Jeanette Lee cradles the 9 ball in her palm and with a pen carefully draws a tiny heart, writes her name inside it and hands the ball back to the fan with a warm smile. The cute little heart is the last thing you might expect from a pool player whose nickname is the Black Widow. Indeed, when Lee, one of the world's top female professionals, is running the table, she's cold and deadly.
As a teenager she earned her moniker in a New York pool hall, not only for her cutthroat play but also for her preferred attire—black from head to toe. With jet-black tendrils of hair hanging below her waist, the 25-year-old Lee, with stick in hand, is a picture of intimidation. During competition, she can run rack after rack without a hint of a smile. Before she strokes her cue stick, she lowers her jaw, arches her eyebrows and stares at the cue ball. "You could have the easiest shot," says Lee, "but if you blink for half a second and let your concentration go, you're standing in front of the most difficult shot in the world."
Lee is also known for her dramatic behavior. A missed shot is followed by a histrionic sigh, a foot stomp or a scowl. "I tell Jeanette she should win the Academy Award for best actress when she plays," says Mary Guarino, who has been a player on the Women's Professional Billiard Association (WPBA) tour for the past 20 years. "If the cue ball doesn't do exactly what she thought it was going to do, she'll put her hand on her hip and march around."
That's not surprising. When it comes to nine ball, the game played on the WPBA tour and likely to be a medal sport at the 1997 World Games in France, Lee hates to lose—and she rarely does. In nine ball a player must play the numbered balls on the table in order, and the player who sinks the 9 ball, as a result of either a combination or in sequence, wins. When the Brooklyn native is on, it's as if she is in a trance. "It's almost scary," says Lee, "because you feel like you're not human anymore. You have no fear. You have no doubt. You already know you've won before you even come to the table."
When Lee strutted onto their turf in 1993, the other women on the WPBA tour considered her too cocky. "Jeanette came out with the attitude, 'I'm going to beat all of you, don't get in my way,' " says Ewa Mataya-Laurance, one of the tour's best-known players.
The first time Lee met Helena Thornfeldt, who is now her closest friend on the tour, Lee declared that she was the best female straight pool player in the world. Thornfeldt, a three-time European straight pool champion, was skeptical. When they played, Lee ran 94 balls to Thornfeldt's three. At that point, Thornfeldt asked to change to nine ball instead of straight pool.
"Jeanette was awesome," says Thornfeldt. "She was the best woman pool player I ever saw. Jeanette says a lot of things, but she backs them up."
Most women on the tour now tolerate Lee's attitude, and she has toned down her comments. "She's not as bad as she was," says Guarino. "On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the worst, she came onto the tour a 10. Now she's probably a 7."
Lee started playing when she was 18. She discovered the game while working as an editorial assistant for a computer company in Manhattan. After work one day, she stopped inside Chelsea Billiards and watched a man named Johnny Ervolino running the table. She was hooked. Soon she was sleeping with her fingers taped in the shape of a cue bridge. When she woke she couldn't get to a pool table fast enough. "My apartment was 2� blocks away from the poolroom and I cabbed it every day," Lee admits. When she got there, she couldn't tear herself away from the table. Lee says that she once practiced 37 hours straight and had to be carried home by friends because she had trouble walking. It took a week for her back to recover.
The back problems predate pool. At 13, she had an operation to correct a severe case of scoliosis, a lateral curvature of the spine. Her spine had to be broken, and metal rods were planted from the top of her spine to her pelvic bone. She was in a cast for more than two months. Pool hardly seems to be appropriate therapy, but Lee continues to play in spite of her doctor's telling her that she should not be playing at all. "I couldn't live without it," she says. "You just have to take what you have and make the most of it."