Right on Cue
On his way toward legitimizing the sport, pool hustler Kid Delicious runs the table with PW.
From the October 24, 2007 Philadelphia Weekly
Danny Basavich, aka Kid Delicious, leans over the table and pulls down the plastic triangle quickly but gently, meticulously racking the nine balls to make sure each one is touching the next.
He pokes a few loose balls into position with his plump right index finger and then stares intently at the configuration as though he's scaring the balls into position.
He removes the triangle, stands erect, twitches his left elbow a few times, then offers a giant shit-eating grin.
"You're going to get to see my famous flyaway break," he says in his raspy Marlon Brando-like Brooklyn-infused Jersey accent while he glides his roly-poly 300-pound body around the 9-foot-long table. "It's awesome!"He strokes his $1,300 Kid Delicious-model pool stick three times, then rolls his head to the left, right and around again. He stretches his left leg behind him, then his right, and he shakes his ass to awaken every muscle in his body.
It almost looks like he's putting on a comedy skit - a guy this goofy and twitchy can't actually be an athlete, can he? I mean, he's already got beads of sweat around his eyes despite the comfort of the air conditioning.
With his calisthenics over, he juts out his left elbow once more and then leans low into the table. His left hand holds the rail, and guides the stick toward the cue ball as he pumps the stick several times with his outstretched right hand.
Billy Idol's "Rebel Yell" magically begins blasting from the speakers in the pool hall.
Basavich stares and pumps the stick, and stares and pumps again. Finally his head jerks up, the stick flies forward, and he launches the alabaster cue ball. It thwacks the rack instantaneously, traveling at around 30 miles an hour.
Kid Delicious follows the motion of the stick, his arms reaching forward like Superman flying over Gotham City. His right leg hangs in the air behind him, almost parallel to the table, and his left leg leaves the ground for a split second. His belly lands on the green table, and as a few balls race toward his generous mass, he jerks upright like a gymnast after an uneven landing.
The four ball dashes into the corner pocket. I watch the seven ball slowly coast into the side pocket, and when I look up at Basavich, he's leering at me with a sassy smirk.
Then he offers up the secret of his success.
"For me, shooting pool's as easy as you getting up and walking around," the benignly arrogant and infinitely charming 29-year-old says. "And you got to watch my big ass sweating and all that herky-jerky stuff."
That unnerves a lot of players, he says.
He's almost too much of a character, too straight-out-of-central-casting to be for real. But Kid Delicious is authentic, one of the best pool players in the country, and a world-class hustler.
Thousands of people across the country can attest to that because he's walked away with a whole lot of their money.
Of course Kid Delicious doesn't call it hustling.
He was a gambler - a professional road player who went from town to town across the United States, from Maine to California, beating the best guys in every pool hall with action. From age 17 to 24, he won an estimated $500,000 in smoky joints, playing shady characters with names like Neptune Joe, Spanish Mike, Baltimore Max, Big City Smitty and the Peruvian Prince.
To disguise himself, he'd dye his hair, grow a beard and lose 100 pounds. Then he'd let the natural color come back, shave the beard and put the weight back on. He'd change his identification, sometimes going by Martin, his middle name. He'd speak slower so as not to reveal his central Jersey roots. And he came up with elaborate stories: He was a traveling salesman selling neon signs, or he was just the backer - the money guy - for his wingman Bristol Bob.
He did whatever he had to do to get an edge on whomever he was hustling, but over those seven years, only one guy wanted to kick his oversized, affable ass - a Louisiana hustler who likes to drink Jack Daniels and wrestle alligators.
"I beat so many people out of $10,000," Basavich says, "and then they wanted me to come over and meet their families."
He blew most of his winnings on strippers, casinos, sushi and steak. And he bought a Hyundai Tiburon.
When the action started to dry up because everyone knew him, Kid Delicious went legit. In 2004 he joined the United States Professional Poolplayers Association, and started playing conventional tournaments around the world ("I'm a celebrity in Taiwan," he says). He quickly rose to No. 1 in the standings, where he stayed for nearly three years before suffering a heart attack a year ago.
A book about his adventures, Running the Table by L. Jon Wertheim, was released earlier this month, and there are plans to make a movie based on Basavich's outrageous life.
"He's just so charming and different from your perception of a hustler," says Wertheim, a 1997 Penn Law grad and senior writer for Sports Illustrated.
Now Danny Basavich - the guy who played the lummox just to rob you blind - wants to be the savior of pool.
When I first meet Kid Delicious he's an hour late for an interview, but he's all smiles, apologies and self-deprecating humor. He's sporting a Sixers cap, trying to blend into the local scene.
He speaks fast with a slurred, nasally voice, and it's tough to imagine anyone was ever suckered by this gentle bear of a man.
Almost immediately, he launches into a story.
Basavich was home in Manchester, N.J., in 2000 when he got a call.
