It’s a Wednesday night… game night for Ysabel Bilbao. She’s part of a women’s league that plays the Basque racket sport of pelota.
“As we go downstairs, this is what I describe as the fight club because it’s just this big concrete hole. We come downstairs to the fronton and there’s girls playing now,” she says.
This fronton (that’s Spanish for court) is at the center of pelota. There are only a handful of these courts in the U.S., including California, Oregon and Nevada. And this fronton does feel a little like a fight club. In part because most people don’t know it exists. The entrance is in a back alley on the edge of an entire city block dedicated to Basque culture.
"This is where the connections are made between the different women,” said Bilbao. “You come down here, watch games and get to know everybody.”
The fronton is part of a boarding house that’s been here for nearly 100 years. Men coming from the Basque country in Spain would stay here as they worked to start a new life. Many ended up as sheepherders.
Bilbao knew the court was here. So did her roommate Esther Ciganada. She grew up in Washington state watching versions of pelota and handball on TV. So when she landed a job teaching high school Spanish in Boise five years ago, she knew where she was going.
“When I moved here I knew there was a fronton here, and just with my family I’ve been exposed to it my whole life, and also watching it on TV,” Ciganada says. “So when I moved here I already had the intention, I’m getting into that fronton and playing.”
Ciganada says five years ago grant money helped launch the women’s pelota league. They had enough money to buy each player the wooden paddle that’s used to play the game. Biblao says she showed up that first Wednesday night.
“I remember standing outside going ‘Oh my goodness,’” she says. “I’m not an athlete. I played softball in high school, wasn’t really good at it. I was on the ski team, I was alright. I’m really not the athletic type. So I stood outside going, ‘What am I going to do,’ and I went down and played and I’ve played ever since.”
Now she’s the commissioner of the women’s league. She picks the teams and helps coordinate games. That’s a lot of work given that during the spring and fall season, anywhere from 40 to 50 women play.
“It’s going to be a good game,” says Ciganada as she watched. “It’s pretty evenly matched. The two players in the back are both strong players. In fact I’ve partnered up with Anne Maria and played on the national and I’ve played nationally with Ysabel in the different variations.”
Think of pelota, or pala, as a sort of caveman racket ball. You use a heavy wooden paddle and a hard rubber ball. Depending on the many variations on this game – that ball can be so hard it really won’t bounce until it’s warmed up.
There are two people on a team. One person plays in the back of the court, the other in the front. Bilbao plays in the back. As she puts it – she steers the ship – coordinating with her partner on who’s hitting what.
“You have to serve it from our foreline,” she says, “and the ball has to come between the four and the seven line in order to be a legit serve. And then it’s game on. You can hit out of the air. You can hit after once bounce. You just can’t hit it after two.”
And there’s one more thing. You have to get that ball back to the front wall to keep the rally going. The team that reaches 35 points first – wins.
Henar Chico moved from the Basque Country to Boise 15 years ago, and said, “Coming to Boise was the best thing to ever happen to me.”
“Over there I didn’t dance – I still don’t dance but – I didn’t speak Basque. I didn’t play pala. I didn’t do any thing, any of that.”
She met her ex-husband Mike in Spain. He was from Boise. Chico says her move to Idaho made her miss all those things that she didn’t do while she lived in the Basque country, simply because she though she’d always be there. Now, she said, things are different.
“My Basque isn’t perfect but I speak Basque,” she says. “I play pala – this is my fifth year playing pala. My kids dance in the Basque dancing. It’s been great re-discovering my Basque roots.”
Chico is now showing her son to play pelota.
“I want to make sure that they see what I had in the Basque country and that makes me be really involved,” she says.
Boise’s fronton is busy. Leagues play nearly every weeknight and people come to the court just to practice. Unlike pelota teams in the Basque Country, teams in Boise don’t have a coach.
“We’ve been playing this for five years but we have girls that come down and say I’ve never played before,” says Bilbao. “Our joke is that we give a them a key to the building and a paddle and say, ‘See you on game day.’”
So Bilbao matches experienced pelota players with new ones to help them learn the ropes. She wasn’t joking about the key. Fifty dollars and you can join the Boise Fronton Association and use the court.
“We won. It was a really good game – 35 to 30,” Bilbao says at the end of her game. “There were a lot of good rallies.”
That scores means it was a pretty good game. After all, Bilbao says this league really is about getting some time on the court and having fun. She said pelota is also personal.
“I’ve been raised here, and I was a dancer for 20 years and involved in all the activities of the Boise Basque community,” she says. “That’s what this sport has done culturally. It’s been able to bring together people who weren’t involved in dancing, or those of who quit dancing, and as we get older it keeps the friendships alive.”
Bilbao said that’s why she rarely misses a Wednesday night pelota game. She wants everyone to be in fine form when Basques gather this weekend for a regional tournament.
A version of this story originally aired on WBUR's Only a Game.