Iñaki Goikoetxea: Jai Alai Superstar

Iñaki Goikoetxea has been widely considered the world's best jai alai player.
Iñaki Goikoetxea has been widely considered the world's best jai alai player.
Photo by Stian Roenning

In this week's Miami New Times, we profile 30 of the most interesting characters in town, with portraits of each from photographer Stian Roenning. See the entire Miami New Times People Issue here.

In his native Basque Country, Iñaki Goikoetxea frequently gets stopped on the street by fans wanting to shake his hand or ask for photographs. In Miami, not so much.

"Here nobody knows who you are or what you do," he says.

If they did, Miamians would probably want a photo too. For more than a decade, Goiko, as he is known, has been widely considered the world's best jai alai player -- not that the soft-spoken 34-year-old would ever point that out. "That's what they say," he shrugs. "I try to do my best every day on the court, and that's it."

Goiko grew up in the small northern Spanish coastal city of Zumaia, in the heart of the quasi-independent Basque Country, where jai alai, an ancestral game, permeates every village and city. He began following his older brother to the local fronton when he was 7, just another kid having fun.

"There was always someone who would let you use his basket," he says, referring to the cesta, a curved wicker tool that players use to fling the sport's goatskin-covered ball up to 180 mph.

By the time he was 16, Goiko was playing professionally in Italy. Soon after, he accepted an offer to play in Newport, Rhode Island, then Orlando, and finally Miami in 2002.

With its 6,500-person stadium, Miami Jai Alai, now under the umbrella of Casino Miami (professional jai alai has long been a betting sport) off NW 36th Street near Miami International Airport, is considered the pinnacle of the professional game.

"I choose to be here," Goiko says, "because I want to play against the best players."

And he does: Six days a week, the ten-time world champion suits up and spars against Miami Jai Alai's 35 other professionals in front of 100 to 200 spectators. Then he leaves the court and returns to obscurity -- the nature, perhaps, of being a living legend in a sport that's almost unknown among this country's general population.

"What can I do?" Goiko says of his anonymity. "The people recognize me or not; I do my best on the court."

But the low-profile life suits Goiko just fine. When he's not playing, the "Michael Jordan of Jai Alai" enjoys plucking his guitar or surfing in the South Florida sun. He lives in a modest home in Doral with his wife, Antonella, a Peruvian native whom he met here; they have a 2-year-old boy, Iker, and a daughter on the way.

Not that Goiko is about to hang up his basket.

"I am at the peak of the game," he says. "I think I'm going to continue playing jai alai for many more years."

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