Pete Weber was two when he teetered to the foul line and first set a bowling ball in motion — or at least that’s what everyone’s always told him. It was the early ’60s, and that first ball was rubber, the lane it rolled on and the pins it probably didn’t hit, oiled and reset, respectively, by hand. The alley, Dick Weber Lanes, was co-owned by and named for his father, the most famous and arguably the most talented pro bowler on Earth. The sport was one of the most popular in North America, the only thing worth watching on Saturday afternoon television.
The youngest of four children raised in Florissant, Mo., Weber learned the five-step approach as a four-year-old, and was turned loose on the lanes, throwing a six-pound ball that’d rolled down to him off the fingertips of his older brothers, Rich and John. He loved baseball, too, but he was a natural at his father’s game. He scored his first 200 at eight, his first perfect game at 12. At 13, he was practising two or three hours a day, seven days a week. He started bowling in men’s leagues the following year and threw a 300 in his first match. He made $100 that night and decided he was going to be a pro bowler. He hated school and was too small and smoked too many cigarettes to make any money playing baseball. It was hardly a choice at all.
Thunderbowl Lanes bills itself as the largest bowling centre in America, a stuccoed behemoth slowly going to seed on a few acres of parking lot 20 minutes southwest of downtown Detroit in Allen Park, Mich. (Possible town motto: “Home of the World’s Largest Statue of a Tire.”) It’s late January, the evidence of a recent snowstorm ankle-deep and mud-streaked at the edges of the road, and Thunderbowl is playing host to the Professional Bowlers Association’s Winter Swing — four tournaments and a pro-am packed into a single gruelling week of 10-pin.
Inside, 135 of the world’s best bowlers, arranged in groups of five, are spread over the 54 lanes that make up Thunderbowl’s “Main Area.” Picture your local bowling alley, and the place pretty much fits the bill: A strip of low-pile black carpet dotted with cartoon planets and shooting stars runs the length of the space — likely black-light sensitive, though you can’t tell under the fluorescents. There’s a dark bar with Pabst on special that opens onto the lanes, and the snack counter offers something called a “taco sub” for six bucks.
Past the edge of the carpet, the blond wood of the lanes shines, slick and inviting as an undisturbed lake. A handful of squat metal bleachers, spaced at intervals with a view of the action, are the lone nod to spectator experience. It’s just before 10 a.m., and already the soft, wooden crash of falling pins, satisfying as a rock through a plate glass window, is all but constant.
Weber, on lanes 55 and 56, is on his second of eight qualifying matches. He and his fellow bowlers began at 9 a.m. and will bowl straight through until 3 p.m. He’s a small man, five-foot-seven with a slim build, but in the 48 years [Editor’s Note: now 52] since he first set that rubber ball in motion, he’s established himself as a giant in the sport. A PBA Hall of Famer since 1998, as of this morning, he sits second all-time in career earnings and holds 36 PBA titles, including nine majors. (Two months later, he won the Tournament of Champions in Indianapolis, bringing those totals to 37 and 10, tied for fourth and first all-time, respectively. His $4 million in career earnings is second.)
He stands at the back edge of the approach, his attention focused on the 60 feet of lane in front of him. His right hand, in a skin-tight, thumbless black glove, hovers above an air vent at the back of the ball return like a bird in an updraft before finding its way to the 15-pound ball cradled against the left side of his chest. His talent, lineage and the pro wrestling–tinged persona that comes out on TV have long made him the biggest draw on the tour, and even in qualifying he attracts a small crowd. His TV trademarks — dark sunglasses, liberal use of swears and a D-Generation X–inspired crotch chop — are a big part of the appeal, but there’s a harder-to-define excitement to watching him. Weber is the undisputed face of bowling — which makes him the king of a vastly diminished empire.
