Alley Cat

Somebody forgot to tell Emil Williams Jr. that bowling is for fat, beer-guzzling honkies

"I've got black bowlers who bowl in the regional program periodically, but for some reason not a lot of them have pursued the big tour," says John Weber, a former touring pro who now manages the PBA's Midwest Region and who also happens to be Pete's brother and Dick's son. "I don't know what we can do. It's there for them, just like it's there for everybody else."

In the PBA's 47-year lifespan, only two black bowlers, George Branham III of Indianapolis and North Carolinian Curtis Odom, have mounted sustainable careers on the big tour. Active until a few years ago, Branham and Odom were pro bowling's equivalent of Jim Thorpe and Calvin Peete in golf. But so far there has been no tenpin Tiger Woods.

Emil Williams Jr. aims to change that.

Head coach and former touring pro Randy Lightfoot (far left) runs his own bowling alley, where he can rig challenging lane conditions for his Lindenwood Lions to practice on.
Mark Gilliland
Head coach and former touring pro Randy Lightfoot (far left) runs his own bowling alley, where he can rig challenging lane conditions for his Lindenwood Lions to practice on.
North Oaks Bowl owner Tino DiFranco's clientele has gone from all-white to all-black: "It really hasn't changed that much, except we have different music in the jukebox now."
Mark Gilliland
North Oaks Bowl owner Tino DiFranco's clientele has gone from all-white to all-black: "It really hasn't changed that much, except we have different music in the jukebox now."

"I don't just want to make it," he says. "I want to be consistent and win, like, 30 tournaments."

His mentor back in Chicago, a 34-year-old pro shop operator named William Clark, hopes Williams has the juice to do it.

"It'd be nice to see him put a face on the map for someone of color to be in the PBA ranks," says Clark, who works at River Rand Bowl in the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines. "It's long overdue. There're a lot of black bowlers, but for whatever reason they have a tendency as far as professional sports to go elsewhere."

Until three years ago, Clark -- a scratch bowler who regularly competes for cash in USBC-sanctioned tournaments as far south as Louisiana and Texas -- ran the pro shop at Waveland Bowl, a 24-hour bowling center located across the street from Lane Tech. One day during his sophomore year, Emil visited Clark's pro shop between classes and asked him to drill a thumbhole for a ball he'd just purchased. Clark did it for free, and the two began a conversation -- often highly technical -- that continues to this day.

"Emil was just inquisitive," says Clark. "We worked on his approach and his ball swing and bowling in different lane conditions: Depending on how they distribute the oil, you may have to play a different area of the lane."

Emil's ball bag grew larger and more sophisticated. Most social bowlers make do with one ball; a league bowler might employ two -- with one reserved for spares, like a putter. Emil takes the golfing parallel several degrees further: He carries with him, at all times, six different balls.

"This ball revs up early, this ball is made for dry lanes," he explains, scanning his arsenal. "You've got smooth, arching balls; and you've got balls with different drillings and layout.

"When you get to this level, bowling is very complicated."


Fourth Frame: "'Bowling is shit' aren't the first words that come out of a baby's mouth," says Steve Miller, a PBA director who recently stepped down as the organization's president and CEO. "Somehow they're taught that."

A former Nike marketing executive, Miller makes that quip near the beginning of A League of Ordinary Gentlemen, a recently released documentary that chronicles life on the road during the 2002-03 PBA tour. Focusing on four bowlers -- Walter Ray Williams Jr., Pete Weber, up-and-comer Chris Barnes and has-been Wayne Webb, the movie illustrates just how hard it will be for the sport's upper echelon to regain the respect of the American sporting public.

Throughout the film, Miller, the PBA's commissioner at the time, is constantly obsessed with image, watching live events on ESPN in the bar rather than the bleachers. In a once-mellow, dignified sport that frowned upon overt displays of emotion and played up its everyman appeal, Miller implores his bowlers to whoop it up between throws and has them introduced Super Bowl-style before each tournament's final rounds, slapping fives with fans and gesturing garishly at the camera. Paradoxically, he also wants them to project themselves as legitimate athletes, going so far as to ban smoking and drinking on the job.

With the exception of Weber -- who seamlessly morphs into the crotch-chopping, smack-talking alter ego "Pee-Dee-Dubya" during national telecasts -- these histrionics seem a bit forced. When Walter Ray's not making bologna sandwiches, Pee-Dee-Dubya's chain smoking, Barnes is feeding formula to his infant son, and Webb's pounding Budweiser pin-necks and DJ-ing karaoke in the bowling-alley lounge after an early exit from the biggest tournament of the year, held in a grimy Motown suburb that makes downtown Detroit look like the French Riviera.

True-blue jocks? Not exactly.

That said, in a nation that has summoned Pabst Blue Ribbon, Pumas, mesh hats and upturned collars (what's next, the Pontiac Fiero?) from the pop-culture scrap heap, the very anti-image the PBA is trying to shed is striking a chord among hipster ironists. Supper club-discotheque hybrid Lucky Strike Lanes at St. Louis Mills is one of fourteen franchises to open since the chain's Hollywood flagship debuted (with a strict dress code) in May 2003. Joe Edwards' local boutique Pin-Up Bowl -- favored by the Strokes, Kings of Leon, Modest Mouse, Liz Phair and Nelly (high game: 257), among others -- has proven so successful that the Delmar impresario plans to open a similar venue at 1113 Washington Avenue downtown, to be called Flamingo Bowl.

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