By JORDAN IKEDA
Rafu Sports Editor
Billiards, more commonly called pool, has remained a sort of outcast activity, more game than sport, moving around the edges of cultural acceptance and never quite finding a broad pocket to call home. Thanks to movies like “The Hustler” and “The Color of Money,” pool has become synonymous with gambling and the shady dealings that go down in smoked-filled bars where people drink and play cards. Yes, it emotes the essence of “cool,” but it has yet to tap into the mainstream sports world.
Even cards, thanks to ESPN’s coverage of the World Series of Poker, has emerged as a viable “sport,” while billiards, an activity that includes balls and sticks and, you know, activity, remains in the shadows.
One player, Melissa Herndon, has been working to change these misconceptions and shed light on the sport she loves by using billiards not only as an outlet for her competitive juices, but as a means for outreach and giving back.
Herndon, who is half Japanese, has been playing pool since she was 18 when she accompanied her father to the local poolroom.
“Basically,” she explained to the Rafu Shimpo with a laugh, “there was a really cute guy so I kept going back to look at him.”
In addition to the eye candy, she also began to pick up the nuances of billiards and was told she had a natural talent for it. A few years later, Herndon met a really good player, started dating him and transformed her
game. She won her first amateur qualifier in 1999 and played in her first pro event, the Los Angeles Classic, a year later. Her career accomplishments include winning the 2002 BCA Open and twice representing the United States at the World Championships in Austria and Taiwan.
“Pool in Europe and Asia is different then here in the States,” Herndon said. “A lot of European countries pay to train their athletes. They have coaches. In Asia you are a superstar—mostly in Taiwan and Korea and a little bit in Japan. In Taiwan, they even know the American players because the WPBA gives their broadcast to international stations to play. We had people run up to us and ask for our autographs. In the U.S., nobody knows who I am.”
To be fair, pool hall junkies and watchers of ESPN2 most likely know Herndon, as do hundreds of under-21-year-old troops down at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.
Despite bearing the nickname “the Dragon Lady,” her present actions are far removed from the impetuous and easily frustrated player that birthed the stereotypical moniker during her younger playing days.
For the past three years, Herndon and Jeanette Lee (the “Black Widow,” who according to a recent Sports Illustrated article, is the most recognizable pool player in the world) along with several of the other top WPBA players have been going down to the base at Miramar to hang out and play pool with the troops.
“We shoot pool, take photos,” Herndon said. “Some of the girls put on trick shot exhibitions. We just keep going back. It’s really a lot of fun and they’re really appreciative.”
The now annual visits to the base were a direct result of the San Diego Classic held at the Viejas Casino in Alpine, CA. Since being elected three years ago, WPBA President John Rousseau began purchasing tickets for the troops—a nice gesture for sure, but one not completely thought out since over half of the troops stationed at Miramar are under 21, thus not allowed into the casino.
When Lee and the other players heard that the troops wanted to meet them, they went down to the base. They’ve been going back ever since. Herndon, in particular, has a longstanding passion for military men. After all, her grandfather, who was a naval officer situated in Japan, found her abandoned Japanese mother outside of a U.S. Naval bar, adopted her and brought her back to the States. Herndon even had a military pen pal who was an avid pool player who shipped out to Iraq a few years ago.
“My grandfather was in the Navy, my uncle too,” Herndon said. “I find what they do so unbelievably brave and heroic so anything I can do to help, I do.”
This week, beginning Thursday at the Viejas Casino, the San Diego Classic, for the 14th year, will feature 64 of the world’s top pool players competing in head-to-head matchups. Women from Norway, Taiwan, South Korea and the Philippines will join Herndon, Lee and several other American stars to see who can last until the semis and finals, both of which will be broadcast on ESPN.
“It’s one of my favorite tournaments,” said Herndon. “Being from Southern California, the fans are really behind me. When I’m here, I get a lot of love and support and cheering. It’s one of my absolutely favorite events.”
Perception is all in the mind and can be changed through a variety of means. Herndon has gone from the Dragon Lady to a top-50 pool player and a woman who is very conscious of the positive impact she and the sport she loves can have on others.
“There’s just something about [pool],” she said. “It’s zen for me. It’s me versus the table. It’s like a logic problem to figure out. There are times when it is very simple and then there are times when you really have to play strategically. Offense. Defense. It’s hard to explain, but I feel very calm on the table—nowadays anyway…”
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For those interested in attending the San Diego Classic, ticket information can be found at www.viejas.com. For more information on the WPBA visit to Miramar, contact Jeannie Oshima at [email protected]