He has been in five movies, 40 countries and thousands of pool rooms. He met his wife, Francine, giving her a lesson in the game. Mike Massey grew up in a little town near Knoxville, Tenn. "on the other side of the tracks" and wound up in his sport's Hall of Fame.

Picking up a pool cue for the first time when he was 8 and starting to play seriously when he was 13, Massey saw potential shots on the smooth green felt like a tailback might see a developing hole on a swath of green grass.

"I wasn't very athletic, but there was something about pool that came very naturally for me," Massey, now 65, recalled Friday. "I was just fascinated by the game. I could see the angles and where to hit the balls. It was just like something I was meant to do."

Inducted into the sport's Hall of Fame as its 50th member in 2005, Massey has been a mainstay in the Baltimore area — considered among the biggest hotbeds for pool in the country with an estimated 1,500 teams competing in sanctioned leagues — and next week marks the 100th time Massey will have performed in the area.

He'll perform in Harford County at Wargo's Forest Hill Inn on Tuesday, in Linthicum at Baltimore Billiards on Wednesday and in Highlandtown at Hooper's Saturday. He will be performing in Cambridge on Thursday and in Frederick on Friday. All his appearances run from 5-7 p.m. and are open to the public.

Like many of the great players who came before him, Massey wound up crisscrossing the country, hustling up games and walking away with his pockets stuffed with cash.

"Just like the movie 'The Hustler,'" he said the of classic 1961 film starring Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason.

Massey said his days as a hustler ended one night in Arkansas several years ago when some gamblers wanted him to tank a game. He didn't comply and thought for a moment that it would cost him his life.

"They went back to the office and slammed the door shut. One guy had a German Luger, another had a Smith and Weston, and another guy had a knife," Massey said. "That was the night I gave my life to the Lord."

Massey might have found religion that night, but he didn't lose his love of pool. He wound up winning 23 major tournaments, 17 world and international trick shot events and eight made-for-television trick shot tournaments on ESPN.

Massey became so proficient at trick shots that many movie producers would hire Massey either for cameos or to act as a technical advisor.

Massey got to know the real-life Minnesota Fats — pool player and entertainer Rudolph Wanderone Jr., who legally changed his name to that of the movie character played by Gleason — and was called in to help set up his shots in a documentary made in Nashville years ago.

Massey spends most of his time these days travelling the world from a home base in Park City, Utah. He came to Baltimore from Egypt, where he performed at shows run by a Christian ministry. He said he plans to visit Iraq in the next few months.

"I won't say I won't compete again, even the trick shot magic stuff I quit that about three years ago," said Massey, whose most famous trick shot is called "The Boot" and can be found on YouTube. "I kind of burned out. I get that little urge every once in a while. When I do these shows, I play challenge games, but it's more a fun thing…It's really hard to make a living playing tournaments."

The most Massey said he ever won in a tournament was $30,000 in an ESPN event.

"I once got $30,000 to play in a tournament, but that was unusual," Massey said. "[The promoter] gave that to all the living Hall of Famers. Most of us play it because we love the game. It's a great sport, and it is a sport. It is in the World Games. They tried to get into the Olympics, but never did."

Terry Justice, the president of the American Poolplayers Association of Maryland, said there are more than 15,000 members of across the state who shoot pool at 600 venues, including 150 in the Baltimore area. Justice said he has been promoting the sport in Baltimore for nearly 30 years.

"We have a great handicapping system where anybody can play and anybody can win," Justice said. "The handicap system is similar to bowling, where everyone can compete on a level playing field. Back in the old days, you really couldn't play in a pool league because they were all scratch leagues. All the strong players would migrate to the strong teams."

Massey has seen the sport grow from the seedy bars and smoky pool halls to some 270,000 members of the American Poolplayers Association nationally, including 15,000 who show up every year in Las Vegas for a national championship.

He has also seen a huge gender change.

"About 30 percent of the people who play pool now are women," Massey said. "If you go back 30 years ago, the only time you'd see a woman at a pool hall was when she would pull up to the front door and blow the horn."

don.markus@baltsun.com

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