Cover Story: Mark The Snake" Jones can't walk but he'll beat your ass in pool"
Atlanta wheelchair pool player guns for world championship gold in South Africa
At a nondescript shopping center off Collier Road, in the back of a bar called Stooges, Bob Calderon is heckling Mark "The Snake" Jones across a red-felt pool table. The old friends are regarded by the World Pool-Billiard Association as two of the world's best players in their respective divisions. When they get together, they're apt to raise a little hell, like the time they raced Calderon's boat around a Nevada lake and scouted topless women. Like those wild nights in Amsterdam's Red Light District. Between them, they have three good eyes and no working legs, but they stopped giving a damn about that long ago.
Jones, the local, has a shaved head and a devious smile. In the dingy light of the bar's Jägermeister lamp, he looks like a wizened Dave Chappelle. He has long arms, all the better for angling his $3,000 custom Cognoscenti cue with real ivory in the inlay and an epoxy joint that hits so, so sweet. Aside from an 8-foot telescopic bridge he sometimes uses to hold the cue, Jones' equipment is no different than any standing player's. He wins without assistance. He wins often. For even when your legs don't work, pool is a level playing field.
Jones is a streetwise slickster with a country-boy soul. He's become adept at reinventing himself in this capricious city, in part because he's a lovable opportunist, but also because life has demanded it. At 64, he's fond of saying, "There's a whole lot more."
In December, he'll travel to South Africa to play in the WPA's 9-Ball Championship, the Super Bowl of pocket billiards for wheelchair players. Tonight, Jones has challenged an able-bodied player to a match. The tall, bearded opponent, an entrepreneur named Willie Jenkins, makes his first four shots before rimming the striped 14-ball off the corner pocket. Jones seizes the opportunity, maneuvering his wheelchair to the best angle to make the two-ball, corner pocket.
"You're a bad man, Mr. Jones," Calderon hollers through the Marlboro smoke.
The three-ball disappears next, corner pocket.
Calderon, a Las Vegas resident, lost his legs and left eye in Vietnam when someone in his platoon tripped a mine. He's in Atlanta to train with Jones for December's 9-Ball Championship, where they'll compete against 14 other players from around the world. They are two of only three wheelchair players in North America to receive invitations, which they earned based on a points tally from past tournament wins. For years they have been friendly rivals, though Calderon has kept Jones from reaching the zenith of wheelchair pool more than once.
At the 1999 World Wheelchair Games in New Zealand, Calderon won a gold medal, relegating Jones to silver, and then bronze at the same tournament four years later. Jones recently had surgery to stabilize his back with a long titanium rod and alleviate the pain he'd felt since a fender bender years ago. He says his game is sharper than ever, and that he wants a gold medal more than anything. It would be the crowning achievement of his 20-year professional billiards career. And it could be a last step in putting that night in Louisiana — that split-second that took his ability to walk and changed everything — behind him.
Five-ball, corner pocket.
At the table, Jones naturally sits at the level most players have to bend down to find. During a match, his jovial demeanor stiffens into a scowl. In his mind he is a surgeon, the table his patient, and there's no room for lightheartedness until the balls are "surgically removed," he says.
It's the competitive venom for which he earned the "Snake" nickname. Jones' no-nonsense game is why Johnny Archer, one of America's best pool players and a longtime mentor, thinks he has a legitimate shot at winning gold in South Africa.
"What Jones does a little better than all players, not just wheelchair players, his determination and focus is very, very good," says Archer, owner of Marietta Billiard Club. "He doesn't get flustered mentally. He doesn't break down."
Or, in the words of Annie Swanson, a Stooges bartender for three decades: "He whips your ass — he good." She would know. Jones had been running Monday night tournaments and sharking the poolroom at Stooges for seven years, before his recent move over to the Westside's Corner Tavern. He says he's not a hustler, that he doesn't actively seek out lesser players or use his wheelchair as bait. He says the suckers come to him. And then he analyzes — even savors — their expressions when the match is over.
