Parker Lakilak walked into Robertson Billiards, took one look at the tall woman with the long black hair and bright red lipstick and knew it was her.
The Black Widow.
"It's like Peyton Manning in football," said Lakilak, 25, of Largo.
It's that kind of recognition that Jeanette Lee, arguably the most famous professional pool player in the world, is banking on as she begins a second career of sorts.
After 18 years in Indianapolis, Lee and her family moved to Tampa last summer. About the same time, the 44-year-old mother of six bought a stake in the Hillsborough chapter of the American Poolplayers Association. And this week, her nonprofit Black Widow Foundation begins a five-day juniors camp from its new headquarters: Lee's home in upscale Cheval.
"My youngest kids are just entering school now," she said. "I don't want to travel the way I was before. What do you do when you're done flying everywhere for tournaments?"
She found the answer here.
• • •
Born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., by a single mother working two or three jobs, Lee grew up a Korean-American in a predominately black neighborhood. She did well in school but didn't feel like she fit in anywhere. At the age of 13, she had surgery to correct scoliosis, a curvature of the spine.
It left physical and emotional scars.
"I felt like I was broken, and I didn't like what I saw in the mirror," she said.
Lee was 18 when she first stepped into Chelsea Billiards in Manhattan. It wasn't long after the release of The Color of Money, the 1986 film that inspired a new wave of pool hustlers.
"The more I played, the more I loved it," she said. "I felt like it was artistic, and very much something I could do. It was the first time I stopped caring about what other people were doing. I was just so focused about what was going on on the table."
Young and beautiful with a penchant for dressing all in black, Lee got the "Black Widow'' nickname for her ability to lure opponents to the table and then eat them alive.
She befriended legendary player and teacher Gene Nagy, who taught her to play without worrying so much about winning. He encouraged her to take risks on the table and to accept that sometimes, you lose.
"It's not about gambling or winning this tournament or that one," she said. "It's greater than that. It's about the journey."
Lee's own journey was meteoric. She turned professional at 21 and within two years was ranked No. 1 in the world. She would go on to win more than 30 national and international titles, including nine-ball and trick shot titles. She won a gold medal in the 2001 World Games in Japan and was inducted into the Women's Professional Billiards Association Hall of Fame in 2012.
Away from the table, Lee has been ranked among ESPN's sexiest athletes in the world, made appearances on television shows ranging from Live With Regis and Kelly to Late Night With David Letterman, and has her own sleepwear line in Bass Pro Shops stores. She's been the spokeswoman for the American Poolplayers Association for some 20 years.
Throughout her career, she suffered from chronic pain and endured nearly a dozen surgeries on her back, neck and shoulders. Three years ago, she was diagnosed with a severe, debilitating form of arthritis aggravated by cold weather. With her three older children grown and two youngest approaching school age, Lee competed in fewer tournaments. Finally, she and her husband, professional pool player and business owner George Breedlove, decided it was time to move to a warmer climate.
"I wanted a place that was a little more family-friendly than New York City and not as slow as the countryside, and Tampa seems like the right pace," she said.
But they didn't want to move without a way for Lee to earn a living and still be home to tuck in her children at night.
So she made a call.
• • •
The Hillsborough chapter of the APA — known as the Tampa Bay APA — has roughly 800 active members. Membership is $25 a year. Members then pay a small weekly fee to play at local bars and pool halls. They vie for cash prizes and a chance to go all the way to the APA World Pool competition held each year in Las Vegas.
Last summer, Lee approached longtime Tampa Bay APA owner Pat Giorgianni, who agreed to sell to Lee and her two business partners, Jason and Misty Dusel. The Dusels ran a league in Buffalo and moved here with Lee to run the Hillsborough chapter together.
"Tampa's a huge market, and there's a lot of room for growth," said Alana Rodgers, whose family owns Robertson Billiards on Franklin Street and has been in the retail billiards business for 80 years. "(Lee) saw some potential in our market, which is kind of cool. She could have gone in a lot of different directions."
Lee said for her, success will mean growing that membership eightfold and adding to the list of weekly venues. To do that, she has to show members, current and potential, that she won't be just an owner in name only.
"This business is all about customer service," she said. "We need to build that bond and that trust."
Meanwhile, she's working to groom the next generation of American billiards stars.
For the second year, the Black Widow Foundation will host a training camp for 10 elite youngsters vying for one of six spots representing Team USA in the annual Atlantic Challenge Cup, a world championship to be held in Illinois this summer. The players, ages 15 to 18, will spend four days at Lee's home and train with her and other professionals at Fatso's Billiards and Sports Bar in Tampa.
"America has always been the place to go if you wanted to become a world champion, and over the last decade we've had more and more international players taking the gold home," she said. "I'm truly passionate about it, I love to teach, I love people, and it's something nice for the community."
Three of the pros — Lee's fellow Hall of Famers Johnny Archer, Allison Fisher and Nick Varner — will appear at a fundraiser for the foundation at Fatso's today.
As she chatted with a reporter Tuesday at Robertson Billiards, Parker Lakilak and another fan approached with cues and cue balls in hand. Could they get autographs and photos?
Sure, she said. But first, a question and a request.
"Did you know about the event tomorrow?" she asked. "We're training the top kids so we're hosting a fundraiser. Please spread the word."
Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 494-8148. Follow @tmarrerotimes.