Luther Lassiter was considered by most pool players to be the best “money” player ever and by the time I was involved in the sport he was a legend. Finally I had the opportunity to watch him play in the late 70’s at the U.S. Open. He was old beyond his years at this time from so many all night sessions of pool playing while his chronological age was only about 60. Despite the disadvantages brought on by advancing years he could still play as well as most anyone but could no longer dominate as he once was able. This was a dream come true to actually get to see the legend perform in person and so I watched his every move with the hope to find some magic of my own. Luther lived near Norfolk, Virginia and had played pool around there all of his life. He had developed a following of fans from his age group that had grown old with him as their hero who could provide victory with certainty for all of their years. The tournament audience was full of life long Lassiter fans that were barely still ambulatory but would not miss the opportunity to see “Wimpy”, with a shock of stark white hair, still render other good players to the loser’s bracket. I was captivated to see the sincere devotion and total confidence of Luther by these elder supporters that could have only been perpetuated to this degree from thousands of previous episodes played out over years. This confidence prevalent among the Lassiter fans was not expressed boisterously or in bragging but nonetheless quietly existed and could not go unnoticed and was also highly infectious to us relatively naive pool babes. Once swept up in the enthusiasm I am still as impressed today as that day so many years gone by.
He played the younger hotshots and would generally win by decisive margins. One night one of the most promising young top money and tournament players, Mike Carrella looked over as Lassiter passed by and issued a challenge, “How about you old man, do you want to play?” I was mortified at the ignorance and genuine lack of respect to publicly perhaps humiliate someone that had possibly forgotten more about great playing than this much younger straight shooter had ever known. I remember feeling offended that an attack had occurred by someone who was never capable of even carrying Lassiter’s cue when Luther was in his prime; However, Luther was undaunted and seemed more surprised than offended as he looked Carrella’s way, “I’ll play with one condition he said firmly”. Carrella instantly asked what that was and Luther said he would play him on a table which demanded maximum skill if he wanted to really play then he sure could try Luther’s best game on a 5′ X 10′ pool table in the corner of the room.
Carella agreed to play on the table of Luther’s choice and at midnight the match began. One hundred dollars per game until someone lost a thousand dollars or until 6 a.m. as they both had afternoon tournament matches that would require some rest prior. I could not wait to see a real live Lassiter money game even though this would not be one of his thousands of vintage performances of years back. They played as I had found a table side chair and both players played tremendous fueled more from pride than money. I’ll never forget Lassiter facing an end raild to end rail impossible bank shot which he thin cut in the pocket from a position that none of the other great players would even attempt in a serious match, the cue ball would travel several length’s of the table while the object ball would still be trickling to the corner pocket which in it would ultimately drop and I am not exaggerating even a little bit, it was amazing. Later in the match the same shot came up and once again Luther pocketed the 10′ thin cut that is still hard to fathom after seeing it. Should you ever wonder about my story just find one of Lassiter’s contemporaries and ask for a story of their recollection and they will equally amaze you with another chapter of one his playing performances. Despite Lassiter’s best effort Carella was able to break even at six in the morning when they both called the match a draw. Most of the other top players at that time would not even risk playing the much toughened young straight shooter whom I feel would not even have been anything but an easy victim for a younger Luther Lassiter.
On another occasion Luther was in between matches and was trying to climb up into the bleachers to be with his friends and fans of his age group as I stood behind him also wanting to be sitting in the bleachers. Luther gamely attempted to power himself up the rather large first step and failed twice. Upon the third attempt as I stood behind him as he had almost conquered the hurdle but appeared to begin losing ground I pushed firmly on his back and helped propel him into the stands. His head slowly turned back and he looked at me and uttered weakly, “thank you”. He then took his place among his peers and began chatting as I quietly sat nearby. After a short time a reporter came to him for a short interview and began quizzing Luther about pool, tournaments, and aspects of his career. The reporter then asked a question that has stuck with me in my thoughts for all these years. “Luther, do you think that you could win this tournament?” The response came in elder mans creaky voice and was not issued with cockiness but rather a soothing assurance, “If I thought anyone could be me I would be practicing RIGHT NOW?” This portryaed the essence of a great champion to me.
My other occasion to watch him play was during a three day challenge match of straight pool which he was losing going into the final night. The challenger had ran over 100 balls in two consecutive innings and for the final nights match Luther needed 337 balls while the opponent only needed 139 balls. The Lassiter fan club was all in attendance and they all seemed to feel that, “Wimpy will get him”, as the match was to begin on this final night. During the first couple of innings Luther recaptured the world class form of yesteryear and managed to run 147 balls and safe followed up by a run of 108. The uninitiated audience members were awestruck as Lassiter now had the lead and only needed 82 balls while the old time fans were pleased but not surprised with all the savvy, experience finesse displayed this day like so many before. The opportunity to be in attendance was something that I will always appreciate and never forget as to the magic and inspiration this created for me in my future endeavors, never give up is quite a lesson produced in person by the legend. The final outcome was not to be as the opponenet played the spoiler with stellar consistent pool and Luther’s loss came at no fault of himself. Despite the loss I was able to see what made Luther “Wimpy” Lassiter one of the greatest.