WICKLIFFE, Ohio – This is my favorite week of the entire NCAA sports calendar. March Madness is certainly cool and the upcoming College World Series is fun, but this is the week when my sport takes center stage.
It’s bowling championship week.
To be fair, bowling has not exactly had the greatest of PR campaigns during the past, oh, 40 or so years. It’s not Madison Avenue, to be certain. Its combatants aren’t always physical specimens (myself included) but there’s one thing this sport has in abundance that other sports, try as they might, just don’t have.
Even at its highest levels, bowlers are a family, and I offer the following somewhat long-winded story to illustrate that point:
First, some background is in order. I’ve been a bowler since the age of 8. I grew up in upstate New York, an area of the country where once the snow starts falling, you have two choices with which to fill up your time. You either bowl, or you ski.
Well, anyone who knew me back then or even anyone who knows me now will tell you that I’m not nearly coordinated enough to ski, so bowling was for me. I bowled in junior leagues, junior tournaments, traveling leagues, junior tours, I even went to bowling camp in high school (and still managed to get married). By the time I was 18, I was averaging more than 200.
I bowled for the College of Saint Rose back when it had a men’s bowling team in the early 90s and after college I even tried my hand at some PBA events and got myself in the big-money scratch bowling leagues and tournaments around town. During this time, I made a lot of friends in the sport and had a reputation as a pretty good player. Once I started writing for a living, I even got a freelance job with the Times-Union in Albany, N.Y., writing its weekly bowling column.
Fast forward to 1999 when I was offered a job in Jackson, Tenn., to be an editor for The Jackson Sun. I figured I had to start acting like an adult, so I moved south and for the most part gave up bowling entirely. In late 2000, I moved to Atlanta to begin working for my current employer, Turner Sports. My wife Chris and I were looking for someplace to bowl (we figured it was the best way to make friends) and we stumbled on a center just outside the city. We show up for our first week and a guy comes up to me and asks me the following:
Him: Are you Mark Spoor?
Me (a little nervous): Yes
Him: Did you write the bowling column for the Times-Union?
Me: (a little more nervous): Yes
He proceeded to tell me his name (Matt) and it turns out, he was a guy with whom I used to bowl juniors with back in New York. He also was the nephew of a guy that I often bowled against in scratch leagues in Albany named Bill Carl. Bill’s wife Sue was the league secretary for the Albany City League, a high-average league I bowled in while I was in my 20s.
So Matt is now one of my closest friends in Atlanta. He called me a few days ago as I was on my way to the airport to cover this week’s tournament and told me that Bill and Sue’s daughter Kalynn, who I hadn’t seen since she was barely out of diapers, is now a freshman bowler for Arkansas State, one of the eight teams competing for the national championship.
I entered Freeway Lanes on Thursday morning and there are Bill and Sue, all decked out in Arkansas State red with the nervous looks of parents that are about to watch their daughter compete for a national title. Bill saw me, smiled and gave me a big hug and almost immediately we started talking about old times and how everyone else in our little bowlers’ circle is doing. I reacquainted myself with Sue and Kalynn and along the way I found out that there are other girls bowling for other teams that are friends of friends and before you know it, a bit of a reunion breaks out.
More than that, looking around, it seemed like everyone here knew everybody else – and rooted for everybody else. It kind of had that feeling of “us against the world.” Almost as though collectively they’re saying that there may be bigger crowds at basketball games or baseball games, but we’ll take our small group over their big throng any day.
Like most families, the bowling family can be a bit dysfunctional, but at the end of the day, we’re family.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.