We need a hurricane

by Trey Nosrac

During our discussion of current events and current politicians, David gave me one of his long-winded theories, “Tragically flawed people are like flames that draw moths. Aristotle believed that the two ingredients that arouse people are pity and fear. Politicians, sports figures, actors, and individuals who have volatility are catnip. They grab audiences, and for psychological reasons, the audience clings to them.”

“Sports?” I asked.

He nodded, “A once-in-a-lifetime icon like Bobby Fisher in chess, Lance Armstrong in cycling, or Mike Tyson in boxing, can take a small sport and drag it up the popularity mountain. Not necessarily due to what the person achieved, but because of who they were.”

I was quiet for a few seconds, organizing my thoughts. Then I said, “The past few days of lockdown, I’ve googled the hell out of an interesting character. I never heard of him, but half of England was mesmerized by a flawed piped piper during the seventies and eighties. Magic happened. The effects still linger like smoke from one of his non-stop cigarettes above the green felt tables forty years later.”

“That sounds like someone from your mini-addiction, Snooker,” he said.

I nodded, “Snooker has a history a lot like harness racing. It’s an old game fueled by gambling. Wealthy upper-crust men dragged both games into popularity. Then the sports faded to a hardcore group of supporters until a player exploded interest.”

“Who was this piper?”

“A street kid from Belfast with a swagger and wildly unpredictable temperament. He loved racehorses, so he ditched school at 15 and hopped a ferry to England to work at a racing stable. His two years mucking stalls may have been the happiest time of his turbulent life. His lousy work ethic and problems with authority lead him out of one game into another.”

I nodded, “Alex Higgins was one strange cat, a wild cat, a feral cat, a cool cat. When color television came along, he shoved Snooker into the mainstream. Twenty million people would tune in until the early hours to watch a Snooker Championship – if Hurricane Higgins was playing.”

“Was he that talented?”

“Not really. Higgins was a maverick, a showman. He was a player who had a nervous tick and couldn’t stand still for more than 5 seconds, but the man had style. In a glacially slow sport, “Hurricane Higgins” featured a fast, attacking style. He played to get the crowd on their feet, and the public adored him for it. He was a good player, but there are always good players. Hurricane had charisma and a furious intensity that captivated the audience.”

I out my phone and read a few quotes I had bookmarked,

“Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins transcended sport in a way very few sportsmen ever have. He threw himself into life like a man throwing himself off a cliff without a safety net. No plan. No fear. No shame. And the people could not get enough of him.”
I scrolled to another quote,

“Higgins was, for a time, the most loved sportsman in Britain. He was world champion in 1972 and 1982. The decade between made my jaw drop. He was the most charismatic snooker player who
ever walked into an arena. He could mesmerize and terrorize. Be acclaimed by millions one moment and thrown out of a pub the next, die in pitiful isolation yet be celebrated by thousands lining the streets in what amounted to a state funeral.”

And one more,

“The Hurricane transformed the game from old men in dark halls to dizzy heights in the ‘80s. Overnight, Higgins changed the sport, bringing it kicking and screaming into the modern age, and without asking, he would tell you himself…’Snooker was bollix before I came along, pure bollix.’”

David asked, “Didn’t you have a driver like that in harness racing who was driving horses around during the same time frame?”

“Yeah, his name was Walter Case. He was controversial, flawed, and talented as hell. But he didn’t quite have the magic, and he didn’t have his sport on national television every week. Walter Case was of interest inside harness racing, Higgins reached outside of the sport to grab fans who did not know the game, and brought a rock n roll lifestyle almost beyond belief.”

“Was he that wild?”

I read another quote,

“The Hurricane brought an air of menace, a threat of violence. He came out to the crowd waving his hat in the air, licking the white ball for luck, always entertaining and controversial.”


I ran through a mental list, “Threatening to have a rival Irish snooker player shot, frequent fights, gambling, booze, and throwing TVs through windows. Then you have the leaping out of hotel windows, getting stabbed, dealing with a cocaine habit, punching a reporter, and being chased by actor Oliver Reed with an ax in his mansion.”

“Not exactly a choir boy?”

I gave him a shrug, “He never forgot horseracing, blowing huge wads of money on races. One time he showed up at a tournament with his face badly bruised and explained it by saying a racehorse kicked him until confessing it happened during a bar fight.”

David said, “And the people forgave him and loved him more.”

“Yes, and they enjoyed his constant battles with authorities. He headbutted an official, refused to wear the traditional black suit with a bow tie, and threw the dickie bow to the crowd. One of his banishments was from the popular snooker TV show, Pot Black, for urinating into a flowerpot. Authorities hated him, but they needed him. His enemies on the table, he had many, knew he was talking them to places Snooker had never seen.”

David chimed in, “Back to where we began. His flaws made him relatable. It’s a psychological thing.”

“Yeah, but it wasn’t just his flaws. Higgins also had humor; he could toss out a wisecrack. And he pulled pranks, once he showed up at one of his many disciplinary hearings with a trolley of champaign for the judges and his accusers.”

David smiled, “Did the bribe help?”

“No, he was guilty as usual. But he could tug at your heartstrings. Etched into the British population’s memories are a tearful Higgins holding onto his baby girl in one arm with a trophy in his other arm. The year of that championship, he began in a nursing home where he was trying to detox, with no manager or practice time.”

He said, “Characters like Higgins, Fischer, and Armstrong often have trouble when the days onstage are finished, and the popularity and notoriety they brought to a sport has faded. They can’t carry the ball for too long.”

I nodded, “The Hurricane blew out of the top tier of players in the mid-eighties. Amazingly, he lived to sixty-one. Hisfinal years fighting throat cancer and hustling for money to feed his betting habit were not pretty. Still, he remainsone of the most iconic figures in the game.”

David said, “Chess and bicycle racing fell back after the phenomenons that pulled them into the spotlight retired. What happened to Snooker after the Hurricane era?”

“The game slid down but caught a few breaks. Today, Snooker has scaled back controversial star, Ronnie the Rocket. He can draw a couple of million viewers. However, the big positive is that the game found new fans in Asia, especially China.”

He paused and said, “Maybe there are a few lessons here for your sport of harness racing. Find a controversial star, lean on that star, and always look for new territory.”

“I nodded again, “Yeah, without those things, harness racing could be bollix, whatever the hell that is.”