But the one thing that O'Neal cannot do to save his life is shoot foul shots. While most professional players can make around 80 percent of their free throws -- and some sink 90 percent or more -- O'Neal is lucky to make half of his chances. This lousy record exists despite hours and hours of practice.
For O'Neal, there is something about standing perfectly still and trying to complete the simple, unmolested motion of launching the ball at a small target while everyone is watching. His problem might be physical (perhaps he just can't replicate the mechanics) or mental (perhaps he's just thinking too much). But in the end, it doesn't really matter. What counts is that this most talented of athletes cannot do it.
It's the same with darts. "Point your shoulder at the board and hold your arm like this," Wilcox says, arranging his arm at a right angle, with the humerus parallel to the floor and the forearm sticking straight up. "Now, it's shoulder to elbow to wrist to eye. If you're doing any more, you're doing too much." Later, as part of a vigorous discussion over the merits of mechanics, Brown takes off his thick glasses and nails two bulls-eyes in a row practically blind.
Beyond this, of course, there are infinite quirks and idiosyncrasies. Darts is a game won and lost on the minutest of measurements. A sixteenth of an inch is all that separates the "20" from the "1" on the dart board; thus, less than a quarter-inch combined over the course of three throws is all that stands between a brilliant score of 180 (three triple 20s), and a dreadful 3. "What keeps me coming back is that just the smallest bit of difference makes all the difference," says Roush. "It's a wonderfully frustrating game."
The slightest adjustment can be crucial. Most players hold the dart like a pencil. Others, like Tim Cherven, an Andre Agassi look-alike and one of Colorado's top players, press the dart between the thumb and the flat of the fingers, imparting a slight spin on release. On important shots, Wilcox will lift the dart slowly, palm-up from his waist, as if doing a dumbbell curl, before beginning the shoulder-elbow-wrist-eye motion. Brown releases his three missiles in rapid-fire sequence.
At its core, though, darts is the athletics of restraint versus the athletics of exertion. Not even the talent to hurl a projectile into a very small space matters as much as the ability to remain a simple mechanical machine under pressure. "We all hit and we all miss sometimes," Brown explains. "It's hitting that one shot when it matters that separates us. Take Paul Taylor [the British nine-time world champ, the Bill Russell of darts]. You'll have that one shot that counts, and you'll miss it. And he'll make it every time."
"The point is, everybody's a world-class dart player in his basement."
Though there are many different games, the classic dart contest is 501. That is where each player (or, in doubles, each team) begins with 501 points and, alternately throwing three darts apiece, races to get down to zero. To spice things up, the final shot must simultaneously be a double and bring your score to exactly nothing.
So a perfect 501 game can be thrown in three turns, or nine darts: seven triple 20s (adding up to 420), a triple 19 (420 + [19 x 3] = 477) and a finishing off with a double 12. This has been accomplished exactly twice on a televised tournament, most recently by the masterful Paul Lim of California, a perennial top money-earner on the tour. All sports inspire their great debates, unanswerable questions that, given half a chance or less, fans and players sitting belly to bar will gladly argue late into the night. Michael Jordan or Larry Bird? Pedro Martinez or Sandy Koufax? The designated hitter. Grass versus clay.
On a recent overcast Saturday afternoon in Lakewood, Steve Brown is carrying on the tradition. "People wonder why the majority of dart players are overweight," he begins. "But contrary to popular belief, it's not the beer. No, it's the food. See, when you've been out for the night, you get hungry very late. You eat something and then go to bed. It's the late-night eating that kills us."
Brown, who is one of the top-rated dart players in the world, pats his own mountainous belly, a mound whose visual impact is barely diminished by a vertically striped golf shirt. For him, this is no speculative debate. He stares intently out of saucer-sized spectacles of bulletproof thickness. "I might not get out of here until ten or eleven tonight," he points out. "But then I've got to eat."
The dart player's outward appearance, he continues, can give observers a misguided impression of the game. "I mean, people say that darts is not athletic," Brown says. "But it is. It's a form a fitness."
