What if that overweight kid from your high school, who seemingly had no talent save for an ability to mock his own weight, sought solace at a local pool hall? What if, within said pool hall, he found an answer, a safe-haven from the torments of his peers, all the while honing an innate ability to pocket and control balls? The world of pool soon becomes his high school and college. It becomes his entire means, nay, purpose for living. When he's on top of his game, there's not a soul who can beat him. Maybe then, when you ask yourself who in their right mind would be a pool hustler in today's world, you might realize that unlike the popular saying, skill at pool is not necessarily the sign of a youth misspent; it may also be the sign of a youth mistreated.
"You'd be hard pressed to come up with an activity less conducive to optimal mental health than being a pool hustler."
In Running the Table: The Legend of Kid Delicious, the Last Great American Pool Hustler, Sports Illustrated's L. Jon Wertheim exposes us to the adventures, hardships, and triumphs of Danny Basavich. We follow him from his middle-class upbringings in suburban New Jersey, to the upper echelons of the pool world, besting every top name in the game and turning the once derisive nickname, Kid Delicious, into a moniker feared by anyone who's ever played or even gambled on the game.
Gelf spoke to Wertheim about Basavich's story, 21st-century pool in America, and the film in development. The following interview was conducted by phone and has been edited for clarity. (You can hear Wertheim and other sports-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Wednesday, October 3, in New York's Lower East Side.)
Gelf Magazine: What was your experience with pool before coming across the Delicious story, and how did you come across Kid Delicious?
Jon Wertheim: Like about 90 percent of other American men, I played in college and it was pretty pitiful. I saw The Hustler and I played pool three times a year. I think it was 2003, there was a Wall Street Journal article about a pool tournament in Grand Central Station, and there was a paragraph, something like, "A full-figured hustler named Kid Delicious, who claimed to have made a six-figure income on the road, made the semi-finals." It went on to talk about the pool tournament, but I didn't care who won the pool tournament. I just wanted to know more about the full-figured hustler from Jersey with the six-figure income. I tracked this guy downluckily it was a name I could find in the phone bookand we hit it off.GM: It started as an article for SI, right?
JW: Yeah, I ended up doing it as a long Sports Illustrated story.
GM: How did you decide to develop it into a full book?
JW: Well, I can't remember having that much fun working on a story. I mean, give me a colorful pool hustler over covering the Super Bowl any day. People liked it. As soon as the magazine came out, we were getting calls about an option [for a book], and clearly, the story was so rich, and writing it for the magazine I realized I was leaving tons of stuff out. It ran at, like, 5,000 words, and I felt I had three times that much material. So then I got an offer to do a book, and I thought, "Well, it's so much fun and Danny's such a great guy, why not sort of dilate this?"
GM: Did you end up spending more time working on the book after you had done the articles?
JW: Oh, yeah, way more time. But he lives like an hour away.
GM: He still lives in Jersey?
JW: Yeah. He lives in Jersey. He was great to hang out with, but also on an off-day I'd drive down there and we'd have a long lunch and run the tape. It wasn't like I needed to take months and months off to research it.
"I was trying to re-create a lot of these adventures. I would have given anything to have been in the back seat."GM: As you know, anyone familiar with gambling knows that when you lose a lot of money it feels like a punch in the stomach and it can mess with your psyche. So, you sort of expect that there might be some depression in a book about pool hustling, but in the case of your book, in Delicious's case, the gambling is the cure to his depression. Were you aware of this sort of fragile dynamic when you took on the project?
JW: You know, it came out a little in the initial article, and he's very open talking about his mental heath and the depression issueshe's been on and off antidepressants. It wasn't anything I needed to plumb, but when I did dig deeper, and got to know him better, you really saw this weird dynamic between pool-hustling and his depression. I mean, I don't think depression is unique to him and pool-hustling, but it's this weird thing where he sees it as a rush that sort of gets him out of the doldrums. Then, you talk to mental-health professionals, and you lay out what it is a pool hustler does, and they'll tell you there's nothing worse. Whether it's the erratic behavior, the gambling, the dissonance of staying in different hotels, you'd be hard pressed to come up with an activity less conducive to optimal mental health than being a pool hustler. And yet for Danny, he sees it, anyway, as something he can do to get him out of his funk.
