Those who think of the finals of a women's professional bowling tournament as a heroic clash between the Goodyear blimp and a 247-pound lady truck driver from Boise, Idaho obviously haven't yet caught Paula Sperber in her act. This leggy, left-handed blonde with a little girl's laugh and a grown-up sense of humor arrived on the scene two years ago, one day putting on hot pants, another day putting on the miniest of skirts and every day putting on the world. She came from nowhere to win the 1971 U.S. Women's Open with a 206 average, and suddenly everyone was asking, "Who's Paula Sperber?" Tongue tucked firmly in cheek, the 21-year-old Floridian told them.
To a reporter in Buffalo who asked if she had any bad habits: "Well, sometimes I litter a little."
To a writer at the PWBA tournament in Wichita last year who wanted to know if she was as big a swinger as her press notices indicated: "As a matter of fact, I had dinner alone in my room last night. But as far as I'm concerned, they could have kept the sandwich and left the guy that brought it up."
To a Japanese journalist who questioned her about her statistics: "Well, right now they're 35-25-36½, but I eat so many McDonald's hamburgers these days, I'm pushing 37."
The same writer asked if she had a boyfriend. "Sure," said Paula. "For the last year I've been sleeping with this guy I picked up named Irving." Then she grinned and explained that her bedroom companion was a blue and orange Teddy bear, and that Irving was only his code name. "He's really Italian," she added.
It is this kind of puckishness that accounts for much of Paula Sperber's sizzling image. That last journalistic exchange, for example, somehow led to a report that she drank between eight and nine glasses of vodka a day.
"She likes everyone to think she's the superplaygirl," says Bucky Woy, the roly-poly tournament director of the PWBA. "During a tournament she'll be in bed by eight, but the next morning she'll be telling everyone about the wild party she went to. She doesn't want anyone to think she's taking life too seriously."
Maybe so. But Mike Praznovsky Sr., Paula's coach since January 1971, wishes his star pupil would take bowling more seriously. "If she wanted to make bowling her life, her obsession," Praznovsky declares, "she undoubtedly would be the greatest woman bowler in the world. But she doesn't. When I first began coaching her I asked if she was ready for total dedication, and she said she didn't know, that maybe she wanted more out of life than just bowling. At least she was honest."
Paula discovered the sport when she was 11. Two years later she had rolled her first 200 game, and by the time she was 15 she had a 290, still the highest score of her career. Praznovsky saw her bowl in several junior tournaments, respected her 185 average but decided she would never be a top bowler unless she changed her style.
"The shot she had was destroying her game," he said. "She was too far toward the middle. But with her amazing strength she could still shatter the pins. And with her average, well, everyone thought she was on the right track. It disturbed me, but I didn't say anything for a long time."
Then one day Praznovsky, who is also a lefthander and once made spot appearances on the men's tour, decided to speak up. "Paula," he said, "you've got to move over if you want to be a good bowler."
"Move over?" said Paula, stunned. "Where?"
Praznovsky showed her, moving her five boards to the left. "My God," said Paula, "I'll throw it into the gutter." And at first she did. Both gutters. But finally she began finding the right track—and so Praznovsky moved her five more boards to the left.
"Which lane do you want me to bowl in?" Paula asked. "You've got me so far to the left I'm almost out in the street."
"She thought I was crazy," Praznovsky said. "But she tried it. And half an hour later she said, 'You know, you're right.' I knew she wouldn't have any trouble. With her strength and coordination she throws the most explosive ball of any girl bowler I've ever seen. I think she could outdo any girl in almost any sport she put her mind to." He shook his head. "But she won't. If she wanted to dedicate herself—like Marion Ladewig years ago—there's no telling how great she'd be. She'd make people forget Ladewig."
Praznovsky insisted on just one other change before he set her out on the women's tour. He gave Paula a glove he designed to reinforce the bowling hand and wrist. She said she wouldn't wear it. He insisted. She wore it. "Now she swears by it," he says, "but at first she said it was the end of her career."
