From the Publisher
By Mike Panozzo
Mike became editor of Billiards Digest in 1980 and liked it so much that he bought the company. He has served on the Billiard Congress of America board of directors and as president of the Billiard & Bowling Institute of America.
December: Enjoying a Senior Moment
I'M OVER 50 now, an age that doesn't earn many AARP benefits yet, but should nonetheless afford me at least the leeway to wax nostalgic.
And nostalgia seemed to permeate the 2009 edition of the U.S. Open. For the first time ever, the annual Billiard Congress of America Hall of Fame induction banquet was held in conjunction with the long-standing 9-ball event. And there to welcome Johnny Archer and Allison Fisher into the Hall were some of the greats who preceded Archer and Fisher into pool's shrine. Nick Varner, Pat Fleming and Earl Strickland were there. Jimmy Rempe and Jean Balukas also made rare appearances at the Hall of Fame fete.
In the tournament arena, a buzz surrounded the surprising run of 55-year-old Kim Davenport, a pro tour standout throughout the '90s and Billiards Digest Player of the Year in 1990. On hand primarily as Archer's chosen presenter at the Hall of Fame banquet, Davenport delighted the crowd with a spirited effort that eventually landed him a fifth-place finish in the 200-plus player event.
It was during one of Davenport's matches that I happened upon "Spanish Mike" Lebron. Lebron, now 75, was sitting in an armchair at the Accu-Stats video booth, watching one of the matches on a closed circuit television monitor. I hadn't seen Mike in a while, so I sat alongside him and we chatted. And as we talked, Lebron was recounting some of his accomplishments as a pro. Of course, I knew all of those accomplishments, having covered the Puerto Rican native's career since he joined the pro tour in 1985.
Still, this time his resume sounded different. More impressive. More meaningful.
Then it started to hit me.
Maybe it's because I'm over 50 now. Maybe it's because I'd just seen Archer and Fisher honored for playing accomplishments, both now 40 and likely on the backstretch of their storied careers. Maybe it was because of all the hoopla surrounding Davenport's unlikely roll.
Or maybe it's simply about perspective, perspective that I'd previously failed to see.
You see, Mike Lebron won the U.S. Open in 1988. He was ranked in the top 10 on the Professional Billiard Association every year from 1986 through 1991. He won several other tour titles, won the first $50,000 winner-takes-all Challenge of Champions, posted a slew of second-place finishes in major events, and finished fifth (the highest finish by an American player that year) at the 1999 World Pool Championship in Cardiff, Wales.
Pretty solid career, right? Not likely Hall of Fame worthy, though.
Until, that is, you put his career into perspective.
Mike Lebron was already 51 years old when he joined the pro tour in 1985!
Think about that. Lebron was eligible for the Senior Tour before he even started playing on the main tour!
Stack Lebron's post-50 stats against virtually any player in the game's history and I'm guessing "Spanish Mike" is Numero Uno!
Truth be told, Lebron was a terrific player in his younger days as well, playing money games almost exclusively. But he packed his cue away for nearly 20 years (1960-'80) while working in a vinyl processing plant and raising a family in Philadelphia. Lebron got back into the game in the early '80s, mostly playing close to home, before joining the tournament circuit.
And despite his age, Lebron could grind his way through a tournament with the best of them. He finished second in his first two pro tour events, the BC Open (losing to Keith McCready) and the U.S. Open (losing to Jimmy Reid).
When Lebron won the U.S. Open (beating Varner for the title), he was 54. (Not surprisingly, he's the oldest winner of the game's most prestigious title.) When he won the Challenge of Champions (beating Buddy Hall), he was 57. (That same year, Lebron finished second to Hall in the International 9-Ball Classic, with its 350-player field and $30,000 top prize.)
And when he finished fifth (in a field of 96 players from 26 countries) at the '99 WPA World Championship? Lebron was 65.
Sixty-freaking-five years old!
As best I can figure, Lebron's accomplishments have been glossed over for two reasons. A soft-spoken gentleman, Lebron never tooted his own horn and tended to fly under the radar. Second, he was somehow viewed as a contemporary of Hall of Famers like Varner, Rempe and Buddy Hall, when in fact he was more than 10 years their senior!
Lebron doesn't play much anymore. Since undergoing emergency surgery just five years ago to remove a 3-pound tumor from his brain, and having to learn how to walk and talk again, Lebron confines his pool activity to $20 race-to-2 one-pocket matches against younger players. "It's a slower game," he laughs. "I struggle to bend over the table. But the young players like to play one-pocket with me because I can still show them some moves!"
Lebron did play in the 2009 U.S. Open (past champions get free entry), going two-and-out. He didn't expect much more. But he plays because the Open respects its former champions, and he wants to return the gesture.
I'm awed by Mike Lebron's accomplishments at the table, but I'm still not sure his record is Hall of Fame worthy.
Still, there should be some kind of award for a career that simply defies belief!
Hats off to you, "Spanish Mike." Glad we got a chance to talk again.