Jeanette Lee cradles the 9 ball in her palm and with a pen
carefully draws a tiny heart, writes her name inside it and
hands the ball back to the fan with a warm smile. The cute
little heart is the last thing you might expect from a pool
player whose nickname is the Black Widow. Indeed, when Lee, one
of the world's top female professionals, is running the table,
she's cold and deadly.
As a teenager she earned her moniker in a New York pool hall,
not only for her cutthroat play but also for her preferred
attire--black from head to toe. With jet-black tendrils of hair
hanging below her waist, the 25-year-old Lee, with stick in
hand, is a picture of intimidation. During competition, she can
run rack after rack without a hint of a smile. Before she
strokes her cue stick, she lowers her jaw, arches her eyebrows
and stares at the cue ball. "You could have the easiest shot,"
says Lee, "but if you blink for half a second and let your
concentration go, you're standing in front of the most difficult
shot in the world."
Lee is also known for her dramatic behavior. A missed shot is
followed by a histrionic sigh, a foot stomp or a scowl. "I tell
Jeanette she should win the Academy Award for best actress when
she plays," says Mary Guarino, who has been a player on the
Women's Professional Billiard Association (WPBA) tour for the
past 20 years. "If the cue ball doesn't do exactly what she
thought it was going to do, she'll put her hand on her hip and
That's not surprising. When it comes to nine ball, the game
played on the WPBA tour and likely to be a medal sport at the
1997 World Games in France, Lee hates to lose--and she rarely
does. In nine ball a player must play the numbered balls on the
table in order, and the player who sinks the 9 ball, as a
result of either a combination or in sequence, wins. When the
Brooklyn native is on, it's as if she is in a trance. "It's
almost scary," says Lee, "because you feel like you're not human
anymore. You have no fear. You have no doubt. You already know
you've won before you even come to the table."
When Lee strutted onto their turf in 1993, the other women on
the WPBA tour considered her too cocky. "Jeanette came out with
the attitude, 'I'm going to beat all of you, don't get in my
way,'" says Ewa Mataya-Laurance, one of the tour's best-known
The first time Lee met Helena Thornfeldt, who is now her closest
friend on the tour, Lee declared that she was the best female
straight pool player in the world. Thornfeldt, a three-time
European straight pool champion, was skeptical. When they
played, Lee ran 94 balls to Thornfeldt's three. At that point,
Thornfeldt asked to change to nine ball instead of straight pool.
"Jeanette was awesome," says Thornfeldt. "She was the best woman
pool player I ever saw. Jeanette says a lot of things, but she
backs them up."
Most women on the tour now tolerate Lee's attitude, and she has
toned down her comments. "She's not as bad as she was," says
Guarino. "On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the worst, she
came onto the tour a 10. Now she's probably a 7."
Lee started playing when she was 18. She discovered the game
while working as an editorial assistant for a computer company
in Manhattan. After work one day, she stopped inside Chelsea
Billiards and watched a man named Johnny Ervolino running the
table. She was hooked. Soon she was sleeping with her fingers
taped in the shape of a cue bridge. When she woke she couldn't
get to a pool table fast enough. "My apartment was 2 1/2 blocks
away from the poolroom and I cabbed it every day," Lee admits.
When she got there, she couldn't tear herself away from the
table. Lee says that she once practiced 37 hours straight and
had to be carried home by friends because she had trouble
walking. It took a week for her back to recover.
The back problems predate pool. At 13, she had an operation to
correct a severe case of scoliosis, a lateral curvature of the
spine. Her spine had to be broken, and metal rods were planted
from the top of her spine to her pelvic bone. She was in a cast
for more than two months. Pool hardly seems to be appropriate
therapy, but Lee continues to play in spite of her doctor's
telling her that she should not be playing at all. "I couldn't
live without it," she says. "You just have to take what you have
and make the most of it."
Lee has certainly done so in her 3 1/2 years as a pro. By the
end of her first season, 1993, she was ranked No. 8 in the
world. Before the 1994 season she boldly predicted she would be
the next No. 1 player. She won five of the circuit's 12
tournaments, earned $45,326 and was named player of the year.
"I need to really make it for my family's sake," says Lee, who
is the younger of two daughters of Korean immigrant parents.
"They don't put that pressure on me. I put it all on myself."
Her father, Bo Chun Lee, 66, owns a smoke shop across the street
from the Empire State Building, and her mother, Sonja, 56, is a
registered nurse. Lee hopes they'll be able to retire soon with
her help. She also dreams of putting all her cousins through
After her meteoric rise to the No. 1 ranking, Lee struggled
during the 1995 season. She won only two tournaments and twice
finished second. By the end of the year she was tied with Robin
Bell as the top-ranked player. Lee took back her No. 1 status
within a month, slipped briefly to No. 2 and is now tops again.
"I'm kind of in a trap," she explains. "When you first start
out, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. You've
just got the odds against you. When you're somebody, you have
all this pressure."
Last June Lee met George Breedlove, a 29-year-old professional
on the men's tour who is known as the Flamethrower for his
powerful breaks on the table. Breedlove proposed on their third
date. They were married on Jan. 6, but because of their touring
schedules, haven't had time for a honeymoon. Two days after
their wedding in Queens, N.Y., they hit the road for the ESPN
World Open Nine Ball Championship, in Santa Rosa, Calif.
Breedlove has made life easier for Lee. He takes care of most of
their business affairs while Lee uses the time to practice. "You
ever hear the phrase, 'I've got your back?'" Lee asks. "I feel
like someone's got my back. I'm not as worried. It's kind of
nice to know someone's there to take care of me."
The extra time Lee is spending at the table has paid off. She is
playing more consistently this season. So far she has finished
third in the circuit's first two events, then added two
fourth-place and two fifth-place finishes in the next four
events. "When I play eight to 10 hours every day," she says, "I
feel like Superwoman."
Players on tour have noticed that Lee is also more relaxed, a
change they attribute to her marriage. Her impish side was
evident at a billiards expo in March, in Valley Forge, Pa.,
where she squared off for an exhibition nine ball match against
her husband. The first few games went to Lee, then Breedlove
seized control. Lee bent over next to him and said, loud enough
for all to hear, "George, before you make this shot, I hope you
know where the couch is." Breedlove shook his head and sank the
7 ball. "I know," he says, "I'm in the doghouse tonight."
Eventually Lee won, and Breedlove announced to the crowd with a
big smile, "The best part about losing--I'm the only one who
gets to kiss the winner."
After the exhibition Lee was swamped by fans seeking her
autograph. Each signature included her customary heart. As
Breedlove waited for his wife, he said, "Every time she plays
me, she plays with a fire in her eyes. If she could play that
way all the time, she would win every tournament."
That's a prospect the Black Widow's opponents would find quite
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BURGESS Lee's opponents fear her deadly shot, but she got her nickname because of her wardrobe's color. [Jeanette Lee playing nine ball]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BURGESS When Breedlove loses to Lee, he gets to kiss the winner. [George Breedlove and Jeanette Lee]