An Alley Fighter Tries to Come Back : Roger LeBlanc Attempts to Reverse the Course of a Bowling Career That Took Wrong Turn

Times Staff Writer

Roger LeBlanc stood in the air-conditioned cool of the bowling alley and lit a Marlboro. He said something to a brunette sitting nearby who wore a red satin jacket lettered "West Coast Bowling Supply." She smiled.

LeBlanc stood very still, staring at the clean, white pins at the end of Lane 32. He moved smoothly to the line and released. The black ball sailed along an outside board, then spun, hooking sharply into the pocket. A 4-7-10 split.

He shrugged. There was nothing to win on this day--and nothing to lose.

On that same Wednesday afternoon, 2,000 miles to the east, George Branham III was bowling, too. While LeBlanc practiced at a Studio City bowling alley, Branham was entering the second day of the $250,000 Tournament of Champions in Akron, Ohio.

LeBlanc and Branham grew up as two of Southern California's best young bowlers. They lived scant miles apart--LeBlanc in Burbank, Branham in Arleta. They moved through the ranks together: the juniors, the Pacific Coast Bowling tour and regional pro tournaments.

In the winter of 1986 with both competing on the Professional Bowlers Assn. tour, their careers took opposite turns. Branham soon became the first black to win a PBA title, and on the winter tour this year he won a second tournament and earned $31,000 in prize money.

LeBlanc didn't make a cent on the winter tour. He won only $2,875 the previous year. At the end of January, the 24-year-old bowler walked away from his sport. He is now working as a night security guard at a shopping center in Sunland.

"I guess you start to doubt yourself a bit," LeBlanc said. "I thought I would do better on the tour. I didn't get a lot of breaks go my way."

The way Roger LeBlanc tells it, his is a story about the side of professional sports the public never sees. It is a story about the professional athletes who don't make the big money, who don't get on television. It is about the ones who make it to the professional level but can't remain.

LeBlanc talks about his two seasons on the PBA tour in alternating tones of anger, disbelief and acceptance.

When he moved back with his parents in January, LeBlanc lazed around the house for a month doing nothing. He said over and over that he would never bowl again. Once, he saw Branham on television.

"I wanted to see him do well," LeBlanc said. "But I also felt real envious, to be honest."

The LeBlancs always had been a bowling family. Roger's mother, Rita, was the Maine state candlepin champion in 1952. His father, Armand, was an avid league bowler.

Roger LeBlanc took to the sport as a teen-ager and, at age 15, rolled a perfect game. For the next seven years, he bowled every day.

"Roger's goal always was to bowl with the pros," Rita said. "We knew sooner or later he would make his dream come true."

LeBlanc earned his way to the PBA in the usual way. He bowled in junior tournaments, then spent several years in adult leagues. Each year, he moved closer to the pros.

And Branham was always there, always a little ahead. Branham would be the top bowler in a local league. The next year, after Branham moved on, LeBlanc would win the league.

"Everything George has been able to do, I've done right after," LeBlanc said. "I've always been a step behind him."

After several successful seasons in PBA regional tournaments, Branham started on the national tour. LeBlanc followed the next year.

Joining the pro tour should have been the final step in a well-planned, successful career.

But the subsequent years blur in LeBlanc's mind. Memories of Kansas City overlap with Toledo and Tucson and Seattle. He offers vague theories as to what might have happened.

Maybe it was the week-to-week grind that got to him.

On the tour, the younger bowlers must drive all weekend to get to town early. They bowl 10 "rabbit" games on a Monday to qualify for the tournament. Tuesday is when the older pros arrive. It is a day of rest and practice.

The tournament begins with 160 bowlers each rolling 18 games from Wednesday morning to Thursday noon. Those who make the cut roll 24 more games Thursday afternoon and Friday, leading to the Saturday finals on national television.

It is not until the finals that the bowlers roll head to head. For the majority of the tournament, they are competing against the pins, bowling for high scores. They must keep mentally sharp, frame after frame. Then it's on to the next tournament.

"We'd have 24- and 25-hour drives," LeBlanc recalled. "We stayed three people to a room and ate a lot of burgers. It was a little stressing."

And the PBA tour is as expensive as it is grueling. With travel and motels, it costs upward of $20,000 a year to stay on tour, PBA officials say. Only the top 53 finishers win checks each week. A tournament victory could bring in $30,000. Fifty-third place might mean a $900 check.

That financial burden adds pressure to the younger players, many of whom--including LeBlanc--are sponsored by their parents.

"It's not like baseball or basketball, where you're guaranteed your income," said Mark Gerberich, a PBA official. "There are a lot of guys who try. For a number of reasons they don't make it."

LeBlanc couldn't finish in the money. Week after week, he'd bowl 20 or 30 pins short of a check. Week after week, he felt the pressure grow.

"I have to roll a perfect ball every time or I'm not happy," he said. "I was making so many mistakes. I didn't really know what I was doing."

Then, in March, 1986, LeBlanc reached the finals in Cleveland and won a few thousand dollars. He hoped it was the start of better times. It wasn't. He just couldn't keep the bad games, the bad weeks, off his mind.

"It's the mental game," Branham said. "A lot of guys, they have a couple of bad games and they can't come back. When you're down, you have to get back up. Roger had some problems, I guess."

As his scores declined, LeBlanc grew more and more depressed.

A new face on the tour, he was ignored by established players. Even the younger players--Branham and the others with whom LeBlanc traveled and roomed--were too engrossed in their own games to be any comfort or support.

"On tour, they are the most conceited, unfriendliest people in the world," LeBlanc complained. "They wouldn't even think about talking to me."

Branham says that's just the way it is.

"When you first go out, no one knows you," Branham said. "If you start bowling good, then they might start talking to you. You have to make a name for yourself."

LeBlanc thought maybe this year would be different. But after just one month on the winter tour, he drove home.

Meanwhile, Branham kept winning.

"It's a lot easier on me now," Branham said. "The competition is still tough but I know I can make it on the tour."

The Tournament of Champions will be on television this weekend. Branham won't be on the screen; he missed the finals. But he earned $1,800 for finishing 35th in the sport's preeminent event. It has been a successful winter.

Maybe things are looking up for LeBlanc, too. The disappointment has softened of late. He is practicing again, only three or four days a week, but enough to get in shape.

He has entered a regional tournament scheduled in May. For the first time in a couple of years, he is starting to get excited about bowling. The PBA's summer tour begins in June and he might even take a shot at that.

"There's still that chance of being somebody famous," LeBlanc said. "When you get that close to it . . . it's definitely something I think about.

"You can never quit," he said. "But if I can't achieve my goals, then what am I shooting for?"

He left it at that. LeBlanc packed up his shoes and ball and walked out to the parking lot, into the unseasonal heat of an April afternoon.

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