"Head down to South Carolina," his connection says. "There are some suckers down there."
So on the drive down Kid Delicious and his pal Bristol Bob swing by Philly to make some quick cash. They stop in Tacony Billiards, but the place is dead. So they drive over to the Boulevard Social and Billiards Club, a reputed mobster hangout.
A guy named Dale recognizes Basavich, and challenges him to nine ball at $500 a match. Dale gets a two-ball handicap, but Basavich easily takes the guy for $2,000.
"The mob guys are all betting on the side," Basavich says. "There must've been $10,000 passing around."
After Dale drops the last game, one of the reputed mobsters says, "Delicious, I want you to play this other guy Billy from Philly."
Billy from Philly gets called in, and Delicious quickly dispatches him for another $2,000.
By now the crowd (railbirds, they call them) is growing, and the side action is getting intense. A lot of guys are losing a lot of money, betting on individual shots and games, as well as the entire match.
"This drug-dealing gangster was yelling, 'He's gonna have to be killed!'" Basavich recalls.
Somebody tells Basavich, "Delicious, you ain't leaving till I get the next guy."
In the early a.m. hours big Eddie Abraham, Philly's best young player, gets the nod even though he knows Kid Delicious, and he knows he can't beat him. Basavich spots him a ball and then takes a few matches at $7,000 per. Pretty soon Kid Delicious is up $15,000 for the Philly excursion.
Exhausted and worried about getting away alive, Basavich says to the mobster in charge, "I beat everyone you got. There's no one left."
So they call in Spanish Mike Lebron, probably the best pool player from Philly in the last 100 years, Basavich says. By now Basavich has been playing for more than 10 hours. He's drenched in sweat. He's up a lot of cash. And he's got more than 100 guys - mostly mobsters, many clearly packing - watching and betting on his every move.
He starts to feel ill. And he can't leave when he's up this large.
So he drops the first few games against Lebron, a former U.S. Open champ and pool legend in his 70s. But midway through the match, Basavich catches his breath and ties the match at five all. Lebron gets only a few more shots over the next two hours as Basavich runs nearly 13 games in a row.
After topping the legend, a mobster slaps a bunch of money in Basavich's hand and says, "Get the fuck outta here."
"I walked out of there with $25,000," Basavich says with a proud laugh. "This was sick. We got out of there as fast as we could."
Basavich and Bristol Bob sped down I-95 for an hour, stopping to count their money at a rest stop in Delaware. Then they went to a strip club, where they immediately dropped $1,000.
"I was big pimpin' that night," Basavich says. "I was passing out tens like they were ones, and buying everybody drinks."
"There are a lot of people in the industry trying to put pool on the map," says Ken Olschewske, owner of Empire Billiards, Basavich's home pool hall, in Mount Holly, N.J. "I think Danny's one of those people who can really do it. He's the next big thing to happen. He's got the personality, the character."
Olschewske, 31, first saw Basavich play when Olschewske was a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology a decade ago. He was hanging out at a Rochester, N.Y., pool hall when Basavich called to see if there was any action to be had.
"We'd heard he was out there, this Kid Delicious character," Olschewske says, "but nobody knew who he was."
The local pro - a 40-year-old guy nicknamed Julio who quit his job as a mailman after he won the state lottery - answered the phone. He said, "Hey, I'll play you for whatever you want."
Every pool junkie in the region showed up within a few hours to watch the match.
"I think Danny took him for $10,000," Olschewske says. "He just destroyed him."
Last November, when Olschewske opened his new strip mall pool room with 15 immaculate tables, he invited Basavich to work out there.
Tonight there's just a small crowd of people shooting quietly. A trio of girls giggles around one table. At another a man and his son shoot stick. And at a third a young couple fondle each other between shots. A group of teens from Burlington Township High School's billiards club were here earlier.
The only hustlers in the place are in black-and-white photographs that hang on the wall - Cary Grant, Bob Hope, Abbott and Costello. There's no money exchanging hands - or not obviously, at least.
For a long time pool has been a sport surrounded by the celluloid ghosts of hustlers, gamblers and mobsters. That bad reputation - which remains steeped in truth - has held the sport back, many think. If poker, of all sports, can go legit with sponsored tournaments, big-time television contracts and brand-name players, they ask, why can't pool?
That's part of the reason Basavich hit the road in the first place: It's tough to make a living as a legitimate professional pool player. The circuit is underfunded, there are only seven official tour stops, and the tournament stakes are low.
Basavich made more money as a road gambler - pulling down a few grand per night when things were good - than he would have going from tournament to tournament. A top tournament might have a $10,000 prize for first place and $1,000 prize for ninth.
"You got to kill yourself just to come in ninth," Basavich says. "And then you barely break even after expenses and all."
In 2004, his first year as a pro, he says he made $99,000 and half of his winnings went toward expenses.
