ENCOUNTERS WITH EARL
09 Nov 2007
(Manila, Philippines)--It seems everyone backstage at the World Pool Championship has a personal story to tell about the great Earl Strickland and his bizarre rants and raves. Earl’s always looking for a sympathetic ear in order to unload a litany of complaints about the world in general. If you’re a player, a guest, or working the event, it’s only a matter of time before you will stumble upon Earl and receive an earful about his sorry life, how he can’t win this tournament, he’s past his prime, the table conditions suck, the Taiwanese are hogging the practice tables, etc. Sometimes it’s Earl who corners people into listening. Most times, though, I believe it’s people who seek out Earl. We humans are easily entertained and the sights and sounds of a grown man in the stages of psychological meltdown seem to be especially appealing.
I always make sure to say hello to Earl when I see him at a tournament because, well, I actually like Earl. I’ve talked privately with him on many occasions and found him to be a nice guy. It’s obvious he’s troubled about the world so, in my feel sorry mode, I lend him an ear. Though I’m not sure if he really cares about me. I sense he simply wants to vent and rant on anyone within earshot and doesn’t care who’s standing in front of him. And truth be told, his tirades can be fun to listen to. For a few moments, anyway.
My encounter with Earl happened on day one just inside the south gate to the Araneta as players, guests, media and officials were waiting in a reasonably short security line.
“Hey Earl, how ya doin?,” I said when I saw him.
“Hey, good to see you,” he said shaking my hand.
“How’s everything?” I asked him, knowing that it wouldn’t be more than a few seconds before he would go off.
“Not good, not good,” he said.
“Why what’s the problem?”
“Well, I’ve got gall stones this big,” he shouted in that semi angry, high pitched whine of his as he held up his thumb and forefinger in a circle the size of a golf ball. “Do you know how hard it is to play with gall stones? I just got rid of one a few weeks ago and I have another one now. Man these things are painful. And my eyes are starting to go. I can’t see the balls anymore.”
As several other people gathered around to listen, I tried to give him a little friendly advice. “Come on Earl, get it together. You’ve got the talent. You can win this thing. Why don’t you just go out there and play and stop thinking so much?”
“I can’t,” he said loudly. “I got to earn a living.” He went on and on for a few more minutes. When I finally slipped off Earl had already turned his ire on the others standing nearby.
One conclusion going around is that Earl has lost it mentally, he’s nuts, he’s in total psychological meltdown, he needs professional help. The other conclusion from pool insiders is that Earl simply no longer has the ability to win at the highest levels of pool and that he uses this anger as a way to set up future losses, so he has ready made excuses.
Earl certainly makes it easy for people to conclude that he’s lost it. From the minute he showed up he didn’t seem to want to be here. His first few matches in the group stage offered clear evidence that he doesn’t seem to even care about pool anymore. In his first match he lost 9-1 on the main TV table and it was ugly. Throughout, Earl talked and cursed at himself, hung his head in his hands in utter disgust and glared at the audience about perceived sharking. He swatted at balls and often missed on purpose.
Earl had his usual share of bizarre gadgets with him. He started one match wearing a large bandage around his left arm. Later in another match, he took off the bandage, but then played a few racks with a jacket on. He wore a glove on both his right and left hand. He dressed like a street bum, with disheveled shirts that looked like something he bought off the rack at the local Goodwill store for the poor. (He changed his shirt three times on the day he played.) He played with something large tucked in his back pocket under his shirt which protruded out, which, somebody suggested, made him look like he had a tail.
But then came his late night match against Li He Wen of China on the TV table. A decent crowd stayed around and all were sure Earl was going down to defeat. Probably most stayed because they wanted to see a meltdown they were sure was coming. Earl didn’t disappoint. From the beginning he seemed to talk himself out of everything. At one point he didn’t like the layout of the balls and he swung his stick wildly, nearly hitting referee Nigel Reese in the head. A few racks later he did just that.
