Jeanette Lee, better known as the Black Widow, spent years dominating pool tables despite degenerative, debilitating pain and became a top-ranked women’s billiards champion.
She learned she had scoliosis as a teenager and has undergone numerous procedures for the condition.
Every vertebra from her skull to her tailbone is fused.
“I don’t know why I felt like there was a race, but I always felt like there was and every minute I was playing pool, I was gaining on the people above me, and every time I was sidelined, I was just losing that edge,” Lee said.
In that chase, Lee, 49, became accustomed to brushing aside discomfort, which was as much a part of her life as her nose.
A staph infection? She bandaged the wound for a few days, hoping it would heal on its own. Back pain? A given, but the agony ratcheted up even more last year. Doctors belatedly discovered a severe kidney infection when she finally sought help.
Now, she is facing perhaps her most difficult test in a life of pushing through adversity. Lee recently learned that she had Stage 4 ovarian cancer, causing her to tap into her well-developed skills of persistence and to worry about the future for her children.
Throughout the winter, Lee dismissed her trouble breathing as a sign of a panic attack. She had hesitated to go anywhere during the coronavirus pandemic because she had a compromised immune system. Only after four days of not being able to sleep, of feeling as if she were drowning whenever she lay down, did Lee visit an urgent care center.
Instead of a panic attack, she now figured that she had the beginnings of a bronchial infection.
The medical staff told Lee she had fluid in her lungs and sent her to a hospital. In January, doctors discovered the cancer. Lee’s thoughts immediately went to her daughters: Cheyenne, 16, Chloe, 11, and Savannah, 10.
“I don’t want to die, and I do worry about my girls,” Lee said. “When I do cry, it’s always about the idea of my little girls.”
Lee said though chemotherapy has been painful, “it’s nothing compared to what I think my children have to go through watching me.”
She described her daughters as sweet, loving and bubbling with laughter.
“When’s the next time they’re going to laugh like that again?” she said.
Lee is committed to pushing through, despite the odds. Scoliosis would have sidelined most. Pseudarthrosis — a condition that occurs following an unsuccessful spinal fusion surgery — bursitis and bicep tendinitis in her shoulders came later, along with carpal tunnel syndrome and severe sciatic pain. Stretching her arms across a pool table was agonizing.
“I think with each hardship, there’s something that you learn and you grow from it as long as you’re looking up,” Lee said. “You’re not looking down, feeling sorry for yourself. You’re figuring out, ‘What can I do with what I’ve got?’ Because I don’t have a choice. Like, people say that I’m courageous or strong, but I don’t have a choice. What’s my other option?”
As much as the pain allowed her to be and often despite its presence, Lee was ubiquitous within her sport.
If a person can name one pool player of the last generation, it’s probably Lee. She carved her place in a male-dominated sport and earned her fitting nickname by dressing in all black and stalking opponents at the table before mercilessly defeating them.
“No one in pool worked harder than Jeanette to transcend the sport,” said Mike Panozzo, the publisher of Billiards Digest. “She did that mostly by herself. Her drive was unbelievable. She always had time for everyone and anyone. And because of that, Jeanette became pool to people outside of the sport and industry.
“Everyone knew the Black Widow.”
Lee was the rare billiards player to cross over into the mainstream realm. She was a focus of the sport on ESPN. She appeared in a Disney film, posed in ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue and appeared in ads for Bass Pro Shops.
As a child, she was drawn to mind games like puzzles and riddles. She experienced isolation growing up as one of the few Korean-Americans in her Brooklyn neighborhood. Billiards and all its angles and geometry mesmerized Lee when she walked into a pool hall at the age of 18. The game was democratic in nature.
“Pool is something that you’re going to see at the Boys & Girls Club and you’re going to see it at the ritziest hotels or mansions,” Lee said. “It doesn’t discriminate based on age, social stature, race. It just doesn’t matter. Everyone plays pool. So, everyone has an idea how tough it is. They can relate to it.”
She enjoyed that toughness, the test of wills. When others cowered from nerves, she surged on adrenaline.
“I love the challenge of battling my mind against yours on who’s going to take this,” Lee said. “And I just went after it. And it was exciting. It was sexy. It’s beautiful. It’s graceful and, at times, it brings the power out of you.”
She would tape her left hand for days in the form of the perfect bridge, hoping muscle memory would allow her to repeat it at the table. She honed her form by aiming at an empty soda bottle, playing long enough that she could no longer hold herself upright from the back pain as friends carried her from pool halls.
Lee turned pro in 1993. At first, she bristled when people took to calling her the Black Widow.
She worried what people thought of her steely demeanor, even though her appearance was the last thing she was thinking about while at the pool table.
“Eventually, I owned it,” she said. “I loved it.”
She never missed a chance to promote herself or her sport. She was on the road for as many 300 days a year.
“I grew up with no money and so I knew that the only way I could keep doing what I love for a living is if I was to gain sponsorships,” she said, adding that she thought being a woman and Asian American helped her stand out.
She spent much of the 1990s as the world’s top-ranked female player. In 1998, she was named the Women’s Professional Billiard Association Sportsperson of the Year. Three years later, she captured the gold medal for the United States at the World Games in Akita, Japan. Before the World Games, Lee struggled with the amount of publicity she received.
“I went a long time questioning whether or not I deserve the attention that I got and this was something that you can’t just deny,” Lee said.
Pain, more than any competitor, was her most persistent opponent. “I wanted to be the best, and I never lost my grip on that idea of becoming the best,” she said.
Lee continued: “But after a while you get through life and you look around and you realize that you’re the last person standing and just that by itself, by not giving up, by continuing to push when everything feels like it’s pulling you down, just by being the last person standing, it makes you a champion.”
Along the way, Lee found that she had inspired people by playing with scoliosis. She hopes that she will do the same as she deals with cancer.
“I feel like everything I’ve gone through to this point, all the people I’ve inspired, all the hardships I’ve endured were to prepare me for this moment,” Lee said.
Lee is in the middle of six rounds of chemotherapy, each separated by about three weeks. She recently had surgery to remove as much of the cancer as possible. The five-year relative survival rate for ovarian cancer depends on the stage at diagnosis, the type of ovarian cancer and many other factors. For people whose cancer has spread, as in Stage 4, the rate is 30.3 percent, according to the National Cancer Institute, which is part of the federal National Institutes of Health.
Many women, like Lee, do not learn they have ovarian cancer until it is in advanced stages because the symptoms can be mild and are often attributed to other conditions.
Tom George, Lee’s longtime manager and the principal at TG Sports & Literary, spent years watching Lee devote her time to others. With Lee’s support, he started a GoFundMe page for her children. Her primary concern was that they would be cared for. The fund has raised nearly $250,000.
The drive Lee had to become the best billiards player is no longer there. Her new focus is more important.
“Everything has been a battle and it’s been obstacle over obstacle that I’ve had to climb through, climb over, climb around,” Lee said, “and now I just want to have joy, and I want my children to have that.”