Jeez, that fat man, look at the way he moves. Like a dancer. And those fingers, them chubby fingers. That stroke, it’s like he’s playing the violin or something.
— Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman), marveling at Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) in The Hustler
The big fella waddled down the hallway of the hotel, grinning and nodding graciously. The pool tribalists called out his name or patted him on the back. When you’re five feet nine inches and tip the scales at 320 pounds or so, it’s not easy to walk without breaking stride. But Danny Basavich had no choice. He’d overslept on this listless morning in January 2006 and now was minutes from forfeiting a match in the Derby City Classic, a twelve-day gambling marathon masquerading as an annual pool tournament.
His personality as generously proportioned as his physique, Basavich tried to acknowledge everyone at the Derby City venue — the Executive West Hotel, a shopworn hostelry hard by the Louisville Airport, designed by someone with a deep appreciation for the 1970s. As he shuffled down the hall, Basavich smiled his infectious smile, quickly pressing his stubby right hand into his admirer’s, a handshake that effectively conveyed the message “Luv-ya-but-I-gotta-run.” In a disarming voice that recalled Wolfman Jack with a New Joisey accent — e’s screeching like old train brakes, p’s and t’s popping like fireworks — he shouted out a stream of “Catch me when I’m done playing, Chris” and “You got my cell number, right, Petey?” and “Let’s grab a drink later, Alex.” Without exception, everyone was called by his first name, a Dale Carnegie lesson he’d learned years before.
He arrived at table 17 just in time. With his girlfriend, Danielle, a clutch of friends, and dozens of railbirds looking on from aluminum bleachers, Basavich unsheathed a custom-made Pechauer cue. His opponent in this early-round Derby City match was José Parica, one of the brighter stars in the pool cosmos. A slightly built Filipino who looks to be in his mid-fifties, Parica performed with an even disposition, neither surly nor affable; just focused and impassive, his body language betraying nothing.
Minnesota Fats famously wore a carnation in the lapel of his bespoke suit. Though comparably built, Basavich didn’t go quite so far with his fashion. Still, he looked resplendent in drooping black trousers, black loafers, and a herringbone jacket that did its moaning best to cover his girth. His thatch of straw-colored hair had been generously gelled and his goatee neatly trimmed. Like many hefty men, he’d tried to drown his insecurities in an ocean of cologne. He somehow looked both older and younger than his twenty-seven years. His boyish, contagious smile was, as ever, in full bloom. At the same time, his swollen belly and arthritic movements suggested a man well into middle age. His green eyes sparkled and swiveled from side to side as he stared at the configuration of balls on the table.
The best American pool players were once irrepressible, wild and woolly figures straight out of Damon Runyon, all trash talk and color and bluster. But once they started getting beaten by Asians and Europeans — who, the conventional wisdom went, weren’t better players but simply possessed superior powers of concentration — the Americans grew stoic and emotionally frozen. In this sense, Basavich was a pure throwback. Above the crack of the balls on the surrounding tables and the echoes of clinking beer bottles, Basavich directed an ongoing monologue to the folks on the rail, to his cue, to himself. After one particularly dazzling piece of shotmaking, a smile stole across his face as he said, to no one and everyone, “Didn’t think a big guy like me could pull that off, did ya?” It’s always “big” with Basavich. Never “fat.” Derby City had already crowned champions in bank pool and one- pocket, and now the tournament culminated with the nine-ball championship. A form of rotation pool, nine-ball requires players to rack only the first nine balls in a diamond formation. A player wins by pocketing the yolk-colored nine ball, but on every shot he must hit the lowest ball on the table first. Usually the player devises a pattern of shots through the rack, or what remains of it, that has him pocketing the one, the two, the three, and so on, until he’s taking aim at the nine ball to win the game. At Derby City, the first player to win the race to seven games wins the set and advances to the next round.
In the movies, pool is played at warp speed. The balls invariably collide violently on impact. The pace is rapid-fire. The players attempt high- risk, high-reward shots. It’s all pyrotechnics. Real pool, at least at the highest level, is much more clicking than clacking; it’s a sport of ellipses, not exclamation points. The balls don’t often rocket into the pocket. They tend to
enter casually, as if they’re slipping out and quietly leaving the party, landing with a gentle ka-tonk. The players discharge their duties at a leisurely pace, especially Basavich, whose excruciatingly slow playing is as much his hallmark as his overstuffed physique and bottomlessly charismatic personality. Sizing up shots like Tiger Woods studying a putt, he takes his time, rocking back and forth in the manner of a man who has to pee.
In professional pool, you can go for hours without seeing a holy- shit-you-gotta-be-kidding-me shot. It’s all about positioning and control. Because of the way they expertly maneuvered the cue ball, Parica and Basavich went entire games without having to hit a single shot that would give a decent recreational player trouble. Of course, it’s where the cue ball ends up after hitting the object ball that makes it all possible. That’s where the genius resides. It’s position play that separates the pros from the ball- bangers.
There’s something both absurdly simple and impossibly complex about the way Basavich plays. His backswing, not unlike his body, is short and compact. His break is more about control than force. Little about his style could be described as exciting. But there is an undeniable artistry and dignity — a majesty, you could even call it — to his game. He has that highly developed pool cortex that enables him to think four or five shots ahead. Often he even sees the whole rack unfolding right after the break. He is steady and balanced and supremely confident. With the equilibrium of a Zen archer, he plays as though the mere prospect of misfiring hasn’t crossed his mind. Then, just when his game takes on a mesmeric quality, he plays a dazzling shot that defies the conventional laws of physics.
Tied with Parica at six games apiece, Basavich sized up a three- rail kick shot on the six ball. After determining that it was merely geometrically improbable — not impossible — he took aim. He inhaled, exhaled, and pulled off the shot. The railbirds clapped and whistled. Parica shook his head in a sort of gracious resignation, a rare show of emotion. Impervious to any pressure, Basavich ran out the remaining balls to take the set. Basavich seven, Parica six. After shaking his opponent’s hand, Basavich playfully pumped his pudgy fist for an imaginary television camera. Then he kissed his girl.
There was a time, not long ago, when this kind of performance at the table would have earned Basavich $5,000 or $10,000 or, if everything really broke right, twenty-five large. He would have celebrated with a trip to the local diner or watering hole, lavishing on...