Ball Breakers

They're cool. They're coifed. They're tightly wrapped. And they kick ass with a cue stick.

She moved back to Miami in 2002 with a clearer goal in mind of becoming a top pro. Two good years have put her in the top 20 in the WPBA. But that's not enough.

"Right now in the billiards industry, it's only the top four who make the decent money," she explains a few days before the Hard Rock tourney. "I have to say, it's a very tough thing that I got involved with here. I'm always looking for more sponsorships. At this moment, we're all doing it for the love of the game and not the money."

The four-day Hard Rock tournament pays $15,000 for first place, and to see any money at all, Ng will have to finish in the top 16 out of 64 players.

Colby Katz
Jeanette Lee, a.k.a. the Black Widow, is one of the main reasons men are tuning into women's pool.
Jeanette Lee, a.k.a. the Black Widow, is one of the main reasons men are tuning into women's pool.

When Jeanette Lee enters the tournament room, a stir sweeps through it -- partly because it's the Black Widow, and partly because she moves with a hefty entourage that includes her husband, George Breedlove, a top men's pool player; and their 6-month-old adopted daughter, Cheyenne, otherwise known as "Baby Widow."

Now the third day of the tournament, Lee has moved easily into the quarterfinals. By now, the field of eight tables has been replaced by one blue-velvet-topped beauty, and it is surrounded by a theatrical-cum-gladiatorial setting befitting the filming of an ESPN show. Two regal wooden thrones rest in opposite corners for each player, partitioned off from the audience by shaded Plexiglas panels. Intensely bright lights glare down upon the setting, and another set of lights burns toward the audience.

Lee, dressed in a black top with a see-through pattern, walks into the bright arena and begins to warm up. At the same time, Steve Tipton, the silver-haired emcee and tournament director, starts to limber up the audience.

"Who's a Jeanette Lee hater?" Tipton asks over his microphone. None of the 75-or-so people in the risers raises his hand or says a thing. "Nobody?" he asks. Dawn Hopkins, a long-haired brunet from New Jersey who is Lee's opponent for the match, jumps up from her chair and raises her hand. It catches Tipton off guard, and he titters into the mic.

Three video cameramen, one of whom operates a 20-foot boom camera, film the warm-up. Lee forces one of them to take a close-up shot of her husband in the stands. "Awwwwww," the crowd coos. She really knows how to get the crowd behind her -- even before the play begins.

The room is quiet as the match opens, the air punctuated only by occasional applause and loud remarks by two lager louts sitting high in the risers.

Hopkins is soon down 6-1. Two cameramen close in on Hopkins as she sits watching gloomily. She pretends they're not there. This is part of being a pro.

As Lee stands poised to shoot the 9-ball in to win the match, a white towel abruptly crumples atop the ball. Because all eyes had been affixed on Lee, it takes the audience a moment to realize that Hopkins had whipped the symbol of concession over there. "It's yours," Hopkins laughs.

"I'd guess that Ms. Hopkins has a future on the baseball field," Tipton announces.

The audience pours forward toward the pool arena to congratulate Lee and ask for autographs. A nanny brings her Cheyenne, and they circulate around the table, celebrating her move into the semifinal round.

A short while later, Lee and Hopkins are signing autographs behind the WPBA memorabilia desk, and the line snakes back a good 50 feet. The more inveterate buy a copy of Lee's book, The Black Widow's Guide to Killer Pool: Become a Player to Beat, for her to sign.

The WPBA prides itself on providing easy access to players. Once the fans clear, Lee sits for a while and talks about the Black Widow.

"It really developed accidentally," she says of her persona, which burst into fullness virtually as she turned pro in 1993. "It was the uniqueness of my being Asian with long black hair, wearing the black glove and black clothes, and the fact that I do look so focused at the table. It was just a time when the WPBA was on the rise and getting more exposure than ever. I started winning titles when all the other players were medium height and light-haired. I was something different. 'The Black Widow' is just what the fans and the media love. If I say, 'I'm Jeanette Lee,' I get a 'Who?' "

Lee was born in Brooklyn to Korean immigrants who stressed the traditional values of their homeland. She excelled at school and was poised to enter the elite Bronx High School of Science, but her life was upended as a teenager when she was diagnosed with scoliosis, a curvature of the spine. She had a steel rod implanted in her spine to correct the problem; she's had eight surgeries and has suffered from bursitis and tendonitis related to the scoliosis.

"I have a lot of back and shoulder problems, arthritis," she says. "I get worn out very quickly."

Lee lore holds that so obsessed was she after discovering the game at age 18, she once played for 37 hours straight and had to be carried home by friends. There were no Asian women playing when she started, at least in the New York area. "In the pool rooms, there were women players, but none of them dared compete." She recalls trying to get a particular billiards club to sponsor a women's tournament; the owner agreed to put up $1,000 if Lee could get 16 women to compete. "I went to every pool room in New York," she says. "They wouldn't do it; they just wanted to play with their boyfriends or something like that."

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