Twelve years ago, Michael J. Mooney set out to write a story about someone who almost made history. His subject was Bill Fong, a 48-year-old hobbyist bowler who came within a single pin (spoiler!) of rolling 36 consecutive strikes one night at the Plano Super Bowl. As Mooney wrote, a 300 isn’t anything spectacular. “If you count all the bowling alleys all over America, somebody somewhere bowls a 300 every night.” Now, a perfect series, three 300s in a row, that’s the thing that gets you on SportsCenter. Or, in the case of an 899, a 200-or-so-word blurb in the Dallas Morning News and one of the very best sports magazine stories ever written.
“An 899 is even more rare than a 900,” Mooney says today.
After hunting down that News story, Mooney, then a D staff writer, started calling Fong at home. No answer. Eventually, he called the bowling alley and asked whether he was there. He got Fong on the phone, introduced himself, and said he wanted to write a story about that night in 2010. “He thought that I was playing a prank on him,” Mooney told me. “He thought that his friends had arranged me to call him and that I was playing some sort of elaborate trick on him.”
“The Most Amazing Bowling Story Ever” was published two years after Fong came so close to perfection. Mooney wrote about that night like he was there: how the 10 pin wobbled before collapsing on his fifth roll, how Fong stood and watched the nine pin sputter on the 12th, how he switched balls on his second set and was called “crazy” by a man a few lanes down. Fong kept copious, detailed notes, equating the Plano Super Bowl to Tiger Woods’ home golf course. A video posted to YouTube helped color in the scenes.
This is Mooney’s favorite story he’s ever written.
“The thing I like most about stories is structure and the puzzle, seeing how the puzzle fits together,” he said. “I don’t know that I’ve had another story that was a more satisfying puzzle. Imperfection is something that we all relate to a lot better than perfection.”
Fong never got his 900. The two still text, especially on January 10, the night’s anniversary. The New York Times put together a short documentary about the evening. Mooney annotated the story for the Nieman Journalism Lab, and it was featured in a collection of that year’s best sports stories. Fong opened up his own business nearby; the Bowling Medic Pro Shop is still drilling bowling balls today. And he still rolls at the Plano Super Bowl.
“He will probably be there, if he’s not there right now,” Mooney said. “He will probably be there within the next 24 hours or has been there in the last 24 hours.”
“The Most Amazing Bowling Story Ever” is one of the 50 best we’ve ever published, and we’re highlighting it in this week’s entry.