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Opening The Lanes For All

Oatman looks to show he belongs after becoming the first black bowler to earn a season-long exemption on tour

January 16, 2007|Lauren Peterson | Times Staff Writer

Halfway through his first season on the Professional Bowlers Assn. tour, Billy Oatman has finally stopped pinching himself.

"The one thing I really had to get over was that, when I first came out, I was actually a little awestruck," he said. "These were the people I looked up to, and here I was, competing with them."

It's no wonder the idea took some getting used to.

Before he became the first African American bowler to earn a season-long exemption onto the tour, Oatman, 41, worked part time as a delivery truck driver for an upscale restaurant-catering service in Chicago.

High-end orders presented by formally attired drivers could fetch tips of up to $200 a day. More often, though, culinary tastes tended toward a takeout favorite.

"I was the pizza guy," Oatman said. "It was pretty good money."

He earns at least $1,800 per event on the tour, which continues today through Sunday with the Dick Weber Open at Fountain Valley Bowl.

Oatman, a left-hander, bowled at Vincennes University in Indiana and Wichita State before finding success in regional amateur and pro events. He became one of 58 exempt bowlers when he finished 11th in tour trials for 10 available exemptions but took the place of Ritchie Allen when he suffered a stress fracture of the right index finger.

"It's not like we just plucked someone out of the audience and said, 'OK, you're on tour,' " said PBA Commissioner Fred Schreyer. "I don't look at it as he's somehow a second-class citizen and doesn't deserve to be there."

Oatman still wants to show that he belongs. And someday, he says, he would like to start a fund for minority bowlers.

"There are lots of people out there with talent but not the coaching or development process," he said. "The finances and wherewithal is just not there."

According to PBA statistics, Oatman is one of 91 African Americans -- totaling less than 2% -- among the approximately 1,800 pro bowlers who gave voluntary responses to personnel questions about race. Though limited, the number was second highest among all ethnicities behind 1,676 Caucasians. There are 4,250 registered PBA members.

"I don't have anything to prove, but I feel like I must do well," Oatman said. "I know it's going to happen. I'm going to make sure it happens."

Oatman's confidence is reflected in recent results.

He advanced to match play -- at least to the round of 32 -- three of the last four weeks. He had a season's best 19th-place finish in the H&R Block Classic two weeks ago.

This season, he is 41st among 392 bowlers in the tour-point standings and has an average of 216.68. With $16,100, he ranks 46th among 154 on the earnings list, tied with Kelly Kulick, the first female bowler to be exempt.

"The lanes don't care who's throwing the ball. The pins don't know if the person throwing the ball is black," Schreyer said. "It's a very democratic sport. Whoever's the best that week is the best."

If Oatman wins, he just might have to pinch himself again.

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