By Sam Levin
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Both men rank among the dominant historical figures of their sports. Jordan, obviously, is the lissome basketball star with the billion-dollar smile. Having parlayed his on-court efforts into international celebrity, His Airness remains just about the world's most popular athlete and corporate pitchman, even in retirement, which he occupies by gambling, golfing, smoking expensive cigars and gambling on the golf course while smoking expensive cigars.
Walter Ray, meanwhile, is a husky, bearded white man in his forties who has been the most consistently dominant bowler on the Professional Bowlers Association tour for a very long time. With his next victory, he'll join Earl Anthony atop the PBA's all-time tournament win list with 41. (Legendary St. Louis bowler Dick Weber won 26 tourneys, which ranks seventh all-time; Weber's son, Pete, still active, ranks fourth with 31.) When he's not driving his RV to tournaments in backwater towns with his plain-looking wife, Paige, Walter Ray pitches horseshoes -- he's a six-time world champ -- in sleepy Ocala, Florida. On tour, he doesn't drink or smoke and makes himself Oscar Mayer sandwiches in his camper's dining nook.
Imagine Michael Jordan fixing a bologna sandwich in a Winnebago kitchenette. Suffice to say, Walter Ray and MJ inhabit such opposite poles of existence that a Petri dish merger of their DNA strands couldn't possibly take.
And yet, as he lugs a heavy jock bag into St. Charles Lanes on a muggy Friday afternoon, 21-year-old Emil Williams Jr. appears to be the pair's long lost in vitro love child.
"I don't know what it is about Walter Ray -- he's just so dominating," says Emil (which he pronounces eh-meel), his chocolate-color skin partially covered by denim shorts, an oversize white T-shirt and an unscuffed pair of Air Jordans. "But I'm tellin' you: Mike rules our lives."
Second Frame:Like Mike, Emil "has a pretty good jump shot," says his father, Emil Sr. With a cornrowed coif, twin stud earrings and a long (six-foot-three), lanky (150 pounds) frame, Junior certainly looks the part of a two-guard. And as a native Chicagoan, he didn't just jump on No. 23's bandwagon. Reared primarily in the dodgy Austin neighborhood on the city's west end, Emil spent much of his adolescent years on the north side at Lane Tech, the largest public high school in Illinois, located within walking distance of Wrigley Field. But Emil's a dyed-in-the-wool White Sox fan, betraying an allegiance to Dad's south-side roots.
Emil admires Sox announcer Ken Harrelson, which plays into his aspirations as a broadcast-journalism major at little Lindenwood University in St. Charles, an obscure sports juggernaut that captured seven national intercollegiate titles in events ranging from roller hockey to skeet shooting -- in the 2004-05 school year alone.
Of those seven, the title earned by the men's bowling team was unarguably the longest shot. Seeded fourteenth out of sixteen teams at the April finals at the Cherry Bowl in Rockford, Illinois, Lindenwood's Lions rolled through national powerhouses Wichita State and Morehead State in a best-of-seven series before upsetting top-ranked Fresno State in the best-of-three finale.
"Everything to gain and nothing to lose: That's a powerful tool in any sport," says Wichita State coach Gordon Vadakin, whose men's and women's teams have won seven titles apiece since bowling made its competitive debut in the college ranks in 1975. "That's what happened at that tournament. And that format lends itself to that sort of thing happening."
"That format" is the Baker format, in which teams send out a lineup of five bowlers, each of whom rolls two frames per game in sequence, rotating with their opponents on the adjacent lane. Conceived 30 years ago by Frank Baker, the format was intended to make bowling "more TV friendly," says Mark Miller, editorial manager for the United States Bowling Congress (USBC), the national governing body for amateur adult and youth bowlers in the United States.
Hurtling around like football players and ditching the monochrome polo scheme favored by their competitors for open-collared polyester shirts with blue flames, the underdog Lions breathed a freshness into College Sports Television's title telecast that the sport hadn't seen since the advent of the Baker format, if ever. Setting the tone with twinned strikes at the onset of each tilt in Lindenwood's two-game sweep was Emil, the Lions' lead-off bowler.
"You want a lead-off bowler who's consistent and never gets down," explains Emil, dubbed "The Human Firecracker" by teammate Ryan Reid. "If somebody strikes in front of you, you've got to strike too. Momentum is key."
"He's an emotional leader," says Andre Parker, a fellow African-American and Chicagoan who's Emil's roommate and best friend on the team. "If the team's bowling bad, he always has something good to say, either through his words or a strike or split conversion."
Third Frame:There are currently zero African-Americans on the PBA's national tour, where the likes of Walter Ray Williams Jr. and Pete Weber duke it out weekly at tournaments in Trussville, Alabama; Taylor, Michigan; and Uncasville, Connecticut, for first-place checks in the $30,000 ballpark.
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