Alley Cat

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

"They're inseparable," says Coach Lightfoot. "They're basically perfect kids."

"I'd call him my brother in an instant," adds Parker, who made the traveling squad to Rockford last spring as an alternate. "We were both brought up in the Baptist church [Emil's dad is a deacon], and we try to stay out of trouble. It would have been real easy to hang out with the wrong crowd, but those things -- drugs, gangs, things of that nature -- never appealed to me."

But bowling did.

Mark Gilliland

"When you get to this level, bowling is very complicated," says Emil, whose six-ball arsenal gives him more in common with golfers than the martini-sipping hep cats who populate Pin-Up and its ilk.
Mark Gilliland
"When you get to this level, bowling is very complicated," says Emil, whose six-ball arsenal gives him more in common with golfers than the martini-sipping hep cats who populate Pin-Up and its ilk.

"I had a few [black kids] over there who bowled, but Emil was the one who took to it the strongest," William Clark says. "I've found that due to economics, it's easier to pick up a basketball or football, because once you have those things it doesn't cost anything. Whereas with bowling equipment, a lot of kids can't afford some of those things."

Emil could -- with money he earned as a cashier at a Chicago Old Navy. He still works at Old Navy during summers and holidays, and at his father's wholesale grocery warehouse whenever he's home -- in order to pay off his green Dodge Durango, which, Emil says, "represents a lot of hard work."

"I try to teach him that whatever he's gonna do, he's gonna have to work at it," says Emil Sr. "'Cause ain't nobody gonna give him nothing in life."

Eighth Frame: When Tino DiFranco opened Normandy Lanes in 1960, his patronage was, to the best of his recollection, "100 percent white." The largest bowling alley in the state of Missouri with 64 lanes -- 32 to a side -- DiFranco's center, located in a Natural Bridge Road strip mall near the Lucas & Hunt intersection, is now called North Oaks Bowl.

The name on the marquee isn't the only recalibration: DiFranco's bowling alley now caters to a clientele that's "99 percent black."

"It really hasn't changed that much," the 76-year-old DiFranco observes. "Except we have different music in the jukebox now."

Born and raised on the Hill, DiFranco also owns a slice of Tropicana, the 52-lane Clayton behemoth. But North Oaks is his and his alone.

"League bowling is still a big part of our business," he says. "We've got one league here, the Chism League, that has 28 teams -- five to a team, with ages varying from 19 to 72. I think the blacks maybe take it more seriously than the whites."

That would be news to Andre Parker.

"When we first started bowling tournaments in the Midwest, me and Emil would likely be the only two black people in the bowling alley," Parker says. "All the time, we get that look. But once we start bowling and people see what we can do, everything's cool."

The sport's highest level pales by comparison. Bowling is far and away the nation's most popular recreational sport, with more than 70 million participants. Yet only 3 million people bowl competitively. Of that upper crust, the incentive to join the pro tour -- or even to turn pro -- is diminished by the fact that the league doesn't cover travel expenses or entry fees, which can cost a touring pro $2,000 or more per week. If a bowler doesn't advance past the qualifying round, he's lucky to break even (each bowler is guaranteed just $2,000 per tournament).

"People's lifestyles have changed over the last twenty years," says the PBA Midwest Region's John Weber. "I think it's harder for people to get away on the weekends to bowl. The other part is it's a bigger financial risk to bowl in even the PBA regional program than at smaller local events. Risk and reward: You've got to weigh it out, and some guys just can't afford the risk."

"The definition of a professional bowler is you have to belong to a professional organization," says U.S. Bowling Congress editorial director Mark Miller, whose organization sponsors frequent cash tournaments for adroit bowlers unwilling to take their show on the road (unsanctioned events also draw a fair share of weekend warriors). "But you can earn money if you aren't part of a pro organization. We call it the 'professional amateur.' That's the nuance of bowling."

In 2000 the PBA, once a Saturday-afternoon staple on ABC's Wide World of Sports, was rescued from pot-bellied extinction for a mere $5 million by a trio of Seattle-based Internet barons who purchased it lock, stock and ball bag.

Their first and most critical task: Reinvent the sport, which suffers from something of an image problem.

"I'm not a real big fan of Jim Rome, but he said bowling is the only competitive sport in existence where you gain weight while you're competing," says Bill Straub, head coach of the reigning NCAA women's bowling champion University of Nebraska Lady Cornhuskers. "It's the old pizza-and-beer thing. Some players may not adhere to that particular image, but if that's the perception on Wall Street, we have a problem.

"Bowling has such a monstrous image problem that it's not going to be front-page news," Straub goes on. "There's a perception that there's just not enough interest. A friend of mine just won a PBA senior tour event this past weekend in Florida, and he won $8,000. At the PGA senior tour event this weekend, the winner will take home more like $250,000."

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