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. He stepped forward and unleashed a solid, thorough strike—his 13th of the night. Then he stood there, arms wide, shaking his head. His gutsy move had paid off.
Dunn remembers the feeling in the air. “Because he started out by switching balls, and that was so incredible, the second game was definitely more emotional,” he says.
Throughout the second game, Fong continued using his more aggressive ball on the left lane, and the more polished, less aggressive ball on the right lane. And the strikes kept coming.
It seemed like even members of the other team were smiling when Fong was up to roll. Fong himself was laughing and smiling, pointing and calling out to friends at other lanes. He remembers shrugging a lot. “I felt loose as a goose,” he says.
As he sent strike after strike down the lanes, he began to feel magical. Literally, the way he was commanding the balls to turn and burrow into the unsuspecting pins, it felt a little like he was moving heavy objects with only the power of his mind. In the fourth frame, both the seven and the 10 pins stayed up just a bit longer than he wanted. As he gestured with both arms, they fell. Something similar happened in the eighth frame.
“It was like Moses parting the sea,” he says. “I’d move my hands and everything would get out of the way.”
Soon the other bowlers began stepping back when he was up, taking extra precaution not to get in his way. “Nobody wants to mess up a streak like that,” Dunn says.
By the 10th frame, Fong found that most people around him wouldn’t make eye contact for fear they would be the last thing he would see before rolling a dud. On the first roll of the last frame, he had what he calls a “happy accident.” For the first time that night, one of his powerful throws missed its mark ever so slightly. But because the oil was now evaporating on the left lane, too, the ball found the pocket for a perfect strike. Noticing what happened on the first roll, he adjusted his position and finished the game with two more powerful strikes, Nos. 23 and 24 of the night.
Once again, Fong got to hear his name called from the speakers. And again he took a moment to shake hands with the line of people waiting to congratulate him. A few were embarrassed that they hadn’t come over after the first 300. People were delightfully confused, shaking their heads as they patted Fong on the back.
“Never seen anything like it,” they said. “Back-to-back 300s.”
And Fong shook his own head. “Me neither,” he said.
There’s almost never a time when every decision you make is correct and every step is in the right direction. Life, like bowling, is full of complicating factors, unpredictable variables, plenty of times when there is no right answer. But Bill Fong had some experience with near-perfection prior to the night. He’d had another amazing run two years before that. He’d bowled a 297, then a 300. Someone mentioned to him that with another great game he could beat the Texas state series record, which was 890. Fong can admit it now: he choked in that third game. He could feel himself thinking too much, slipping out of the zone. Soon he was out of rhythm and his balance was off. That night he shot a 169 in the last game; he didn’t even break 800 for the series. It was exactly what he was trying to avoid after his two straight 300s.
So this time, before game three, he approached a friend who was bowling a few lanes down. Fong mentioned that he was thinking about switching balls again, using the less aggressive ball on both lanes in the final game. His friend, who had plenty of 300s under his own belt, was surprised but gave him simple advice: “Trust your instinct.”
When that first roll of the third game produced another strike—another risky decision rewarded—Fong felt like he was floating. He wasn’t drinking, but he felt a little drunk. Both his teammates and his opponents bowled as fast as they could to get out of his way. By the time he struck in the fifth frame, he realized he would almost certainly break the coveted 800 mark. He was relieved.
By the sixth frame, a large crowd had formed behind Fong. Dozens of people had stopped bowling to watch. Texts were sent and statuses posted to Facebook, and the audience grew.
“We were more nervous than he was at the time,” Gibson says. “It was almost like he was putting on a show up there.”
Each time he approached the lane, the entire bowling alley went silent. Every time he let fly another roll, there were audible moans from strangers and shouts from the crowd: “That’s it, baby!” Each time he struck, the room erupted with applause. In all his life, Bill Fong had never heard anyone cheering him like that.
He had 33 straight strikes entering the 10th frame of the third game. Out came the cell phone cameras. There were whispers, but as soon as Fong picked up his ball, it was dead quiet. He turned to look at the crowd behind him, now well over 100 people, densely packed from the end of the snack bar to the vending machines 80 feet away.
That’s when the magic left him. Fong began to feel nervous, like the world was watching him pee. He felt the buzz—whatever it had been—leave his body. As he stood in front of lane 28, he felt numb. He tried to push through it.
He lined up and threw a ball without much hook on it. As soon as it left his hand, Fong began waving at it, trying to will the ball left. It connected with the pocket but without the usual force. As the other pins dropped, the nine pin stayed up for what seemed like ages. But just as the gasp of the crowd reached a crescendo, one of the pins rolling meekly across the lane bumped the nine just enough to tip it. The room exploded with cheers and whistles. The sound was enough to shake one of the cameras now capturing the moment.
Fong looked dizzy as he walked back to the ball exchange. For the first time that night, he began sweating profusely. But he realized the mistake he’d made on his last throw, and the second roll was much cleaner. Again there were shouts from the audience as the ball blazed down the lane, zipping back in time to smash the pins apart in a powerful, driving strike. And there was even more cheering as all 10 pins fell. Thirty-five strikes down, one to go.
Before his final roll, Fong wiped his ball with his towel. He heard a woman’s voice behind him, a stranger, saying, “We are having fun, aren’t we?” He lifted the ball to his chest and stood calmly for a moment. Then he took five steps and released the ball toward perfection.
It looked good from his hand, arcing out the way so many of his great strikes that night had, cutting back to the pocket just in time. Several people started applauding before the ball even reached the end of the lane—that’s how good it looked. But this time, as the pins scrambled, something unimaginable happened. The 10 pin, farthest to the right, wobbled. But it didn’t fall.
Some of the people in the room couldn’t process what they’d just witnessed. How could the last roll, like the 35 before it, not be a strike?
Strangers fell to their knees. It was hard for anyone to breathe.
Fong turned and walked to his right. He was empty. Blank.
His friends, the ones who were prepared seconds ago to tackle him in celebration, grabbed him and held him still. As he stood there, Fong wanted to say something—anything—but he couldn’t make a sound.
• • •