Bowling was once a big, booming, mainstream sport with a network TV deal and legions of fans. That’s no longer the case. But it still has a devoted following, a star system and dreams of returning to the big time, and in that world, no figure looms larger than Weber. Easygoing and affable, with a buzzing Missouri drawl and a thin-lipped smile, he’s also short-tempered and more than a little intimidating. The combined effect can be hard to pin down, but in one respect he’s entirely transparent: Weber is a creature of pure competitive drive. He is the one bowler who can coax the remote out of your hand and demand your attention, and in the PBA’s ongoing fight for relevancy, his ability to be captivating and polarizing, and to entertain, has been vital.
To diehards, Weber is also distinguished by technique, though apart from the few PBA pros who throw two-handed from the hip, the variations in approach and delivery on the tour are fairly subtle. Weber’s signatures are his backswing and release. The backswing — a fluid arc that flashes the ball high into the air behind his head — was considered a minor act of rebellion when he first appeared on the tour in 1979, its height dismissed as unsustainable. Coming up on 34 years later, it’s stood the test of time and inspired a wealth of imitators, but the release is still something truly unique. “I’m telling you, it’s fun to watch Pete Weber when he’s got everything going,” says Norm Duke, who’s third on the PBA’s career titles list. “You don’t only get the physical ability and the nucleus of sound fundamentals, you have a delicacy at the end, like a dessert at the end of a good meal. You get cheesecake with him.”
Dessert is served millimetres from the left gutter. Weber’s release is effortless, the ball placed as much as thrown — as though he’s whispered instructions and simply set it free. Spinning against its own momentum, the ball tracks smoothly left-to-right across the lane. It finds grip three-quarters of the way to the pins and pulls back toward centre, catching the headpin and driving it backwards into the deck. The splintering sound is as sweet as always, the result less so: The shot leaves four standing.
Weber turns and walks to the scorer’s table without comment. He grabs the monitor on top of the table with both hands and attempts to rip it from its anchors. It holds. He leaves a pin standing to start the next frame, and nods to himself as if to confirm it’s going to be that kind of day before picking up the spare. He switches balls, throws a seven and lets out his first audible “f–k!” of the morning. The 256 he rolled in his first game provides little consolation. With a few frames left, he turns from another errant shot and screams, “160?! I’m going to shoot a f–king 160?” He finishes with a 168. Only four and a half more hours before he can take a break.
Professional bowling’s slide from every living room in America to the outskirts of Detroit was a gradual one. When his mother, Juanita, called out to a young Weber to tell him his dad was on TV, he sat down to watch some of the most respected athletes in North America. In 1965, Billy Hardwick’s win at the Tournament of Champions earned him $25,000 — $5,000 more than Jack Nicklaus made winning the Masters that year. The year before, Don Carter had inked the first million-dollar endorsement deal in sports history, with equipment manufacturer Ebonite International. “Pete got to watch his dad and all the things his father was enjoying,” says Duke, “and I think it not only intrigued him, but also was a catalyst for his dreams and his commitment.”
Roughly eight million Americans bowled in leagues in 1978, when a 16-year-old Weber decided he’d had his fill of school and dropped out (he earned his G.E.D. six months later and was bowling professionally the next year). But by 1980, when Weber was crowned the PBA’s Rookie of the Year, participation had started to decline. “The fact is people just couldn’t bowl as regularly as a league demands anymore, because of lifestyle — social changes,” says PBA commissioner Tom Clark. “It used to be that the majority of money came into bowling centres from leagues. The bowling centres had to adapt.”
So the game changed from a competitive sport into a recreational activity — something that glowed in the dark and was best suited to group dates and children’s birthday parties. Anyone could do it, the equipment was provided and you didn’t even really have to know the rules, a computer kept your score. It was no longer important who won or lost, so why would anyone care who was the best in the world?
Even during the sport’s heyday, bowlers hadn’t exactly lived in the lap of luxury, but as the popularity of the sport waned, the strain of being out on tour — away from home and covering their own expenses — made it harder and harder for bowlers just to break even. “I don’t think that 10 guys last year made a living,” Duke estimates. Mike Fagan, a five-time tournament winner, puts the number closer to 20, but acknowledges that “it’s no secret the PBA is struggling.”
