Chino Basques Celebrate A Handball Court and History

Frontons, or kantxas, where Basques play their favorite sport of handball, have been at the heart of every Basque community in the United States. For anyone who is researching the path of Basque immigration in this country, they only have to ask the old-timers where the handball courts stood to find this cultural group.

A crowd watches the action on the court from above.
A crowd watches the action on the court from above. Photo: Linda Iriart.

Many of the old frontons have disintegrated or been torn down, but Basques, hoping to maintain their heritage in this country, have worked to save some of them, and built new ones as well.

Mike Bidart, who with his wife Jeanette are key members of the Chino Basque community, built a fronton on his private property and over the years has enjoyed many games there with local Basques.

“His idea was to find a place that was big enough to build a court,” recalled Jeanette Bidart. The young couple had married and was living at Bidart’s father’s ranch in Chino, while they looked for a home. Finally, a friend suggested they look at acre-lots on the north side of Chino, and that’s where they settled and soon built their court in 1981.

Pilotari in action at the Chino pilota besta. Photo: Linda Iriart.
Pilotari in action at Chino pilota besta. Photo: Linda Iriart.

On April 30, the Chino Basque Club decided to celebrate the 30-year anniversary of the fronton with a besta, or party, which was attended by about 200 well-wishers. People watched handball games in the warm afternoon from a grassy bank that flanks the court, next to grown trees that filtered the sun’s rays. One old-timer remembered the days when Mike Bidart had just planted the trees.

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Several handball players from Bakersfield and San Francisco traveled to Chino to join the celebration, crowned by perfect weather. After the games, the club served a barbecue dinner at numerous tables lined up on the sprawling court.

Bidart’s court is a left-wall, or esker pareta court. Bidart had played handball in the Basque Country on a left-wall court, “and I enjoyed it … We didn’t have one,” he said, referring to the Chino community.

Most of the handball players in Chino played on the weekends at the court built by Ben Sallaberry in the 1940s behind the Centro Basco restaurant off Central Avenue. Still in use today, it has a front wall with two short walls on each side.

Mike and Jeanette Bidart hosted the pilota party. Photo: Linda Iriart.
Party hosts Mike and Jeanette Bidart. Photo: Linda Iriart.

“There’s a lot of memories there,” said Bidart, recalling how the court would be packed with athletes who battled it out on the weekends. “You could not get much playing in.”

Down the road a stretch, former dairyman Xavier Aphessetche was planning to build a trinquet – a four-wall court – the same year Bidart built his court. “I figured we’d have both,” said Bidart.

His wife Jeanette didn’t mind the large court in her backyard, noting that it was great for their two children. “It was a place for them to be contained,” she said of the children, who are grown now, with children of their own. “They biked there, they skateboarded there.” Son John became a good handball player too.

The Bidarts even held their son’s wedding reception on the court.

Handball players battle it out at the Bidart fronton in Chino. Photo: Euskal Kazeta.
Handball players battle it out at the Bidart fronton in Chino. Photo: Euskal Kazeta.

Mike Bidart had the fronton built a few feet into the ground so that the sound of the bouncing balls wouldn’t bother the neighbors. They play handball, or pilota in Basque, and pala, another version of the game played with a wooden paddle.

Over the years, a number of handball tournaments have been played there. Today, the court doesn’t get that much use. Local Basques are hoping to help preserve the sport and encourage a new generation of players to embrace it. But the immigrant generation that played handball is aging, and the youngsters are playing other sports.

Mike Bidart and some of his local handball buddies still play twice a week at the back-yard fronton. “As much as the hip allows,” he joked.

Bidart has played pilota regularly since he built a court on his property 30 years ago.
Mike Bidart has played pilota regularly since he built a court on his property 30 years ago. Photo: Linda Iriart.