Alley Cat

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

"I always thought it'd be a good idea to have a really good martini bar that happened to have eight lanes for bowling," Edwards says of Pin-Up, which hosts a midnight league for service-industry professionals. "People are serious about trying to win -- until the third martini."


Fifth Frame: Swapping his Air Jordans for a pair of Dexter bowling shoes at St. Charles Lanes, Emil Williams Jr. slowly emerges from a plastic-backed chair and retrieves one of his six balls from the carousel.

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."
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."

For a guy nicknamed the Human Firecracker, Emil's pre-shot deliberations are breathtakingly dainty. Before bearing down at the top of the lane, he performs a slight rightward torso wiggle to set himself. Between the third and fourth steps of his leisurely five-step approach, his long, skinny right arm begins its high backswing.

While just about every bowler of Emil's caliber puts some sort of English on the ball, Emil favors silk-smooth precision over big thundering benders. He's not deeply concerned with rolling strikes, so long as he puts himself in position for a relatively easy spare conversion.

"Spares are the most important thing in bowling," he maintains. "And single-pin spares are like free throws. You just don't miss them."

Uncharacteristically, he leaves three frames open in his first game to accompany a single strike, charting a mediocre 156. This he chalks up to rust, what with his obligations as a student residential advisor occupying just about all his time during move-in week at Lindenwood.

"It's been a while," Emil concedes. "It takes the first few frames to get loose."

He begins his second game with a one-pin spare followed by a dreaded open frame, at which point he makes a slight adjustment and rattles off, in succession, a Brooklyn-side strike that he subjects to self-critique ("I missed a board or two left"), a spare, three more strikes, a spare, a strike, a spare and nine pins on his tenth-frame bonus ball ("I didn't carry," he remarks, referring to the still-erect tenpin) to finish with a respectable 203.

"Based on the first game, I wasn't getting the reaction I wanted," he explains. "So I changed balls and bowled straighter -- an arrow or two in."

Emil's third and fourth games are of PBA caliber, registering scores of 222 and 220, respectively. Open frames disappear almost entirely, as Emil rattles off an epic 25 straight fractions with either a strike or spare between the second frame of game two and ninth frame of game four, threatening his personal best of 30 close-outs in a row.

"I always knew I wanted to be a pro bowler, but I never thought I'd be as good as I am at this point in my career," says Emil, who plans to stay at Lindenwood for a fifth academic year, having transferred as a sophomore with four years of athletic eligibility intact. "College bowling is where it's at if you like bowling. I could watch it all day.

"If there was a bowling channel, I'd subscribe to it."


Sixth Frame: Until his sophomore year at Lane Tech, Emil's primary instructor was his father. A skilled league bowler who first got serious about the sport while serving on an army base in Germany, Emil Sr. had his progeny competing in a father-son league by age six.

"He got his first ball when he was, like, three," says Beverly Williams, Emil's mother. (She and Emil's dad are divorced but remain close.) "He loved that little ball. He's always had a passion for bowling; it just grew on him. I used to ask him if he ever stayed home -- he'd bowl seven days a week and then some."

Still does: During the season, which lasts from the first weekend in October through the end of April, Emil estimates he bowls up to 25 practice games per day.

"I could bowl all day, every day," he says -- and means it.

As a freshman at Lane Tech, Emil carried a 177 average. Once he began working regularly with William Clark, his average swelled to 222. As a junior in 2001, he won Chicago's citywide schoolboy title with a 220 average.

To put that in perspective, during the 2004-05 PBA campaign, Walter Ray Williams Jr. posted a league-high 227 average. Lane conditions in the college and pro ranks are considerably more challenging than in junior leagues -- Emil rolled a 190 average at Lindenwood last year in match play -- but Emil's admirers point to that period of rapid improvement as evidence that he has the chops and discipline to reach the show.

"I think he can make it," says Lindenwood's head coach, Randy Lightfoot, who spent thirteen years on the PBA tour before retiring to manage St. Charles Lanes, where Lion bowlers are given free practice privileges. "He's not a power player, but he can play many different angles. He and Andre [Parker] are the two hardest workers on the team."

Seventh Frame: Although they grew up separated by a mere half-hour's drive, Emil Williams Jr. and Andre Parker did not meet until Emil's freshman year at Columbia College in downtown Chicago, when the youth league where Emil was bowling disbanded and sent all its bowlers to Parker's league. They were on different teams, but Emil and Andre, a senior in high school at the time, became fast friends.

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