He’s the only active black bowler to have won a major pro tournament
But Gary Faulkner Jr. is struggling to repeat that success
FAIRLAWN, Ohio — Gary Faulkner Jr. wiggles his feet, hunches over and takes five brisk steps. He plants his right foot and the ball flies from his left hand, curling into the pins for a strike. It’s his opening shot of the Professional Bowlers Association’s Tournament of Champions, one of the tour’s five annual major events.
Over the next couple of frigid days at the AMF Riviera Lanes in this suburb of Akron, a field of 80 bowlers will play 18 games to determine the 24 high scorers who will advance to the payout rounds. Faulkner, 27, is one of only two African-Americans in the field and the only active African-American professional bowler to have won a national PBA title, the 2015 Rolltech PBA World Championship in Reno. The only other African-American to win on the tour, George Branham III, retired in 2002 with five titles, including the 1993 Tournament of Champions.
The Riviera is packed with the sport’s greats. The current world No. 1, Australian Jason Belmonte, shows off his double-handed technique that has revolutionized the game. There are competitors from Latin America, Scandinavia, Canada and England, as well as a handful of aging American legends, including Walter Ray Williams, 58, who holds a record 47 PBA titles; Norm Duke, 53, with 38 PBA titles; and 71-year-old Johnny Petraglia, who’ll retire after the event.
Since his 2015 title, Faulkner has struggled on the PBA Tour, making the payout rounds at just six of 34 events and never returning to the five-person final, which bowlers refer to as “the show” and is typically broadcast live. But Faulkner is off to a great start in Fairlawn. Through six frames, he’s bowled only strikes. On the seventh he leaves a pin, missing the spare, but he recovers with two additional strikes. His score for the first game is 231 out of a possible 300, placing him tied for 24th.
The country’s early national bowling organizations, the American Bowling Congress and the Women’s International Bowling Congress, prohibited the participation of African-Americans. In 1939, a group of African-American men and women convened in Detroit to launch the National Negro Bowling Association. Five years later, the organization was renamed The National Bowling Association (TNBA) to reflect a membership that included other minorities, although its membership, currently numbering more than 23,000 people, remains predominantly African-American. The ABC and WIBC removed their “whites only” membership clauses in the 1950s, and there was no such language in the founding documents of the PBA, which was formed in 1958 by a group led by an Akron sports agent.
But de facto segregation remained throughout the next decade, particularly in the South, where owners of private bowling alleys and tournament-affiliated hotels “refused black patrons … despite their registration as tournament players,” according to Summer Cherland’s Basement Bowlers: The National Negro Bowling Association and Its Legacy of Black Leadership, 1939-1968. (In 1968, in my home state of South Carolina, Highway Patrol officers fired into a crowd that had assembled at South Carolina State University to protest the segregation of a local bowling alley. Three protesters were killed and 27 wounded in what became known as the Orangeburg massacre.)
Faulkner grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, where his local bowling alley was “about 50-to-50 blacks and whites, though I was competing in TNBA youth leagues, so that was mostly black.” His father, an avid recreational player, introduced him to the sport. “He bowled almost every day, and I was always at the alley with him,” Faulkner Jr. said. “I started when I was 2 years old and have been bowling ever since.”
“My dad got me a deal at our local alley, where we paid $150 a month and I bowled as much as I wanted,” Faulkner said. “During the summer months, I bowled from open to close and played 70 games a day.”
Memphis wasn’t a hotbed of bowling, Faulkner said, but in high school, as his scores improved, he began traveling nationally. In 2011, he won the national Junior Gold Championships, earning an automatic berth on the 2012 Junior Team USA. He chose Webber International University in Florida for its bowling program and, while majoring in computer information systems, led the team to the 2012 Intercollegiate Team Championships.
He turned pro after college and bowls full time. His biggest purse, by far, was the $60,000 he earned from his World Championship title. His career PBA tour earnings amount to about $92,000. “You can’t support yourself off PBA alone,” he said. Pro bowlers also compete at open tournaments unaffiliated with the professional tour, where first prizes can range from $2,000 to $10,000.
There’s also a lot of side action, called bracket play, that only competitors can enter. They bet on themselves to beat other players in individual games in computer-generated, random mini-brackets. “I used to fly from Orlando to Philadelphia for a tournament,” said Faulkner, who lives in Memphis. “The purse was only $3,000, but the bracket play was so substantial that the first-place money doesn’t really matter.”
Still, a professional bowler’s earnings are meager compared with even middling basketball players and golfers. “A good professional will earn about $75,000 to $100,000 a year, including sponsorships,” said Jim Callahan, the pro tour consultant for Storm Products, which manufactures bowling balls and other equipment. “Belmonte has become a big brand and might make about $350,000 a year, but he’s the exception.”
As recently as 2010, bowling was the most popular participatory sport among adults in the United States, according to Simmons Research, a national consumer research firm. “But I think the fact that it’s really tough to make a living as a professional bowler discourages a lot of kids, including African-Americans, from trying to go the professional route,” said TNBA president Dewann Clark, who is based in Los Angeles. “And it’s become a lot harder to access lanes in urban areas. Bowling centers have a large footprint, and you find that developers can tear them down and put in a Home Depot and make a lot more money. Bowling has been pushed into the suburbs.”
Faulkner told me he’s never faced any discrimination or hostility in the bowling world because of his race, a sentiment echoed by Branham, who at 55 is almost 30 years older. Like Faulkner, Branham was introduced to the sport by his father. He grew up in Detroit and was 5 when the 1967 riots broke out. His local bowling hall “was all black,” he said. But when Branham was 14, the family moved to California. “I was around more whites then, because hardly any blacks bowled in California,” he said.
