Branham 1st Black to Win a PBA Title

Times Staff Writer

When he was growing up in Arleta, George Branham III used to watch Mark Roth on television.

So how did he feel Saturday when he found himself matched against the Professional Bowlers Assn. veteran in the final game of the $200,000 nationally televised Brunswick Memorial World Open in Glendale Heights, Ill.?

"Well, I wasn't too calm," Branham told NBC's Jay Randolph afterward. "I was really nervous. I tried to pretend like I wasn't. It was kind of hard to do."

His performance belied his state of mind, however, as the former Southern California Junior Bowler of the Year defeated Roth, 195-191, to become the first black to win a national PBA tournament.

"I wasn't even thinking about becoming the first black PBA champion," said Branham, whose father, George II, bowled in the old National Negro Bowling Assn. "I just wanted to win a title."

Making his first television appearance, Branham beat three opponents Saturday to win the $33,260 first prize and entry into the prestigious Firestone Tournament of Champions next spring.

The prize money more than doubled his season total, which was $23,575 entering the tournament at the Brunswick Northern Bowl.

And the victory gave him a tour exemption for a year, which means he can enter any tournament without having to qualify.

"I'm just shocked," he told NBC. "I can't believe it. . . .

"I don't know what to say. This was the toughest final I ever bowled in in my life. It's just unbelievable."

Branham, who celebrated his 24th birthday by beating Tom Crites of Tampa, Fla., in the final game Friday night to reach the five-man televised finals, is a graduate of Poly High in Sun Valley.

He started bowling at age 6 and entered his first tournament when he was 15. After being named Junior Bowler of the Year by the Southern California Bowling Writers Assn. in 1983, he turned professional in 1984.

Last year, he joined the PBA Tour, earned $23,640 and was runner-up to Crites in voting for Rookie of the Year.

But before Saturday, his previous highest finish was eighth, although he had won two regional tournaments, including one last month in Bakersfield.

But that paid only $3,000.

In front of the cameras Saturday, much more was at stake.

"I just tried not to think about anything but trying to win," he said in a televised interview.

And what went through his mind in the last frame, when he needed to pick up only one pin for a spare and his first PBA victory?

"Just don't miss it."

He didn't and Roth, who was attempting to end a 23-month victory drought, had to settle for second place, a check for $17,260 and the unsettling knowledge that he had been an inspiration to the guy who had just beaten him.

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