Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia on July 20, 1975 · Page 121
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July 20, 1975

Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia · Page 121

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Charleston, West Virginia
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Sunday, July 20, 1975
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Page 121
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BROOKLYN. N.Y. [ te one recent Saturday afternoon, a gum-chewing,_,freckle-faced 15- year-old girl strode into a Brooklyn poolroom tailed the Ovington Cue Lounge. "Oh, my God!" exclaimed a patron, looking up from his own game. "Here she comes again!" Calmly, the girl stepped up to an empty table, unzipped a thin leather case, and brought forth and assembled a delicate custom-made cue stick. Then she racked the 15 balls and, with several dozen male eyes upon her, shot them in quick succession into comer and side pockets. Behind a counter, proprietor Albert Balukas kept shaking his head, almost in cadence with the vanishing balls. He's never quite been able to believe it, ever since his daughter first trounced him at the age of 4. Today, blue-eyed, red-haired Jean Balukas spots her father 75 balls in a game to 100--and still wins handily. She gives her four older brothers a handicap of 50--j us t to even things up. Most of the regulars in the Ovington Cue won't take her on at any odds. The reason is simple. Jean is the best female pool player in the world. Beginning Aug. 4 in Chicago, she will be seeking her fourth straight women's U.S. Open Championship of the Billiard Congress of America, a title she won, a month after turning 13, from a 57-year-old grandmother who hadn't -lost in five years. Jeans and pizza Jean is a tall (5-foot-8), quietly self- assured young lady with a winning smile and a teen-ager's fondness for jeans and pizza joints. Around a green felt table, though, she becomes utter concentration. The family living room in Brooklyn's Bay Ridge section is filled with the history of its prodigy. An entire wall is given over to framed photographs of Jean demonstrating her skills on TV to the likes of Steve Allen, Sammy Davis Jr., Mike Douglas and Garry Moore. About 10 feet from this wall, a doorway leads down a narrow flight of steps. It was in this basement that the Balukas men first met their comeuppance. / "I got a table for my two oldest boys because they were always hanging out in the poolroom and I didn't like that," says Jean's father, a lanky, dark-haired man who bought into his pool lounge as a business venture around the time she was bom. "I thought Jean was just throwing the balls around downstairs, like little kids do. But I guess she'd been g watching my games with the boys | pretty carefully." At 6, Jean was amazing television au= diences with her prowess. At 9, still i barely able to see over the table and using her cue for a walking stick, she by Dick Russell US. women's pool champion lean Balukas, a freckly 15-year-old, prepares for her title defense next month while her father, Albert, looks'on proudly. entered her first U.S. Open and defeated the Michigan women's champion and another opponent before being eliminated. At 13, she was demonstrating trick shots in Tokyo and being hailed after her U.S. championship victory as possibly the greatest lady ever to wield a cue. For a reward her father built her a treehouse in the backyard. 57 in a row Her game is "straight pool," the idea being to sink all but one of the 15 numbered balls on the table, leaving it and the cue ball in position for the next rack. Positioning is vital, since the player must then sink the final ball and at the same time break out the new rack. In tournament play, Jean has a high run of 39 straight balls. At home, on a $5 dare from her father that she couldn't do 50, she once ran 57. "Jean is completely an offensive player," says Steve Mizerak, a New Jersey schoolteacher and four-time U.S. men's champion. "What makes her beat everybody is not that she necessarily plays better position, she just misses less." Under pressure, Jean almost never misses. In the US. Open finals two years ago, her veteran opponent led 72-49 and needed only three points to win when Jean ran 26 in a row. Last summer, being embarrassed 5414 by Japan's Mieko Harada, she staged an incredible rally but found herself needing 12 and Harada only one to win. Jean cleared the remaining seven balls on the table, but barely dislodged the next rack. Instead of playing a safety, she went for a next-to-impossible combination, sank it, and went on to gain the championship by a single point. "Boy, was I shivering!" she recalls. ; "People say I don't show it, but my heart is always thumping and I'm just nervous as anything. But I guess I keep my emotions inside. Most people call me 'that shy little girl from Brooklyn,' but really I'm not Especially when I'm with my friends, I'm a lot different" At Fort Hamilton High School, where Jean's grades are average, most teachers don't even know about her talent for pool, she says. What most of Fort Hamilton's 4000 students do know about are Jean's skills in team sports. As a bowler, she has a high game of 258. Last summer, the best women's amateur softball team in New York hoped she'd play for them, but she couldn't keep the five-night-a-week practice schedule. In basketball, her play under the backboards has helped the Fort Hamilton girls to third-place city finishes for the last two years. Now if s tennis. These days, when her high school softball team isn't playing, she gets in a couple hours of tennis a day. Already Jean can beat all her brothers. "I like active sports, moving around," she says. "With pool, you just walk around the table. I love to do everything, but there's just not enough time." If Jean concentrated on pool, would she ever be a test for Willie Mosconi or Minnesota Fats? Steve Mizerak, for one, doesn't think so. "She's the best female player I've ever seen," Mizerak says. "But I don't think Jean could ever really compete with the top men. Women just don't have something that men do. You can't pinpoint it." · Jean agrees. "There's no comparison in pool between the men and the women," she admits. More competition Women's competition, though, has been steadily improving over the past few years. Where Jean used to "just fool around" getting ready for a tournament, she now devotes most of a month to practicing for the U.S: Open in her basement and at her father's lounge. Jean's winnings add up. Last year's U.S. Open prize was $3000, and a TV endorsement has earned her another $6000. She enters about one weekend tournament a month and has put away almost $10,000 in a savings account toward a dream of someday "owning a poolroom and bowling alley." As for the immediate future, Jean says: "I'd like to go on to college and do something in sports, maybe become a physical education teacher. If the money becomes a little better, I may stay in pool. The biggest money is in exhibitions, but I guess I don'* really like doing them. I'm not a comedian." Talking to the calm, self-assured Jean, ifs sometimes hard to remember just how young she is. But her age comes across when you see her sitting on the edge of the family'couch in jeans and sweatshirt, munching on an apple. 'Like a 20-year-old' "This is me right here," she says, grinning. "Even in a tournament, I don't really like to get dressed up. Last time in Chicago, they tried to take me shopping and said I could get all the nice things I wanted. They expected me to dress like a 20-year-old woman." The postman arrives with.a couple of letters for Jean--part of the steady flow of fan mail she receives. One is from a guy who wants her photograph. "The other wants me to have a game with him," says Jean Balukas. "He's sure he can beat me." 10

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