Lee became arguably the biggest star in the world of billiards, at least on the U.S. side of the Atlantic Ocean, during the 1990s when she helped pool surge in popularity. With ESPN providing a major platform at the time for women’s tournaments in nine ball and other forms of pocket billiards, Lee cut a sleek and imposing presence.
A New York native of Korean heritage, Lee made a quick ascent after beginning her career in 1989. She turned professional in 1991 and was named the Women’s Professional Billiard Association’s player of the year in 1994. Lee attained the world No. 1 ranking in her sport, won over 30 national and international titles and maintained her success well into the 2000s.
However, by 2010 Lee was largely unable to continue her career as a top competitor because of the scoliosis from which she had suffered since childhood. Wednesday’s news release suggested that the condition played a role in masking the fact that a cancer was beginning to spread through her body.
“She’s in a lot of pain all the time, anyway, so she didn’t notice any difference,” Lee’s longtime agent, Tom George, said Wednesday when reached by phone.
George said that Lee objected to the news release’s description of her as having been diagnosed with “terminal cancer” because she “intends to beat it.” Doctors have told her, he said, that she likely has no more than a year or two left to live.
The agent, who began representing Lee while at Octagon and now leads his own firm, Tom George Sports & Literary, helped put together a GoFundMe page that said of Lee, “The cancer has fully metastasized into her lymph nodes and the prognosis is dire.”
The fundraising campaign is meant to benefit three daughters of Lee who range in age from 10 to 16. The web page claims that 19 surgeries for scoliosis over the years have come at “incredible personal expense” for Lee, and George noted that in addition to having to abandon high-level tournaments for the past decade, Lee’s American Poolplayers Association franchise in Tampa Bay has taken a major hit amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“Nobody’s going to bars to play,” he said.
Of her “Black Widow” nickname, first teasingly bestowed on Lee when she was honing her game at the Howard Beach Billiard Club, she was initially apprehensive because it didn’t necessarily reflect her true nature, despite her steely-eyed countenance while competing.
“Everyone wants to be liked at some point, so, at first, it was difficult to be seen as a villain,” she told ESPN in 2002, in an interview linked to a network special featuring the “World’s Sexiest Athletes.”
Saying in 2012 that she struggled in her youth with issues of “self-worth,” Lee added that she became “glad” the nickname stuck “because I saw from people [that] they loved who I am the way I was.”
“They loved me being competitive, and feminine, and strong,” she said then, “and it was okay. I think that nickname represents that side of me. I’m also a mother, and a friend, and I have this other, very social, softer side.”
George said aspects of Lee’s character that always impressed him were her work ethic and drive — in some cases, literally — to succeed while growing her sport. Claiming her nickname at the Octagon agency wasn’t “Black Widow” so much as Jeanette “Never let you down” Lee, George cited a scheduled appearance at a 2000 Super Bowl event in Atlanta beset by a winter storm that made travel dicey. She called the agent to let him know her flight was canceled, but before he could tell her not to worry about a gig for which the only remuneration would be a pair of tickets to the game, Lee declared that she was already driving there with her then-husband from their home in Indianapolis.
“She always showed up,” George said.
Lee was “the marquee star,” George said, of pool’s ESPN heyday, the successor to the likes of Minnesota Fats, Willie Mosconi and Steve Mizerak as the face of the sport. While her “Black Widow” persona had fellow WPBA players scrambling to come up with their own nicknames, they “loved the attention that Jeanette brought to the sport,” not to mention the increased revenue.
“Jeanette has done so much for the sport at every level,” Fisher, 52, added on Wednesday. “We’ve had some terrific matches over the years and I’m not sure I’ve met someone as passionate about the game as her.”