"That's not great, you know," he notes.
"It's pretty terrible actually," says his girlfriend Danielle Hayton.
His mission is to parlay his popularity into greater success for the pro circuit, including television deals and major sponsorships.
Then there'd be more money for him to win, and fame for all involved.
Basavich doesn't gamble like he used to. Instead he supplements his pro winnings by selling T-shirts and instructional DVDs (at www.pooljax.com). He performs at various events, including bar mitzvahs. And he gives lessons at Empire for $50 an hour.
"Where else are you going to get a lesson from one of the best in the world?" he asks. "It's like getting a tennis lesson from Roger Federer or going golfing with Tiger Woods. For only $50!"
"At first I was so nervous just talking to him," says Patrick Tusa, a 20-year-old Burlington County Community College student who takes lessons with Basavich. "I've never played with a player of such high caliber."
Tusa is working up to playing regional tournaments, and he often talks to Kid Delicious about becoming a road player.
"I don't have the finances to do it," he says. "But Danny teaches me how to work people to get a decent handicap and stuff like that."
Tusa beat Basavich in one game, one time, he says. And he remembers the moment well: Basavich had a tough shot on the six ball and missed. Tusa picked up the shot and ran the table. And he says Basavich was proud and excited when he did it.
"He brightens up the pool hall," Tusa says. "When he's in here it feels like there's 50 people here."
He wasn't always that way. When he was a kid, Basavich was a cocky little shit. He started playing pool when he was 12, and by 15, he was practically living in his hometown's pool hall.
One day a Filipino road hustler took Basavich for a few hundred dollars, his entire savings that he'd made selling baseball cards.
"He came into the pool room and said he'd play with two sticks, like chopsticks," Basavich remembers.
The guy held the two pool sticks together, picked up the cue ball with them, and then guided the ball on the sticks like rails. He danced around the table like a Benihana chef, sinking the other balls one by one.
"When I tried it, I was dropping the ball all over the place," Basavich says.
And now, 14 years later, that trick is a part of Kid Delicious' sideshow act at events, along with another trick the Filipino hustler taught him: Basavich can throw three quarters on the table at any time and predict what the head-to-tail ratio will be. He's never wrong.
"From that little bit of money I lost that day, I've probably made about $50,000 off those two things," Basavich says.
By the time he was 16, he was known throughout New Jersey. And when he took down a hot young shooter named Kid Vicious in New York City, a bystander looked at the corpulent Basavich and said, "That's not vicious. It's delicious."
The name stuck.
"They were mocking me because I'm big, but they didn't realize how appropriate the name is," Basavich says. "I'm a nice guy, and I'm a smooth shooter. It's the greatest pool nickname ever."
I challenge Kid Delicious to a game of nine ball, and he lets me break.
I crash the rack with significantly less impact than he did, but the five ball rolls into the corner pocket on the break.
Basavich tells me, "You actually did pretty good."
When I try to tap the one ball into the side pocket and miss, he says, "You just missed that by a whisker."
He's buttering me up, I can tell.
He rolls his head, twitches his elbow a few times, and then drops the one ball in the corner pocket. The two and the four are nearly touching against the rail, so Basavich mumbles, "It's almost impossible for me to run this game."
After he barely misses dropping the two somehow from behind the four ball, I miss a wild bank shot attempt.
"You just missed that by a little bit," he offers. "You're leaving me with tough shots. You're slowing down a world champion, you know. A lot of players would be excited to get this many innings from me."
He's building me up so much that, if I had any pool skills whatsoever, I might actually buy into his crap. But I just plain suck.
And then Basavich hits his rhythm: He drops the two and four balls in one shot, then the three and eight in another. He's grown tired of carrying me, I think. He taps the six ball in the corner, and then drives the seven ball from across the length of the table. As he floats around the table lining up the last ball - an unimpeded shot that requires only a slight angle - he says, "Let's hope this goes in."
He stretches his left hand to within a few inches from the cue ball, and shoots. The cue ball nudges the nine, which rolls into the pocket and drops out of sight.
"You're good," he says. "A smart guy like you, I could make you a lot better pool player in six hours."
The hustler never dies.
Basavich hasn't played professionally since his heart attack last November, so he's a little rusty. It may be the best time in the world for a brash young challenger to take down the champ.
"I don't think anybody would come in and beat me," he says. "But if they did, they'd win a lot of money, 'cause I got a lot of guys who'd back me."
He says he could drum up $50,000 in cash in two hours. And as soon as the challenge was put down, word would spread. A ton of folks from Philly to New York would crowd in to see Kid Delicious defend his title, he says.
"Now is the best time to come up to me," he dares. "It's been a while. I'm a little scared to play for $50,000 right now."
I can't tell if he's serious or just looking for a sucker to take the bait.
He's that good.