“I was never treated any different,” Branham continued. “The race thing never really crossed my mind. It was pretty much the same situation when I turned pro. There were a handful of guys, including Curtis Odom, but no one won a national title until I came along. It doesn’t make sense to me that Gary and I are the only ones to have done it.”
Clark, the TNBA president, said Faulkner and Branham owe a debt to their predecessors.
“The bottom line is that today’s generation of minority bowlers often is quite ignorant of the plight that was taken to allow them to have the privileges that they now take for granted,” he said. “I must be honest, if I was not exposed to some of the elders and heard many of the stories of those early pioneers describing the conditions that they had to endure through, I too would be ignorant of the impact of those that paved the way for us to have what we have now.”
After each game of the 18-game qualifying round here in Fairlawn, the bowlers switch lanes. While the layperson might think the lanes are identical, after play begins the oils that are injected into the laminate-topped lanes shift and conditions change. The oil patterns in pro tournaments differ widely from your typical bowling alley’s.
“If you just show up at your local bowling center on a Tuesday night, the lanes have been oiled to help the bowler guide the ball toward the middle and discourage gutter balls,” said Sean Parry, the PBA’s head of lane maintenance, who designed the oil pattern that’s being used throughout the Tournament of Champions event. “At the major events, we try to make the conditions harder — similar to the majors in golf.”
A pro can read these shifting conditions that are invisible to the untrained eye. In 2013, the PBA began using a blue additive to the oil before tournament finals so that viewers could experience this important facet of the game.
“It’s a common misconception people have when they watch bowling,” Faulkner said. “They see a pro shoot 160 on television and they say to themselves, ‘I can go down to my local spot and do that.’ But it’s a lot like the tee positions in golf. The pros shoot from way back there, while an amateur starts from much closer.” (Bowlers make a lot of golf analogies.)
After the first game, Faulkner and the other competitors pack up their bowling balls — they have different weights and textures for different oil conditions and pin situations — in specialized roller bags and switch lanes, looking like hardened business travelers strolling through an airport. Faulkner has more spares than strikes this time, and he drops to 42nd place after the second game. But he scores 255 in his fourth game, and by the end of the sixth, when there’s a break for re-oiling, he’s back up to 26th and just off pace to make the cut.
There are about 200 fans in attendance, and more will arrive for the evening session. It’s not the stereotypical downscale bowling environment portrayed in movies such as Kingpin and The Big Lebowski. Smoking is forbidden, and while there’s a bar in the Riviera, few of the fans are drinking. There’s a lot of chatter about the Cleveland Cavaliers; LeBron James’ home is only a 10-minute drive from the Riviera, locals tell me.
Larry Reamey, a 62-year-old African-American volunteer at the event, has a regular Monday night game at the Riviera. “It’s a pretty mixed crowd, maybe slightly more blacks than whites,” he said. African-Americans are not the majority of spectators at this event, but there are many. Darryl East brought his two high school boys, both competitive bowlers, and they take pictures with Faulkner during a break. “I used to work for the University of Akron radio station,” East said. “Twenty-five years ago, I covered this tournament for the station when George Branham won it.”
Several fans suggest that bowling needs a major African-American star to encourage more participation in the sport, pointing to the impact that Venus and Serena Williams had on tennis. And while Faulkner’s lone PBA national title was celebrated — he was invited to bowl at the White House — he’s soft-spoken and doesn’t have the outsize personality that could draw eyeballs to the sport. That couldn’t be said about the field’s only other African-American, J.T. “Action” Jackson. Jackson, 41, lives in Los Angeles and is an actor and stand-up comedian.
“We had a group of comedians, including Kevin Hart, and we used to play after shows,” Jackson said. “I think I could bring a lot of that big personality to the sport if I could make the show.” But since joining the PBA Tour in 2006, he’s earned only $3,255 and never sniffed making a final broadcast. After the first six games, Jackson is in last place.
Like in the morning session, Faulkner has a good start on Wednesday evening. In his first game, he rolls seven straight strikes and finishes with a 226. But after that, he struggles. In his 11th game, he scores a woeful 135 points. Faulkner doesn’t normally display much emotion in competition, but as the game ends, dropping him to 57th place, he’s shaking his head and muttering to himself.
“I wasn’t making any of the right moves out there, and that one game really hurt me,” he said. “A lot of pins didn’t fall my way. I felt like I put myself in good positions, but those were some tough lane conditions, and I wasn’t executing like I normally do.”
He’ll return on Thursday for the final morning session, even though he has little chance of making the cut. The PBA obligates the bowlers to play through the end of the qualifying rounds no matter their chances. His scores are up and down during the day, and Faulkner finishes the tournament in 57th place, earning no prize money. Jackson remained in last place. The unlikely winner of the Tournament of Champions was New Jersey’s Matthew O’Grady, who had to play a qualifying event to make it into the 80-person field.
The following week he finished 34th in the Go Bowling! PBA 60th Anniversary Classic in Indianapolis, taking home $1,650. And the next week at the Barbasol PBA Players Championship in Columbus, Ohio, he finished 115th and took home no money. But his girlfriend, who lives in New Jersey, was able to join him for both events.
As he packed up his bowling balls, Faulkner told me he’d stay in Akron for a few days and seek out another bowling alley to practice. “I save all my frames with the pin arrangements on my phone so I’ll know exactly what I need to work on,” he said.
And he’ll try to find a local amateur tournament to play this weekend and earn some traveling money. “That’s the good thing about bowling,” he said. “There’s always a tournament somewhere.”