Willie Mosconi walks into the Billiards and Barstools Store in San Bernardino, where 300 people have been awaiting his arrival in a room not built to hold 300 people. As the 15-time world pocket billiards champion enters, the room becomes silent.
After applause breaks the silence, children run over for autographs and/or photographs. Adults begin throwing down $25 for an opportunity to play against him for charity. Some folks simply ask him to touch their pool sticks so that maybe, magically, it will make them better players.
Mosconi, 75, denies that he misses pool. He insists that he now spends his free time playing golf, another game in which the object is to put a ball into a hole with a stick.
But anyone who saw him tour California earlier this month--and there were many who did--would dispute that Mosconi has left the game completely behind. Playing in six cities in four days, he helped raise $10,000 for the Casa Colina Wheelchair Sports Program while also resurrecting some priceless memories for himself.
Still dapper, his silvery hair slicked back, Mosconi averaged more than 70 games a day against any opponent willing to donate $25.
When Mosconi wasn't peppering the crowd with his one-liners, he was using some of his physics-defying spin to make trick shots.
The men he played were dispatched quickly. All of the women, however, were given gift-wrapped victories as Mosconi intentionally missed shots with a flair he usually reserves for making them.
"Wow," said David Maidment, owner of two Billiards and Barstools stores. "He would just put the last ball on the edge for the ladies to win, just leave the ball bouncing between the two corners of the pocket."
In an interview after his recent tour, Mosconi often wrapped himself in nostalgia and stopped only to ridicule arch-foe Minnesota Fats, whom he genuinely dislikes.
"I was never a hustler," he says loudly and proudly. "I was the youngest player in Philadelphia, and we had the greatest players there.
"Whenever the hustlers came to town, they would have to play me first because I was the youngest. And they wouldn't get to play again," he said with a smile. "No money left.
"When I was in competition, there was nothing I couldn't do with a billiard ball. I didn't have a fear. Nobody was better than me, especially not that fat guy. The guy who called himself Minnesota Fats never saw Minnesota in his life. He was from New York.
"It was like taking candy from a baby when I played him. I enjoyed it. I always killed him. I would point to a chair and say, 'Hey, fatso, go sit over there and watch. You'll be over there the rest of the afternoon."'
Mosconi, who now lives in Hadon Heights, N.J., began playing professionally at 19, although he had been playing exhibitions since he was 6. Mosconi's father, Joseph, owned a pool parlor but wouldn't allow Willie to play, locking up the balls at night and trying to steer Willie toward a career in entertainment instead.
"I was supposed to be a dancer," Mosconi says, laughing.
Willie's uncles, Charles and Louis, were prominent in vaudeville, and Willie became their reluctant--and quite bad--student when he was 5. One day, however, while playing pool with Charles, Willie sank 15 consecutive balls, and his father, who couldn't lock up the tables, later learned that Willie had been practicing at night with a pool cue and potatoes.
When he was 6, Willie won a series of exhibitions against older children, including one victory in which he sank 40 consecutive balls. However, he later became bored and retired at the age of 7.
He resumed playing when he was 19, after having been fired as an upholsterer's apprentice during the Depression.
Today, he holds several records, among them a run of 526 balls--"I never did miss," he says, "I got tired and quit."--and he has served as technical adviser for "The Hustler" and "The Color of Money."
Perhaps the best example of Mosconi's impact on pool occurred in an exhibition in Mission Viejo on Nov. 17, 1985. A rule was being debated in his game, and the official went to a book for guidance. The book was titled "Pocket Billiards."
Author? Willie Mosconi.
Mosconi retired permanently from professional billiards seven years ago, nearly 50 years after his first pro game. He says he got out after winning his 15th championship because he got "bored playing the same guys every year and beating the hell out of them. I don't miss the game."
Do you believe him?
"I've always had to compete for his attention against billiards, and he still comes to life when he's at the table," says Flora Mosconi, his wife of 36 years. "We saw that while he was touring California. He was enjoying every minute of it."