Memory Lanes

To pros like Monica Chieco, bowling is more than a sport. It's life.

"Toinaments," Monica Chieco says. She bowls in regional "toinaments." She lugs around heavy "bohls." Sometimes she throws strikes, and sometimes she throws "speh-uhs." In anyone else, that mix of bowling talk and nasally vowels would threaten to erupt into the kind of New York meanness that unnerves Southerners. But when Monica talks about bowling, she makes it sound like a support group -- a highly competitive support group.

When Monica left New York for Houston five years ago, following her oil-and-gas futures job, her bowling coach advised her to turn pro. There were lots of tournaments in the Southwest, he said, lots of opportunity. And so, at the seasoned age of 40, she became a professional athlete. Bowling is that kind of sport: You can do it well all your life.

The Southwest did, in fact, turn out to be the land of tenpin opportunity. Luci Bonneau, the leader of Ladies' Choice, asked Monica to sub for the team. Monica jumped at the chance. "I mean, this was the top team in Texas," she says, still awed. "They have such ambition! People want to be on this team so bad!" In '97, she became a full-fledged member.

Monica Chieco
Deron Neblett
Monica Chieco

She kept her day job, of course. She wasn't one of the "big girls," like Carolyn Dorin-Ballard, who has a fan club, her own line of bowling clothes and flies to tournaments all over the country. Monica, like Luci, was a regional pro, which meant that she carpooled to tournaments on the weekends and split the hotel cost with a roommate. Pro bowlers tend to know each other well.

Usually the stories they tell about each other make you laugh. For instance, Luci once informed a new team member, a shy kid fresh out of college, that she had to wear not only a red shirt when she competed, but a red bra and panties, too. It's for luck, Luci explained, deadpan. If you don't do it, we'll lose. The kid bought herself red underwear, and the rest of the team never let her live it down.

Sometimes, though, bowlers' stories make you cry. In '97, around the time Monica became a full member of Ladies' Choice, Luci was diagnosed with breast cancer and began suffering through aggressive experimental treatments. "Bless her heart, she tried everything," says Donna Conners, a longtime member of the team. Donna was Luci's best friend, but even around Donna, Luci didn't complain much. She tried to look "up."

In '99, Ladies' Choice was aiming for its eighth state championship. The tournament, in Port Arthur, was slated for Father's Day weekend, only three days after a round of Luci's chemo. Still, Luci wanted to play, and she thought she'd be able. She took the chemo, then went straight home and slept 24 hours. She got up, ate what she could and worked in her flower bed. Then she and Donna drove to Port Arthur.

When it was time for Ladies' Choice to bowl, the high score looked forbiddingly hard to beat. We'll just bowl for what we can get, Luci said. We'll take our time. We'll get what we can.

Luci bowled well. Everyone bowled well. In the ninth frame -- when every team member still had one last shot at the pins -- Wanda Chovanec, who was keeping track of the score, looked at Luci and said, We have enough. Meaning, We've already won. And we've already broken the state record.

Luci said, Let's get what we can.

What they got were lots more strikes. They finished with a team score of 3,350. The state record was smashed.

When the hugging and crying and ceremony were over, Luci said to Donna, "We have 35 minutes left before Dillard's closes." They celebrated with a half-hour shopping binge, blowing their prize money before they received it.

That was Luci's last tournament. She died in October. The jeweler hadn't yet finished the team's championship rings.

At Monica's suggestion, the team changed its name. They're now Luci's Ladies' Choice.

On a Friday evening in August, Monica drives to Dynamic Lanes as soon as she gets off work. The place is packed. The pro-am game sold out for both Friday and Saturday nights, all 32 lanes, with 144 players each night -- maybe the biggest tournament ever in Houston. It's a testament to Luci, Monica thinks. Everybody loved her.

"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen," booms an amplified male voice. "Welcome to the first annual -- and I hope this is the first annual -- Luci Bonneau Pro-Am." From the wings, Monica watches Donna take the microphone. For the last six months, Donna has worked every night to organize this tournament. It's a benefit for the Stehlin Foundation, the cancer research group at St. Joseph Hospital, where Luci was treated. "Luci would be extremely proud to see all of you tonight," Donna says. Her voice wobbles.

There's more wobbly talk from more people who knew Luci. Then a loud bell goes off: The eulogy is over; let the games begin. The regular overhead lights give way to the eerie blue ones used for "Cosmic Bowling," popular with the midnight college crowd, and the white pins glow and seem to float at the end of the lane. The loudspeakers blast a processional for the pros, a hey-hey-hey song with a thumping bass line. They march down the aisle in pairs, like bridesmaids and groomsmen. The crowd applauds.

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