Weber can count himself among the lucky ones, but that doesn’t mean he’s immune to the financial realities of the modern PBA. With shrinking purses and fewer tournaments on the schedule, Tracy, Weber’s wife of 21 years, went back to work in 2011 for a building components company. She’s happy at the job, but it keeps her from being able to go out on the road with him on a regular basis. “I hate her not being out here every week,” Weber says. “But that’s something I have to live with because of the financial deal.”
His eighth and final qualifying match of the day has just ended, and after a cigarette break, he’s found a chair at the edge of the lanes. He’s still in his work clothes: a black and orange jersey — short-sleeved, collared and thick with sponsor logos — over a white long-sleeve shirt and black slacks. His play picked up after the 168, but he failed to qualify for the 16-man match-play round, finishing 20th and earning just $1,350 (top prize was $25,000). It was a frustrating day, but at least Tracy had made the trip. “She keeps me intact,” Weber says. “She’s a big asset. We grew up together bowling and she knows how to talk to me in bowling terms. Other wives sit around and” — he mimes nervous tension, wringing his hands — “and then they say something and the guy’ll go, ‘Shut the f–k up.’ But her, even though sometimes she’ll say something and I might not acknowledge her right then, I always hear it.”
At a table in the Thunderbowl bar the next morning, Tracy — a warm, open and funny woman with thick blond hair, a big smile and little patience for bullshit — tries to downplay her own importance: “I don’t do anything for him other than I’m a little piece of home,” she says. There’s no doubt Weber finds her presence reassuring, but she also pulls extra duty as a coach, manager, psychologist and PR rep. The two talk between every frame, “about the grandkids [they have five], her friend at work, anything to keep my mind off what I need to do until I get on the approach.”
In conversation with Tracy and waiting for his next shot, Weber looks genuinely content. Without her, he tries not to stay out on the road for more than a few weeks at a time. “A certain boredom sets in and he’s got to come home and regroup mentally,” Tracy says. “You can get in trouble out here when you have a lot of downtime. Hanging out in bars and just not making good decisions.”
Though he hasn’t had a drink since 2012 and refuses to discuss it now, Weber’s found his fair share of trouble, struggling with alcohol and drugs for long stretches of his career. “From the first line of coke I ever did, I was hooked,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1985, a few months removed from his first trip to rehab. “I’ve done weeks when I’ve gone through an ounce or two, eating nothing but fast food. Plus I was drinking — a fifth of Jack Daniel’s a night, easy.” The partying bled onto the lanes as well, with Weber competing drunk and occasionally snorting blow in the men’s room between games. “You knew he had these ups and downs off the lanes, and there was always this notion that he was squandering an incredible talent,” says Clark. “You just thought, ‘Wow, what if he didn’t do that?’”
Two failed marriages also took their toll, but when Weber’s play finally fell off in 1995, the cause wasn’t hard drinking or drugs, it was a change in equipment. Two years earlier, reactive resin bowling balls had hit the tour and rapidly phased out their urethane predecessors — taking a crucial part of Weber’s game with them. “His advantage was the ability to make those previous incarnations of bowling ball hook to create power,” explains Clark. “Then, all of a sudden, the ball kind of did it on its own.”
Worse still, ahead of the ’95 season, the PBA changed the way lanes were oiled for competition. “They had to try to find a way to tame the bowling ball, and unfortunately it tamed me,” Weber says. “I struggled all year long not asking for help or anything, and I wound up making $4,500 in, like, 20 tournaments.” At 33 and with 16 years of experience in the PBA, Weber had to completely relearn how to throw a bowling ball — it was that or quit the tour.
Weber turned to his oldest brother, Rich, for advice. Rich had spent a few years in the PBA in his younger days, before the pressure of life on tour — especially as Dick Weber’s son — got to him, but, says Pete, “he’s a better teacher than he ever was a bowler.” The brothers set to work seven days a week, a few hours a day, trying to correct for the sidespin generated by Pete’s natural delivery. “I had to learn,” says Weber, “because I really didn’t want to go to college.” The lessons paid off. In 1996, Weber did just fine, making four televised finals.
