Kingpins

At Brooklyn’s Bedford Bowl, the Stakes Are High and the Obsessions Run Deep

But some bowlers do win. Abdul Sulley, a thickly muscled personal trainer originally from Ghana, started bowling here five years ago after his father died. "I was numb, I couldn't feel anything at all," he remembers. "I started practicing seven nights a week. I'd yell, scream, jump up in the air. Bowling got me back in touch with my emotions." It also cost him a girlfriend who "told me to stick my dick in a bowling ball." But the same week he won his first tournament for $3500. It was a fair trade, he says.

On Saturday night he rolls a measly 165 in his first game. Frame after frame, he leaves the 10 pin standing and stares at it—forlorn and defiant in the right-hand corner—costing him 11 points and a shot at the money. Sulley studies how his ball strikes the three pin, watches how the three pin spins back into the six pin, and tries to decipher why the six is banging off the wall instead of taking down the 10 pin behind it.

He moves an inch to his right, straightens his delivery and begins to roll strikes. He bowls a 225, then a 247, and finishes with a 214. His partner isn't hot tonight and they don't make the board, but Sulley wins both the high-game and high-series pots. He picks up his $120 and moves to the snack bar, so amped up his body seems to be vibrating, his words coming out in a rush: "When you're on a streak, your hand starts to shake, your palms sweat from the adrenaline. It's, it's almost orgasmic, you ever try to get with a girl, you chase and chase her and finally she gives herself to you? You're like a kid—pure love, that's what this feels like," he says.

Alley cat: bowling for the big bucks in Crown Heights
photo: Michael Kamber
Alley cat: bowling for the big bucks in Crown Heights

Continuing with the love metaphors, Abdul says, "I tried to quit [bowling] a few times. You ever been in love and the girl didn't love you? You say I'm gonna leave her, but she keeps pulling you back. It's like an addiction." Nearly every serious bowler at Bedford uses this word.

But others credit the alley with saving lives. Kendall Knight, a slightly grizzled Amiri Baraka look-alike, started bowling at Bedford Bowl in the 1950s. He coached the junior leagues for years and says strange men still call out his name on the street. "I don't recognize them, they're all grown up—they're kids I coached," he explains. "Now they got their own kids with them."

One day back in the 1950s, a woman he bowled with introduced Kendall to her daughter, whom he later married. The young couple enrolled their son Kevin in the peewee league when he was five or six; Kevin became an avid bowler as well. "I grew up here," he says. "This place saved a lot of kids, it gave us something to do, kept us off the streets." One night when Kevin was about 20, he met Bridget, a pretty, dark-haired woman at the Bedford Bowl's "Trudat" snack bar. They began to date, married, and now he stands with his hand on Kevin Jr.'s head in Bedford's crowded lobby. Three-year-old Kevin Jr. looks to be about a year out of diapers. He bowls in the same peewee league his father bowled in, in the same building his father, mother, grandfather, and great-grandmother still bowl in.

It is unlikely a fifth generation of Knights will bowl here. Linda Chin, Bedford's eternally cheerful owner, confirms that New York State is trying to condemn the property; Medgar Evers Community College, sitting catty corner to Bedford Bowl, wants the building, allegedly for storage space. If Bedford closes it will join the roll call of former Brooklyn alleys James Parker remembered earlier in the evening: "Duplex, closed now; Strand, closed now; State, closed now; Dean Street, closed now." And people will go elsewhere for their highs.

"Back in '88, I was strung out on cocaine and heroin," explains Muhsin Shakir, a well-spoken, two-time winner of the Progressive Tournament. It's nearly 3 a.m. now and he sits in a Brooklyn diner, the waiter looking askance at his cowboy boots and dreadlocks. "October 17, 1988, I tried to kill myself—I OD'd," he says. "When I woke up I asked God to direct me to where it was he wanted me."

After completing a 12-step program, he went back to his job and overheard his coworkers talking about their bowling league. "I saw the happiness on their faces. I said, 'You bowl for trophies?' "

"We bowl for money," they told him.

"So, how much, like five, 10 dollars?"

"No," the answer came back, "$6000."

Muhsin was soon bowling every day, using the sport to fill a void—to keep him from "running to the pusher man." His first official average was a paltry 110, but he won most-improved bowler two years in a row, and soon entered the Progressive Tournament. "I won high-game one night but I didn't understand how it worked." When he came back a few weeks later, they handed him an envelope full of cash. "Like any other addict, I was hooked," he says.

"I don't just play the game, I love the game. When I'm making money, I'm having big fun," he laughs, before climbing into his car for the drive home to the Bronx. For Abdul, whom Muhsin now coaches, the thrill is a bit different. "You get to be a star in your own way," he says. "That's what everybody wants, 15 minutes of fame." Neither philosophy matters much to Mary Ward, the tournament organizer. "Bowl, bowl, bowl," she says. "That's what these people want to do."

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