Loree Jon Ogonowski scans a pool table, its 15 numbered balls scattered about, and visualizes a boldly colored constellation. Then, stroking the cue ball, she picks them off one by one as easily as tracing a connect-the-dots drawing. As she lines up each shot, the 5' 7½" Ogonowski bends from the waist like a gymnast until the tip of her chin rests lightly on her cue stick. Her long lines and centered focus suggest a sleek cannon lowering its sights on little tugboats.
Ogonowski, 19, is grooving her stroke and command of the cue ball at Loree Jon Billiards, a pool hall named after her by her father. It is on Route 22 in Green Brook, N.J. Loree Jon was a prodigy at age four, when she first lifted a cue stick over her head with one hand and speared balls into the pockets of the family table. At seven she gave her first exhibition, but two years later retired from the sport to ride bikes and go to slumber parties. By 11 she had grown tired of little-girl games and became a professional pool player after placing eighth in the 1977 Women's World Open Championship. A few years later, she had an extraordinary run of 76 balls in a straight-pool tournament, and at 15 she won the Open. Last year she beat the reigning queen of pool, Jean Balukas, to win the Women's World Nine-Ball Championship.
But insiders say Ogonowski, currently among the nation's top five women pool players, lacks the killer instinct to become No. 1, that she loses too many matches to lesser players and that she often plays too cautiously.
"She still has to get that animal," says her father, John Ogonowski, using what has become the family byword in any discussion of Loree Jon's career. "It's in there, but it's been awfully hard to dig it out."
The elder Ogonowski has passed his considerable pool knowledge and skill to four of his five children, but most has gone to the youngest, Loree Jon. "All her life, it's been me and her and pool," he says. Ogonowski got his education in the smoky pool halls of Elizabeth, N.J. from players with names like One-Eyed Joe and Brooklyn Freddy and later spent 12 years as president of an electrical-workers' union, during which time he opened his own poolroom. He understands toughness, but trying to instill it in his little girl has been painful.
Loree Jon recently came through a difficult period in which pool suddenly seemed meaningless and she had even less desire to be the best player in the world. "After high school, I just got confused about which way to go," she says. "I would be playing in a tournament, and it was like I was watching myself play. I was just going through the motions. Or I would be sitting at home, and I'd just burst into tears and not know why."
In the fall of 1983 she enrolled at Marywood College in Scranton, Pa., displaying a strong interest in the school's communications program. But one day, after a teacher chided her for missing classes because she had chosen to play in a tournament, Ogonowski blurted, "Don't call my profession an extracurricular activity." She left school after her freshman year.
It was a turning point. "I realized that I loved pool," she says. "When I made up my mind this was going to be my profession—and it was my decision—I felt so much better. I also realized that I had been trying to win for everyone but myself."
Where she had once shied away from gambling, she now threw herself into pressure matches for several hundred dollars apiece. In 1984 she made $6,400 in prize money and about $40,000 from gambling.
Last year she also met Sam Jones, a laconic 35-year-old from Kentucky who makes his living as a pool hustler. "He's the first pool player I've gone out with," she says. "Most of them are too wild to have a relationship with. He makes me so happy. I used to be 90 percent of a player and a person. Sam is the 10 percent chunk that was missing." They are engaged to be married in the fall.
Because of Jones, for the first time Ogonowski has grown a little apart from her father, but John Ogonowski is only a little wistful. "It was going to happen," he says. "I took her as far as I could. She's around much better players now, and she's learning how to play with pressure, how to live with pressure. She's getting more of the animal."
His little girl agrees. "When I play well," she says, "my face gets real hot and my hands get real cold. I can't explain it. But when I feel like that, I know I'm going to win. And lately I've been getting that feeling more and more."