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Bowlers roll a strike in ‘Ordinary Gentlemen’

Documentary looks at the top competitors in the Professional Bowler’s Association
/ Source: The Associated Press

It’s hard to imagine Tiger Woods scraping ice off the roof of his mobile home after winning The Masters. Or Andy Roddick driving himself to the U.S. Open, then staying in some motel in Queens. Or Alex Rodriguez having to supplement his income with nightly karaoke gigs after Yankees games.

The top competitors in the Professional Bowler’s Association must do all this and more, sometimes just to break even while on tour. That’s what makes the title of the amusing, insightful documentary “A League of Ordinary Gentlemen” so apt.

These guys are at the top of their game, and except for Pete Weber, the larger-than-life son of legendary bowler Dick Weber, you probably have no idea who they are. They have wives and divorces. They have kids and bills. They are America — though as director Christopher Browne skillfully shows in his film debut, they’re clinging to a way of life that has withered in the face of a shifting cultural landscape.

Once a common social pastime with the much-watched Saturday afternoon TV time slot just before ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” bowling is now considered the low-class sport of Al Bundy from “Married ... With Children” and the doofuses from the Farrelly brothers’ movie “Kingpin” — all of whom appear in the film’s introduction.

“It’s the people who bowl who get no respect from the elites,” longtime sports journalist Bernie Goldberg says. “This is a snobbery of the worst kind.”

Though there is a certain irresistible kitsch factor in the mullets and mustaches, the perms and polyester, Browne never condescends to these people. As he follows four of pro bowling’s top athletes — and no, that’s not a contradiction in terms — he tells their stories thoroughly and with a genuine interest in finding out who they are and why they spend the time, money and effort continuing to do what they do.

There’s Weber, who has emerged as the rambunctious John McEnroe of bowling, with his mirrored sunglasses and celebratory “crotch chop” (a move he borrowed from pro wrestling). His bad-boy attitude and obvious comfort in front of the camera make him the darling of the league’s new ownership, a trio of former Microsoft executives who bought the PBA in 2000 for $5 million and hired ex-Nike marketing whiz Steve Miller to jazz it up.

Weber’s nemesis is Walter Ray Williams Jr., who leads the league in career earnings with about $2.6 million. He’s serious and subdued, with a degree in physics and a half-dozen horseshoe-pitching championships, as well. Williams and Weber competed in the finals during ABC’s last bowling broadcast in 1997, and they face off again here in the 2003 World Championships outside Detroit — a showdown Browne plays for all its gunslingers-at-dawn suspense.

Wayne Webb, who joined the PBA at 18 and was named Player of the Year at 23, finds himself barely holding on in his mid-40s. He’s been divorced three times, declared bankruptcy twice, lived in more than 20 cities and lost his career winnings to compulsive gambling. During road trips and tournaments, he reveals himself as sort of a sad hanger-on — a party boy turned petulant whiner.

Finally there’s Chris Barnes, who stands as the best among a younger wave of bowlers and serves a new hope for the sport to gain viewers and fans. He’s only been in the league since 1998, and is still learning to juggle the pressure of competition and the responsibilities of a wife and infant twin sons at home in Dallas.

Leading them all is Miller, the league’s CEO. A former Detroit Lion and Kansas State athletic director, he has the intensity and tenacity of a bulldog in his mission to reshape the league’s image. And with the help of some high-energy ESPN tournament broadcasts, he seems to be on his way.

“Either we’re in this together or you can kiss my ...,” he barks at his bowlers at the start of the 2002-03 season.

Then he finishes his speech with, “Thanks, fellas. Have a good day.”

“League” gets a little repetitive, and Browne relies a bit too heavily on talking heads, but the humor and behind-the-scenes intimacy make his first film far from a turkey.