GM: It's like a recipe for disaster, and you're waiting for it to all go wrong, and Danny keeps managing to stay out of it, and yet, ironically, his partner Bristol Bob is the one who ends up "hitting rock bottom" with the drug addiction. Was that something you knew about before you were writing, or was that something that happened while you were working on the project?
JW: Yeah, I was going to say, that was a big surprise. I knew within half an hour of meeting Danny for the first time that there was a mental-health issue there, but the big surprise was that, and it took a few months to come out. His running buddy Bob, who's like his polar oppositethis thin, good-looking, physically fit guy who went to college, who's everything Danny wasn'the's the one who really had some issues. Yeah, his drug addiction was definitely something I don't think I knew about when I wrote the SI story.
GM: Did you read any other pool literature, fiction or non-, in preparation for Running the Table?
JW: No. That was sort of my great regret. I mean, McCumber had the fortunethat's a great book by the wayMcCumber had the fortune of actually acting as a stake horse and going on the road. I mean, I visited pool halls. I saw Danny play. I saw him gamble. I saw him play in tournaments. A lot of it, though, was from five or six years ago, where I was trying to re-create a lot of these adventures. I would have given anything to have been in the back seat.
GM: How much of a difference does that make, having to piece together these adventures, and differentiating between facts and tall tales, players' memories and their wont for exaggeration? How do you piece that all together?
JW: I was just telling someone else this fact. The Elias Sports Bureau does not have a database about whether the Gunslinger really did beat Cheyenne Pete in Eureka, Kansas, that night. You could probably come up with sources that are a little more reliable than pool hustlers.
GM: Doesn't that add to your material a little bit also? I mean, you're candid about the fact that a lot of your source material is hearsay, which could give that kind of tall-tale quality. I mean, it's called "The Legend of Kid Delicious," and it has this sort of legendary quality.
JW: Yeah, but I also didn't want it to be all dictation. So a lot of times he would say, like, "I beat Little Jon this evening in Hattiesburg, Mississippi," and I'd call up Little Jon. I was really impressed. As much as it sort of lends itself to bullshit, there's a certain honor. It wasn't as though I was calling guys and they'd be saying, "Oh, no. I beat him, he didn't beat me." Sometimes there was a difference of opinion over the wager or what game they played, but I tried to fact-check everything, basically. There was not as much discrepancy as you would think. The other thing was, you'd get these guys on the phone, no problem. For pool hustlers, they were really accessible characters, in a weird way.
GM: You capture the voices of the characters with such detail, capturing their accents, eccentricities, and speech patterns. Did you spend a lot of time with this colorful supporting cast?
JW: Yeah, none of these guys lives in, like, New York or L.A. They're always in some wacky areas with wacky area codes, like 563 area codes. A lot of times I'd meet these guys in tournaments or in the pool halls, but a lot of it was over the phone. It's not like interviewing Kobe Bryant, where he can give you five minutes while getting his ankle taped. I'd be having these 90-minute conversations, and you'd go back and listen to the tape and you've got a lot of material to play with.
"You could probably come up with sources that are a little more reliable than pool hustlers."GM: Another issue prevalent in the book is the plight of professional pool in America. It seems that the female circuit is enjoying a bit more success. How do you account for that, and are separate men's and women's leagues even necessary? I mean, would Karen Corr and Allison Fisher really be that outmatched against a Danny Basavich?
JW: I think they would. Take Jeanette Lee, who is great and she's great for pool. Her husband is a pro, but he's not a superstar, and he apparently beats her pretty handedly. It sort of depends on the game at some point, I guess. But, yeah, I think most of the men are much better than the women.
These guys, when it comes to making games, are like savants about odds and handicaps and that sort of thing, but when it comes to the bigger economic picture, there isn't that financial savvy, for whatever reason. One after another, these leagues come and go. They trust these guys who aren't necessarily trustworthy. They don't band together. They get pissed off over a stupid rule, and the whole event collapses. The history of male professional pool is not one of great success.