"That's right," agrees a man who has wandered into the discussion. Darters are intensely social, and whenever it appears as though something interesting is being chewed over, a crowd quickly gathers. The man wears shorts and sandals and a heroically sized Hawaiian shirt. A cigarillo pokes out of one fist; the business end of a long-neck Budweiser is nestled in the other. "Darts is athletic," he reiterates. "It's just not aerobic."
Brown nods. "It's restrained athleticism," he explains in his light British accent. "Like shooting, or archery. But they're far easier than darts." The gathered crowd nods in agreement. A vigorous discussion ensues. Resolved: Darts as sport is underappreciated.
Not now, though. Not here in the basement of the Lakewood Elks Lodge, where the 28th consecutive Colorado Open Dart Championship is under way. The tournament is highly regarded across the country -- it's one of the longest continuously running darts competitions in the U.S. -- and the event always attracts a good crowd. As a brief cold front sweeps across the Front Range, several players lounge near the entrance of the building, taking in the electric air. Telltale sets of dart flights (feathers) poke out of their chest pockets: engineering nerds with an attitude.
Inside, the atmosphere can best be described as unagitated. Thirty-two boards have been set up in the middle of the room in four rows of eight each. About a hundred players mill about chatting or sit at long tables placed between the rows. Classic rock blares nonstop over the speakers: "One bourbon, one Scotch, one beer," suggests George Thorogood.
Near the door, the Elks Club is conducting a bake sale, hawking an extremely non-athletic selection of cakes, cookies and brownies. "We've done quite well," says Betty, who is overseeing the sale. Nodding toward the room, she adds, "I don't understand any of this."
Beyond the bake sale is the kitchen, where volunteers are whipping up heaping boats of nachos, hot dogs and pizza. Tucked into opposite corners of the room are two very busy bars. "Business is real good, real good," says one of the mixologists. He has long since lost track of the volume he's moved since the tournament began on Friday. "Lord, I don't know," he says. "Plenty."
The evidence is scattered all over the room. Beer bottles crowd the tables, and workers have had a challenging time keeping the surfaces clear. Overhead, the air-cleaning system works overtime trying to dissolve the thick cloud of smoke rising from dozens of cigarettes and cigars. "As soon as I get home from a tournament, I throw all my clothes in the laundry," complains Brenda Roush, one of the top women dart players in the country who, as a non-smoker, non-drinker, is something of a freak.
In fact, the whole place feels like a bar in which all the lights have suddenly been flicked on. Hardly surprising, as darts and bars have inseparable histories. Alcohol -- and the prodigious consumption of it -- twines through tales of epic darts matches throughout the ages.
On a recent night at the Mirage Cafe and Sports Bar, a favorite darts bar in Littleton, the question of whether alcohol helps or hinders one's throw is debated. "The game can be played sober," points out Aaron "Pinhead" Kellough, a longtime local player. "I mean, there are people who do it." Pinhead is quick to admit he's not one of them, though. "I started out bowling and playing billiards," he says. "Anything with a beer in your hand I can do real well at."
Still, Jerry Feathers nods a token sign of agreement: Sure there are dart players who don't drink. Then again, he's the former owner of The Dart Board, Colorado's top darts-and-drinking emporium for more than two decades (he sold it two years ago), and memories of epic sober matches don't tend to stick with him as well. It's like trying to separate the sandlot from baseball.
"Remember when John Lowe and Cliff Lazarenko came out?" he says. "Two of the top players in the world. These guys were drinking small pitchers that had fifteen shots of Absolut and soda mixed together. My wife said they went though a hundred shots that night, and they weren't losing to anyone." Back in the day, many arrowmen practiced just as hard at their drinking as they did at their throwing, Feather adds, the idea being that a win was just as likely to occur if your opponent was drunker than you as it was if you happened to throw better.
