Archive for the ‘Alex Higgins’ Category

July 31, 2010
The rogues of sport are legion. Gifted, charismatic and reckless, they burn with hubris, flout convention, seize championships and rouse fans. Bobby Fischer at the chessboard. Mike Tyson in the ring. On the links, the young John Daly and the not-so-young Tiger Woods. Alex Higgins — smoker, drinker, brawler, gambler, womanizer and two-time world snooker champion — was an exemplar of the type.

Snooker? An offshoot of billiards, the game, as British as breakfast kippers, is played on a 12-foot-by-6-foot table with 6 pockets and 22 balls. It originated in the second half of the 19th century, probably among British soldiers stationed in India — the name comes from a sneering term for an inexperienced cadet — and became a niche pastime, almost solely for bar gamblers and gentleman codgers.

Then, in the early 1970s, Higgins, a working-class hustler and failed jockey born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, joined the professional snooker circuit, won his first world championship at 22, and, with his whirlwind playing style — his nickname was Hurricane — and belligerent antics, became a pop star.

Known as “the people’s champion,” he helped spur the game’s popularity, especially on television; in the 1980s, millions of viewers followed professional snooker on the BBC.

Higgins was found dead in his home in Belfast on July 24. He was 61. He received a diagnosis of throat cancer 12 years ago, and treatments finally destroyed his teeth and otherwise weakened him to the point where he could not take solid food, Ivan Hirschowitz, a spokesman for World Snooker, the sport’s governing body, said in a phone interview Friday.

“Malnutrition probably killed him as much as anything,” Hirschowitz said.

Snooker may be alien to most Americans, but it remains one of Britain’s most popular games, with 4 million people who play, according to World Snooker. Its popularity has grown recently in Germany and Eastern European nations like Poland and Romania, but its most startling growth has been in China, where an estimated 30 million people have taken up the game in the past decade.

There is probably no accounting for national taste in recreational sports, but like cricket, another game that has found little footing in the United States, snooker has complicated rules. The game begins with 15 red balls racked as in a game of straight pool and 6 additional balls of different colors placed at specified locations on the table.

Players use a cue and a white cue ball to pocket — or pot, in the game’s parlance — the other balls in a prescribed order, the balls having different point values. A player shoots until he misses; the skein of successful shots is called a break. The idea is to have more points than your opponent by the time the table is clear.

Higgins came to snooker at a time when methodical play was the rule and a 100-point break — a difficult feat requiring two dozen or more shots — took 10 minutes or more.

But Higgins was an instinctive player and a jittery, impatient man who leapt from shot to shot with impulsive alacrity. His rapid-fire breaks became legendary, a mere three or four minutes for 100 points.

Equally legendary was his drinking (which he often indulged in during matches), his recklessness with money (he is reputed to have earned millions from snooker and blown it all, dying in destitution) and his temper.

As angry as John McEnroe but more physically threatening, Higgins head-butted a tournament director in 1986; once promised to have a fellow player shot, even though they were playing on the same side in a team event; and, as late as 2007, punched a referee during a charity match.

Away from the game, he had volcanic relations with his two wives and was once stabbed by an enraged girlfriend. He was the subject of a 2001 biography (“Eye of the Hurricane”) and of a 2004 one-man play (“Hurricane”). A documentary about his life, “I’m No Angel,” appeared in 1991.

After his death, The Daily Mail of London said of his personality: “A belligerent narcissist, filled with self-pity and towering anger, he never allowed concern for others to put any restraint on his appetites, whether it be for drink or drugs or sex.”

And yet he was beloved by snooker fans and crucial to the success of the sport.

“He was the major reason for snooker’s popularity in the early days,” Barry Hearn, the chairman of World Snooker, said in a statement.

“He was controversial at times, but he always played the game in the right spirit. We will miss him — he was the original people’s champion.”

Alexander Higgins, called Sandy as a boy, was born in Belfast on March 18, 1949. He began playing snooker at a local pub, the Jampot, when he was 11. Also interested in horses, he apprenticed as a jockey, but his lack of discipline and especially, the story goes, his fondness for Guinness caused him to put on too much weight.

An accomplished barroom hustler, he turned pro at age 22, and in 1972 won the world championship on his first try. He won his second 10 years later in a tournament that provided his most famous moments.

Trailing, 59-0, in a potentially deciding game of a semifinal match, he executed a 69-point break, what World Snooker, on its Web site, called “perhaps the most extraordinary break in snooker history.”

When he had won the tournament, he wept and brandished the trophy as he embraced his wife and baby daughter, Lauren, in a moment of naked emotion that was captured on television and became emblematic of the volatile passions of Higgins’s life.

His survivors include his daughter and a son, Jordan. Higgins won more than a dozen pro tournaments, but it is widely accepted that the full measure of his talent went unexploited, that his brilliance at the snooker table was undermined by his self-destructive impulses.

“I had such a great affection and love for playing snooker,” a sallow, underweight and raspy-voiced Higgins said in a late-in-life television interview in Britain. “I suppose, in a way, it’s like a drug.”

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