Pelota Takes Center Stage at Jaialdi 2010

Jaialdi 2010 will be a hotbed of pelota activity when the huge international Basque festival kicks off in Boise in late July.

Two different championships will be held. One of the tournaments will feature athletes from the United States, Australia, the Basque Country and South America battling it out on Boise’s historic handball court.

On top of that, the Basque Museum and Cultural Center will be featuring a pelota exhibition during Jaialdi week, which runs from July 26 to August 1.

“It’s going to be great,” says Edu Sarria of the Boise Fronton Association. The group represents local handball players and operates the downtown fronton, or handball court, at 619 Grove Street.

John Faixa and Edu Sarria face off on Boise's fronton. Photo: Courtesty of Sarria.
John Faixa and Edu Sarria face off on Boise's fronton. Photo: Courtesty of Sarria.

The action begins on Friday July 23, when the World Pilota Council begins its women’s championships. Teams from Australia, the Basque Country, Argentina, Venezuela and the U.S. will face off during fast-paced action on the indoor court. Matches will be held every day until the winners are crowned on Wednesday July 28.

The following afternoon, the North American Basque Organizations, or NABO, will start its 35th annual championships with semi-final matches involving different divisions for men and women. The survivors will square off in finals competition throughout the day on Friday. For a tentative schedule, see the NABO Pilota web page.

Jaialdi is held every five years and is expected to draw 25,000 or more people to Boise. Pelota supporters say the week-long festival will provide a perfect venue to highlight the sport.

“Pelota will have a strong presence the week of Jaialdi,” says Xabier Berrueta, president of the United States Federation of Pelota, which is working to popularize the sport in cities across the country.

Jaialdi Lauburu. Pierre Egoa, Euskal Kazeta.
Jaialdi Lauburu. Pierre Igoa, Euskal Kazeta.

Pelota is a national pasttime in Basque country, where athletes play different versions of the game and compete in tournaments across Europe. The game is known as pilota in the Basque language of Euskera. Basque immigrants brought the sport with them to the U.S. and their descendants have helped keep the game alive.

Members of the Boise Fronton Association have been busy preparing for the championship tournaments. They recently painted the fronton and refurbished the floor of the court. The bathrooms have been renovated and a locker room was built, Sarria says.

He noted that only about 50 people can fit into the court to watch the games, which are expected to be packed. So to accommodate others who are interested in seeing matches, all the games will be simulcast in real time on a large screen at the nearby Basque Center.

Women in action on the Boise handball court. Photo: Courtesy of Edu Sarria.
Women in action on the Boise handball court. Photo: Courtesy of Edu Sarria.

Handball has a proud tradition in Boise, dating back to the early 1900s. A man known as Panadero, a baker, operated a court around 1903 on 13th Street near Grove Street, according to “A Travel Guide to Basque America,” written by Euskal Kazeta editor Nancy Zubiri.

Another court stood at the Star Rooming House. The Iberia Hotel, later known as the Overland, also had a handball court.

The largest of the courts — and the only one remaining — is the court operated by the Boise Fronton Association. It was built in 1912 as part of a boardinghouse run by Juan Cruz and Juana Anduiza. The site is one of the oldest active handball courts in the United States.

Today, the Fronton Association has about 100 members — at least 40 of them women who play a version of the sport known as baleen in which the contestants use paddles to smack the ball. In October, Boise women Esther Ciganda and Maite Iribarren-Gorrindo represented NABO at the 2009 World Pilota Council Tournament in Argentina. They gave a strong performance against top-flight teams.

Supporters of the game expect that the sport will continue to grow in Boise. “Pilota is thriving there,” says Berrueta of the U.S. Federation of Pelota.

For more information about pelota and the history of the sport, check out the NABO pelota web page, the website for the U.S. Federation of Pelota or the website for the International Federation of Basque Pelota.

Related Euskal Kazeta pelota, Jaialdi 2010 articles and video:
Popularizing Basque Pelota
NABO’s 34th Annual Pelota Championships
Basque Pilotaris Thrill Bakersfield Crowd
Countdown to Jaialdi
NABO Pilota Team at Argentina Tournament
Video: Basque Handball Players