “Tug of War-Rope pulling”or “Sokatira” competition, where the struggle got funnier when the adults joined it (my muscles were aching next morning!).

Music continued grooving until dusk when the time to close an enriching Basque culture day in New London arrived. The outcome of the festival was an undoubtedly success, considering the beauty of how the sown seeds of old Jai-Alai Basque-American stories could blossom nowadays in such marvelous gathering and cultural expression.

 

Young Basques making sports careers for themselves in the United States

The Basque-language daily Berria included an interesting report in its Sunday edition yesterday on three young Basques forging sports careers in the United States.

Jagoba Nabarte (Errenteria, Gipuzkoa, 1992) is a professional jai-alai player. In 2015 he received an offer to play at the Dania Jai-Alai fronton in Dania Beach, Florida, and in his own words, he didn’t have to think much about accepting because since the age of fifteen he’d had the goal of going to the US one day to play jai-alai: “On more than one occasion, someone who’d played in America showed up at one of my training sessions, and told me about how it was over there, and I was a little envious.” Although he was supposed to go to Florida in 2015, visa problems delayed the trip. He’d already quit his day job and wasn’t sure if he’d be able to fulfill his dream, and in the end, he had to wait until February this year to make the journey. He recently returned to the Basque Country after a six-month stay in Florida, but will shortly return to Dania Beach, where he finished in the upper half of the final classification table during his previous time there; not bad for a rookie pelotari. He observes that the courts are different in the US and the balls faster, two technical differences that he had to learn about quickly and the hard way. It goes without saying, too, that, as he notes, the bets are larger too in the US!

Uxoa Bertiz (Elizondo, Nafarroa, 1997) has been attending Drury University in Springfield, MO, on a soccer scholarship for the last three years and plays for the Drury Panthers. It has always been her dream to be a professional soccer player, and she did play for Real Sociedad in Donostia as well as the Basque national team. But as she says, she always thought she may go to the US one day: “Soccer in the United States has always attracted me.” Finding it hard to balance her passion for soccer with her studies back home, she applied to several US universities, where she knew the school system made it easier to continue her education while developing as a soccer player. Ultimately, Drury made her an offer and she traveled to Missouri to further her career: “For me, it was the best option, and I didn’t think twice.” She’s now studying computer engineering at Drury and has a busy schedule, getting up at 5 am every day for early morning training before attending class between 9 am and 3 pm, finishing up with more gym work in the afternoon. While it’s been tough to uproot from her family and friends and move thousands of miles away, she’s proud of what’s she’s achieved. And so she should be!

Eneritz Larrañaga (Azpeitia, Gipuzkoa, 1998) plays for the Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College women’s basketball team in Miami, Oklahoma. She’s been in Oklahoma since August 2016 and, as she herself says, while it was tough to make the transition at first, once she made some friends, that helped a lot. In her own words, the “most difficult thing has been adjusting to the US style of basketball, because it’s a lot more individual and physical.”  She didn’t get a lot of game time during the first few months there, but has gradually adapted to the style of play. She’s also studying International Business, while training five days a week (starting at 6 am before class and then again in the evenings). And if that were not enough, she also works part time in a coffee shop. As she says, she really values getting to know lots of people from different countries but, naturally, she also misses her family and friends. Still, she’s happy to be getting a good education and achieve a good level of English, while also being able to play the sport she loves.

Read the full report (in Basque) here.

Jai Alai Blues: A New Documentary Film

Check out this teaser for the new documentary film Jai Alai Blues (2015), directed by Gorka Bilbao for Berde Produkzioak and released by Atera Films, which traces the rise and fall of jai alai in Miami and beyond.

Jai Alai Blues official website here.

Read a review for the film by Neil Young for The Hollywood Reporter here. In Young’s words, “As a lively slice of offbeat, exotic social history — whose second half concentrates squarely on the game’s checkered history in the United States — it appeals beyond the usual sports-doc demographic and should be checked out by festivals and channels specializing in non-fiction fare.”

If you’re interested in this subject, see, too, Michael J. Mooney’s in-depth article “Whatever Happened to Jai Alai?

And the Center has also published a couple of books that may be of interest:

Basque Pelota: A Ritual, An Aesthetic, by Olatz González Abrisketa. While more about the handball version of the sport than jai alai per se, this work does survey the different versions of pelota, as well as demonstrating just how intrinsic it is to Basque culture.

Playing Fields: Power, Practice, and Passion in Sport, edited by Mariann Vaczi. This multi-authored study offers a wide-ranging series of perspectives on numerous sports, pelota included.

 

Old and New World Basques in the News

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Handball players in the Basque Country. Photo from Basque Library archive.

 

Two recent media articles examine Basque culture in both the Basque Country and the United States.

First, on March 22 the UK edition of Esquire magazine published a travel guide to the Basque Country. In “Another Country: The Basque Region,” author Tim Lewis takes us on a cultural, historical, gastronomic, sporting, and architectural tour of the Basque Country, inviting us to “discover the secrets of the original Europeans.”

If you’ve read the artice, or if you are interested exploring the topics yourself, on Basque culture in general, see Basque Culture: Anthropological Perspectives, by William A. Douglass and Joseba Zulaika, a comprehensive introduction to the topic, with chapters on a wide variety of subjects from Euskara and Prehistoric art to the contemporary literature, music, and art of the Basque Country, and including the personal experiences of both authors’ field research.

In Basque Pelota: A Ritual, an Aesthetic, meanwhile, Olatz González Abrisketa explains the social and symbolic importance of this most Basque of traditional sports, a sibling of jai alai (the “happy fiesta” in Basque) or cesta-punta, as it also known. González Abrisketa asks: “But why is it precisely this game that conquered the centers of urban spaces in the Basque Country and the neighboring provinces? Why do Basques play this game and not another? What is its specificity? What does it tell us about the Basques? Why do they consider it their ‘national sport’?”

Sports of a more modern variety are explored in Playing Fields: Power, Practice, and Passion, edited by Mariann Vaczi. These conference papers address a wide variety of themes crisscrossing several sports and countries. General topics covered here include gender, social connections, the logic of games, and the affective dimensions of sports, Of specific Basque interest, individual chapters discuss pelota, Basque soccer, the Udaleku Basque summer camp, and the famous 1931 boxing match held in Reno, Nevada,  between Max Bauer and “the Basque woodchopper,” Paulino Uzcudun.

Finally, for anyone interested in reading more about the significance and impact of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao for both the Basque Country and beyond, see Learning from the Bilbao Guggenheim, edited by Anna Maria Guasch and Joseba Zulaika and available for free download here.

Crossing over to the New World, “‘Ni Boisekoa naiz’, Keeping Basque alive in Idaho,” was also published on March 22, by Ryan Schuessler for  Al jazeera America. Idaho has the highest percentage of Basque speakers in the U.S. and this article reports on the numerous initiatives to maintain the language there.

If you’d like to read more about Basques and the Basque language in Idaho, check out Basque Sociolinguistics: Language, Society, and Culture,  by Estibaliz Amorrortu, which includes chapters on Basque language maintenance in the United States.

On Basques in Idaho, more generally, see Boise Basques: Dreamers and Doers, by Gloria Totoricagüena , which charts the Basque settlement of Idaho;  From Bizkaia to Boise: The Memoirs of Pete T. Cenarrusa, by Quane kenyon with Pete T. Cenarrusa, the remarkable personal account of “a patriot and statesman in two lands, half a world apart”; and Kashpar : The Saga of the Basque immigrants to North America, by Joseph Eiguren, which provides a highly personal account of what life was like for those early immigrants.