WHEN BILL FONG approaches the lane, he tries not to breathe. He wants his body to perform a series of complex movements that his muscles themselves have memorized.
Fong, 48 years old, 6 feet tall, with broad shoulders, pulls the ball into his chest and does a quick shimmy with his hips. He takes five measured steps toward the foul line and releases the ball. It glides across the oiled wooden planks, and as it nears the edge of the lane, it veers back toward the center, as if guided by remote control. In a heartbeat, what was a wide, sneering mouth of pins is now — nothing.
He comes back to the table where his teammates are seated — they always sit and bowl in the same order — and they congratulate him the same way they have thousands of times over the last decade. But Fong looks displeased.
"I got pretty lucky that time," he says in his distinctly Chicago accent. "The seven was hanging there before it fell. I've got to make adjustments." With a pencil, he jots down notes on a folded piece of blue paper.
His teammates aren't interested in talking about what he can do to make his strikes more solid, though, or even tonight's mildly competitive league game. They're still discussing a night two years ago. They mention it every week, without fail. In fact, all you have to do is say the words "that night" and everyone at the Plano Super Bowl knows what you're talking about. One man, an opponent of Fong's that evening, calls it "the most amazing thing I've ever seen in a bowling alley."
Bill Fong needs no reminders, of course. He thinks about that moment — those hours — every single day of his life.
MOST PEOPLE THINK perfection in bowling is a 300 game, but it isn't. Any reasonably good recreational bowler can get lucky one night and roll 12 consecutive strikes. If you count all the bowling alleys all over America, somebody somewhere bowls a 300 every night. But only a human robot can roll three 300s in a row — 36 straight strikes — for what's called a "perfect series." More than 95 million Americans go bowling, but, according to the United States Bowling Congress, there have been only 21 certified 900s since anyone started keeping track.
Bill Fong's run at perfection started, as most of his nights do, with practice at around 5:30 p.m. He bowls in four active leagues and rolls at least 20 games a week, every week. That night, Jan. 18, 2010, he wanted to focus on his timing. He didn't roll many strikes in practice, though. There was nothing to make him think this night would be anything special.
Fong's team, the Crazy Eights, was assigned lanes 27 and 28, one of Fong's favorite pairs. The left lane, 27, hooks more, he says. The right lane, 28, tends to be more direct. When it was Fong's turn, he opted to roll a deeper hook, to stay outside and ride the edge of the gutter a little longer. His ball slammed into the pocket, obliterating all 10 pins. His next roll, on 28, was another violent strike. All four of the first frames were robust strikes, actually.
"To tell you the truth, that wasn't that unusual," says JoAnn Gibson, a sweet Southern woman who enjoys the company more than she does the actual bowling. Gibson and teammate Tom Dunn have bowled with or against Fong in this league since the Clinton administration. They don't really hang out much outside the bowling alley, but no matter what's going on in life, they go to Plano Super Bowl for a few hours on Monday nights.
In the sixth frame, Fong had another loud, devastating strike. Then another. Then another. With each throw, he could tell it was a strike from the moment it left his hand. "It felt like driving and catching a green light, then the next one, then the next, then turning, and still catching every green light everywhere you go," Fong says.
On the last roll of the 10th frame, though, something happened. He could tell from the sound of the pins. As the clutter at the end of the lane cleared, he could see the nine pin still standing. He watched the chaos of the flying pins, each rotating right past the upright nine. Fong craned his neck, watching, hoping. Until one of the pins popped up from its side and swiped the nine down.
IN HIS SECOND game, "it was like Moses parting the sea," he says. "I'd move my hands and everything would get out of the way." By the 10th frame, Fong found that most people around him wouldn't make eye contact for fear they would be the last thing he would see before rolling a dud. On the first roll of the last frame, he had what he calls a "happy accident." For the first time that night, one of his powerful throws missed its mark ever so slightly. But because the oil was now evaporating, the ball found the pocket for a perfect strike. Noticing what happened on the first roll, he adjusted his position and finished the game with two more powerful strikes, Nos. 23 and 24 of the night.
"Never seen anything like it," his teammates said. "Back-to-back 300s."
Fong shook his head. "Me neither," he said.
