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.

Mizerak now runs a successful business in Mangonia Park, selling pool cues and other equipment to major outlets such as Service Merchandise and Sports Authority. His latest line of sticks features the likenesses of professional wrestlers "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and Sable, the "Femme Fatale." Three years ago, Mizerak also started a senior's tour, for pool players over 50 years of age. The annual tour consists of up to six tournaments played across the country.

Grover Lines, a veteran pool player who runs Grover's Hip Pockets, a pool hall in West Palm Beach, is friends with both Mizerak and DiLiberto. He claims that luck is all that separates the two.

"Danny was shortchanged, I feel," says Lines, who followed DiLiberto out of Buffalo and onto the pool-hustling road. "Danny was just as good as Steve, or at least potentially as good, but he just never caught the breaks. He worked at poolrooms and hustled while Steve did Miller Lite commercials. Now Steve's worth seven million dollars, while the other guy's worth nothing."

DiLiberto has made his own small-scale forays into entrepreneurism but without success. In the early '70s, he, along with three other prominent pool players -- Mike Sigel, James Rempe, and Larry Lisciotti -- put together a group called the Roadrunners. The idea was for the four of them to tour the country, giving trick-shot exhibitions, playing matches against each other, and teaching pool. A photograph from the time shows the Roadrunners dressed to the hilt in flared pants and wide collars, but the enterprise fell apart before they ever got out on the road. DiLiberto says the problem was too many competing egos.

He expresses little bitterness about his fate. "I hate nine-to-five, and [playing pool] kept me out of work," he says.

Resentment only creeps in occasionally, such as when he speaks of the late Minnesota Fats. Rudolph Wanderone, once known as New York Fats, rechristened himself Minnesota in the wake of The Hustler in order to take advantage of the popularity of the character played by Jackie Gleason. In what became a lucrative, lifetime schtick, Fats traveled the country (much as DiLiberto later hoped to do with the Roadrunners), putting on joke-filled exhibitions that amounted to a billiards version of the Harlem Globetrotters. In DiLiberto's scrapbook, which is filled with yellowed newspaper clippings covering bowling, boxing, baseball, and pool, only one article is not about Danny D. It's a 1985 clipping from The New York Post: "Minnesota Fats Behind 8-Ball for Shoplifting," the headline reads. It details Fats' arrest, for stealing Ex-Lax.

"His best game was eating," DiLiberto says, spitefully.
As for the game of pool itself, the professional tournament circuit is more lucrative today than ever. It's now possible for the best players to make a decent living exclusively playing tournaments. Compared to most professional athletes, including jockeys, however, pool players are still the blue-collar underclass of the sports world. The Camel Pro Billiard Series holds ten tournaments a year, each with purse money of at least $75,000. The top winner last year, Francisco Bustamante, took home $122,505. Five other players made more than $40,000 from the Camel tournaments. Mizerak's seniors' tour usually offers a top prize of about $6000. The Florida Pro Open, one of the top regional series, offers prize money of $1500 to the winners of each of its ten events.

It's the women's tour, however, that has gone the farthest in establishing pool as a legitimate professional sport. The most famous pool player in the world today is not Bustamante or Buddy Hall, another top men's tour finisher, but the "Black Widow," Jeanette Lee. What TV exposure there is for pool is generally limited to late-Sunday-night ladies' nine-ball matches on ESPN. And it's not difficult to see what part of the allure is: Lee is not only a skilled player, but she's attractive, as are many of the female players.

Amateur tournaments have also proliferated in the last decade. These $10- and $20-entry-fee tournaments -- which offer jackpots worth hundreds of dollars -- provide a salve for pool players' gambling joneses. On Tuesday nights, for example, South Florida pool players can test their mettle at the nine-ball tournament at Hollywood Billiards or at a similar competition at Kiss Shot Billiards in Jupiter.

"What's hurt gambling more than anything is tournaments," says John Foster, the house man at Gold Crown and one of the top nine-ball players in the state. "The $10 tournament has killed the action."

Legal forms of gambling have also taken some of the action away from the pool halls of old. People who want to gamble can now board SunCruz and other casino boats, where slots and card games are available, or take their chances at the Miccosukee gaming hall in Hollywood. The dog tracks, horse tracks, and jai alai also compete for gambling dollars.

Danny D. has beaten the odds before -- in the poolroom, at the dog track, and on death's doorstep. In 1980 he spent several weeks in the hospital suffering from what doctors diagnosed as diverticulitis, an inflammation of the intestinal tract. He was read his last rites. But DiLiberto came up with his own diagnosis: boredom. For more than three years, he'd eschewed the pool table for a slightly more reliable form of income, buying and selling goods at the dog track flea market. He had become a square. The money was good, but the routine was stifling.

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