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10-06-2004, 07:04 AM
http://www.projo.com/northwest/content/projo_20041006_nppool.2df6bd.html
On cue, with anti-smoking campaign

01:00 AM EDT on Wednesday, October 6, 2004


By S.I. ROSENBAUM
Journal Staff Writer



NORTH PROVIDENCE -- Just as the billiards tournament is getting under way -- as spectators light up cigars, as international champions start thinking about their chances at $3,000 cash -- Anthony Costanzo III calls it all to a halt.

He stands in the middle of the billiards room his father ran before him. Three big smoke-eaters are humming away near the ceiling, but his clothes will still smell like cigarettes by the end of the tournament.

He waits until the crowd falls quiet. Then he tells them, "Every single person in this room is affected by cancer."

He says, "One day you'll turn and someone close to you will have cancer. Your father, your mother, your brother, your sister, your uncle, your aunt. Anybody could get cancer. You could have it. I could have it."

The pool-players let him have his say. They came for a tournament, not a lecture, but most of them know Costanzo, and they knew his father, Anthony Costanzo Jr., before he died eight years ago of pancreatic cancer.

After his death, the younger Costanzo started this tournament. It's a way to make money for the pool room, Capitol Billiards on Smith Street in Centredale. But more importantly, he says, it's a way to get the message out to pool players about the dangers of secondhand smoke.

This is his crusade, and the pool-players know it. It's not a message they want to hear, but they listen anyway.

THE TOURNAMENT is held each September; there are three qualifying events, and then a showdown on the last weekend of the month.

By the afternoon, it's come down to a handful of players, including a former world champion, several up-and-coming stars, and the national champion of Korea, who flew in for the event.

The world of professional billiards is an informal one. To organize a tournament like this one, Costanzo says, you have to get the "blessing" of several national pool organizations, like the Billiards Congress of America.

"It's completely unofficial," said Costanzo. "You just have to work through the channels, know who you're talking to."

That's something Costanzo is well-qualified to do. He's a fourth generation pool room owner; more importantly, Costanzo's father became a well-known figure in the billiards world.

"Man, his dad, he was a prince of a guy," said Nick "Cool Hand" Varner, 56, relaxing between games. "He'd cook up a great meal for me every time."

Varner is one of pool's best-known players, a five-time world champion.

Costanzo says he thinks players like Varner come to the tournament each year more out of respect for his father's memory than out of a desire to win the $3,000 pot -- a respectable sum, but not on par with the stakes players sometimes vie for.

A portion of the profits from the tournament are donated to cancer research. Costanzo believes this is another reason the small tournament draws such big names.

"Some of these players are playing because, maybe deep down inside, they've lost someone to cancer, too," he said.

NO ONE KNOWS what caused Costanzo's father's cancer. But Costanzo thinks it was the miasma of cigarette smoke that seems to hang over every pool room.

"I think -- my analytical skills tell me, I'd calculate the more years you spend with secondhand smoke, the more you intensify your chances of getting cancer. There's just too many carcinogenous chemicals ..."

Pool and cigarettes seem to go together. "When I started playing, everybody smoked," recalled Ron"Tall Man" Merriwether, 71, the pool room's informal instructor. He's watching the current game from an old barber's chair.

"Every joint was smoky. You couldn't go to a joint that wasn't smoky. There was a cloud of smoke above some places that didn't have ventilation."

Merriwether says he can name a handful of pool players -- some of them champions -- who have died recently of cancer, and died young.

Others, he said, passed away of unknown causes, but he has his suspicions. "Probably a lot of 'em died of cancer," he said. "Being not aware of it doesn't mean it doesn't happen."

Costanzo says he wants to raise awareness about secondhand smoke among pool players; that's part of the reason behind the tournament.

Yet he's torn over the approaching smoking ban on March 1, when a new law will prohibit smoking in most public places in the state.

"I'm stuck," he said. "I'm right in the middle there. If I'm for it, I'm for losing money. No matter what, when they pass that smoking ban, I'm going to lose money. I'll probably go out of business."

IN THE BACK of the pool room, Costanzo's business partner watches the play. She's also his mother: Phyllis Costanzo, 68. She's been involved in the business since her husband opened a cue-and-table retail store in 1969.

"It was always his dream to have a billiard room," she recalled. "He just loved the sport."

He didn't play, she said, because he was convinced a pool-playing pool-room owner would gamble away his money on the informal high-stakes games that are common in billiards. Still, she said, everyone always assumed he was a great player because of his deep knowledge of the game.

"Players just took to my husband," she said. "Right away, they all liked him."

Then she has to stop talking, because she's getting a nosebleed.

She holds a napkin to her face. She's tired a lot of the time, because of the chemotherapy treatments she's undergoing. She was diagnosed with lung cancer last spring.

THE BILLIARDS WORLD is changing. Stephen Tavernier and Ray McNamara, both 43, used to come to Capitol Billiards when they were in college and perfecting their game.

Neither of them smoke, and now the one thing they hate about pool is putting up with the smoke of pool rooms.

"I stay in the shower 10, 15 minutes" trying to wash off the smell, said Tavernier.

They say that as state after state enacts smoking bans -- New York, Massachusetts, and now Rhode Island -- the face of pool will change. "With a clean pool room, a different type of player will come," said Tavernier.

Meanwhile, however, they say players don't care one way or the other about Costanzo's anti-smoking, cancer-awareness focus.

They'll come to the tournament just to play.

"It is for his dad, but it's for the desire of the game, too," said McNamara. "We're pool players. There's a tournament going on, we're going to be there. We're pool players and this is where we have to be."

THE TOURNAMENT IS almost over -- only a few players remain.

Waitresses are passing out shots as Costanzo once again calls for silence.

It's a tough job getting a room full of billiards players to be quiet and listen up, but he finally manages, holding a plastic shot glass high in one hand.

"Some of you knew my dad," he says, as loudly as his hoarse voice will let him. "This whole thing is all about my dad, who died eight years ago. Who died very tragically from cancer."

He breaks off. "Can I have a little attention here?"

"In my lifetime I've never seen anything as tragic as that and I don't think I'm ever going to," he continues. "The way cancer kills people, it's disgusting.

"All I'm trying to do is to get everybody to think about it."

They drink the toast. At the bar, Phyllis Costanzo joins in, her shot glass filled with a pale pink Tequilla Rose.

The tournament, he said, helps him honor the memory of his father.

He says, "This is just about bringing a lot of people together for a good reason and hoping it sinks in."

He says, "I think it will sink in. I force-feed the message; whether they like it or not, they'll get it. It's a little dose of reality."