"They look at me like I'm a human being," he says, "not just some little cripple."
Finally, Jones misses. The one-ball banks off the rail and rolls directly into the path of Jenkins' best shot.
Jones smiles: "Defense."
The son of a Baptist preacher, Jones was born the 10th of 13 children on a cotton and livestock farm in Monroe, a small town east of Atlanta. He grew up fighting bare-knuckle boxing matches with friends in the backyard, where he claims to have been undefeated. Bored with the prospects of farming, Jones left for Atlanta in 1968 and worked as a hospital orderly, bacon handler, car porter, and strip club bouncer. One night, he was forced to beat up an unruly strip club patron. The fight exhausted him, so he enrolled in Joe Corley's renowned karate school, earning a green belt — halfway to a black belt — in only a few months. He says karate, like boxing, came naturally.
One night in 1974, Jones was sleeping in the passenger seat of a Volkswagen Beetle his friend was driving to New Orleans. Jones was scheduled to fight in a Mardi Gras karate tournament, but they would never make it. A rear wheel flew off the Volkswagen, sending the car spinning off the highway.
The passenger door flung open, and Jones flew out. All he recalls is seeing a helicopter land, and then waking up in a hospital room, frustrated and confused. He'd broken his back and neck, rendering him paraplegic. The injury was what's commonly called a hangman's fracture — a clean break of the neck vertebrae — making Jones so brittle that the slightest jolt could have left him quadriplegic or killed him. He was 25 years old.
"One minute you're kicking people in the head, and the next you can't lift your foot," he says. "It was a tough pill to swallow."
After a three-week stint in a Mississippi hospital, he was transferred to Atlanta's Grady Memorial Hospital. Jones couldn't stomach the idea of living without walking. He convinced a friend to sneak a .45 caliber gun into his hospital room. He waited until the nurses cleared out. But then his mother entered the room. At the sight of her pained face, he had a change of heart.
"If you can make it," Jones told his mother, "I can make it."
Hang around Jones for five minutes, talk to any of his friends, and it's clear he's determined to have fun, that he views life as a social event. As tournament players file into Stooges, Jones barks taunts at all of them. Still, they make a point to shake his hand and ask if he's feeling all right.
Sometimes he gets drunk on Bud Light or Crown Royal and leaves his pool case behind, but it always gets returned. One time, a jealous guy stole the case because Jones was giving wheelchair rides to the woman he was pursuing. Later, the man's brother warned, "That's Mark Jones' stick right there," and the thief returned the case two days later, apologizing profusely.
Jones drives a dark red convertible Mercedes CLK 430 with a custom front-bumper plate that reads "The Snake." He lives in a studio apartment in a brick tower near Atlanta's spinal and brain rehab facility the Shepherd Center, where he swims laps three times a week. Pool trophies line the shelves above his desk and the top of the television. There's a collage of family photos and newspaper clippings about him taped to an old piano he can't play. Each morning, he pushes himself out of his twin bed, onto his wheelchair, and into the bathroom, where looks in the mirror and says, "Thank you, God, for another day."
Today, his girlfriend, Marva Kelly, a 44-year-old nurse, is over. They sit facing each other on the bed with their legs braided together, giddy as teenagers, sipping beer and wine. They met after his back surgery. Kelly says she couldn't resist his humor and genuineness. Laughing hysterically, Jones says she really likes another of his attributes, too, and jiggles his crotch.
"That's just Mark being Mark," she says. "He has a good sense of humor."
In the late 1970s, Jones started dabbling in pool at his favorite haunt, the Beer Mug on Peachtree Street. Wheelchair tournaments didn't exist then, so Jones added his name alongside the able-bodied players, and started winning. He'd been convinced that karate was his gift, but in the back rooms of bars he found a sport that gave him a whole new sense of purpose. Pool became an addiction. In the way he'd watched Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon before karate matches, Jones began studying the techniques of more seasoned, standing players. He found a sort of brotherhood among the men who chew the fat around pool tables.
