- - Monday, April 27, 2020

“When I am really going, I feel like … The pool cue is part of me. It’s got nerves in it. It’s a piece of wood and it’s got nerves in it. The roll of those balls, you don’t have to look, you just know. You make shots that nobody has ever made before. You play that game in a way that nobody has ever played that game before.”

— “Fast Eddie” Felson

That quote, sports fans, from the 1961 classic “The Hustler,” starring Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason, perfectly captures what it means to be “in the zone.”

It is among the reasons why “The Hustler” is one of my favorite films and, for my money, the greatest sports film ever made.

If you don’t think pool qualifies as a sport for this debate, then you might as well sit the argument out, because you don’t know sports. It is at the very least golf with soul — and without the wasted walk.

At its very best, it rises to the level of Ali vs. Frazier — a couple of warriors, trying to crush an opponent’s spirit.

“The Hustler,” directed by Robert Rossen, is the game at its best and worst, the exhilaration of being unbeatable, of being in that winning “zone.” And the sheer desperation and sweat of losing.

The movie is about the cost of both, capturing the joy of winning and the agony of defeat as powerfully as any other sports film. It’s also about the difference between talent and character.

Nominated for nine Academy Awards, the American Film Institute named it the sixth greatest sports movie ever.

The story, based on the Walter Tevis novel, is about “Fast Eddie” Felson — played by Newman — a young hustler who travels across the country to New York to play the man considered the greatest pool player there is (a fictional Minnesota Fats, played by Gleason).

Newman enters the pool hall where Fats plays — New York City’s legendary Ames Billiard Academy — like a ballplayer stepping inside Fenway Park for the first time.

Eddie asks the owner if there is a bar in the hall.

“No bar, no pinball machines, no bowling alleys, just pool nothing else. This is Ames, mister,” the owner says, as if he was speaking of a national monument that wouldn’t be sullied with anything else except pool.

Eddie plays Fats and Fats is winning early. But Eddie says to Fats, “I got a hunch Fat Man, I got a hunch that it’s me from here on in. That ever happen to you, that you feel like you can’t miss. I dreamed about this game Fat Man, I dreamed about this game every night on the road. This is my table. I own it.”

Trash-talking, 1961-style.

At first, Eddie is as good as his boast — at one point, he’s up $18,000 on Fats. But he gets drunk and cracks under the pressure and weight of winning, losing all his winnings and most of his stake.

In the aftermath of the loss of Fats, the young hustler, now down and out, befriends a troubled woman named Sarah, played by Piper Laurie, but then falls in with a ruthless gambler, Bert Gordon, played by George C. Scott.

Gordon belittles the young man, telling him he has talent — but lacks character.

“Minnesota Fats has more character in one finger than you have in your whole skinny body,” he tells Eddie.

On the road, now backed by Gordon, Eddie wins big in Louisville during Kentucky Derby week, but loses Sarah, who kills herself after a humiliating encounter with Gordon.

Now on his own, Eddie resurfaces at Ames with the money he won from playing for Gordon and challenges Fats again.

Eddie tells Gordon: “Its not enough that you just have talent, you’ve got to have character too … I sure got character now. Picked it up at a hotel room in Louisville.”

Gordon, who has a couple of thugs there with him, gives Eddie a menacing look. Minnesota Fats says, “Shoot pool, ‘Fast Eddie.’”

To which Eddie replies, “I’m shooting pool Fats. When I miss, you can shoot.”

This time Eddie wins.

“I quit, Eddie, I can’t beat you,” Fats says.

Gordon threatens to have him beaten up unless he gives him his share of his winnings against Fats.

Eddie tells Gordon, “Too high, Bert the price is too high.

“If I take it she never lived, she never died, we both know that is not true, she lived, she died,” he says. “You tell your boys they better kill me, they better go all the way, because if they bust me up, I’ll put all those pieces back together again and so help me God Bert, I’ll going to come back here and I’m going to kill you.”

Gordon lets Eddie leave, and the last words of the film are, “Fat Man, you shoot a great game of pool.”

Fats replies, “So do you ‘Fast Eddie.’”

A few asides from the film — the premiere was here in the District.

Gleason fancied himself as a pool shark and performed all his own shots. The legend up where I lived in the Poconos was that during a stay at Fred Waring’s Shawnee Inn, Gleason came into Stroudsburg to play at the local pool hall, Guys and Dolls, and lost some decent pocket change.

A pool hustler named Rudolph Wanderone claimed the Minnesota Fats character was based on him, and he made a good living with that identity, at one point starring in a television show called “Celebrity Billiards with Minnesota Fats.”

Willie Mosconi — a 15-time straight pool world champion — was the technical advisor for the film and disputed the notion that Wanderone was the model.

On Valentine’s Day 1978, 20 million people tuned into ABC Wide World of Sports to watch a pool showdown between Wanderone and Mosconi, who won the five-set tournament in three sets.

⦁ Hear Thom Loverro on the Kevin Sheehan podcast Tuesdays and Thursdays.

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