Dart and Soul

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."