Those who think of the finals of a women's professional bowling tournament as a heroic clash between the Goodyear blimp and a 247-pound lady truck driver from Boise, Idaho obviously haven't yet caught Paula Sperber in her act. This leggy, left-handed blonde with a little girl's laugh and a grown-up sense of humor arrived on the scene two years ago, one day putting on hot pants, another day putting on the miniest of skirts and every day putting on the world. She came from nowhere to win the 1971 U.S. Women's Open with a 206 average, and suddenly everyone was asking, "Who's Paula Sperber?" Tongue tucked firmly in cheek, the 21-year-old Floridian told them.
To a reporter in Buffalo who asked if she had any bad habits: "Well, sometimes I litter a little."
To a writer at the PWBA tournament in Wichita last year who wanted to know if she was as big a swinger as her press notices indicated: "As a matter of fact, I had dinner alone in my room last night. But as far as I'm concerned, they could have kept the sandwich and left the guy that brought it up."
To a Japanese journalist who questioned her about her statistics: "Well, right now they're 35-25-36�, but I eat so many McDonald's hamburgers these days, I'm pushing 37."
The same writer asked if she had a boyfriend. "Sure," said Paula. "For the last year I've been sleeping with this guy I picked up named Irving." Then she grinned and explained that her bedroom companion was a blue and orange Teddy bear, and that Irving was only his code name. "He's really Italian," she added.
It is this kind of puckishness that accounts for much of Paula Sperber's sizzling image. That last journalistic exchange, for example, somehow led to a report that she drank between eight and nine glasses of vodka a day.
"She likes everyone to think she's the superplaygirl," says Bucky Woy, the roly-poly tournament director of the PWBA. "During a tournament she'll be in bed by eight, but the next morning she'll be telling everyone about the wild party she went to. She doesn't want anyone to think she's taking life too seriously."
Maybe so. But Mike Praznovsky Sr., Paula's coach since January 1971, wishes his star pupil would take bowling more seriously. "If she wanted to make bowling her life, her obsession," Praznovsky declares, "she undoubtedly would be the greatest woman bowler in the world. But she doesn't. When I first began coaching her I asked if she was ready for total dedication, and she said she didn't know, that maybe she wanted more out of life than just bowling. At least she was honest."
Paula discovered the sport when she was 11. Two years later she had rolled her first 200 game, and by the time she was 15 she had a 290, still the highest score of her career. Praznovsky saw her bowl in several junior tournaments, respected her 185 average but decided she would never be a top bowler unless she changed her style.
"The shot she had was destroying her game," he said. "She was too far toward the middle. But with her amazing strength she could still shatter the pins. And with her average, well, everyone thought she was on the right track. It disturbed me, but I didn't say anything for a long time."