One Last Shot

At age 64, pool hustler Danny DiLiberto is one of a dying breed. He's not ready, however, to hang up his stick.

Every Tuesday afternoon at 4:30 Danny DiLiberto climbs into his battered yellow Toyota Tercel with a cardboard license plate and drives 60 minutes against rush-hour traffic from Hollywood to Coconut Grove. His destination is a Mediterranean-style villa in a gated community with ornate columns, a swimming pool, and a custom-made, hand-carved pool table.

The 64-year-old DiLiberto is here to teach pool. His pupils, Aleksandre and Yorence, are wily and energetic kids, ages six and eight, respectively. DiLiberto implores his young students to master the basics: a firm bridge hand on which to rest the cue, and a level stroke. "No sharking," he admonishes the kids as they attempt to sabotage each other's shots. "This is not a shark game."

On this particular Tuesday, the teachings of Danny D., as he has long been known, also include boxing. Yorence is being bullied by tough kids at school, and his parents want him to learn to stand up for himself. DiLiberto stands in front of a Chuck Norris punching bag and demonstrates the correct form for a pugilist, his 120-plus-pound body coiled, his gloves protecting his face. The bearded, gray-haired featherweight crouches, bobs, and throws punches with fierce alacrity.

Then DiLiberto pulls up short. He is in evident pain. "I'm bleeding," he mumbles.

Less than a week ago, he was in the hospital for surgery. Doctors in Miami cut him open and removed his cancerous prostate. He should be home in bed, hopped up on pain killers, dropping in and out of a tranquilizer-fueled sleep.

Instead he works. For his two-hour nanny gig, he gets $100. "I'm like Richard Pryor in The Toy," he says. "That's what I am to these kids."

DiLiberto feels guilty accepting money because he enjoys teaching the kids. But the cash is needed. "I have to make money every day," he says. "Every single day. The nut is too high."

Danny D. has covered the "nut" many different ways in his life. He was once a professional boxer, retiring undefeated. He played semipro baseball, bowled perfect 300 games, and won money chucking golf balls between the arms of a man more than 100 yards away.

He is also one of the greatest pool players ever to chalk up a cue. He has won major tournaments in each of the last four decades. He's made more than 200 shots in a row on more than one occasion. He can control a cue ball on the felt in ways that seem to defy physics. "I'd be a zillionaire if I was in the same position playing golf," he says.

But Danny D. plays pool. He's a hustler in a time when hustling is on the wane. The game of deception and gambling, practiced in smoky, all-night poolrooms (and mythologized by the films The Hustler and The Color of Money) has almost ceased to exist. Even 15 years ago, serious pool-hall gambling was taking place in major cities across the country, including those in South Florida. Pool halls stayed open all night, and the wagering never stopped. But the proliferation of professional and amateur pool tournaments, coupled with the popularity of government-sanctioned forms of gambling, has made pool-hall action less vital. The rise of upscale, female-friendly venues has also helped transform the game from an all-male bastion of deviance into just another form of entertainment.

Danny D. is a member of an endangered species. In all of his 64 years, he has never held a steady job for long. He says he's allergic to work.

In The Hustler Fast Eddie Felson (played by Paul Newman) walks into Ames pool hall in New York City. "No bar?" Felson asks the house man. "No bar," the man replies. "No pinball machines. No bowling alleys. Just pool, nothing else. This is Ames, mister."

It's a description that could almost be applied to Gold Crown Family Billiards and Lounge, just west of the railroad tracks on Hollywood Boulevard. With the exception of a pair of video games that nobody plays and a few video poker machines, pool is its only diversion. The "o" in "Crown" is missing from the sign out front. The once-red carpet is patched together with electrical tape. Strings of beads, for keeping track of pool games won and lost on the ten tables, hang across the room. The only light comes from the overhead lamps of the few occupied tables and bits of afternoon sun seeping through unevenly shaded windows.

A handful of old smokes drinking coffee hover near the table closest to the small bar. Danny D., wearing dress pants, a button-down shirt, and a pair of battered white shoes, is shooting a solitary game of straight pool. He cradles his Bludworth cue in his right hand delicately, as if holding the neck of a violin. From the elbow down, his arm ticks back and forth, like a pendulum, as he prepares to strike the ball. The first finger of his left hand is hooked around the seasoned wood of the cue as he leans over the table.

DiLiberto's stroke is sharp, crisp, efficient -- like a jab. By the time the object ball has settled in the pocket, he's setting up the next shot, his intense brown eyes shining. Danny D. pockets 13 balls straight before missing an easy shot on the nine ball. He follows that with runs of 6, 10, and 17 balls, all the while keeping up a conversation with one of the skells at the bar. Rhythmically, he empties the table again and again.

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