The noise reverberates throughout Plano Super Bowl every second or so, usually accompanied by shouts of triumph or harrumphs of regret. It’s the kind of sound you can grow to like, even love: plastic smashing into wood, pins colliding in a brief moment of chaos. Then, the next bowler steps up, steadies his gaze, and lets it fly.
After 20 years bowling here, Warren Connerly still doesn’t mind the noise. It lets him know he’s in his element. He’s home. The amiable 67-year-old bowls at the Plano Super Bowl twice a week. It’s a familiar haunt where he can share laughs and bowl a few games with friends.
When his wife got a DFW-based job in 2000, Connerly claims she had to bribe him with Dallas Cowboys tickets to convince him to leave Louisiana. He left his job at a rubber plant factory, got a new gig driving school buses (“The best job I ever had,” he says, grinning) and found the Plano Super Bowl.
“These are my people,” he tells me one night, surveying the throng of bowlers, some of whom are league players, but most of whom are just there for fun. “This is my comfort place.”
Derryck Lewis, 51, has a similar story. He bowls three days a week after picking up the game 11 years ago. “I just got addicted,” he tells me, eyeing his alley to make sure he doesn’t miss his turn. Lewis is a league player, and a skilled one at that. He has bowled two perfect games: one on November 24, 2014, and one a year and a day later. Both were at Plano Super Bowl, where Lewis competes with his team, the Monday Blenders.
Lewis and Connerly are just two of the many local bowlers who frequent Plano Super Bowl and JB’s Allen Bowl, the only two independently-owned bowling alleys in Collin County. While the Main Events and PINSTACKs of the world continue to gain popularity, centers (they prefer the term “centers” to “alleys”) like these become increasingly rare. Both establishments also occupy parts of town that often feel forgotten on the east side of Highway 75, far from developments like Legacy West.
I started researching this story before the COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders. I assumed Plano Super Bowl and JB’s Allen Bowl would be on their last legs, two sad establishments emblematic of a bygone era. I was spectacularly wrong. Thanks to a stable crop of regulars and what its brass describes as “an unparalleled devotion to customer service,” both centers are alive, well, and insistent that their best years are still ahead of them, despite COVID-19 devestating small businesses around the country.
As Lewis talks to me about his continued hunt for that elusive perfect game, I sneak a look at our surroundings. Plano Super Bowl is packed and buzzing with the din of a hundred-plus players locked in friendly competition. It’s 10:00 p.m. on a Monday night in late February.
Out of the corner of his eye, Lewis sees that his turn has once again come. “Gotta run,” he says, before rapidly backpedaling back to his lane.
The first time I went to the Plano Super Bowl, my father hit me in the head with a bowling ball. I was five years old. My father, who I’ve always known to be the strongest man in the world, was mid-windup, like Nolan Ryan preparing to mow down a minor leaguer who was just called up for a cup of coffee. I approached my father for a hug, and my forehead met his 15-pound bowling ball in a skull-rattling collision that prompted hours of tears and decades of jokes.
Most of the jokes focus on my career or clumsiness. “You want to study creative writing?” my dad asked. “I should’ve never hit you with that bowling ball.”
If people outside of Collin County have heard of Plano Super Bowl, it’s probably because of Bill Fong. In January 2010, the then-46-year-old came within one throw of tossing three 300s in a row. Instead, he bowled an 899, then went home and had a stroke. A doctor later discovered that Fong was likely having the stroke during the last few frames of his near-perfect series. This incredible story was the subject of a taut D Magazine feature in 2012 and a short documentary by The New York Times in 2015. In a podcast interview about the D Magazine story, its writer, Michael J. Mooney, was asked why he felt compelled to tell Fong’s tale. After all, the interviewer notes, it’s an incredible turn of events, but it feels too hyper-local. Mooney’s response: “Everybody has been bowling. It’s universal.”
