When Bill Fong approaches the lane, 15-pound bowling ball in hand, he tries not to breathe. He tries not to think about not breathing. He wants his body to perform a series of complex movements that his muscles themselves have memorized. In short, he wants to become a robot.
Fong, 48 years old, 6 feet tall with broad shoulders, pulls the ball into his chest and does a quick shimmy with his hips. He swings the ball first backward, then forward, his arm a pendulum of kinetic energy, as he takes five measured steps toward the foul line. He releases the ball, and it glides across the oiled wooden planks like it’s floating, hydroplaning, spinning counterclockwise along a trajectory that seems to be taking it straight for the right-hand gutter. But as the ball nears the edge of the lane, it veers back toward the center, as if guided by remote control. The hook carries the ball back just in time. In a heartbeat, what was a wide, sneering mouth of pins is now—nothing.
He comes back to the table where his teammates are seated—they always sit and bowl in the same order—and they congratulate him the same way they have thousands of times over the last decade. But Fong looks displeased. His strike wasn’t good enough.
“I got pretty lucky that time,” he says in his distinctly Chicago accent. “The seven was hanging there before it fell. I’ve got to make adjustments.” With a pencil, he jots down notes on a folded piece of blue paper.
His teammates aren’t interested in talking about what he can do to make his strikes more solid, though, or even tonight’s mildly competitive league game. They’re still discussing a night two years ago. They mention it every week, without fail. In fact, all you have to do is say the words “That Night” and everyone at the Plano Super Bowl knows what you’re talking about. They also refer to it as “The Incident” or “That Incredible Series.” It’s the only time anyone can remember a local recreational bowler making the sports section of the Dallas Morning News. One man, an opponent of Fong’s that evening, calls it “the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in a bowling alley.”
Bill Fong needs no reminders, of course. He thinks about that moment—those hours—every single day of his life.
• • •
Most people think perfection in bowling is a 300 game, but it isn’t. Any reasonably good recreational bowler can get lucky one night and roll 12 consecutive strikes. If you count all the bowling alleys all over America, somebody somewhere bowls a 300 every night. But only a human robot can roll three 300s in a row—36 straight strikes—for what’s called a “perfect series.” More than 95 million Americans go bowling, but, according to the United States Bowling Congress, there have been only 21 certified 900s since anyone started keeping track.
Bill Fong’s run at perfection started as most of his nights do, with practice at around 5:30 pm. He bowls in four active leagues, and he rolls at least 20 games a week, every week. That night, January 18, 2010, he wanted to focus on his timing.
Timing is everything. When your timing is right, when your arms, legs, and torso all move in rhythm toward the lane, you have better balance. When you’re balanced, you’re also more accurate. And when you’re accurate, your decision-making also improves. By contrast, if your timing is off, your balance is off, and you don’t hit your targets. There are too many variables to assess, too many elements to gauge, and you can’t possibly make the best decisions. Fong knows a hot streak is all about timing. So in practice that night, he breathed, he tried to erase all thoughts, and he tried to make his approach with each body part functioning as programmed.
That night, he didn’t roll many strikes in practice. There was nothing to make him think this night would be anything special.
Fong’s team, the Crazy Eights (he picked the name because eights are lucky in Chinese culture), was assigned lanes 27 and 28, one of Fong’s favorite pairs. The left lane, 27, hooks more, he says. The right lane, 28, tends to be more direct.
Frame one was on the left lane. As always, he was last in the bowling order, the anchor position. He watched his teammates roll and noticed each one throw a ball that hooked early and missed the pocket, the sweet spot between the head pin and the three pin on the right, the place that gives you the best chance of getting a strike. So when it was Fong’s turn, he opted to roll a deeper hook, to stay outside and ride the edge of the gutter a little longer.
The result was a loud, powerful strike. His ball slammed into the pocket with a vengeance, obliterating all 10 pins. His next roll, on 28, was another violent strike. All four of the first frames were robust strikes, actually. But his teammates barely took notice.
“To tell you the truth, that wasn’t that unusual,” says JoAnn Gibson, a sweet Southern woman who enjoys the company more than she does the actual bowling.
“Bowlers like Bill can roll off mini-streaks like that all the time,” says Tom Dunn, a more serious bowler who sometimes flirts innocently with JoAnn.
Both Gibson and Dunn have bowled with or against Fong in this league since the Clinton administration. They’ve been teammates for nine years. James Race, who, with his perpetual smile and polite demeanor, reminds the other teammates of Mister Rogers, came a few years later. They don’t really hang out much outside the bowling alley, but no matter what’s going on in life, they go to Plano Super Bowl for a few hours on Monday nights.
Fong’s fifth roll of the night wasn’t so beautiful. His approach and release seemed the same—he was becoming the robot—and the ball hit the pocket, but the pins didn’t go down quickly. The 10 pin was wobbling upright, teetering, when Fong got what is called a “messenger.” From the left, one of the pins he’d just sent bouncing came back across the lane, clipping the 10 just enough to knock it off balance. When he got back to the table, his teammates congratulated him, but Fong called it what it was: a lucky strike.
In the sixth frame, he had another loud, devastating strike. Then another. Then another. With each throw, he could tell it was a strike from the moment it left his hand. He’d watch as the pins were there one second, then gone the next. “It felt like driving and catching a green light, then the next one, then the next, then turning, and still catching every green light everywhere you go,” Fong says.
Before he knew it, it was the 10th frame. Back on the right lane, he again tried to swing the ball wide, let it run along the outside of the lane, next to the gutter. The first two rolls of the 10th frame both tucked into the pocket just as Fong hoped, and both were solid strikes.
On the last roll, though, something happened. He could tell from the sound of the pins. As the clutter at the end of the lane cleared, he could see the nine pin (the second from the right on the last row) still standing. He watched the chaos of the flying pins, each rotating right past the upright nine. Fong craned his neck, watching, hoping. Until one of the pins popped up from its side and swiped the nine down.
“The best way to describe the first 300 was just ‘powerful,'” Race says.
One of the Super Bowl employees announced Fong’s name and score over the loudspeaker, something Fong is a particular fan of. There was a round of applause.
“Sometimes, when you have a lot of 300s, or if you get more than one in a week, they won’t announce it,” he says.
The night was just beginning.
• • •