Co-ed bowling championships descend on the Triad

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The "North Carolina and Virginia Girls" finish up a round at Triad Lanes.

Away from all the whirl and thunder at the Triad Lanes bowling alley in Greensboro, a picture of Hank Marino, who was born in 1889, hangs on an office wall. The image captures Marino, dressed in a tie and unrolled shirt sleeves, as he crouches down to bowl. A short description includes: “All-American, 1939-40.”

The NC State USBC tournaments take place at Triad Lanes and AMF All Star Lanes every weekend until July 9

Though this vestige of Marino remains, the sport of bowling has evolved in ways that would shock the one-time champion. The old wooden lanes have been torn up — revealing tobacco wads, beer bottles and sardine cans of overall-adorned journeymen from decades past — and replaced with synthetic ones. The automatic pin-setting machines have quickened the pace of the game, and now women consistently bowl beside — and beat — their male opponents.

But one tradition persists without a doubt: Generations later, the bowling in Marino’s blood endures.

Bob Marino, a partner and general manager at Triad Lanes, has been in the bowling business for 40 years — 14 of them in Greensboro. The younger Marino’s blue and black collared shirt boasts the stitching of a well-earned moniker: Bowling Bob.

And this summer, he has to live up to it.

For the first time in 10 years, the North Carolina State USBC Association — a chartered member of the United States Bowling Congress — has brought a tournament to the Gate City that stretches on far longer than the famous week of ACC basketball. In the six weekends from early June to mid-July, more than 500 teams from around North Carolina — as well as a few from South Carolina and Virginia — visit Triad Lanes for their chance to be crowned the best team in the Open (co-ed) or Women’s Tournaments. (At the AMF All Star Lanes on nearby Holden Road, the singles and doubles tournaments take place over the same six-week span.)

By 12:30 p.m. on Sunday afternoon, the teams event was already into its fourth hour. Between the day’s many errands, Marino paused to talk with Yvette Davis, the state association manager, who travels to Greensboro from her home in Charlotte every tournament weekend.

The two seasoned bowling experts and organizers illuminated the many reasons that bowling has drawn such great numbers.

“It’s a lifetime sport,” Marino said, mentioning that bowlers from ages 4 to 90 have been spotted at Triad Lanes. Davis added that the sport can be played at any time of the year, in any weather.

For Marino, the joy that those around him experience is its own reward.

“It might be hard to believe, but it’s God’s honest truth,” Marino laughed. “People come in here and get a strike, and for them it’s the greatest thing on earth.”

At that moment Davis pointed to a young girl — about five years old — who was bowling with her family away from the tournament competition. The girl squealed with excitement after sending her yellow ball slowly down the lane, turning to her parents in triumph well before her ball reached the pins.

On Davis’ right hand gleamed three rings: Two large silver ones studded with green gems — awards from the USBC Hall of Fame — and a third that sported a great blue stone: Her USBC prize for a perfect game. Davis’s achievements on the lane — including her claim to bowling’s highest possible score — validate the much-needed end that ultimately came to the sport’s gender segregation.

According to Davis, the merger of separate men’s and women’s tournaments into a co-ed Open Tournament derived from a lawsuit that two women brought against the league. They argued that the Open, as it was then called, did not specify “men’s.” Their case led to the inclusion of women in the highest levels of competitive bowling, and rightly so: Davis recalled that in the years since the merger, several women have won the NC State USBC Singles Open Championship, including in Matthews, NC in 2009.

As they competed in the Triad Lanes tournament on Sunday afternoon, one women’s team — the North Carolina and Virginia Girls — reveled in bowling together, as well as in the discussion of a perfect game.

“If I had a perfect game, I wouldn’t be out here!” exclaimed Maxine Burns, laughing with those around her. Burns, who sported her full name in cursive gold lettering on the back of a purple shirt, swore she’d want to go out with a bang.

But Chenise Blackwell — from Danville, Va. — disagreed.

“I have two grandbabies, I don’t play another sport,” Blackwell explained. For her, bowling is a chance to enjoy the competition, and to travel and socialize with her teammates. But most importantly, bowling is a stress reliever, which became the primary motive for Blackwell and her coworkers at the Danville Regional Medical Center as they began forming a team years ago.

Listening to Davis and Marino discuss the collaborative success of this year’s tournaments, it seems like another long stretch of time before the NC State USBC returns to Greensboro is unlikely.

“We might break history and bring it back here next year,” Davis said.

“After all, it is tournament town,” Marino added with a smile.