But then down 5-0, Earl found a gear. Using the soft break, he ran 9 straight racks, pocketing balls on the break, quickly potting the remaining balls and running out. He stopped the antics and just played. It was the Earl of old, showing all the fantastic and other worldly skills that have put him in the hall of fame. He was absolutely fantastic. The crowd, which included several players, cheered him on, enthralled at witnessing a glimpse of the greatness he used to exhibit on a daily basis.
The win put Earl into the round of 64 and suddenly people were suggesting that if he can hold his emotions in check, he could win this thing. Others who have known Earl for a long time said it wasn’t possible, that the demons would soon come calling, that he was a ticking time bomb, and it surely wouldn’t last through the week.
Earl did lose to Vietnam’s ……. In the round of 64. But those who saw his late night victory over Li of China were witness to something special. A glimpse of the Earl Strickland of old. Yes he can still play. With Earl, though, you’ve got to enjoy it while you can.
I had the unfortunate luck of doing commentary on ESPN for the Charlie Williams vs. Ricky Yang match-up on day one of the World Pool Championships. The match went on for an interminable 2 and a half hours. Charlie Williams is perhaps the slowest player in pool. Yang is a fairly conservative and methodical player so together the two danced an ugly, slow motion pool tango that was tough to handle. Several racks took over 20 minutes to complete. We were 13 minutes into one rack and the two were still fighting over the one ball. The match was everything that pool shouldn’t be. It was painful to watch and frankly, after the clock ticked past the 2 hour mark, I wanted cry.
But I put the blame for this mess squarely on the shoulders of Charlie Williams. Charlie plays sooooooooooooooooo slow! He would get down on the shot, stand up, get down, stand up, walk over to his chair, sand his stick, come back to the table, walk around, get down, stand up, then finally, mercifully shoot the ball. If you’re thinking that surely all this studying and contemplating led to marvelous potting of the balls, well, you’re wrong. He played terrible. The match itself was awful and interminable.
Perhaps Charlie was so engrossed in what he was—or rather wasn’t—doing that he didn’t realize he was taking forever to shoot even fairly basic shots. But regardless, he should know better. Charlie’s quite a successful promoter and any promoter worth his 9 balls would understand that if everyone played the game like he does, the sport would implode in a day and a half with fans switching channels to watch competitive paint drying.
The slow play of Charlie Williams had the folks in the media room clamoring for a shot clock at next year’s World Pool Championship. I had just stumbled in from the commentary box and informed everyone that, in the case of Williams, a shot clock wouldn’t be enough. I suggested a calendar would be a better measure of time.
Luke Riches, the media director at Matchroom Sport, the organizers of the event, soon joined the conversation and said that the idea of a shot clock would be considered for next year’s World Pool Championship. The reason that Matchroom generally leans against using a shot clock for the World Pool Championship is that they don’t feel it would be fair for the world title to hinge on a player being rushed to shoot in a pressure packed match. The other reality is that most players don’t play that slow, so there really is no need for a shot clock. The other suggestion which Luke thought workable would be to perhaps institute a shot clock in the early part of the tournament, then discard it as the event progresses to the latter stages.
Jeffrey De Luna is going around telling everyone and anyone that he’s the man to beat. I saw him standing outside in the tunnel leading to the arena after his convincing win in the round of 64 over fellow Filipino Lee Van Corteza. It was a match between two young guns that had plenty of big time local boy ego at stake. Ego is something De Luna doesn’t seem to be lacking in.
“I’m not afraid of anyone,” he said. “I’m not nervous.” Francisco Bustamante, who had just destroyed Spain’s David Alcaide and has already obliterated everyone put in front of him, was standing just across the way talking with some people.
“What about Django? ” I asked him. “He’s playing great right now.”
“No problem,” De Luna said smiling. “I’ll beat him.” A few minutes later I saw De Luna’s manager Perry Mariano inside the arena and I commented on how confident De Luna seemed to be.
“Of all the Filipino players,” Mariano said. “Jeffrey really wants to make something out of his life. He’s hungry.”
