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Playing for the biggest stakes

More than 7,200 people from the United States, Canada and South America will descend on Las Vegas this week to battle for the North American 8-Ball Championships.

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© St. Petersburg Times, published May 8, 2001

More than 7,200 people from the United States, Canada and South America will descend on Las Vegas this week to battle for the North American 8-Ball Championships.

I'll be one of them.

About 7,180 of them will go home losers.

I am not one of them.

Most of them already know who they are. They are using the tournament, the largest annual amateur pool event worldwide, as an excuse to go to Sin City and have fun.

They will play the couple of rounds it takes to get double-eliminated, then continue their losing streaks at the slot machines and card tables. They go with no expectation of winning, and they usually live up to their expectation.

I expect to win. Lest anyone be misled, I declare up front: I am not a favorite. It would be a stretch or stupidity -- or an attempted hustle -- for anyone who knows anything about pool to say that I'm even a long shot.

So why would a man who's well past his pool-playing prime, whose eyes, which never were that good, have gone bad, whose hands are arthritic and not quite as agreeable as they used to be to doing what they're told, who has never won a major tournament, expect to win the biggest?

Because he knows that he can. He knows what it takes to win and knows that at least 95 percent of that is totally up to him to control.

I have to be confident of success, confident that the choice of shots is correct, that I will make it and be in position to build on it.

I have to be focused on the task at hand, not distracted by how badly the slot machines treated me or concerned that opponents have sharper eyes or steadier hands.

I have to be knowledgeable and prepared, perhaps the most important ingredients. Without them, confidence looks more like foolhardiness and focus becomes a blank stare.

This, of course, is not about pool -- although I will go to Vegas and win. It's about a phone call I got from a doctor after a column expressed my belief that St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker and Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis will sincerely tackle the economic woes of Midtown, formerly known as Southside.

The doctor is convinced that economic development on the south side is an oxymoron, that nothing Baker and Davis can do will significantly change the economic face of the mostly black area. Too many people there are not prepared to win, "not ready for prime time," as he put it.

The doctor, a black man, said too many black would-be entrepreneurs seek start-up capital as a first step, before they have analyzed the probability of success or developed a business plan. Too often, he said, people seeking loans or employment present an unprofessional appearance and a lack of decorum.

"We don't emphasize education and manners the way we used to," the doctor said.

My instinct was to come to the defense of the people living on the south side. I know people there who are eminently qualified and competent to be entrusted with an investment, who can impress potential employers.

But my defense was half-hearted. To paraphrase that great baseball catcher and philosopher, Yogi Berra, 90 percent of what the doctor said was half true. And parts of his characterization apply well beyond the south side of St. Petersburg.

As much as I wanted to refute what the doctor was saying, I had also been struggling with the growing feeling that too many black Americans have come to approach life the way the bulk of pool players are approaching Vegas this week: They have no expectation of winning. Consequently, many have lost sight of the things it takes to achieve and sustain a winning attitude.

Without question, much of what constitutes a winning attitude has been beaten out of black Americans by decades of institutionalized obstacles. Many of those obstacles still stand.

However, the inability to topple a barrier should not be an excuse to stop progressing. Go over it or around it. Try pulling it down from the other side. Black people cannot afford to surrender to barriers. They have been much tougher.

More black people need to recapture the winner's attitude that sustained them through times when the barriers seemed impregnable. As much as it may pain to admit it, too many black people have lost that attitude and, like the losers headed to Vegas, figure the most they will get from life is a few memorable instances of fun.

Black people need to reclaim confidence and focus and emphasize preparation. They need to emphasize education the way they did in previous generations. It is still the first step toward success. They need to remain focused, no matter how tough the opposition, no matter how the odds are stacked. And they need to be told when their own behavior becomes the distraction.

They need to remember that 95 percent of what it takes to win, no matter what the prize, has nothing to do with anyone or anything else.

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