SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The civilizations of Mesoamerica were diverse and vibrant. The Olmecs left behind their massive, carved stone heads, including one that looks a lot like B.J. Leiderman, who writes our theme music. The Mayas built ornate palaces in jungles. The Aztecs built a floating metropolis where Mexico City sits today. And across the centuries, these unique civilizations shared a common tradition - the ball game known as ulama. James Fredrick brings us the story of where this ancient ball game is today.
JAMES FREDRICK, BYLINE: I'm just a stone's throw from a big bus terminal and mall in a working-class Mexico City neighborhood.
(SOUNDBITE OF CONCH SHELL HORN)
FREDRICK: An echoing conch shell horn, thundering drums - it feels a bit like I might be back in pre-Hispanic Mexico. Eight wiry athletes with simple, leather wraps around their waists dash around a court barefoot, volleying a ball back and forth using only their hip bones.
UNIDENTIFIED PLAYERS: (Speaking in foreign language).
FREDRICK: This is ulama, the game that reigned supreme in pre-Hispanic times. Today, it's being revived at this brand-new court in Mexico City, says coach Emmanuel Kalakot.
EMMANUEL KALAKOT: (Speaking Spanish).
FREDRICK: "It's not so much about returning to a moment that once was," he says. "But we want to take something that was great in its time and make it great again in a new, contemporary way."
The basic goal of ulama is to hit the ball past the opponent's back line and keep the ball from crossing your own. The players move around the court deftly, either hopping slightly or lowering themselves onto one arm to hit the ball squarely at the hip. They make it look effortless and fun. So I decide to give it a whirl. Giovanni Israel, who's been playing for about two years, offers to show me the basics.
GIOVANNI ISRAEL: (Speaking Spanish).
FREDRICK: He demonstrates the footwork, a little step to turn sideways, hip first, and then a little flick of the hips as the ball comes. Being kind to me as a beginner, Giovanni brings me a small practice ball and bounces it towards me.
ISRAEL: (Speaking Spanish).
FREDRICK: So I've hit the ball a couple of times. It's small, so it doesn't hurt that much. But, you know, hitting off of my hip bone, it can just shoot off in any direction. And I don't feel like I have any control over it.
ISRAEL: (Speaking Spanish).
FREDRICK: Precision is key. Playing with the official nine-pound, solid, rubber ball, a blow to the thigh gives you a dead leg. Hit above the hip, and it could knock the wind out of you or even fracture a rib. Learning ulama comes with a lot of bruising.
MANUEL AGUILAR: From our studies, it looks like the game was originally ritual, OK? It was a religious activity.
FREDRICK: That's Dr. Manuel Aguilar from California State University of Los Angeles - probably the world's leading authority on ulama. He says there was no single, true form of the game across Mesoamerica. It constantly evolved. One version looked like field hockey. Others were closer to soccer. By the time the Aztecs were playing it, Aguilar says gambling was common. And...
AGUILAR: Some people even bet their own life of becoming slaves if they lose.
FREDRICK: Ulama survived the Spanish conquest. But by the 20th century, it was at risk of disappearing. Dr. Aguilar is encouraged by efforts to preserve the sport, like this new Mexico City court.
AGUILAR: The oldest ball court - that is dated about 1,400 B.C. So if the game disappears, there could be the death of a 3,500-years-old sport.
KAREN FLORES: (Speaking in foreign language).
FREDRICK: Karen Flores' presence at the Mexico City ulama court suggests a new generation is carrying it in the 21st century. The 22-year-old medical student was told years ago not to play ulama - that historically, only men played.
FLORES: (Speaking Spanish).
FREDRICK: She says when she was young, she'd secretly practice hitting a soccer ball against the wall with her hip. She was nervous her first days practicing with men. But nowadays, Karen darts around aggressively and doesn't miss a step. Especially with Karen on the court, this version of ulama probably doesn't look exactly like it did in Aztec times. But evolution and change is at the heart of this ancient sport. For NPR News, I'm James Fredrick in Mexico City.
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