Let’s go back 30 years to the age of Reagan, Thatcher, Torvill and Dean, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and boom time snooker.
It’s January 1984. Singer Jackie Wilson and Tarzan actor Johnny Weissmuller have just died, Michael Jackson has been badly burned filming a Pepsi ad, Apple has put its new Macintosh computer on sale and a Canadian snooker player is about to write his name in the game’s history books.
This was not the fractured digital age in which we live today. There had been only three television channels in the UK until Channel 4 launched in 1982. Satellite TV would not arrive until the end of the decade. So snooker, which had gradually become a mainstay of the schedules, was not only popular but hugely exposed, its top players household names. The vivid mix of personalities made for a rolling soap opera, on and off table.
Kirk Stevens was well placed to be among the most popular characters in this serial drama. Young, good looking and with a Canadian drawl, he played the game with panache, often in a white suit like another icon of the era, John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.
At the height of the snooker boom, Stevens was responsible for a magical moment, which happened 30 years ago today. It was a personal peak of achievement but was followed by a dramatic fall from grace as snooker’s dwindling innocence came to be further eroded by the malign forces of money and fame.
Stevens came up through the tough North American pool scene where hustling and its attendant vices were commonplace. He once recalled: “When I was 15, I looked like I was 12, so when this little wimp went up to somebody and said, ‘like to play for $500?’ they thought they couldn’t lose.”
Violence and the threat of more violence lingered in the background of money matches. Stevens once won $10,000 in Ohio but had to flee in a car pursued by a hail of bullets.
At 18, his mother died in a suspected arson attack. A heartbroken Stevens resolved to seriously pursue his snooker career and followed his compatriots Cliff Thorburn and Bill Werbeniuk to the UK to compete on the fledgling professional circuit.
In 1979, when Stevens was 20, Terry Griffiths won the World Championship at his first attempt, a feat which seemed to the younger players to break down the wall which separated them from the apparently immovable old guard. This was their moment and they were going to grasp it.
Stevens certainly did, reaching the Crucible semi-finals in 1980 and 1984 and climbing to fourth in the world rankings. In the midst of this, on the night of Saturday, January 28, 1984 he played Jimmy White in the semi-finals of the Masters at Wembley Conference Centre.
The pair were good friends and natural crowd-pleasers. It had already been a great match when White, leading 5-3, had first dig at a red in the ninth frame, missed, and Stevens got in. On 64 – all blacks – he took the cue ball in and out of baulk, missing everything to land nicely on the black again, after which he held his nerve if not perfect position. There was a scare when he cannoned into the pink off the 15th black, but he still landed on the yellow. He needed the rest to pot it, left the wrong angle for the green and had to take the cue ball around the angles for the brown. Even then, he finished wrong side to be ideal on the blue and ended up having to run the cue ball off the baulk cushion the length of the table to land on the black, a slight cut-back which Stevens sank to complete a maximum break.
The Canadian actor Donald Sutherland arrived late and thus the first frame of snooker he would ever see live was Stevens’s 147. It was such a rare feat – only the third ever made on television, in fact – that the match was stopped for a special announcement of congratulations, with a representative of the sponsor giving Stevens a ten pound note as a down payment for the £10,000 he would receive for the maximum.
He lost the next frame and therefore the match. White would win the tournament but Stevens had indelibly left his mark on the Masters in the minds of a generation of snooker lovers.
Stevens was on a high, but not only because of snooker. The circuit can be a lonely place. Stevens was young, earning big money and thus a magnet for the assorted hangers-on who to this day find it all too easy to get hold of a snooker player in need of company and ego massaging.
Drugs were always in the background of the North American cue sports sub culture and, a long way from home, Stevens became, in his own words, “helplessly addicted” to cocaine, estimating his expenditure on the drug as £250,000 in six years.
Stevens was publicly exposed after losing to Silvino Francisco in the 1985 British Open final. Francisco, who lived close to Stevens in Chesterfield, became convinced his opponent was under the influence during the match and confronted him in the toilets between frames. A newspaper reporter got wind of the story and secretly recorded Francisco making allegations against Stevens, which formed the basis of a front page exclusive in the Daily Star on the first day of the World Championship.
Stevens went on to admit his problem. He was hospitalised and later had three spells in rehab. His battle with drugs took its toll on his career and he tumbled down the rankings.
In 1993, Stevens left the circuit. He was 35. What do snooker players do outside snooker? Even Ronnie O’Sullivan was forced to admit his days were often empty during his sabbatical last year. Stevens, of course, had to earn a living. He had varied jobs from landscape gardener to lumberjack, which ended when he discovered he disliked heights.
As he told the Observer in 2002, he was also a car salesman, but did not have the skills for this trade: “I was the worst car salesman in the world. I think I sold five cars in six months. I couldn’t even sell a car to my sister. She went down the street and spent twice as much for a car at another dealership. The problem was I couldn't really screw people into the ground. I was too nice. The only reason the guy kept me on was because I helped organise this pool competition at the dealership every Friday night. People would come in for the contest and while they were there, we'd try and sell them a car.”
Stevens had little interest in snooker after heading home to Canada but eventually began playing again and in 1998 won the North American qualifier to regain his professional status. There was plenty of interest in his return but his form of old had gone and he went back to his native land. In 2008, he won the Canadian national title and has represented his country in the world amateur championship.
Stevens will always be remembered for that night at Wembley 30 years ago. His maximum was stylish and exciting and he was a much loved figure from a time in which snooker ruled the airwaves. He is not the first person, nor will he be the last, to come from little, achieve huge fame and find it hard to cope in the unforgiving spotlight.
The 1999 Masters marked the event’s 25th staging. The sponsors, B&H, invited back all former champions to be introduced into the arena before the evening session of the final. In recognition of one of the tournament’s best remembered moments, they included Stevens in the parade.
He received a warm reception from the packed house and as he lined up with the greats of the game who had won the title, wiped away a tear – perhaps for the memories of what he had achieved, perhaps for the regret of what might have been. As the applause rang out, he hopefully understood it was genuine appreciation for one of the bona fide stars of snooker’s golden boom.