USA Today Cover story
Kasimakis: Let the good times roll by Michael Hiestand, USA TODAY
ELMHURST, Pa. -- At 34, Rudy Kasimakis hasn't won on his sport's pro tour, appearing just once on national TV. Otherwise, he has the ingredients of a superstar.
There's his attitude. "He's got the swagger," Pro Bowlers Association Commissioner Mark Gerberich says. "He's not afraid to get in guys' faces. He's supremely confident. His ball speaks volumes. It's an amazing thing when you see that wrist cock!"
Then there's his flamboyant power. "There is no way to describe the force of bowling nature that is Rudy 'Revs' Kasimakis with something as simple as words," Bowlers Journal conceded in 1992. After all, before he bowls, "all movement seems to be momentarily sucked out of the atmosphere, like the calm vacuum of a Gulf Coast sky just before a hurricane hits."
Even his sturdiness inspires hyperbole: His eyes, reports the April Esquire, "glower and burn in a head like a boulder."
Bowler Rudy Kasimakis spent 12 years hustling before joining the professional tour (USA TODAY)
Now, you can judge for yourself. The greatest bowler you've never seen finally has joined the PBA Tour, with 26 events on national TV, after a decade bowling
elsewhere. Until now, Kasimakis was mostly just looking for action.
As in so-called action bowling. That means making all types of bets, even bowling until dawn with big money at stake. How big, he won't say. (That's appropriate, because IRS agents may follow sports.)
Action bowling, of course, also sounds like hustling. Like in movies where the unknown sharpie shows up and tanks a few games to set up his latest sucker. Not true, says Kasimakis: "I usually couldn't get away with that. They'd know who I was right away."
Ernie Schlegel also sees a distinction. "I was a hustler," says Schlegel, recalling his considerable free-lancing before joining the PBA Tour, where he has won $944,000 over 32 years. "But an action player just wants to get in on the action. He'll bowl anybody. I just wanted to win."
So, by all accounts, does Kasimakis. Says his wife, Nancy, "He's his own No. 1 fan."
And one obsessed with bowling since he took it up at age 3. Growing up on New York's Long Island, he joined his first league at 5. Then, he says, "people noticed my extraordinary potential because of my unique style."
That styles includes an enormous windup that sends balls maybe 20 revolutions -- prompting his "Revs" nickname -- before pins scatter preternaturally. Says Gerberich, "He's one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful, bowlers in the world."
It helps that Kasimakis, 5-7 and 240 pounds, has a right arm his wife calls "the lead pipe" that has stayed injury-free, though he deadpans his only exercise outside bowling is "the forklift," a k a eating.
But his power wasn't just a birthright. Early on, he began throwing hard partly to compensate for his big hook. Even though he was surrounded by a family of avid bowlers, he says, "the only way I knew was to hook the crap out of it."
That hook led to a sort of all-or-nothing attitude, which might need toning down on the PBA Tour, where stolid consistency can prevail. A big hook, Schegel suggests, can be fickle: "When I bowled action, I'd look for guys like him. Everybody who threw a big hook, I'd attack. Viciously."
Learning on the job At 16, Kasimakis took that hook to money tournaments -- "a total disaster" -- and lost thousands. After grappling with the tricks of trade, such as the key issue of "how to overcome oil conditions" on lanes, he briefly tested the PBA Tour at 23. He cashed just three small checks from a dozen events on a circuit where weekly expenses easily top $1,000.
So Kasimakis became "a big fish in a small pond" by playing amateur events. The ponds weren't that small: He kept $100,000 (and, under the rules, his amateur status) by winning the 1992 Hoinke Super Classic.
And it was time to look for action, meaning he'd sometimes get in games where he rolled balls from behind the scorer's table. Or where the lowest score won, with players having to hit at least one pin. He cut balls in half, even had one X-rayed.
Says Nancy, whose own bowling credentials include beating Rudy in a tournament a decade ago: "He probably knows as much about drilling a ball as anybody. More than anybody."
And he played to big crowds, especially when the PBA touring pros came to his home alley in Long Island's Deer Park. "They'd already know I'm looking to bowl somebody," he says. "It's almost like a rumble. By about midnight, you can't walk in the place. I come in last, saying, 'You can't beat me here!' "
Since onlookers also bet their own money, they were avid. But, he says, not violent: "Don't get me wrong, there's always alcohol around. But it's stuff that could happen anywhere, at a pool hall, a ballgame."
And the motivation in action, he suggests, is hardly exotic. Most players, he says, "are basically gamblers. They're decent bowlers, and it's just the best way for them to gamble."
The PBA loves the idea of adding Kasimakis, who set (unofficial) records for most money won -- and lost -- during 20-minute breaks in the PBA's qualifying school, bowling against classmates for thousands.
The PBA already has joined just about everyone else in the sports world in trying to rev up TV appeal, adding gold pins, putting seats alongside lanes and, in a break with tradition, imploring its fans to yell long and hard in hopes of changing its austere atmospherics.
That'll happen, Gerberich says, if Kasimakis starts making televised tournament finals: "He'll rock the joint. He'll be spectacular. And I'll be making noise the whole time. And when my mother asks me why I was talking the whole time, I'll tell her I was at a sports event."
Kasimakis wants to spend the rest of his bowling life on tour, although PBA titles average $30,000 while action bowling bets can top $10,000 -- but "possibilities for (ad) endorsements could be endless."
He knows he'll at least stand out. His take on Walter Ray Williams Jr., a PBA superstar: "He's like looking at this paper cup. No emotions." Hearts, minds and signs
Kasimakis got off to good start in February when he made the Erie (Pa.) Open finals and bowled his antithesis, Chris Barnes, for the title. Barnes, a college All-American, could pass for an unusually subdued pro golfer. Although he lost, Kasimakis won the battle for hearts and minds as he jabbed pointed fingers at encouraging fans holding signs such as "Show Me the Rudy" and even, simply, "Rudy 3:16."
With the PBA spring season starting April 13 in Latham, N.Y., Kasimakis works the pro shop at Country Lanes, an alley near his home in the Pennsylvania Poconos. He gets faxes on the PBA's lane oiling patterns, then loads them into the onboard computer of a $14,000 oiling machine so practices anticipate events.
Rivals should know that, up close, he can mesmerize. As Elmhurst cronies watch his TV tape from Erie, P.J. Guse, 22, a local bowler, says he's seen it 140 times. Asked why he still watches, he won't avert his gaze: "I have to, I just have to."
Thursday, April 1, 1999