In the early days of the North American Open Dart Tournament, this country's premier contest, diligent secretaries included the volume of alcohol consumed along with the rest of the vital statistics. Thanks to such scrupulous record-keeping, we know that in the 1972 tournament, held in Culver City, California, 384 players from five states competed against each other, and over the course of a weekend, they (and presumably at least a few spectators and residents) finished off 8,640 bottles of beer and 125 quarts of liquor.
Most aren't as serious about their alcohol, of course. Some dart players drink incidentally. They happen to be throwing darts in a bar, and, well, that's what you do in a bar. Others, however, still do it to calm their nerves before a big match. Moreover, shaky hands can be a problem during a match, so that's another good time for a beer. And after a match, a person needs to unwind, a situation that desperately calls for a malted beverage. It is this very logical progression that results in darts remaining one of the very few sports that encourage the use of performance-enhancing substances.
Recently, though, the game has been working hard to get away from that image. Tournament organizers seeking legitimacy -- which is to say, advertising -- want to bring the sport out of the tavern. And many young, up-and-coming players claim that not imbibing actually improves their game. Yet enough of the world's best arrowmen still come out of the pub farm system to make the dry movement fall considerably short of unanimous.
"At the national tournaments, you're not supposed to be drinking alcohol while on stage playing a match," Feathers explains. "But if you look closely, you might see a Coke or Pepsi being consumed with more than Coke or Pepsi in it."
Wade Wilcox is here. You can tell that the 34-year-old Harvard-educated law student and professional dart player from Ohio is in the house from his attire -- specifically, a loose-fitting black-and-red bowling shirt. It has the big words "Wade Wilcox" stitched on the back. Shorts, hiking boots and a compact disc player strapped to his waist round out the competition outfit. He listens to country music while throwing. "It makes me realize my life really isn't that bad," he says.
There is some debate over the words "professional dart player." In a sense, nearly every dart player is a professional. Money trades hands easily in bar matches, and nearly every tournament offers some sort of cash reward for its top finishers. In short, almost no one playing darts seriously these days would qualify for, say, the 1928 Olympics. But "professional," as used in the sentence "Alex Rodriguez earns $25 million a year as a professional baseball player," is another matter.
"I make $25,000 a year as a secretary and $7,000 playing darts," Wilcox says. "Does that make me a professional? I don't know. But when I walk in the door, people ask me for my autograph. That's nice." He pauses to ponder the point further. "Maybe," he adds, "it's if people call you a professional that you're a professional." A small crowd gathers, and a vigorous discussion ensues.
If there is such an animal in America (professional dart players in England, where the big tournaments are televised for many hours straight, live very nicely, thank you), it is Steve Brown. "Steve only plays darts," notes Wilcox. "He doesn't have a job."
"Shut up," Brown says. "Darts is a job." He started playing at age eleven, spurred on by the amazement of watching his father, a pioneering arrowman, being paid to travel from his modest home outside London and across the Atlantic in 1974. "For my dad to go to New York City to play darts -- I mean, that was amazing," he remembers. By the time he was fourteen, he was playing four nights a week and most weekends.
Today Brown is a much-sought-after fixture at local tournaments, most of which he drives to from his St. Louis home in a 1983 Toyota Tercel with 290,000 miles on it. "Thing is, this is my living, and flying can get real expensive," he says. "Besides, all my expenses on the road are deductible." He just returned from pleasant motors to Saskatoon and Montreal before alighting briefly in Missouri and then hopping back into the auto for the relatively short jaunt to Colorado.
In addition to playing in tournaments, Brown conducts exhibitions. One of his better-known tricks is to cut the tip off a sixteen-penny nail, drill it out and insert a dart tip. He'll select a member of the audience and have him stand against a board and balance a soda cap with a quarter on top of it on his head. Then Brown will throw the nail and knock the quarter off without disturbing the cap.
It's a bit of a show, and he's not entirely proud of the carnival connotations of the act. "I mean, I'm not a circus act. I'm a serious dart player," he says. Still, if the act generates interest in his sport, it's all to the good.
