Thursday, October 5, 2006

Kiss of the spider woman: Talking hustles with the most famous woman in pool

Quick. Name a professional male pool player.

Minnesota Fats?

Fatty -- pool arcana: the alleged father of soul chanteuse Etta James -- passed away a decade ago.

The guy on the old Miller Lite commercial?

Sorry. Steve Mizerak was his name and he too recently left us.

Now name a female pro. In all likelihood, your synapses fired quickly and you invoked Jeanette Lee, doing business as "the Black Widow." Lee, 35, gets more face time on ESPN than any other athlete this side of T.O. And, as a result, she is the sport's most recognized figure.

As all but a handful of her contemporaries (male or female) still struggle to make a decent living -- at least on the books -- the Black Widow continues to spin a web of appearances and endorsements. Though she's been curiously absent from the new International Pool Tour, she is seemingly everywhere else.

She appears at corporate outings. She recently returned from a USO-style trip to U.S. Navy bases in South Korea, Japan and Hawaii. She has her own clothing line. She stages a fantasy camp. She just launched an on-line game, "Black Widow Billiards" on

Between matches at the International Speed Tour event in L.A., she took time to chat with Did anyone play you close on one the military bases?

Lee: There are some good players. In their world they're pretty good, but then you gotta wake them up a little bit. [Laughs.] But really it was light-spirited. I wanted people to walk away happy. How are you feeling about pool more generally? Are we really seeing this "renaissance" or is it wishful thinking?

Lee: I really, really am seeing it. And I'm not just saying that because I'm trying to be positive. In Korea, the amount of coverage and sponsorship and media was incredible. Especially with women, I see it. It used to be that when I went into a poolroom it was maybe five percent women. Now it's easily 40 percent. To what do you attribute this?

Lee: I think it's the women on ESPN. I don't think it's just me. I wouldn't be there if the WPBA weren't there. What it's done is given us credibility and shown that pool isn't just a back-room, smoky hustling thing. Speaking of men and women, how do you match up against your husband and pro George Breedlove?

Lee: It depends on who's playing well that day. He, on his best day, beats me on my best day. You were raised in New York but now live in Indiana. Seven-foot coin-op "barboxes" are obviously popular in the Midwest. Have the smaller tables grown on you?

Lee: I've played in some bar table tournaments and they're a lot more fun than I thought. When I was recovering from my [spinal] surgery, I actually played in a local league on bar tables and lost my first couple of games. It's a different monster. The rails are more forgiving, but there's a lot of moving around clusters. If I could be so forward, when was the last time you played for money?

Lee: I played with Rick Reilly! I had a wig and a prosthetic nose and everything! You know, I want a competitive [match-up], I don't want to beat some poor local guy out of a few bucks. You're that competitive?

Lee: You know, on, if you beat me sometimes, you can win $200 and an autographed certificate. They gave me a stack and I'm like, "I'm not going to sign all these! Not this many people are going to beat me! You're going to have to turn me upside down and have me sign this in blood!" Are we going to see you on the IPT?

Lee: I was told I had to qualify. At this stage in your career, how much better can you get? How much is muscle memory and sustaining a level of play versus improvement?

Lee: Oh, I still think I have a lot to learn. I don't think Allison and Karen [Fisher and Corr, her top rivals] are going to get a lot better. I think they're a good 85 to 90 percent of their potential. I feel like I'm at 60 percent. They've been playing since they were like 7 years old. They've been trained. They have perfect fundamentals. Now it's what they have left to work with. With me, I've got a lot knowledge. I've got heart. I don't have the consistency -- I'm not playing as much as I used to.

But I can honestly say I love pool as much or more than I ever have. I don't know that a lot of people at my level can say that. My husband is a great player, but he says, "I'm in it for the money." For me, the money is great but I am a pool addict. I love to play. I love the game. I love that art. So I feel that the things that have slowed me down -- nine surgeries, motherhood, and leading the sport -- aren't going to now. I can't live without getting better.

Photo: Evan Agostini/Getty Images

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