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.
Sitting around the table two years after that night, Bill Fong and his teammates still argue. Fong truly believes that the last pin could have made his life perfect. “It would have made all the difference,” he says. With a 900, he theorizes, he might have made SportsCenter, and he would surely have sponsors. He thinks he might have had a chance to join the pro tour. At least, he figures, he’d be the best of all time at something, with the name Bill Fong immortalized above even the legends of the game—and he wouldn’t be just a regular guy.
“That pin makes me like the Rodney Dangerfield of bowling,” he says. “I get no respect.”
He goes over that last roll in his mind all the time. He watches the shaky cell phone video.
“It looked so good as it left my hand,” he says.
When that 15-pound sphere collides with the pins, so many things happen so fast that there’s no way of knowing exactly what went wrong in those milliseconds.
That hasn’t stopped Fong from searching for some reason. He wonders if he could have practiced more. He blames the 10 years he was away from bowling. Like that single pin represents the Bowling Fates punishing him for his insolence.
His teammates disagree. They don’t think that pin would have made much of a difference in Bill Fong’s life at all. What he did was amazing, something that will come up in conversation around the Plano Super Bowl for years.
“It was mind-boggling,” Gibson says.
The fact that he missed perfection by the last pin on the last roll—that makes the whole thing more human, less robotic. And that, somehow, makes it seem almost beautiful. Besides, they argue, Fong still holds the Texas state record. And because there have been only 21 perfect 900s, he is technically tied for the 22nd greatest night in the annals of bowling history. (There have been only 11 899s.)
His life is also better now. Around the time of the 899, Fong got a part-time job at the pro shop at the Super Bowl. Recently, he opened his own place down the road, Bowling Medic Pro Shop. A lot of people from his four leagues come by to have him drill their balls. Sometimes he cuts their hair, too.
There’s also this: that night, after the 899, his friends bought him a few beers. He doesn’t usually drink, but at the time, he felt like the best day of his life had just turned into the worst. After a beer or two—and at least an hour of excited congratulations from strangers—he felt
dizzy. When he got home, he went into the bathroom and vomited in the toilet. The walls were spinning.
It turns out Bill Fong was having a stroke. With the stress, the tension of the night, his already high blood pressure had surpassed dangerous levels. Not long after, he had another stroke. When the doctor saw the scar tissue and heard about the night of dizziness, he explained to Fong that he had suffered what could very easily have been a fatal stroke. That night at the bowling alley, had things gone differently, he could have died.
It also means that with the sweating and dizziness he was feeling in the third game, it’s likely that Fong bowled the last few frames through the beginning of that stroke—which makes the accomplishment that much more amazing.
When he had his heart surgery, he was in the hospital for a week. Not many family members visited him. Nobody came from his haircutting days. But he didn’t lack for visitors. Plenty of people from the bowling alley took the time to see him, not just teammates but also some longtime opponents. They asked him how he felt and encouraged him to get well quickly. And, one by one, they each mentioned that incredible night in January, when Bill Fong fell just one pin short of perfect.
Rehab was hard at first. The strokes took a lot of his strength. But within a few months—earlier than doctors recommend—Fong was back to his usual form, back to rolling five days a week. More recently, he’s been sharper than ever. Since that night, Fong has rolled 10 more 300s and four series of at least 800.
As they’re talking about that night, one of his teammates poses the question: wouldn’t Fong rather be alive with an 899 than dead with a 900? It’s really a rhetorical question, but Fong takes a moment to consider it seriously. It takes him awhile, but eventually Fong says he’d rather be alive.
“Well,” says Race, the Mister Rogers of the group, “we’re sure happy to have you still here and bowling with us.”
Tonight, Fong struggles through the first few games. But in the final game of the night, he starts with three straight strikes. Then a fourth. Then a fifth. In the sixth frame, he throws it well but leaves the 10 pin standing, taunting him.
After picking up the spare, Fong comes back to the table, shaking his head and looking at his teammates.
“I’ve got to make adjustments,” he says, and he begins making notes.
WRITE TO MICHAEL.MOONEY@DMAGAZINE.COM.