While wandering the broad, perfectly clean streets of Azcapotzalco, Tenochtitlan or Texcoco, you could be surprised to find them nearly deserted, with even the main road leading to the marketplace empty of passersby. In such large altepetls this occurrence would be highly unusual, even when large ceremonies were held, unless an official ballgame was at its highest.
Ullamaliztli, the traditional ballgame, was definitely the thing to draw the crowds like a magic whirlwind.
Important politically and religiously, a ball court, tlachtli, would be situated in the center of the city, usually next to the main temple and the Palace, with the elevated areas on both sides reserved for the judges and the noble audience to watch and enjoy. So, if you’ve got the necessary amount of noble blood, and a few sturdy slaves to clear your way, you may be able to find yourself a nice vantage point to watch the most magnificent show in Mesoamerica.
Made in a shape of “I”, a ball court would be surrounded by moderated slopes on each side. Stone walls, while preventing the ball from bouncing off the court, would be adorned by two rings, made of stone and beautifully carved, with openings hardly fitting the size of the ball.
To soften the worse of the impact – the bouncy rubber ball could weight up to 10 pounds – the players would wear protective leather gear. The hit of the heavy rubber would hurt anyway, but at least one could attempt to protect one’s limbs, covering mostly one’s hips, knees and arms. Sometimes even a helmet was used, although the murals would usually show a player wearing a beautiful headdress, which could not be practical through the game and was probably worn before or after, for the ceremonies.
The games were always accompanied by active gambling of the watching crowds and the wages could climb very high. People would bet all sorts of belongings and precious objects, even their homes and their freedom sometimes. The great rulers were not above betting too, wagering everything from towns to chinampa to marketplaces. Often a game between rival or friendly capitals could be the means to resolve, or to try to resolve, a conflict in a sort of a peaceful way. Had it worked? Well, not always, but it was worth a try and the magnificent show of power and skill was a beautiful thing to watch.
Apart from the official ceremonial games, such ballgames were probably played just for fun on every sort of an improvised court. Young noblemen were taught the game in their calmecac, along with their military training, and commoner boys could, most probably, be seen bouncing the rubber ball all over the streets of their altepetls or towns.
An excerpt from “The Warrior’s Way”
The crowds around her roared and Mino’s eyes followed the ball when it almost touched the ground, but was bounced back into the air when one of the players managed to slip himself between the heavy rubber and the perfectly swept surface of the field. His peers pounced to catch it, while the player got to his feet with difficulty, his backside scratched and bleeding.
Now fascinated, she watched Tecuani catching the ball on his chest, passing it to another player, making it look like an easy feat, but she saw the youth’s face twisting as he fought for breath, the skin of his chest darkening visibly.
She watched him rushing on, intercepting the ball once again when a player of the opposite team positioned himself to the left of the ring high on the sloping wall. No, thought Mino, wide-eyed. He would not try to pass the ball through this small opening in the ring. It seemed to be almost the same size as the ball itself.
She had no chance to find out as Tecuani’s body flew between the expectant man and the descending rubber, hitting the ball with an elbow, changing its direction. The young man lost his balance and slipped against the ground, but the ball was far away now, pushed by another player, not likely to leave the air.
When the ball finally seemed to touch some mark upon the sloping wall and the players rested, waiting for the Master of the Game to announce another round, Mino felt her muscles relaxing. An interesting game, after all, she thought, avoiding Tecuani’s gaze. She could feel it sliding down her face, burning her skin. She clenched her teeth and kept looking away. Such an annoying youth, she thought, her heart pounding.
The sun blazed unmercifully, and she wondered how hot the players must feel under their rubber head covers, running around as the game proceeded, amidst the roaring and the vigorous gambling of the noble crowd. The side where she sat with Sakuna was clearly reserved for the nobles, while the commoners seemed to be concentrating on the edges of the surrounding areas and the other side of the field.
Tecuani, on his feet once again, now stood to the left of the opposite ring, shouting something to the player on his team. Yet, as his friend tried to direct his pass, another player slammed into him, sending the man reeling, missing the opportunity to make a good pass. But Tecuani was already there, catching the ball with his chest. He let it bounce just a little, then hit it with his muscled, leather-covered thigh, sending it flying in a beautiful arch toward the round carved stone of the ring. The ball crushed against the stone and seemed to hesitate before bouncing off, not passing through the opening.
Aghast, Mino saw the opposite team of the players starting to cheer wildly, while the ball passed back into the care of the Game Master. How could such a beautiful hit be a failure? He had almost passed the ball through that opening, an impossible feat. No other player had even attempted to do this.
She stared at Tecuani’s clenched fists as the young man looked up, his smooth face twisted, eyes blazing with anger. The dark gaze met hers, staring at her and her alone, gleaming like polished obsidian, but burning and not as hard and as cold as the glassy surface of their weapons. She shivered, took in the anger and frustration mixed with so much longing, such a naked desire, she felt her heart missing a beat.