Directed by Ryan Suffern
When I used to travel for work, Miami was one of my popular destinations owing to a customer being located there. While driving, I kept seeing signs for Miami Jai Alai and thought to myself, “What the hell is that?” I had no idea it was a sport, I also had no idea it was pronounced High Lie. So when I saw ESPN was producing a 30 for 30 short on the topic, it certainly piqued my interest. My hopes, however, were dashed, as What the Hell Happened to Jai Alai fails in perhaps just as many respects as the sport itself did during its demise. The sport, perhaps most akin to racquetball, only at a much grander scale and with more players, came into popularity in Miami before major sports teams found their footing there. It is a betting sport, and one which features fast action and tremendous amounts of athleticism and hand-eye coordination.
The sport began to expand in the 1980s, but once major sports found their way to South Beach, the sport began to fade in popularity and the glitz and glamour of attending Jai Alai no longer existed. The sport seemed to be stuck in time, refusing to bend to the popular demand. It features handwoven wicker baskets, or cestas, as gloves, a cool, personal feature of the sport, and a hard throwing, fast travelling ball with multiple players on the court at a time. I wish the film would have delved more into the mechanics of the game and its history. It touches on it very briefly, but after watching the film I still feel as though I have no clue how the game is actually played, how the game is won, and why it was so popular. Instead, the film focuses on what happened to it, I suppose fitting given the title of the film, but by failing to engage me with the sport in question, when it came time to answer the titular question, I’m just not sure I cared all that much unfortunately.
Of the three new shorts from ESPN 30 for 30, this was the one I was most looking forward to. I can see why Jai Alai was popular, just from the glimpses in this film, but I wanted oh so much more detail than what they provide here. The fall of Jai Alai from its incredible popularity, particularly in the Miami area is interesting, and worth exploring, but for a film about a supposedly intensely exciting game, What the Hell Happened to Jai Alai is incredibly boring by comparison, mostly due to its lack of focus on the game itself, instead spending all of its time on the politics and en vogue nightlife of Miami. Give me more Jai Alai and I’ll show you more fans of the game. I wanted to come out of this film a fan of the game, but instead I’m just as in the dark about it as I was before.