Sunday, May 3, 2009

1976 World Straight Pool Tournament

Here's another great story from Coby Atkins. It's about the 1976 World Straight Pool Tournament:

It was in August, of 1976, when my friend, Joe, and I left central Pennsylvania, heading off to Asbury Park, NJ. There may have been hopes of catching Bruce Springsteen playing some blues in a little night club there, but our real destination was the PPPA World Straight Pool Championship.

I had never been to a Professional Pool Tournament, so, as an aspiring World Champion, this was to be quite the adventure. All of the great names I had grown to know as legends were supposed to be there: Luther Lassiter, Irving Crane, Steve Mizerak, Jim Rempe.

Asbury Park is actually one of the larger beach towns on the Jersey Shore. Even in 1976, upon entering this resort area, I had the strange feeling of having been thrown back into time. The clapboard beach homes and small retail stores radiated the 1940’s or 50’s. The atmosphere was nostalgic, but I had the feeling that the town had seen better days. After we secured our lodging for the next couple days, we headed to the boardwalk and the Convention Center, where the event was being held. The Convention Center jutted out from the boardwalk towards the ocean. The building was very “cool” with the ornate designs on the outside walls, particularly the fish sculptures.

When Joe and I approached the Center, I spotted a little luncheonette right next door. Looking in the window, there was Luther Lassiter sitting at the counter, alone, eating, of all things, a hamburger (Wimpy?). Thus was the start of one of the more memorable weekends of my life.

It was Friday, around lunchtime, when we set foot in the Convention Center. The doors were open and there was no fee to enter because the matches would not begin until late in the afternoon. Standing in the middle of the arena floor, I was in awe, looking around the room, imagining all of the spectators watching the action. Plus, not knowing who some of the players that were practicing, I became an instant judge, speculating on who were the real shooters. The one I became fixated with most, had the most jerky, punchy stroke I’d ever seen, but he never seemed to miss a ball. Later, I learned that was Allen Hopkins.

On the arena floor, I met Bob Meucci. He not only explained to me how good the cues were that he made, but also that the night before, when Hurricane Belle had blown through during the opening round of play. At one point during that round, the doors were thrown open by the wind and the balls on some of the tables had actually been moved from the force. On one of those tables, Steve Mizerak was playing a match. Bob related that it was early in the game and Steve had just run a rack or two from his opponents miss on the first shot of the game. Since the matches were refereed, Steve was given a choice of moving the balls back to their previous arrangement, as best as he could recollect. Agreeing to replace the balls, Steve continued on with his run until he reached 150 and the game was over.

To me and everyone else I spoke with, this was Steve’s tournament to win. No one was said to be playing better.

Now, to my story. There were many memorable matches. The one that sticks in my mind the most was Jim Rempe and Larry Liscotti.

Larry had been beaten by Mizerak in the round of 4 in the winner’s bracket. Then, in the match for the hot seat and a spot in the Finals, Mizerak dispensed of Rempe, too.

The match between Rempe and Liscotti is the one that has always left me wondering the proverbial, “What if?” Throughout the tournament, in each game these competitors played, they would hit their opponents with steady runs in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, rarely giving them a good shot or anything to get started. I was a Rempe fan, an ol’ Pennsylvania thing. But Liscotti had been showing his intelligence and courage to make clutch shots in each game he played. I remember the stands being very full for Sunday’s Sessions. Many of the spectators were openly betting on the matches. The winner would play Mizerak, again, for the title.

As I recall those moments, a play-by-play would go like this:

Liscotti wins the lag and runs 50 some off Rempe’s break. Rempe picks up a few balls after a safety exchange. Then Liscotti runs another 50 or so to stake a commanding lead. Rempe then gets back to the table and begins to get a nice run going. Liscotti has about 107 balls in the game to 150. Rempe is on a run of 74 or so and has more than 100 total points. On the last rack, Jim gets a little squirrelly on a couple shots and ends up with his break ball just off the short rail at the foot of the table. Jim’s cue ball position is underneath the rack and he has to use two bridges, one stacked on top of the other, in order to reach the shot. All that needs to be done is pocket the ball and the cue ball cannot avoid hitting the stack, if the ball is pocketed. The entire arena is very quiet as Rempe prepares to pull the trigger on the shot. After a couple warm-up strokes, Jim pulls the cue back and with perfect timing, a pretty white handkerchief floats down from the spectator seating in direct line of Rempe’s vision. The stroke is delivered, the ball rolls towards the pocket, but it is not to be as it stays up staring back at Jim from the jaws of the hole. Immediately, Rempe stands up angrily and points his cue at the spectators sitting where the dreadful handkerchief had fallen from. Without hesitation, 3 or 4 men get out of their seats and head toward the runway. Rempe was always a gentleman, but he is very upset about the distraction. Of course, nothing can be done. Rempe had attempted the shot, legally struck the ball, but it didn’t go in.

History tells us the rest of the story. Liscotti runs out the game and then, shocking the many Jersey supporters, defeats Mizerak twice to win the Championship.

In the annals of pool history, this was a special tournament and a special time for all who were involved, and especially for me.

By the way, Cue Ball Kelly had been refereeing many of the matches. I saw him very late that Saturday Night, at a street corner while he was heading to his hotel room. When I asked him who he thought might win, he pretty matter-of-factly said, ”Larry Liscotti! He is seeing the patterns the best!”

--Coby Atkins

1 comment:

Eddie The Lock said...

I was at that tournament and seeing luther leave after a loss my wife said she felt bad for him. I said he's a champion and has had his share of wins. Pat Fleming played Irving Crane and I went to watch that one. Doors blew open in far corner and wind was fierce enough to move entire rack to end of table. Remember Miz running the 150 and out. Good times.
Eddie the Lock