For much of the 20th century, the sport of jai alai was a big deal — not just in Basque Country, where it originated, but around the world."I was like, 'For real? Are you serious? You really think I could play?' I thought he was making fun of me. I couldn't believe it." ... Mikel Larregi
In the '60s, it was marketed to Americans as the next big sensation in sports, as anyone who watched "Mad Men" might remember:
Jai alai players use a cesta — which "Mad Men" character Pete Campbell artfully describes as a "basket thing" — to hurl a small, hard, goatskin-covered ball at speeds of almost 200 mph, which is how jai alai earned its title as the world's fastest game.
And in Mexico City, the sport helped one Basque expat find a home.
In his 20s, Mikel set out to become a chef. (Courtesy Maya Kroft)
When he was growing up in a small fishing village in French Basque Country, Mikel Larregi was obsessed with two things: Basque food and jai alai, the Basque national sport. He still remembers the first match he ever saw.
"I was 10. It was a great match with a famous forward named Katxin Uriarte," Mikel recalls. "I remember I was with two friends, and we were shouting the whole time, just being crazy kids. 'Jai alai,' in Basque, means 'happy party.' 'Jai' is 'party,' and 'alai' is 'happiness.' "
Come to think of it, there might not be two better words to describe Mikel himself. He's got an easy laugh, and he always seems to be on his way to or from a party. He's always got a bottle of wine under one arm and a pretty girl on the other.
Like every Basque kid, Mikel wanted nothing more than to grow up to be a professional jai alai player. Jai alai used to be a real high-society kind of thing from Mexico City to Manila to Miami, where ads like these ran on TV:
Celebrities and presidents liked to be photographed at jai alai games. But for a bunch of complicated reasons, the sport started shedding fans in the '80s — right around when Mikel was growing up — and it never really recovered. Jai alai courts (called "frontons") started shutting down, and even the one in Mexico City — the biggest on the planet — closed its doors in the '90s.
But, in Basque Country, jai alai is everything. As a teenager, Mikel was good, but not that good. He didn't quite have the discipline to go pro. He wanted to party and travel and see the world outside his village.
So, at 18, he went to culinary school in San Sebastian, and he spent his 20s cooking and traveling his way around Basque Country. Five years ago, just before his 30th birthday, he made his biggest move yet: to Mexico City.
"I always wanted to live in a big city, someplace with a lot of energy, a lot of culture," Mikel says. "And Mexico City is one of the biggest cities in the world."
But it wasn't easy leaving Basque Country behind.
"My village is a very relaxed place," Mikel says. "There are only four bars in town, so everybody knows everybody. I miss home. I miss my family, my friends, nature, the local food — the quality of life I miss a lot."
Mikel's life in Mexico was, at first, kind of aimless. He thought he might open a Basque restaurant, but he didn't know anybody and had no idea where to start.
'Hey, You Can Really Play!'
One day, he saw an older man on the metro who would change his life in Mexico completely. The man was holding two cestas. They're about three feet long and traditionally they're woven by hand using reeds from the Pyrenees Mountains.
"I thought it was interesting to see a man that age — he was 82 — with two cestas in his hands," Mike says. "He was wearing white pants, and that caught my attention, because that’s usually what jai alai players wear in official matches. I knew they played jai alai in Mexico, but I’d never met anyone who actually played."
Mikel went up to the man, who introduced himself as Luis, and he asked about the cestas.
Jai alai players use cestas to hurl the ball. (Gaizka Iroz/AFP/Getty Images)
"He told me he was on his way to play, and he invited me to go with him," Mikel says. "I don’t remember what I was doing, but I guess I canceled my plans. We played 10 or 15 minutes, and it was great. I hadn’t played in 10 years.
"He invited me to play again on Thursday, and we played against another older guy, around 55 or 60, named Samuel Inclan, who had been the best jai alai player in Mexican history — one of the best in the world. He’d been retired for years, but Luis and I played against him. And we won. We won."
But, after that day with Luis — just like the world had in the '90s — Mikel forgot about jai alai ... until about six months later, when a friend from back home came to visit. Mikel suggested they go to the place the old man from the metro had taken him. He figured it would be empty. Who even plays anymore, after all, except a couple of lost Basques and some retirees?
But when they got there...
"I was shocked," Mikel says. "It was a Sunday, and there were tons of people there — everybody wearing the white pants. And I couldn't believe there were so many people: old guys, young kids, everybody playing together. It was amazing. A guy about my age came up to me and said 'You should go in for a minute or two. Let’s see what you’ve got.' I played for two minutes, and he said 'Hey, you can really play! You should come back next Sunday to play for real.'