Plano Super Bowl is a five-minute drive from downtown Plano. The surrounding area is filled with craft coffee shops and popular restaurants like Urban Crust and Lockhart Smokehouse. Venture five minutes north, however, and you’re in No Man’s Land. The parking lots are empty, and most of the stores that are not closed look like they should be. If you drive north from downtown, it almost feels like you are traveling back in time, retreating to the Plano that existed before Ross Perot and the developers arrived and sanctified certain areas of town. This is where you can find Plano Super Bowl. Opened in 1985, the bowling center occupies a squat, nondescript white building a few minutes off the highway. General manager Scott Craddock says most cars simply drive by.
“A lot of people don’t even know we’re here,” he says. “Or they don’t think we’re still open. But we are.”
And most days, the parking lot is full. While Plano Super Bowl still relies on word of mouth to propel its business, it underwent a significant renovation in 2016. The interior is a collision of the old school and the new, with top-tier lanes and a scratch kitchen.
Some things will never change like the hours. Plano Super Bowl is open 24 hours, and its staff—an eclectic mix of short order cooks, alley attendees, and bowling veterans—work three shifts: the morning shift, the day shift, and what Craddock calls “the third shift,” which basically means all night. For Craddock, the decision to remain open 24 hours was a no-brainer.
“If we’re already closing at 2:00 a.m. some nights, then reopening at 8:00 a.m., why not stay open those hours?” he asks. “That gives people who work late their time to bowl.”
That sets them apart from the competition, which seemingly has much more going for them: a corporate budget, brand-name recognition, and laser tag.
But Craddock insists local bowling centers have something going for them that their corporate rivals do not: league bowling.
Plano Super Bowl is home to 27 adult leagues and three youth leagues, which host over 2,000 regular bowlers. Earlier this year, Plano Super Bowl was planning to send 50 of its youth league players to the Junior Gold Championship, which is the Little League World Series of bowling. Because of COVID-19, that tournament was cancelled. However, as Plano Super Bowl reopens, league bowling will continue to be a key part of its business model.
Owner Jamie Brooks says these leagues are a key reason why the three bowling centers he owns are all thriving, despite the absence of arcades, laser tag, and a corporate bankroll.
The 85-year-old Brooks is a veteran bowler, and the namesake for the Allen establishment. He owns JB’s Allen Bowl, the Plano Super Bowl and Cowtown Bowling Center in Fort Worth.
“Our job is to enrich people’s lives,” he says. “I’m not in the bowling business. I’m in the good ‘ol fashioned business of people.”
Talking to Craddock and Brooks will make anyone believe in the everlasting power of a local bowling center. At several points during our discussion, patrons come up to Craddock to shake his hand or share a quick story about a game they just played. One man tells him he is looking forward to seeing Craddock play later, to which Craddock responds, “I’m looking forward to my pizza.” His team recently bested another, he explains, and tonight, his team will dine on the other’s dime.
As the man walks away laughing, Craddock turns to me and says, “We know their names, and they know ours.”
I stopped by Plano Super Bowl one weekday around 3:00 a.m. It was late winter, which, in Texas, means early summer. I parked my car in a lot that was far from full but even farther from empty, and as I approached the bland, gray building, I began to hear it: plastic meeting wood. The sound recurs less frequently than it might on a popular night, but it’s clear there are many bowlers filling the lanes on this early Tuesday morning.
Inside, waiters recently off the night shift have come to bowl a few frames. Craddock warned me that the early morning hours would be a “ghost town,” but this morning, it is far from it. A couple of cooks are firing up burgers and fries, and a smattering of a dozen or so players occupy four lanes in the center of the building.
During a break in the action, I approach one of the bowlers.
“How often do you play at this time?” I ask.
“Every week,” she says.
Her routine ended when Plano Super Bowl shuttered unexpectedly on Tuesday, March 17. The COVID-19 crisis had reached North Texas, and at least one Plano resident was dead.
JB’s Allen Bowl is even more remote than its Plano counterpart. Occupying a mostly abandoned stretch of Greenville Avenue, the center is much smaller than the Plano Super Bowl. Its antiquated sign promises “bowling” and “video games,” and its main attraction is Saturday night glow bowling.
