Photo: Eileen Escarda
Joey Cornblit is a ‘Florida Icon'
First American-born jai alai star, Plantation; age 61
» Jai alai was my life. It’s all I did from the first day I started playing when I was 12 — every single day — and it’s all I cared about.
» My dad fought in the war for Israeli independence alongside Moshe Dayan. He was born in Poland but immigrated to Israel. He had a pretty rough young life, escaping from the Holocaust.
» When I first started, everybody said I was too skinny, that I wasn’t strong enough and that I would never make it because I was an American. As a kid hearing those things, that gave me an awful lot of motivation
» The game back in the day was basically catch and throw and catch and throw and volley back and forth until somebody missed. Well, I never had the patience for that. I wanted the game over and done with as quickly as possible, which is why I became extremely aggressive. The first opening, the first opportunity I got, I would go for the kill shot. I put in the work, practicing all these different kinds of kill shots, and I felt that I would win the point seven or eight times out of 10 if I played aggressive and threw my shots.
» It was pretty cool being the best at something, but it’s not easy staying there. There are always kids coming up to take your spot. Every single day, I had a tremendous amount of pressure. When you get 10,000 people in the stands and you know that about 9,500 of them bet on you and you’re the favorite every single game that you play, you feel the pressure.
» People don’t realize the transition from being a professional athlete to all of a sudden not being one is very difficult. Unfortunately, we never made the money that athletes make today. I never had an endorsement contract. I didn’t have a pension or anything, so I needed to get a job. You hear throughout your career: ‘Hey, when you’re done, you’ll come work for me. I’ll take care of you.’ Well, those people aren’t always around at the end.
» Today, there are some great jai alai players, but they’re playing in front of so few people. It’s disheartening. They should be playing in front of 10,000 people a night like we used to.
» Aside from being an American, I was the only Jewish jai alai player. It was funny. Every condo owner in Miami Beach, they loved me to death. They could relate to me.
» Growing up, you think all the old people say the same thing — how hard they had it — but you’re a kid and you don’t really understand. I’d complain about something and my dad would go: ‘Never, never complain. You don’t know what it is to go through hard times.’
» The other players weren’t too fond of me at the beginning. I was an American in their sport. Deep down, I really believed I wasn’t too welcome, but you know what? My philosophy was I was going to be the best player in the world, and I didn’t care if they liked me or not. After I became pretty successful pretty quick, they respected me, and that’s all I could ask for.
» I always felt like Tampa was like a ‘Little Miami.’ It has that Latin flavor.
» When I started playing professionally, I was still going to high school, so I went to school from 7 o’clock in the morning to 11 o’clock and then I’d get in my car and I’d drive down to the fronton. My mother would get up every morning at 5:30 and cook me steak and eggs for breakfast because she knew I didn’t have much time to eat after school.
» Obviously, I had a lot of Jewish fans, but I had many Latin fans, too. The Latin community in south Florida really took to me. When I left Miami Jai Alai and went to Dania Jai Alai, the fans followed me. Some athletes complain about the fans, but I could never do that.
» For two years, I was out of work, and then I met my angel — the CEO and founder of Ultimate Software, Scott Scherr. He was so excited to meet me. Him and his dad used to go to jai alai every single night to watch me play. I love that man so much. He changed my life. I’ve been working in marketing and sales for him for seven years. It’s a great company, and I love working there.
» I play golf anywhere I can. I love it. I play for fun, but I don’t just go out there to hack it around. I go out there to shoot a good score, to have a good round. I’m very competitive.
» What happened to jai alai? Several things. Back in the day, south Florida only had the Miami Dolphins, and now you’ve got three more sports teams competing for that entertainment dollar. Also, the Florida Lottery hurt jai alai and the rest of the pari-mutuel industry probably 20% to 30%. People think for a dollar or two they can become a multi-millionaire. And the final dagger — casino gambling.
» Of course, there were times when I’d come pretty close to getting hit by the ball, but you can’t play jai alai scared. When I went out on the court, I knew I could get hurt, but I wasn’t scared. You can’t play scared at anything.
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