By JOHN GORALSKI
Sal “Cool Cat” Conti seemed to glide across the Vegas ballroom in a tightly choreographed dance, while the audience cheered every step. The Southington showman seemed at home in the spotlight, flashing a sly grin as the crowd whispered a gasp.
The New York-New York casino never knew what hit them as Conti performed in front of the cameras at ESPN’s Trick Shot Magic in the fall of 2007. The best artistic pool players in the world were left speechless as Conti whirled around the table.
Conti was locked in a fierce battle with Tom “Dr. Cue” Rossman in the tournament semi-finals, and the Southington rookie was giving the seasoned pro everything he could handle.
“I put a lot of effort into bringing shots that I knew I could make,” said Conti. “I learned my opponents’ shots, so I thought I could make them. You didn’t know who you would play against, but you had to be ready.”
And he was. Conti sank shot after shot in the head-to-head battle with Dr. Cue, and numbered balls scattered across the table in controlled anarchy. The newcomer had a two-point lead twice, and Conti forced Rossman to dig deep into his bag of tricks to finally beat him.
“I’m not in love with the fact that I lost,” said Conti. “But I knew I played pretty well, and I knew that the audience loved it.”
When ESPN announcers entered the arena, they made a beeline for Conti. Allen Hopkins, a hall of fame pool player and announcer, seemed star-struck. Celebrity sports caster Mitch Lawrence was amazed. “Do you know what you just did?” they asked.
Conti said that the question floored him. Did he swear on national television or do something embarrassing? Nope.
“I set a world record,” he said. Lawrence was the first one to tell him. “He just went on and on. Here’s the guy that I used to listen to as an announcer on the Wide World of Sports, and I just entertained him? Wow. For a little country mouse from Southington, Conn. It’s just mind-boggling.”
Conti still stands as the only player to sink all 10 of his chosen shots on the ESPN showcase, and the 16-14 decision in the semifinals still stands as the highest scoring trick shot match in the sport’s history. Conti scored more points in his final two rounds than the eventual winner scored in three, but it’s the loss that stands out most in Conti’s memory.
Dr. Cue somehow managed to sink more of Conti’s shots than Conti scored of his.
“To this day, I still can’t believe I missed those shots of his,” he said. “I missed them by millimeters, and I still can’t believe it.”
Rossman went on to lose to Stefano Pelinga in the championship, and he credited the game against Conti as the biggest reason. In an email to the Southington player, Dr. Cue said that he had nothing left in his tank for the finals.
That’s the way Conti is remembered by anybody that faced him in any type of pool competition. If you took him lightly, you probably lost.
“Practice, practice, practice. The guy is relentless,” said Bruce Barthelette, a fellow professional and Conti’s partner as a pool league owner. “When he sets his mind to something, he’s got such determination. And he’s a perfectionist. There’s no question about it.”
But Conti never set out to be a champion, a trick shot wizard, or a hall of fame pool player. As a Southington boy, he dreamed about pro football or baseball as he competed in the town’s youth leagues. Pool was something he played in his basement to spend time with his father and his friends.
“I took it for granted. It was just something that we did,” he said. “As a kid, I don’t think I knew how good I was because it was never a priority. It was just something we did for fun, and it was my family’s business.”
Conti’s father opened his first pool room when Sal was just 10 years old. The family pool hall was the first in Southington and offered local players a break from smoky barrooms or dark corners of bowling alleys where billiards were almost an afterthought.
Conti followed in his father’s footsteps, and he’s been in the business for over 35 years. As the owner/operator of Shooters’ Billiards on Spring Street, Conti has committed himself to spreading the love of pool to the next generation.
He became a professional pool player almost by accident.
In 2003 and 2004, Conti won state titles as a member of a coed 8-ball tandem. In 2003, he placed fifth at the national championships. That’s when a peer showed him a video of his trick shot performances, and Conti began thinking about his own legacy.
Within six months, he was hosting an artistic pool qualifier (which he won), and a week later the pros were urging him to join the tour. Conti was a natural, quickly climbing the world rankings with the sport’s legends, men and women that were household names and television stars.