The move to the left, now just two boards from the gutter, and the glove made the difference.
In 1970, her first year as a professional, Paula won only a couple of local tournaments. (The year before, she was a "guest" on the tour and won $210.) Last year, with Praznovsky's guidance, she was among the leaders on the professional women's money list, pocketing around $15,000 in total earnings. Her U.S. Open win—worth $4,000—came after she managed a double in the last frame of the 24th and final round-robin match.
"On the first ball I lost my balance and spun around twice, waving my arms like a big bird," Paula recalls. "Luckily, I didn't fall across the foul line."
Still she got the strike, and then a second, and finally nine pins to finish with a 215. June Llewellyn of Pompano Beach, Fla. left a 4-6 split and missed both pins for a 214. When Paula came out of the shock of her one-pin victory she told the press, "Let's all get stoned.
"Getting stoned; that's not too funny," said Paula, who a few months ago was named 1971's Woman Bowler of the Year. "It's like that story in Japan about my drinking all that vodka. If I drank that much in a week they'd have to put me into a cast. Eight or nine glasses of vodka. Wow! My astrologist in Miami told me I couldn't drink at all. He said any foreign substance like drugs or alcohol would be harmful. You couldn't get me within a mile of drugs. I don't need drugs to turn on. Love turns me on. People turn me on. Sports turn me on. Just being alive turns me on."
One of the centers of her life is children—her sister Marcia's children, to be exact. "She has three, and I guess I spend so much time with them I think of them as mine," says Paula. "But that's one of the things I'm talking about. I'm sure other people would be so much happier if they would appreciate things that they now take for granted."
Paula has two older sisters, Marcia and Marion, and two very close friends, Joe and Josie, who also happen to be her parents. And Beegee, a 73-pound pedigree beagle. It was Josie, a vibrant redhead with an infectious sense of humor, who first took Paula bowling. She had decided her youngest daughter was too quiet, too frail, too much of a realist for her age. "She was a reader," Josie says. "She wouldn't go near a doll. Never has. It's crazy. Now that she's 21 she goes to bed with a Teddy bear. But at that time, nothing but reality. She was in a shell, a worrier. I wanted to get her out, and I hoped the competition would be the answer. Some answer. Look at her now."
Look at her, indeed. The frail, quiet child of 11 emerged from her shell neatly packaged at 5'6" and 126 pounds, not quite substantial enough to achieve her not-so-secret ambition to play quarterback with the Miami Dolphins. She has a lot of the other qualifications, however. At 35 yards, she can hit a receiver in the hands with a perfectly thrown pass and make it sting. At tournaments she has organized impromptu touch football games that sometimes get a little rough. Once when she was rolling out to her left and the tournament director was rolling, well, the other way, she found herself up against a tree trunk with a bad bone bruise. Another time she and a second girl bowler double-teamed a visiting husband and flipped him into a concrete parking lot. Said Paula: "I thought we'd broken his back."
Last fall she was invited to a Dolphin workout for some publicity pictures. Arriving 15 minutes early, in a pair of hot pants, she was tossing a football back and forth on the sidelines with Strat Zammas, a Miami TV man, when Coach Don Shula strolled over. "Hey!" he said. "You've really got great hands."
"Great hands?" said Zammas, looking at Shula as though he had been in the sun too long.
Football and bowling are only two of the sports at which Paula excels. When she was five, Joe, a top three-cushion billiards player, put a cue stick in her hand, showed her how to make a bridge and discovered that in quick order she was beating him consistently.
"Dad's eyes aren't what they used to be," she explains gently. "If they were, I wouldn't be in a game long enough to reach for the chalk."
The picture of infinite patience, Joe Sperber is a quiet, caustic man who prefers to remain in the background where his daughter is concerned. When Paula bowls at home, which means three league outings a week, her parents never miss a night. Their vacations are arranged to coincide with one of her tournaments away from home.
"When she's bowling bad," says Joe, "she won't let me tell her anything. And I learned when you are the only man among three or four women, you are in trouble. They always stick together, and you always get outvoted."
