How jai alai is giving former Miami college athletes a second chance

JUAN RAMÓN ARRASATE had witnessed the rise and fall of jai alai in Miami. Now, he was preparing to see the new faces of the game.

Arrasate had arrived in Miami from Spain in 1978 and played for 20 years, mostly in front of big, enthusiastic crowds. In 1986, he even appeared in a "Miami Vice" TV episode about jai alai titled "Killshot."

But jai alai, the world's fastest-moving ball sport, fell off in the 1990s and didn't get a boost until 2018, when Florida banned greyhound racing and casinos needed a parimutuel activity (in which all bets are pooled) to continue offering slots and table games.

In January 2018, Magic City Casino tasked Arrasate with coaching a new jai alai roster, but the job came with a twist: Rather than hire those from Spain and other countries who grew up playing jai alai, the standard approach for Miami casinos, Magic City sought players who could connect with a U.S. audience. So the casino recruited former athletes from the University of Miami and other Florida colleges with zero experience, but a desire to learn and play professionally.

Miami emailed hundreds of its athletes from the past 20 years. About 10 agreed to try out for Magic City.

"I thought we were going to get guys just out of college and in their 20s," Arrasate recalled. "Some of the guys that came, they were late 30s and overweight. I said, 'What the hell am I doing?'"

Despite his concerns, Arrasate understood Magic City's strategy. As a manager at Casino Miami, he had struggled to get players to promote the sport. Most didn't speak English and wouldn't meet with reporters. The former University of Miami athletes might have been short on experience and long in the tooth, but they packed plenty of personality and some name recognition.

The group included former Miami quarterback Kenny Kelly, who went on to appear in 26 Major League Baseball games for three clubs; Darryll Roque, an ex-Hurricanes pitcher who won a College World Series championship in 1999; and Tanard Davis, a defensive back who played for Miami from 2002 to 2005, and won a Super Bowl ring with the Indianapolis Colts as a practice-squad member.

Most of the recruits knew little to nothing about jai alai. Some struggled to pronounce it (it's high-lie). But in an unfamiliar sport, they saw renewed hope for their athletic dreams.

"Having this opportunity to be a competitor, to go against another opponent, to show all the work I put in to dominate you, there's nothing more thrilling," Davis said. "I'm thankful, I can't stress it enough."

Earlier this month, the casino launched its fourth season of jai alai, featuring several former Hurricanes who once thought their clocks as professional athletes had long expired. They're helping revive and rebrand the sport in a city where it once was celebrated.

"It's just amazing," Roque said, "to have another opportunity to have a jersey on my back."