Conti battled toe-to-toe against these seasoned pros, and “Cool Cat” quickly earned an invitation to the Artistic Pool Association’s world champi onships after less than a year of professional competition.
“There’s a certain chess match, strategic mentality to the game, and if you don’t understand that, there’s a limit to how far you’ll make it in competition,” he said. “I really believe that I beat a lot of people who never thought I’d beat them.”
The climax of his sudden rise to the top was a 2004 world championship—in the stroke discipline—where Conti whipped every top player in the world, including pioneers and journeymen that had spent their whole lives perfecting their craft. But Conti almost dropped out of the competition when he landed in California with a 104-degree fever.
“I was so sick, I was thinking about dropping out before it even started,” he said. In fact, it was fellow player Andy Segal that told Conti that he put in too much time to just quit. So Conti entered the competition. Between matches, he passed out in his hotel room, but nobody could tell that he was sick when Conti was on the floor.
He earned a spot in the final eight, where he beat Barthelette in the quarterfinals. He roared through the semifinals and captured the championship. In his first appearance at the world competition, Conti came away with a world title.
Cool Cat credits the flu. “It forced me to buckle down in a way that maybe I wouldn’t have,” he said. But that’s only part of it. Winning a pool tournament isn’t easy to do—especially with aching joints and a fever.
“It’s a game of endurance,” said fellow professional Tom McGonagle. He called Conti a true “survivor” in the sport. “When you get into a tournament at the highest level, you might spend 14 or 16 hours playing matches, one after the other, against high quality players. You can’t be out of shape. This isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon, and you had better have the endurance to do it.”
Still, it’s between competitions that Conti really raised the bar as a tireless diplomat for the sport of pool. He hosted tournaments. He promoted youth leagues. He organized competitions, and he was elected as board chairman for the Artistic Pool and Trick Shot Association from 2004 to 2007—all while competing as a professional.
Conti and Barthelette were running a Massachusetts pool league that swelled to over 215 teams and 2,000 members. Barthelette credits Conti’s ability to work one-on-one work with the younger players as a main reason for the league’s success.
“The guy is unbelievable with children and adults,” said Barthelette. “He’s got patience, and he just knows what to say to people to make them feel good. That’s one of the strengths of his—the way that he treats people.”
Even while he was competing, Conti seemed more interested in his fellow players than his own accolades. When the local pool player heard that another player (one that Conti beat in a qualifying match) couldn’t afford the main event, Conti donated his own winning entry and paid his own way into the tournament. Conti developed a reputation among his fellow players as a true gentleman.
“You don’t hear anybody talk bad about Sal because he’s one of these very, very likeable people,” said Barthelette. “He is always nice. I’ve never seen the guy lose his temper. I’ve never seen him get upset. It’s amazing. He really is a great role model for people.”
In fact, when Conti was selected for the New England Pool and Billiard Hall of Fame in 2013, he was singled out—not only for his playing career—but for his work as a pool hall owner, a promoter, and his commitment to the sport. Nobody has been selected to the billiard hall of fame for more reasons than Conti.
“He dedicated his life to the sport,” said McGonagle, the president of the billiard hall of fame. “People didn’t know how to organize things. Nobody knew how to run it as a business, but Sal created leagues. He owned an APA franchise for a while, and he devoted himself to the game. He tried to make improvements wherever he could…and he’s a great trick shot player, too.”
Conti has become Southington’s world-wide ambassador for billiards, so it’s no surprise that members of the Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee have named him as a member of the Class of 2017. On Wednesday, Nov. 8, he will be honored in a ceremony at the Aqua Turf in Plantsville.
“If you’re a boy from Southington, like me, and you bleed blue, there really isn’t a better accolade to my professional career than to have this induction,” he said. “It’s as significant to me as any accomplishment I’ve ever had.”
To reserve tickets, contact Jim Verderame at (860) 628-7335 or Val DePaolo at (860) 620-9460, ext. 104.
To comment on this story or to contact Southington Observer editor John Goralski, email him at JGoralski@SouthingtonObserver.com.