At the end of that season, Weber got a call from a man who claimed — in classic “I hear you’re having a problem with such-and-such, I may be able to help” fashion — to have a “wrist device” that would improve Weber’s ability to roll the ball end-over-end. They met, Weber tried the device and he noticed an immediate improvement. In 1997, he had one of his best years in the PBA, winning two titles and taking home $181,184 in tournament earnings. “I got my attitude back, I had fire in my eye, I was ready to go and I owe it all to a simple wrist device,” he says.
Weber’s remarkable comeback would’ve been even sweeter had it been mirrored by the tour as a whole. It wasn’t. Faced with an aging audience and steadily declining ratings, ABC chose not to renew its contract with the PBA at the end of the 1997 season — ending pro bowling’s run on the network after 36 years (though it still had a home on cable). The loss of such a major source of revenue, coupled with dwindling sponsorship, nearly bled the PBA dry, but it was saved from bankruptcy in March 2000, when three former Microsoft executives bought it.
In those early days, the new owners seemed more than happy to crash a Brinks truck into any and all of the PBA’s problems, but they also understood that the sport needed real stars and entertaining personalities to have a hope of attracting a decent audience. They needed a bowler people actually wanted to watch. And in Weber, they had one — just as soon as he finished serving a 10-month suspension handed down by the old guard for verbally abusing an amateur bowler at a Michigan Pro-Am.
Weber returned to find the PBA in the preliminary stages of a tactical makeover. When Steve Miller, formerly Nike’s director of global sports marketing, took over as president and CEO in 2000, he began gathering the bowlers before every telecast to remind them that the desperate need to attract and keep an audience meant they had to put on more of a show. “Not only did Pete give it to us, [he] appreciated the situation he was in and he did it without any complaining or moaning and groaning,” says Miller. “Pete got it, Pete was a showman, Pete had a lot of courage, he had a lot of conviction and Pete had some balls.” Weber also had plenty of opportunities to put all that on display over the next decade, competing in 30 televised finals between 2001 and 2010, but never quite so spectacularly as at the 2012 U.S. Open.
When the ball touches down, delicate as always, next to the left gutter, it no longer matters much how it got there. The final steadying breaths and five-step approach that set it in motion; the 10th-frame spare that set up the shot; the consecutive strikes in the seventh, eighth and ninth that put the title within reach; the two stepladder victories that paved the way to the late-February final; and the unlikely climb from 13th to fourth in the last two rounds of match play to qualify for television. As the ball arcs toward the pins, all that matters is the moment of impact. A strike and Pete Weber defeats Mike Fagan to win the 2012 U.S. Open, anything less than a nine and he loses.
The crowd, silent and stone still on Weber’s approach, kicks up as the ball hurtles past the lane arrows, cries of “Come on, Pete!” cutting through the mounting roar. The ball settles into the 1-3 pocket and slams into the pins, taking all 10 with it off the back of the lane. There’s a fraction of a second’s quiet as those assembled process what they’ve just seen. The strike puts Weber ahead 215-214. He takes the Open by a pin.
Weber spins from the lane, throwing wild haymakers into the air. “Yes! Goddamn it! Yes!” he screams, red-faced, every pent-up bit of frustration, rage and anxiety exploding out of him. “That is right, I did it!” He looks into the crowd and his thoughts — still coming out at full volume — lose a measure of coherency. “I’m No. 5! Are you kidding me? That’s right!” It’s a miracle he doesn’t burst every blood vessel in his face. “Who do you think you are? I am!” he asks and answers. “Did it right!”
He finds Tracy in the front row and kisses her before falling into a crouch and hiding his face against a laneside ad for cold medicine. The win is his fifth at the U.S. Open, a record, and holds a special significance because he had been tied at four with his father, who passed peacefully in his sleep in 2005. He’s still mic’d up, and you can hear it when the tears come.
