By John Goralski
Sal Conti stood up to address the crowd that was packed into the pool hall annex in Providence, RI, as he stared across the room at a framed photo of him and his father. A handful of others had already spoken about their long careers in pool halls and competition, but Conti went in another direction.
Some expected him to talk about the trick shots that launched him to the top of the world rankings. Others expected him to talk about the trials and tribulations of owning a pool hall, promoting the sport, teaching students, or running a league, but Conti, or “Cool Cat” as he’s known in the billiard world, wanted to talk about his coaches from Southington’s Little League, midget football, and their impact upon his life.
“I’m a product of Southington. I grew up playing baseball at Western Little League. Everything that I’ve accomplished is a result of those coaches and people I grew up with,” said the local businessman. “Whether it’s on a baseball team, a football team, or a pool table, any lesson that I learn or teach has nothing to do with sports. It has to do with winning and preparing yourself to take on the next challenge, whatever it turns out to be.”
On Friday, March 1, Conti was honored as one of 11 inductees into the regional hall of fame. Some may have been surprised that his acceptance speech had little to do with the sport that brought him fame, but those that made the trip from Southington expected nothing less.
Conti is one part philosopher, one part magician, and one part fierce competitor. As a local coach and business owner, Conti has made a name for himself as a shepherd of sorts. He prides himself for his business which attracts newcomers and seasoned pros, and he seems more proud of his work behind the scenes than his record-setting performance on ESPN Trick Shot Magic.
It was his humble nature and commitment to those around him that attracted officials at the hall of fame. Conti’s photo hangs in the Providence pool hall, alongside world pool champions like Larry Lisciotti and Billiard Congress Hall of Fame players like Larry Johnson and 9-ball champion Mike Zuglan.
Conti’s accomplishments measure up well. He earned a world championship as a “trick shot” player in 2004 in the stroke discipline. He was ranked among the top 10 in the sport. He set a world record as the only player to successfully score all of his shots on ESPN, but Conti wasn’t just inducted as a player.
He was inducted as a promoter for hosting professional events and promoting a league of over 300 players in Massachusetts. He was recognized as a teacher, a pool hall owner, and a tournament director. There are close to 100 members of the New England hall of fame, but nobody matches Conti’s contributions in as many different areas.
“He’s been in pool his whole life,” said Tom McGonagle, president and founder of the NE Pool & Billiard Hall of Fame. “Sal’s more than just a quality player. He’s a well-rounded pool player and a credit to the game.”
It’s no surprise that Conti has been so devoted to the sport. His father owned and managed a pool hall on Spring Street from 1976 to 1985. He introduced his son to the sport on a table in their basement, and Conti has never been far from a pool table ever since.
“His friends used to come over on the weekends and in the evenings to play pool, and I wanted to play, too,” he said. “In the beginning, they’d say, ‘OK kid, I’ll play one game with you.’ At first it was just to appease me, but by the time I was 11 years old they only wanted to play one game with me because I got pretty good pretty quick.”
In 1995, Conti opened Shooters Billiards on Spring Street in the same location as his father’s business, and he settled in as an accomplished amateur player until he saw a film of one of his patrons sinking trick shots. A few days later, a friend called to ask if Conti wanted to host an artistic pool tournament and qualifier, and his competitive spirit was sparked.
“I told him that I’d do host the event on one condition. I wanted him to teach me the shots,” said Conti. “I was a decent player, but I had never sunk a trick shot in my life. I always enjoyed watching it, but I had never done it. I wanted to play in the qualifier to see if I could win an entry.”
Conti went on to win the qualifying event. Surprised by his ease and ability, the professionals gave him the nickname “Cool Cat.” Conti went on to place 11th at the professional event, and he was invited to play at a national tournament a few weeks later. That one local tournament catapulted Conti