GM: But then you see that professional snooker players in the UK have earnings that rival some professional athletes here in the states. Does that offer any hope for the situation over here?
JW: There was this tour about a year ago, run by this guy Kevin Trudeau, who does these self-help books, and he was a guy with this checkered past. He had a felony conviction. He was very smooth. In the first couple of events people did great, guys made hundreds of thousands of dollars, money that was almost unfathomable to them, and then the third tournament came and nobody got paid.
I think there's hope, but it's going to take these guys forming some kind of a union, and it's going to take some television money. It's just that with every failed pro tour there are that many more sponsors that get scared away from it. You look at some of these guys who have been in charge of these men's leagues and you wonder if they were looking out for themselves, or for the players.
GM: How much can you talk about the film in development?
JW: Uhhhhmmmmm I don't know. We're optimistic. One thing about writing a book, the odds are good that when you write it, there's going to be a book. Your name's going to be on the spine. It'll come out. When you write a screenplay, you don't have that.
GM: The screenplay is yours at the moment?
JW: Yeah, yeah.
GM: I'd love to know, generally, what you did with that. The structure of the book is kind of epic, or maybe a picaresque journey, with a constantly shifting cast of characters, various conflicts, and dangers, all changing with each new place. That's difficult to transfer to a film narrative. Were you able to decide upon a central conflict for the screenplay, or did you just go with the content of the book?
JW: I certainly took liberties with the screenplay. A lot of it is sort of the dynamic of the buddy-on-the-road movie, and then of course the conflict of Danny and his demons. You're right, though. In a sense it was easy to come up with the idea for a pool movie. I mean I knew the characters, and the material was nonfiction, basically, but you're right, in retrospect it's much easier to write a book about this than a three-act screenplay.
GM: It just seems like you could go so many different directions. You have the demons of the depression and the drug addiction, or you could have a Chris Farley/David Spade buddy comedy. What would your reaction be if they, all of a sudden, cast Will Ferrell and one of the guys from The 40 Year Old Virgin?
JW: Yeah, that's the thing. I mean, the book is nonfiction. It's Danny's story, but it's easy for me to be fanciful with the script, but then I'm like, "This is Danny's life here." I'm friends with the subjectI don't want to turn him into something he's not.
"These guys, when it comes to making games, are like savants about odds and handicaps, but when it comes to the bigger economic picture, there isn't that financial savvy."GM: So if you turned him into a Chris Farley-type, what would his reaction be to that?
JW: Well, he doesn't have any illusions. He knows Zac Efron is not going to play him, but I didn't want to turn him into Chris Farley, either.
GM: It is just so ripe with that odd-couple-on-the-road dynamic. But I think the fact that you can go either in the absurd comic direction, or toward the serious biopic drama, could give you that Royal Tenenbaums mix in-between, going from the serious to the absurd in a heartbeat, coming out with something really special, if it's done right.
JW: Where was that line when I was writing the script? I wish I had, A that idea, and, B that confidence, when I was working on it. I played it pretty straight, for the record. I like that idea though. Shit, maybe I can get a rewrite.
GM: Not that the author has much influence on it, but if you had your way, what would you think about for casting?
JW: Honestly, I just want to get the damn thing made.
GM: You don't have to say anything if you don't want to jinx it.
JW: I like that Dan Fogler, or maybe Judah Friedlander from 30 Rock. That's the thing about Danny, he's got a lot humor, a lot of imp in him. Chris Farley might be going too far, were he still with us.
GM: Can we expect to see more professional pool coverage from SI in the future?
JW: We all love stories. I don't think there's going to be a writeup of the U.S. open. It's the story that will sell, and not necessarily pool excellence. You know, like if pool has this sort of Tiger Woods character, a guy who's unanimously the best player, it would probably be harder to sell a story on him, than on a colorful figure.
Related in Gelf: An interview with Wertheim and co-author Jack McCallum about their NBA novel.
Related on the web: An interview with Wertheim on the Booklist blog.