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.
Aside from bowling, Bill Fong hasn’t had a lot of success in life. His Chinese mother demanded perfection, but he was a C student. He never finished college, he divorced young, and he never made a lot of money. By his own account, his parents didn’t like him much. As a bowler, his average in the high 230s means he’s probably better than anyone you know. But he’s still only tied as the 15th best bowler in Plano’s most competitive league. Almost nothing in life has gone according to plan.
He likes to say he got his approach to bowling from the hard-hitting alleys in his native Chicago, where he went to high school with Michelle Obama. He was one of the few kids from Chinatown interested in bowling at the time. Despite his strict mother and the fact that his friends were all on the honor roll, little William preferred sports. He dreamed of being a professional athlete one day. He wasn’t big—too short for basketball, too slender for football—but he’d run up and down the block as a boy, racing imaginary friends.
When Fong was young, his parents divorced. He remembers the man who would become his stepdad taking his mom out on dates to a local bowling alley, where they could bring the kids. He noticed that when he was bowling, he wasn’t thinking about whatever was going on behind him. His mind could focus on the ball, the lane, the pins—and the rest of the world would disappear. He had never been captivated by anything like that.
While still courting Fong’s mother, his stepdad promised that if the boy ever got a score higher than 120 he’d buy him his own ball. “He never did,” Fong says. “I bought it myself.”
After his mother remarried and moved away, he still had his siblings, his quiet, hard-working father, and his bowling. He joined the high school team. He went to the public library and checked out stacks of books about bowling theory. After a stint in college, he found himself smoking a lot of pot and staying out all night bowling, trying to hustle people out of small bets. He’d leave the alley after the sun came up, go out to breakfast, sleep until 6 pm, and then repeat the process.
At 22, he got married and his wife encouraged him to “grow up.” He realized he wasn’t ever going to become a professional bowler like the men he watched on TV every week, and he took a job cutting hair.
“It was just something I could always do for money,” he says. “I like the artistic side, but it’s not my passion.”
Soon he gave up bowling and took up golf. It was a lot like bowling—timing, balance, accuracy—and he’d heard that with 10 years of practice, anyone could become a top-level golfer. He read books about golf, took a job at a pro shop, and learned to cut his own clubs. For 10 years, through career changes, through his divorce, through his move to Dallas (several family members had moved to Texas for various reasons and he’d always enjoyed visiting), Fong played golf. His younger sister was by then a standout on the Baylor University golf team. But after all those years of playing nearly every day, he still wasn’t a scratch golfer. He couldn’t take the frustration, and he swore off the game for good.
He remembered how much he’d enjoyed bowling. He didn’t miss the up-all-night-gambling lifestyle, but the game itself, shutting out the world and making himself robotic—those things he missed. He joined a few leagues and bowled in tournaments all over North Texas, but no alley felt to him quite like the Super Bowl in Plano. There’s something about the friendly faces, the way a great strike sounded there. It felt right.
After 14 years, he knows all 48 lanes. He equates it to the way Tiger Woods knows the holes on his home golf course. Fong has rolled on each of these lanes dozens of times over the years, and he keeps detailed records.
“No two lanes are the same,” he says.
He documents which lanes hook better and which seem to suck the ball into the gutter. He notes any tiny divot and nearly imperceptible slope, any imperfection he can find. Lane five, for example, has a higher strike percentage when people throw straighter. On lane 16, the oil tends to swirl closer to the pins.
In the years she’s known Fong, Gibson has had very few conversations with him that didn’t involve ball movement and oil patterns, though she admits most of the technical bowling talk flies right over her head. But she smiles, not wanting to offend anyone. “This really is Bill’s life,” she says.
“Looking back,” Fong says, “I guess bowling just always filled whatever emptiness I had.”
That night, people were still coming over to congratulate Bill Fong on the 300, when he did something unimaginable: for his second game, he switched bowling balls.
He remembered, two weeks earlier, practicing on lanes 27 and 28. He remembered that after a few games, the oil pattern on the right lane shifted. So to start game two on the right lane, he switched to his more polished ball, the one that hooks less and rolls straighter.
Someone on another lane saw him making the change. “Is Bill Fong switching balls?” the man called out to his friends incredulously.
Fong heard him and turned around.
“Yep,” he said.
The man called back to him: “You’re crazy!”
Fong grinned and turned back toward the lane.