Bowling's newest twist
Australian's unorthodox delivery could give sport two helping hands
LAS VEGAS - Some bowlers call him the "Chosen One."
Jason Belmonte, the flashy Australian tenpin bowler with the radical two-handed delivery, smiles at the thought.
"That's probably not the correct words," says Belmonte, 25. "I just think there's an opportunity within me that this industry needs."
In the early 1980s, the tail end of the glory days for the Professional Bowlers Association, the PBA outrated the Masters, and the NBA Finals weren't even televised live.
But then the PBA was abandoned by the networks and almost went bankrupt. Now it is looking for a superstar to bring back ratings and sponsors.
And it may have found the man.
"They talk about the power of what Tiger Woods did for TV ratings of golf," says Peter Tredwell, vice president of media for the US Bowling Congress. "Or what David Beckham has done for Major League Soccer. Could Jason Belmonte potentially do that for bowling in America? It's possible."
Belmonte has been the amateur World Bowler of the Year twice (2004 and '07). He has bowled 34 perfect games and competed in 19 countries. His average is 230.
At the recent USBC Masters Championship here, Belmonte was treated more like Elvis than Ralph Kramden.
Camera crews and still photographers trailed him everywhere.
"I feel like a groupie," said Le-Ane Houan of Dayton, Ohio, after watching Belmonte in the Masters tournament. "I had to see it to believe it. It was impressive. I was amazed."
Belmonte's unorthodox style, simply, is power bowling. He slips two fingers in the ball, never using his thumb. He rears back from the right side with both hands and slingshots the ball toward the pins. Only at the very last moment does he release the left hand. It's all about spin; most pros get 400 revolutions per minute on the ball, but Belmonte can hit 630. Consequently, more energy hits the pins.
"I just let it rip," he said.
The ball goes from near the gutter on the right side into a pocket of exploding pins. When it does, Belmonte usually gives a little fist pump. When it doesn't, he's capable of air-kicking the ball return.
When Jason could barely walk, his parents gave him a bowling ball and a pair of shoes instead of sending him to day care.
"They told me to go crazy," Belmonte remembered. "That's how they kept me entertained."
Belmonte could barely lift the 10-pound ball, so he used two hands. He won his first tournament at age 4. By the tender age of 5, he was averaging 118.
Coaches have tried to get him to bowl with one hand all his life. When he was 11, one coach told him he had to give up the two-handed style. "You'll never get anywhere," she said.
"It made me stronger," he said.
Years later, she apologized.
Other two-handers are thriving. The Bolivian national team switched to the two-handed style and had its best showing ever. Using the technique, a 10-year-old kid from Ohio, Chaz Dennis, became the youngest player to roll a perfect 300 game. Osku Palermaa, a Finnish two-hand bowler who gets even more revolutions on the ball than Belmonte, has thrived in Europe.
"Its definitely going to be more than a fad," said Rod Ross, head coach of Junior Team USA. "It's one of the strongest styles of the future."
Some critics say it puts too much stress on the back. Belmonte counters that by saying, "Your body is not used to it. If I try to bowl one hand for a game and a half, I'm hurting my wrist."
He says converts to the two-handed style initially try too hard.
"I would prefer people start slowly before whacking the hell out of the ball," he said.
Belmonte estimated that by 2025, half the pro bowlers will be using the two-handed method.
"He's got all the qualities of a rock star," said Salvino. "His style is so unique. When I'm not bowling, I watch him. He's good for all of us. Those that don't like him are just plain jealous."
Initially, a few bowlers questioned whether two-handed bowling was against the rules. James Hicks, a pro bowler from Prescott, Ariz., isn't one of them.
"Whether he uses two hands or kicks it down the lane, you've still got to get the results," Hicks said.
Belmonte is thick-skinned to criticism.
"Heaps of people have heckled me through the years, but once they see the power of what happens to the pins, they stop," he said.
Some pros were annoyed that Belmonte was given two consecutive special exemptions by PBA commissioner Fred Schreyer in late 2008. The exemptions automatically allowed him to make the first cut in tournament play.
"I don't think it's fair. It's just wrong, no offense to Jason," said Walter Ray Williams Jr., who has won more titles than anybody in the history of professional bowling. "It slights a lot of players. They are breaking their own rules. He needs to earn a spot like everybody else. They are looking for a superstar and basically ignoring the stars they have in the process."
Belmonte, who defeated Williams in a head-to-head matchup in the Masters before finishing 26th, says he has heard the whispers and watched the heads turn.
"I don't feel guilty taking those two spots," Belmonte said. "[Schreyer] has the right to select anyone he wanted. He was hoping I'd make the [ESPN] TV show and create a real buzz."
Schreyer insists no rules were broken.
"It was a break from precedent, to some extent," said Schreyer. "We've never given two exemptions in a row. It's a radical new style, and he's coming all the way from Australia. Our job is to raise the visibility of the tour. It's not like we gave him a pass to be on the TV show. My only regret was that he didn't do better."
Belmonte has competed in five US tournaments but has yet to record a win; his best showing is a 10th-place finish.
After winning tournaments in Europe and Asia, Belmonte believes he eventually will rise to the top in the PBA.
"America has the best bowlers in the world," he said. "It's a learning curve for me."
He insists he's not in it for the money.
"I'm not doing this for fame and fortune," he insisted. "What I'm doing is for the love of the game."
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.