THERE'S ALMOST NEVER a time when every decision you make is correct and every step is in the right direction. Life, like bowling, is full of complicating factors. Fong, a C-student turned college dropout, divorced young and never made much money. Nothing in his life had gone according to plan, but when that first roll of the third game produced another strike, Fong felt like he was floating. He wasn't drinking, but he felt a little drunk. By the time he struck in the fifth frame, he realized he would almost certainly break the coveted 800 mark.
By the sixth frame, a large crowd had formed. Dozens of people had stopped bowling to watch. Texts were sent and statuses posted to Facebook, and the audience grew.
"We were more nervous than he was at the time," Gibson says. "It was almost like he was putting on a show up there."
Each time he approached the lane, the bowling alley went silent. Each time he struck, the room erupted with applause. In all his life, Bill Fong had never heard anyone cheering him like that.
He had 33 straight strikes entering the 10th frame of the third game. Out came the cellphone cameras. There were whispers, but as soon as Fong picked up his ball, it was dead quiet. He turned to look at the crowd behind him, now well over 100 people, densely packed from the end of the snack bar to the vending machines 80 feet away.
That's when Fong began to feel nervous, like the world was watching him pee. He felt the buzz — whatever it had been — leave his body. As he stood in front of lane 28, he felt numb.
He lined up and threw a ball without much hook on it. As soon as it left his hand, Fong began waving at it, trying to will the ball left. It connected with the pocket but without the usual force. As the other pins dropped, the nine pin stayed up for what seemed like ages. But just as the gasp of the crowd reached a peak, one of the pins rolling meekly across the lane bumped the nine just enough to tip it. The room exploded with cheers and whistles.
Fong looked dizzy as he walked back to the ball exchange. He was sweating profusely. But he realized the mistake he'd made on his last throw, and the second roll was much cleaner. Again there were shouts from the audience as the ball blazed down the lane, zipping back in time to smash the pins apart in a powerful, driving strike. Thirty-five strikes down, one to go.
Before his final roll, Fong wiped his ball with his towel. He lifted the ball to his chest and stood calmly for a moment. Then he took five steps and released the ball.
It looked good from his hand, arcing out the way so many of his great strikes that night had, cutting back to the pocket just in time. Several people started applauding before the ball even reached the end of the lane — that's how good it looked. But this time, as the pins scrambled, something unimaginable happened. The 10 pin, farthest to the right, wobbled. But it didn't fall.
Some of the people in the room couldn't process what they'd just witnessed. How could the last roll, like the 35 before it, not be a strike?
Strangers fell to their knees. It was hard for anyone to breathe.
Fong turned and walked to his right. He was empty. Blank. As he stood there, Fong wanted to say something — anything — but he couldn't make a sound.
THAT NIGHT HIS friends bought him a few beers. He doesn't usually drink, but at the time, he felt like the best day of his life had just turned into the worst. After a beer or two — and at least an hour of excited congratulations from strangers — he felt dizzy. When he got home, he went into the bathroom and vomited in the toilet. The walls were spinning.
It turns out Fong was having a stroke. With the stress and tension of the night, his already high blood pressure had reached dangerous levels. Not long after, he had another stroke. When the doctor saw the X-rays and heard about the night of dizziness, he explained to Fong that he had suffered what could very easily have been a fatal stroke. That night at the bowling alley, he could have died.
It also means that with the sweating and dizziness he was feeling in the third game, it's likely that Fong bowled the last few frames through the beginning of that stroke — which makes the accomplishment that much more amazing. "Mind boggling," Gibson says.
When he had his heart surgery, he was in the hospital for a week. Not many family members visited him. But he didn't lack for visitors. Plenty of people from the bowling alley took the time to see him, to ask him how he felt and encourage him to get well quickly. And, one by one, they each mentioned that incredible night in January, when Bill Fong fell just one pin short of perfect.
Rehab was hard at first. The strokes took a lot of his strength. But within a few months — earlier than doctors recommend — Fong was back to his usual form, back to rolling five days a week. As they're talking about that night, one of his teammates poses the question: Would Fong rather be alive with an 899 or dead with a perfect 900? It's a rhetorical question, but Fong takes a moment to consider it seriously. He's gone over that last roll so many times in his mind, replayed the shaky cellphone video. It takes him another moment or maybe two, but eventually Bill Fong says he'd rather be alive.