07/27/2010 01:45 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Snookered: The Death of Hurricane Higgins


Above, left - Hurricane Higgins and his drunk friend, English actor Oliver Reed, and two unnamed women

He was born in a place where the storm clouds became the cloak for bombers and blood. Belfast's Alex "Hurricane" Higgins knew how to shoot. He could bury the colors on a snooker table faster than a strike of lightning. He was hard. He was lethal. He had the sweetest touch. He could screw you with a mean snooker.

Play snooker and you see how damned difficult it is to pot a ball. The pool table shrinks against the snooker table, which measures twelve feet long. To sink the balls and compose a lengthy streak requires as much practice as the piano. Alex Higgins spent his entire youth mastering the craft, bent over the felt in the gray film of industrial Belfast. A precocious talent at sinking snooker's balls -- the red, yellow, green, brown, blue, and pink, and of course, the black, his private life turned out to quite be like his game, brushed with a rush of wild color and countless black moments.

Hurricane Higgins revolutionized his sport and helped make snooker a British TV phenomenon. For long, snooker was a stodgy unpopular game for old men in tuxedos in dank smoky halls. Higgins arrived with the kiss of the sixties, his youthful smack ricocheting into his fierce speed at the table and sexy lifestyle. Like another famous Northern Irishman, soccer legend George Best, Higgins would be the last man standing in the bar. The Hurricane's forte of being fucked up and furiously brilliant inevitably made him "the people's champion."

Snooker became a mass spectator sport in Britain during the Margaret Thatcher years in the eighties. With millions made unemployed by the wicked witch of the south, the snooker halls cracked with men seeking escape from the drudgery of days filled with empty pockets. Across the country, the breaks surged. The professional game went global. TV audiences in the millions tuned in annually to watch the World Championships. The snooker circuit resembled a traveling circus: besides the Hurricane there was "Big" Bill Werbeniuk, a rotund Canadian cuddly-bear who attempted to claim his prodigious beer expenses off the taxman. He was known to sink thirty pints of lager during a single match; his compatriots Kirk Stevens and Cliff Thorburn chalked their cues and their noses with cocaine. One luckless Irishman, Patsy Fagan, had a nervous breakdown on TV, his cue violently thrusting back and forth like a virtuoso's bow, unable to strike the cue ball in front of a national audience filled with silent pity. The majority of players stuck to the more traditional mud paths to madness, drink and smokes. The odd player who was clean cut and teetotal usually won the title and was hated by the mob.

The Hurricane's most famous eye was his 1982 victory in the World Championship. At the center of happiness, wet with joy, surrounded by his children, few knew then that the storm of fame, the fickle mistress, would soon tie him to the rack. It was rumored Higgins blew a $5 million dollar fortune on drugs, drink and horses. Diagnosed with throat cancer in the late nineties, he charged on, riding the smoke and drink to the corral where death snookered him, pinching the last coins in his pocket and all of his teeth. The Hurricane passed broke, alone, his body found in Belfast on July 24. He had been unable to eat anything but baby food in the last months of his life.

Alan Black is the author of Kick the Balls - An Offensive Suburban Odyssey