Video of the celebration goes viral the next day, and “Who do you think you are? I am!” becomes something of a catchphrase. In the Thunderbowl bar, Tracy explains that Weber was yelling for the benefit of “a little kid — 10, 12 years old,” who had pissed him off by cheering when he failed to make a strike earlier in the match. “I’ve heard a bunch of stories where if something pisses him off — he just doesn’t miss after,” says Fagan. “It was something for Pete to get in his head that would motivate him to strike. ‘I’ve gotta do this in spite of some kid trying to distract me. I can show him up. I’m going to win the tournament.’”
As downright off-putting as it might at first seem, it’s the passion that drove Weber to yell at a child that’s fuelled all 47 of his PBA and PBA50 titles and kept him hungry for more after three decades on tour. It’s what inspired him to relearn the game when technology threatened to leave him behind, and, along with the lewd gestures, sunglasses and incomprehensible catchphrases, it’s what makes him so fun to watch. “The only time that we see a blip in ratings is when Pete’s on,” says Clark. Weber cares about bowling and winning more than anything, and unlike anyone else in his sport, he’s able to take all that intensity, urgency and love and make it visible, sometimes palpable, through a TV screen. His reactions are genuine, but he also understands their value. “People don’t want to watch you throw the ball, turn around, walk back and sit down,” he says. “That’s the most boring shit I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Pete Weber stands at the back of the Thunderbowl Lanes Arena, looking out over the crowd and bending ever so slightly to test his hip. It’s the Saturday following qualifying, and though he failed to make any of the Winter Swing’s individual finals, he’ll do his fair share of bowling today as part of the TV debut of the PBA League, the tour’s new team format. Wearing a red St. Louis Cardinals sweater over his jersey, the captain of the New York City WTT Kingpins winces a bit as he explains that he’s “waiting for the Advil to kick in.” His hip doesn’t bug him when he’s bowling, but the gap between shows gives it time to seize up. It’s the first time today he’s looked all of his 50 years.
The league — which boasts a roster of “celebrity owners” that includes Chris Paul, Billie Jean King, Jerome Bettis and Terrell Owens — is the latest in a long line of innovations and format changes dreamed up and implemented by the PBA in hopes of finding something that will help reverse the sport’s slide. Weber’s been at or near the centre of them all, equal parts spokesman and rebel, though he says his “rebel is starting to calm down a little bit” now that he’s older.
On the lanes with his team, he seems looser and more at home than in individual qualifying. Because it’s TV, he wears sunglasses — ones with blue arms, at Tracy’s recommendation, to match his Kingpins jersey — though he admits that the lights haven’t been bright enough to really need them since ABC stopped doing broadcasts. The crotch chop that follows his first strike shoots the glasses up onto his forehead; the fist pump that follows his second sends them flying clean off his face. He laughs at himself and hams it up with his team. Tracy playfully heckles him from the front row. His team wins two of three rounds and comes second in the third. He bowls well.
Though he won’t assent to it himself, Weber may very well be the greatest to have ever played the game. “Pete surpassed his father in my mind, and that is a very hard, hard thing to say because we all loved Dick so much,” says Duke. “But whose career would you rather have? I would say, looking back, I’d take Pete’s any day.” It’s when you look forward that things get murkier.
Having turned 50 last August, Weber qualified for the senior tour, something he and Tracy hoped would help supplement his income. But after bowling a few events, he found the purses too small to justify the travel, and without Tracy around, he didn’t have much fun. Weber still has what it takes to win big-money events on tour, and will keep bowling until he’s no longer competitive. And whether they’re pitching the League or the idea that follows it, the PBA can be sure Weber will be right there on the lanes with them. “If they tell him to jump 10 feet, he’s gonna jump 10 feet, because right now he doesn’t know how to do anything else,” says Tracy. “He wants to bowl.” More than that, Weber has to bowl. It’s hardly a choice at all.
This story was originally published in 2013. Some facts have been updated.
Big Read: Shapovalov doing what it takes to succeed at tennis's highest level
Fresh off a first-round win at the Rogers Cup, Canadian up-and-comer Denis Shapovalov is proving he has the potential to grow into one of tennis's elite.