Listen to what De Luna had to say to the press just after his take down of Corteza. He said he’s on a mission this year, stemming from the fact that he was left off the Philippines squad for the upcoming South East Asian games in Thailand in favor of Corteza. De Luna perceived this to be a snub and has taken it quite personally. Now he’s determined to show everyone he’s the new man in town.
"That was my inspiration going into the match," said De Luna to the press. "I wanted to prove that I'm the better player and deserving of a South East Asia Games spot. To emphasize this, I want to go all the way to the championship. Any one standing in my way - I will murder them."
Normally you would say that that is just the kind of bravado that will get him bounced out of the tournament with his tail tucked between his legs. But with De Luna, I frankly believe he can win the World Championship. Right now he reminds me of Filipino boxing great Manny Pacquiao a few years back. One of Pacquiao’s greatest assets as he has climbed the boxing hierarchy has always been that he believes in his ability to take on and beat the best. His cockiness is born out of an innate belief that he will prevail, no matter what.
The 23 year old De Luna is at that stage right now. He’s on a roll and he feels his time is now. He’s young and he’s not afraid of anyone, even an elder statesman like Bustamante.
He believes he can win the World Championship. And often times, especially in a highly pressure packed and mentally tough sport like pool, belief is what makes the difference.
Wouldn’t it be great to see Jeff De Luna vs. Shane Van Boening sometime late in the tournament, or even in the finals? The story line there would be fantastically mouthwatering with headlines blaring: “America vs. the Philippines!” The Future of Pool is Here Now!”
The two young superstars actually went at it at Perry Mariano’s one table pool room, Bugsy’s Lair, the other night in Quezon City. They played a race to 21, 10-ball for $2000. Shane won 21-13.
Mariano is not shy when it comes to offering a good quote. As he sipped his brandy while watching the action on his Brunswick Metro table, Mariano had this opinion of the newly crowned U.S. Open Champion.
“He(Van Boening) doesn’t know what to do with a hard shot,” Mariano said. “He’s good in pocketing. But he’s lacking in creativity. There’s a time when the balls will make it hard for you and that’s his problem. I don’t think he will be able to make it(winning the world championship) unless he has lots of luck.”
Those are some pretty provocative words, but then Mariano went on to say this:“If he played in our national open(The BSCP Philippine National Pool Championship) he couldn’t win.”
At first glance you might think Perry had gone way too deep into that bottle of brandy when he uttered these assessments. But come to think about it, it would be pretty hard for any of the greats from abroad to win the national title of the Philippines. With incredible pool talent literally everywhere here, winning the national championship of this country is something quite close to winning a world pool championship.
As for the part about Van Boening not capable of winning the world championship, I totally disagree. Just like Perry’s boy De Luna, the “South Dakota Kid” is young, brash and fears nobody. He’s also clearly extremely talented. And that’s a combination that can take you through troubling situations which the balls often will often present, and take you to the promised land of a world championship.
Of course I appreciate the frank quotes Perry. Nothing like a heated bar room discussion to keep pool fans talking about the crazy game of 9-ball.
I’d like to welcome aboard Hilton Cues as a sponsor of this column. Some of you who have been able to make it to the Araneta Coliseum for the World Pool Championship may have seen the team from Hilton Cues at their booth in the lobby. If you have not been able to make it here, then check out their website www.hiltonprofessionalcues.com. Hilton has already lined up a couple of big name pros to use their products. They obviously know what they are doing as they have come aboard to support my ranting. Cheers to Hilton Cues!
Ted Lerner is the author of the books “Hey, Joe-- a slice of the city, an American in Manila,” and “The Traveler and the Gate Checkers—sex, death life…on the road in Asia.” He has lived in the Philippines since 1995 and has covered pool as a writer and TV commentator for many years. He will be reporting several times weekly from Manila up to and through this year’s Philippines World Pool Championship which runs from November 3rd-11th.
Email Ted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or visit his website at www.hey-joe.net or www.tedlerner.com
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