Catching up with 'Joey' at 53; he was jai-alai's big star in years past
By HAL HABIB
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 31, 2009
"I hate gambling."
Joey Cornblit is the speaker, and yes, he smiles at the irony. More money might have been bet legally on Cornblit than anyone else in Florida sports, thanks to the years he ruled the jai-alai circuit as, simply, "Joey."
He arrived with a splash, billed as one of the youngest athletes in pro sports when he signed as a 16-year-old junior at Miami's Carol City High. That hardly was the only reason he stood out.
He was the Jewish kid, born in Canada, stepping into a sport dominated by Basques, and he played this gentlemen's game in an ungentlemanly manner, firing kill shot after kill shot.
What opponents hated, fans loved. They chanted "Joey! Joey! Joey!" on those raucous Saturday nights when players scrambled to start the final game before the state-mandated midnight curfew. After satisfying that legal quirk, Joey would go to work, starring in those main events that left players and spectators breathless upon their dramatic conclusions around 1 a.m.
But he wasn't a gambler, which might have saved his life. Today he's 53, living in Plantation, grandfather of a girl about to turn 1 and working for Miami's Merit Floors in sales and marketing, where his name still resonates with many of his customers. He might be none of the above had he gambled four years ago at the Fort Lauderdale Country Club.
"My son's a paramedic/firefighter," Joey says. "He always told me, 'Dad, if you ever have any sort of pains or if you don't feel good for whatever reason, go to the hospital.' "
Joey's family has a history of heart issues. He wasn't feeling right, so he went to the hospital and was told he was OK.
"I could have gone home and had a massive heart attack and died," Joey says.
His lifelong friend, cardiologist Barry Harris, overruled the diagnosis. Joey underwent a quintuple-bypass. This despite watching what he ate and working out several times a week, leaving him looking as fit as when he starred at the Miami and Dania frontons.
Today, he's back on the golf course, the only place he'll gamble, for just a few bucks.
"It's not that I hate it," he says of gambling. "I'd rather take whatever I could afford to lose and buy my kid, my granddaughter, my wife, something nice. Buy myself something nice. I just don't like the feeling of losing."
As a player he reportedly made about $100,000 per year, plus small bonuses for victories. In 25 years, he led Miami or Dania in wins 14 times and won the Tournament of Champions four times.
Joey hadn't planned to become a jai-alai player. He met an instructor, Epifanio Saenz, known in his playing days as "Epi," who instilled in him a love of the remate, or kill shot. It brought Joey a U.S. amateur title, a bronze at the World Championships and a pro contract.
"Whether you had him on your ticket or not, it was exciting to see him go out and toy with other players," says Benny Bueno, a veteran who still plays at Fort Pierce Jai-Alai. "Back in the olden days, jai-alai was meant to be a gentlemen's game, like tennis. You hit the ball back and forth until somebody messes up or throws it away. He came in and said, 'If I have to feed my family, I'm not going to play catch with you.' "
"I was brash," Joey says. "One of my motivations was to really show people that Americans could play this game."