"So I went back the next Sunday, and they lent me all the gear: the white pants, the cesta. I don’t remember if I won or lost, only that I was super excited to be playing again. That night, I went home and wrote to my mom and asked her to send me my old stuff: the white pants, my helmet. I ordered myself a new custom-made cesta here in Mexico, and I started to play. I got hooked.
"I started to play every Sunday — every Sunday. I was constantly listening to or watching jai alai matches on YouTube. Bit by bit, I was able to get my arm back, my wrist flicks, my strength. Sunday after Sunday, I never missed a week. I was getting better and better, playing against some of the best players in Mexico."
One day, Mikel got a chance to play against a pro named Christophe Sanchez.
"Christophe had played professionally in Cancun, in Miami, in Acapulco," Mikel says. "He’s not really one to give compliments, but he told me I’d played really well."
Christophe told Mikel that professional jai alai was coming back to Mexico City — for the first time in more than 20 years. The city's legendary fronton was set to reopen, and they were going to need players. If he trained really hard, Cristophe said, Mikel had a shot at making the team.
"I was like, 'For real? Are you serious? You really think I could play?' " Mikel recalls. "I thought he was making fun of me. I couldn't believe it. I had been out of the game for 10 years. I was already 30 years old. But from the moment he said that, I started to believe it. There are times when you see a dream is so close you can almost taste it, and you start to think it couldn't be possible. I was nervous."
That summer, Mikel went back home to visit. He couldn't wait to tell his childhood friends that that thing they all dreamed about — playing jai alai professionally? Well, he was going to get a chance to make that dream come true. But the news didn't go over quite like he hoped.In late January, Mikel Larregi was called up to rejoin the professional Mexico City jai alai league.
"All my friends teased me," Mikel says. "They thought I was just talking crap or dreaming, because they couldn't believe that I was about to be a professional jai alai player in Mexico."
But when Mikel got back to Mexico, Christophe took one look at him and shook his head.
"The problem was, when I went back home, I ate — a lot. I ate a bunch of cheese. I gained weight," Mikel says. "When I got back a few months later, Christophe scolded me. He told me I hadn’t listened to him. I was being stupid, that I couldn’t play if I was overweight. I got deflated and sad but determined to get serious for real this time."
Mikel buckled down and trained and trained and trained. And, in November 2016, he got word that he'd made it: He would be one of 32 professional jai alai players on the Mexico City team. And like all pros, he even got a nickname: "Mata Zagueros," or "defender-killer". (It sounds like a compliment, but it's really not. It's a joke — teasing Mikel for making his teammate, his defender, work too hard.)
Years after he stopped playing the sport, Mikel became a professional jai alai player. (Courtesy Maya Kroth)
When Mikel made the team, he and his teammates went out for beers to celebrate. And he called his friends back home to say, "I told you so!" By the time the season started in the spring, he was pumped.
"Opening night was spectacular," Mikel recalls. "I was like a kid. I was super excited to be there, with those players, playing for so many people. My cousin flew in just to be there. There was a red carpet, and they invited all these famous people. It was a really memorable night. They introduced me as the 'Mexican Basque,' and the crowd went wild. It was an amazing moment."
The Dream Ends
Mikel's jai alai career was short-lived. The reopening of the Mexico City fronton didn't attract quite as much attention as promoters hoped. So the next season was shorter and the team smaller. Mikel didn't make the cut.
But being the Mexican Basque, even for just one season, had its perks.
"The people who play jai alai in Mexico belong to the highest social class," Mikel says. "They’re people with money. So it was helping me make contacts, especially among the Basque expats."
Contacts are crucial in Mexico, where doors open for people who know someone who knows someone. Last summer, I went with Mikel to a jai alai match, and as we walked through the lobby to our seats, we couldn't go five feet without some important-looking person coming up to him, shaking his hand, saying hello.
Making these connections has helped Mikel feel at home in this city of 25 million people — half a world away from his little Basque fishing village.
"It’s not easy to live day-to-day with our culture. Our language is on the brink of being lost, and much of our cultural, artistic tradition, the dances, jai alai — it’s all dying out," Mikel says. "So we’re really trying to reclaim all of that, and it’s really beautiful to see that, in Mexico, they still play our sport. That’s amazing. It’s a really moving and powerful experience for me."
This spring, Mikel hopes to make his other dream come true: finally opening that Basque restaurant. He says he still misses Basque Country, but it's clear that — for now anyway — he's found a home in Mexico City, thanks, in part, to jai alai.