Professional bowling's new king has a different look. He wears a fade haircut, round eyeglasses and, in his left ear, a gold hoop and a diamond stud. And if things are going well, as they were at the end of the title match of the Firestone Tournament of Champions last Saturday in Fairlawn, Ohio, George Branham III wears a smile 100 watts brighter than the TV lights.
That smile, which lit up Riviera Lanes right after Branham's nationally televised 227-214 victory over Parker Bohn III, had little to do with the fact that Branham is the first black to win the Firestone, bowling's most prestigious event. Though only 30, Branham has already been on the PBA tour long enough to have suffered a six-year drought in tournament wins. Before he won last month's Baltimore Open, which qualified him for the Firestone, he hadn't won since Ronald Reagan was in office.
"I was consistently cashing, but I was never winning," says Branham, who cashed a $60,000 check for his Firestone victory. "That got frustrating after a few years. I knew I had to change something, but what thing? Then I realized maybe I just had to wait my turn."
While he was waiting, Branham, who says he used to "eat, sleep and drink bowling," found some welcome distractions. He started lifting weights and gained 20 pounds of muscle. He also moved from Southern California to Indianapolis, where he met his future wife, Jacquelyne, a recruiter for a local business college. When he told her what he did for a living, she laughed. "You can make money doing that?" she asked. The couple bought a 75-year-old house in Indianapolis 18 months ago, and Branham is so absorbed in its renovation that when he calls home from the tour, he asks about "my house" the way a father might ask about a child.
Besides being the only guy on the tour with two earrings—"The PBA allows one stud, but no one has said anything about the hoop yet," he says—Branham may be the only pro bowler who has ever dunked a basketball. A guard for Polytechnic High in Sun Valley, Calif., Branham hoped to play college ball, but when he stopped growing at 5'10", he turned his attention to bowling. (His brother, Richard, eventually sprouted to 6'5" and became a reserve on the Cal team that reached the Sweet 16 this year.) George Branham II, a league and tournament bowler, had introduced his namesake to the sport when he was six. George III went about his bowling quietly. "No one in school knew I bowled, because when you're not a bowler, you don't want to hear about bowling," he says.
So he worshiped his TV heroes, Mark Roth, Marshall Holman and Earl Anthony, in private. By the time he was 17, George knew he wanted to make a career out of bowling. He was good enough to join the tour by 1984, and nine years later he has reached the sport's pinnacle. "I feel my career is on the rise," Branham says. "I just hope it's not another six years before I'm back here again."