The dearth of tournaments for disabled players forced Jones to wait two decades to make his mark on a national stage. In 1994, he traveled to Las Vegas and placed ninth in a wheelchair tournament. He soon won enough tournaments across the United States to earn invitations to several world championships, ultimately bringing home the two medals from New Zealand.
Jones wanted to use his success to become an ambassador for the sport. He found an ally in Calderon. They flew to Australia together to lobby for wheelchair pool to be included in the Paralympics and join sports such as table tennis, archery, and snowboarding. But the lengthy process was exhausting and complicated, Calderon says, and their bid ultimately failed.
In 1995, Jones and Calderon founded the National Wheelchair Poolplayers Association. Their mission was to provide fellowship to disabled players and set clear goals at which they could aim. At the association's height, it hosted about a dozen tournaments per year — including a Ryder Cup-style contest that pit America's 12 best players against Europe's — all while encouraging newly paralyzed people to give pool a shot at hospitals across the country.
"Our goal is to try to help people sitting at home doing nothing," Calderon says. "I'd like to think over the years we've made a difference." While the association still counts about 300 players from around the world, membership has dipped in recent years, which Calderon attributes to a scant $4,000 annual budget.
Over the last two decades, Jones and Calderon have counseled hundreds of fledgling wheelchair players, including many Jones initially approached at the Shepherd Center as a Peer Supporter. A high point for Jones was introducing a paraplegic named Patt Star to the game, following his motorcycle crash. Like Jones, Star was a natural and became hooked. He bought a $12,000 diamond-studded cue and traveled frequently to tournaments, including one in Tampa where he beat his mentor.
"It did my heart good to see him like that," Jones says.
Despite Jones and Calderon's efforts, a scene of devoted, local wheelchair players has never materialized in metro Atlanta. Star died of a massive stroke a few years ago. Since then, Jones says he's pretty much been the only show in town.
As a part-time instructor, Jones has captained a Stooges team of able-bodied players to national championships in Vegas in consecutive years, but also kept a fairly low profile. That is, until a few years ago, when ESPN featured a handful of wheelchair pool championships, and Jones gained some fame, especially in metro Atlanta.
He says, unconvincingly, that the attention irked him, because his pool acumen was no longer a secret.
"I'm pretty much known all over now," he says.
At Stooges, Jones sinks the seven-ball in the corner pocket, an easy shot leaving only the one-ball on the table with three of Jenkins'.
By day, Jenkins pushes a new hangover recovery drink called Last Shot, a blend of vitamins, electrolytes, and antioxidants. He's wanted to tap the South African market. Tonight, he can see that Jones, a longtime friend, is back on his game. By the end of the match, he'll agree to fund a "substantial portion" of Jones and Calderon's trips to South Africa as a sponsor. All they have to do is wear patches on their shirts to advertise the drink.
"He's been beating up on me for a long time," Jenkins says of Jones. "He's competitive as hell."
The sponsorship is the last component Jones needs to take a stab at gold. A week earlier, he'd been fretting about the trip's $3,000 price tag. Over four days at the world championships, the 16 competitors will face every player at least once to determine the top two, who'll then face off for the gold. Jones foresees stiff competition from the Asian players, who work with demanding coaches while the Americans often rely on themselves. But he's confident. It could be a good omen, Jones says, that the tournament begins on his birthday.
Now fully healed from back surgery, he's been playing well, finishing second in a national tournament in Colorado this summer to some young dynamo — a defeat Jones still calls "a fluke" — and winning the New England 8-Ball Classic in mid-September. Jones says his country deserves nothing less than triumph at the world championship. Besides, he says, "You think I'm gonna fly my black ass out there for a bronze or silver?"
At last, Jones pockets the pesky one-ball, leaving a clean shot on the eight. Jenkins is toast. Jones whips his face back and forth, high on victory.
He shouts: "What an ass-fucking!"