And America could use the interest. As with cricket, squash and rowing, the Brits -- and other European competitors -- regularly thrash the tar out of U.S. darters. Brown sees this as a problem of culture. For one, he points out, youth is stifled: Darts is played in bars, a place in which children are generally discouraged from loitering. "You try and tell me one other sport where kids are actively prevented from playing a sport," he says angrily.
Later, if they do happen to cultivate an interest in the game, Brown says, players are not permitted to get good because of the Draconian holiday policies in this country. "Here you have ten days of vacation a year," he explains. "Barely enough time to go to a few tournaments. In England you get thirty days" -- plenty of time to play darts.
Not that it's all glamour. "It's not a great living financially, and it's not easy," he says. "You've got to cut corners. For example, I left for here at 8 p.m. Thursday night so I could save money on a hotel." Last year, Brown says, he cleared about $20,000. "But," he points out, "I'm doing what I love."
For anyone who thinks darts is an easy game to master, here are two words to ponder: Shaquille O'Neal. O'Neal is the massive center for the NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers. The team's success is due in no small part to O'Neal, who, as the team's center, almost always leads the league in scoring and rebounding.
Most matches, of course, last longer. One result is that there are no math slouches in darts. Part of the skill of 501 is quickly calculating the combination of shots that will get you to zero with a final double from any number of scores. (The highest you can check out with is 170: two triple-20s and a double bulls-eye. There are charts to help novices, but most players do this in their heads, and it is a wondrous thing to watch a top player calculate the numbers, then throw them exactly.
The other result is that with enough luck, anyone can be champion for a day. Matches at the Colorado Open are best of three games, a format short enough for a dilettante to occasionally topple a top professional. (Challenge Tiger Woods to a putting contest on a single hole and you might win. Go head-to-head with him over fifty holes and you wouldn't.)
And this is the very greatest feature of darts: With only a handful of exceptions at the very highest levels -- and primarily in Europe -- dart tournaments are open to all comers, pro as well as chump. The pros must prove their stuff in front of -- and against -- their fans, and fans often find themselves throwing next to their heroes. No one is standoffish.
"It's the only sport I know of where you can buy a set of darts, practice for ten minutes, pay your $20 entrance fee and play the Arnold Palmer of the sport," says Feathers. Rarely -- but often enough to make things interesting -- that person can even win. It happened in the second year of the Colorado Open: In 1974, Bob Sarvis walked into the tournament, plunked down his money, borrowed a set of house darts and won the whole thing.
The format keeps the best players humble. "Even though they're not nationally ranked, good local players can occasionally beat us," says Brown. "I've won one world tournament this year and made it to the finals of another. But I also played in a small one-day bar shoot in Missouri in April and lost money."
There is no seeding in tournaments, either, so an amateur can meet a pro at any point. In the first round of the men's singles 501, Brown encounters Huy Nguyen, a player out of Duffy's Tavern in Colorado Springs. Brown nails a 170 on his first three throws, and the match is over in the blink of an eye. "Painless," confirms Nguyen. "But it's great to play one of the best in the world." Far from being discouraged, he's not about to quit the game now.
After the match, Brown moseys over to the food bar to relax while waiting for his next contest and begins working on a boat of nachos. He strikes up a conversation with a couple of men hanging out by the bake sale. He will go on to win the event, for which he earns a Smurf-sized trophy and $360. Over on another row of boards, Wade Wilcox uncharacteristically loses in the first round to a local, then still hangs around to chat. Overhead, "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" pours out of the loudspeakers,
"This is the great thing about darts," says Pinhead. Nodding to Brown, he searches for an analogy. "That's the No. 22 player in the world. I mean, who's the No. 22 golf player in the world? Davis Love?"
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A crowd begins to form. "Davis Love? Bullshit," says one of the guys.
"Naaah. I don't think it's Love, either," agrees another, edging into the circle.
"Whatever," snaps Pinhead. "The point is, you can go to a local tournament and shoot shit with the world's top players."
Yes. Everyone nods. Several begin telling their own stories of brushes with greatness. A vigorous debate ensues.