Last semester Paula completed her second year at Miami-Dade Junior College, carrying a 3.5 average. With a tight schedule of exhibitions and public appearances from her sponsors, AMF, she reluctantly postponed more schooling. Ultimately, she would like to become a teacher.
She has gained a taste for romantic and philosophical literature that the casual observer would not equate with women on the bowling tour. One of her favorite authors is Kahlil Gibran, whose collections of writings, The Prophet, has inspired many of today's young. "I don't know anybody who expressed these views as he did, things like how you aren't supposed to impose your thoughts on your child but should let a child live its own life...."
Paula's relationship with her mother reflects this. Although close, they respect each other's individualism and privacy. "I tell her everything I think she should know," says Paula. "Some things you just have to keep to yourself. And there are some things it's O.K. for a mother not to know. A person has to have some secrets."
Another literary companion on her travels is poet Rod McKuen. During a recent sunbathing session in her Miami front yard (bikini, lounge chair, gawking passers-by), she flipped through several pages of McKuen and quoted a brief passage:
But if you've a need for love
I'll give you all I own
it might help you down the road
till you've found your own.
She closed her eyes to the sun and became silent, thinking about love and Rod McKuen. "Everybody thinks I'm so independent," she said. "But inside I'm really chicken, scared to death." She stopped to consider her fright. "Paula Sperber, the shy, quiet little girl with the fast set of glib lines," said Paula Sperber, the s.q.l.g.w.t.f.s.o.g.l. "It's nothing but a super defense mechanism."
One of her defense mechanisms is an ability to shake off the criticisms she occasionally elicits from her PWBA colleagues. There is, understandably, a certain resentment over her selection as Bowler of the Year after winning only one title.
"Patty Costello won three tournaments and outaveraged Paula," says Dotty Fothergill, a former Bowler of the Year herself. "And Patty didn't even rate second place. But AMF is pushing Paula, and that's important." Despite the hostility, it doesn't seem to be anything personal. "It's not Paula's fault," says Dotty. "But the girls are all charged up now. When they bowl head-to-head with her these days, they try to blow her doors right off."
"She's young, like a horse," says Patty Costello. "I don't resent her, because she's not that good. You can't last doing what she's been doing. You can't throw publicity clips down the lane."
Such remarks are rare on the tour, however, and at home Paula has no difficulty forgetting the pressures of bowling. Her reverie this particular afternoon was interrupted when Josie came to the front door to remind her daughter about an appointment for some publicity pictures at Miami airport that afternoon. "Oh, damn," said Paula, getting up and wincing as she flexed her right arm. She had just taken up her umpteenth sport, golf, and was discovering muscles she didn't know she had. ("Man, he makes me hit a lot of balls," said Paula of her golf pro. "The first lesson I swung so hard I almost fell down. 'Hey, take it easy,' he told me. 'Leave me alone,' I said. I want to whack it.' And I did.")
"She wants to do so much," said Josie later, while Paula was changing. "She says she doesn't want to wake up one day and discover life has passed her by. But whenever she goes away she gets homesick—gone two days and the phone calls start. From Japan she had such a phone bill it would have been cheaper if we'd gone with her." While she was in Japan, Paula made such an instant hit that she was offered a six-month TV contract. "She told us she was thinking about taking it," Josie recalls. "Joe almost went up a wall. He's running around saying, 'My little girl. She's going to leave us. She's going to live in Japan.' I said, 'Joe, take it easy. Give it a couple more days.' The next night the phone rings. It's Paula. 'Momma, I want to come home,' she says. 'I'm so lonesome.' "
Paula came from the bedroom carrying five changes of clothing. She picked up her bowling-ball bag, hefted it and groaned. "I suppose they want me to lug this thing all over the airport."
"And don't let them keep you too long," Josie said. "You've got to bowl tonight."
"Hey, Mom," Paula said with mock weariness, "how come you never let me play with dolls like other girls?"
"Go," said Josie, pointing to the door.