Those Saturday nights were a staple of my childhood. I remember frequenting JB’s with my middle school friends. I remember the nachos, the bright pink bowling balls, and the way the crowd would all “ooh” and “aah” together the moment JB’s brass dimmed the lights. I remember ditching JB’s for Main Event, because Main Event had laser tag.
Until recently, I assumed JB’s was long gone. Then, on a trip north, I used Greenville Avenue to evade Highway 75. As I approached JB’s, I saw that its small parking lot was overflowing with cars, forcing several patrons to use the abandoned lots on either side of the building.
Inside the center, a mass of families, friends and competitive bowlers enjoyed their evening. JB’s is considerably smaller than the Plano Super Bowl, but they share some signature traits. There’s the kitschy carpet, the retro designs and, of course, the smell. All bowling centers share a distinctive, oily odor. Every day, dutiful bowling center employees wax the lanes with ample oil. The smell hangs in the hair, creating that unusually appealing smell anyone who has ever bowled can immediately identify.
Unlike the Plano Super Bowl, JB’s is not open 24 hours. Bowlers, no matter their league status or decades of experience, must vacate the premises at 11 p.m. on weekdays and midnight on weekends. But the Allen bowling center is home to a smattering of youth and adult leagues, and many high school bowling teams compete at JB’s. On this night, the crowd was mostly adults. There were some league players, each sporting their team’s jersey, some seasons vets, other relative newcomers.
“There are a couple of teams here that might not like to talk to you,” warns one of the staff members.
“Why’s that?” I ask.
“They take their bowling pretty seriously. They don’t even talk to each other very much during the game.”
Wary of the bowlers’ wrath, I waited until their game concluded before approaching them. I told them what the staff member said, and a few of them chuckled. But their laughter was brief.
“Yeah,” one bowler said. “He’s right. We’re bowlers, not talkers.”
JB’s did have some talkers. There was Glenn, who says he’s been bowling there for nearly twenty years and almost went pro (His wife refuted this.) There was also Andy, an employee who is at least partly responsible for that signature oily smell, and says his entire home smells like a bowling center. And there’s Maggie, who introduced her sons to bowling at JB’s, and stuck with it well after they went off to college and forgot about the bowling center back home. She echoes something that Brooks told me repeatedly during our conversations: “There’s just something about the game.”
I even noticed a group of young bowlers who looked a lot like my friends and I from our JB’s heyday. Some were even eating nachos. I watched a few games and waited for the staff to dim the lights, even though it wasn’t Saturday.
Brooks and Craddock missed bowling during their quarantines. They missed the league players and the casual bowlers. They missed the conversations they have with customers between games. They missed their friends.
Both men thought about how it would look when the pandemic was over, or at least when life started to return to something like it was before. They thought about their customers, their employees, and the friends they’ve made over years and years in the business of people. They thought about 2019, a year Brooks says was the best financial year for all of the centers he owns. They never thought about the end, because they knew bowling would be a part of the new world.
“People are always going to need to bowl,” Brooks says.
He backs up his belief in the game’s mystique with hard-boiled business sense, citing Toyota’s move to Plano as evidence of his centers’ ever-burgeoning surroundings. His logic is simple: as more people move to North Texas, more people will come to his bowling centers—either because they love the game, or because they discover they love the game. And when they come to North Texas, they’ll discover that no one treats them as well as Brooks and co.
“The reason people keep coming back to us is because we make them feel good,” Brooks says. “How good is it to make someone feel good?”
The pandemic didn’t change that gameplan: Brooks will still rely on league bowling and his regulars to drive business, while also banking on new bowlers to discover the game. Maybe they’ll even fall in love. After two months, Brooks reopened Plano Super Bowl on a reservation-only basis. JB’s reopened, too. If you want to bowl in the dark with glowing, gleaming balls, the Allen venue is available for you.
I returned to both bowling centers after they reopened their doors. They were less crowded than they were at the start of 2020, but people still showed up. Some wore masks, some wore their team jerseys. Bowlers were spaced out, with every other lane inactive. But the smell was the same. So was the noise. Every few seconds, plastic collided with wood. Pins clattered. And there was joy.