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Ladies of the Cloth

In a sport with few financial rewards, professional pool players play for the love of the game.
Alejandro Benes
From the Print Edition:
Jimmy Smits, May/June 2005

(continued from page 5)

"I'll tell you the truth, my mom was never really interested in coming to the tournaments and when she finally came, she came with one thing in mind: She was going to change my nickname," Lee recalled. "So she would go sidle up to people in the crowd and say, 'You know, that's my daughter.' And they'd go, 'Yeah, the Black Widow.' And she'd go, 'Oh no. She changed her nickname. That's not her nickname anymore.' They'd go, 'Really? What's her nickname?' 'Oh, it's Lily of the Valley.'" Lee then adds sarcastically. "And, amazingly, it didn't stick. I just can't figure out why.

"I wear long, black hair because I have a scar down my back. [Lee has scoliosis and has had five surgeries]. I wear a glove because I didn't want chalk all over my black clothes. I wear black because I'm from New York, and that's what people do in New York."

When she shoots, Lee furrows her eyebrows. No opponent interprets the look as friendly. Finally, Lee accepted the nickname and turned it to her advantage.

Every year, in Las Vegas, Lee uses the nickname to lure 40 people to the "Black Widow Experience," a weekend that promises you'll "Enter a billiards player, leave a friend (and a much better billiards player!)." Lee's agent will tell you that she is the only player who transcends the game of pool. It's hard to argue. Lee is undoubtedly the best-known female player—maybe the best-known pool player, period—outside of the immediate pool world. Still, that has hardly translated into runaway marketing success.

"It's amazing," Lee says. "I don't have a clothing sponsor. No one seems to be interested. It just boggles my mind. They say the ESPN viewer is not their market."

Lee is a commentator on the pilot of a new Bravo channel cable TV show, "Celebrity Pool." Think "Celebrity Poker" with sticks. Expected in mid-June is the Game Show Network's "No Limit 9-Ball," reportedly to be renamed "Ball Breakers." Ewa Laurance will appear with a host from ESPN's "X Games." The show will emphasize wagering. The question is whether all this will help promote the "pure" game.

About 40 million people in the U.S. play pool, but only slightly more than nine million "played at least twenty-five days per year," according to a 2004 report from SGMA International. The report, "Sports Participation in America," also indicates "billiards/pool players are more likely than the general population to also engage in activities such as table tennis, darts, paintball, and roller hockey." There's an eclectic demographic for you. Advertisers and marketing experts explain that to reach the mostly male audience interested in women's pool, there's no need to go after them through women's pool. Those fans come from all walks of life and the ones who are more into pool are likely to be coveted by the pool industry, which already advertises on the WPBA TV matches. These realities ache the leading players.

"I think the sport can have more exposure. I think it warrants bigger prize funds and some kind of corporate sponsorship," says Lee, who says she is dedicated to being a great mom, wife and ambassador of the game, and becoming number one in the world again. She wants to give something back to a game she loves and gave her new life.

"When I was discovered with scoliosis and they put rods in my spine, it was really life-altering in a lot of ways. Number one, I couldn't be as active. I was always in pain. I was always very protective of people touching me. I feel like I was beaten down when I was 17, 18," she says. "Emotionally, I was very alone. I'm talking about in my heart, in my mind. It had nothing to do with what was really happening. I think I was depressed. Then I found pool."

When Lee was mastering the game, she would practice her stroke while riding the New York City subway. Before going to sleep, she would tape the fingers of her left hand together so she wouldn't forget her bridge. She used a Coke bottle to make sure that her eye-hand skills stayed sharp, moving the cue through the mouth of the bottle without touching the rim.

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