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‘Jeanette Lee Vs.’ peers into the lasting legacy of ‘The Black Widow’

The ESPN 30-for-30 documentary chronicles Lee’s lifelong quest to beat down challenges the only way she can.

NY Giants Justin Tuck’s 5th Annual Celebrity Billiards Tournament Photo by Johnny Nunez/WireImage

I remember briefly turning to ESPN2 and looking at the pool tournaments the channel used to broadcast. That’s when I began to understand there was an astute amount of precision and focus when it came to playing the game – setting up shots, fitness in how you hit the cue balls, and the particular angles you want to use.

We all have an athlete to point to as our entry point into a sport. For basketball, it could be Michael Jordan or LeBron James. In soccer, it might be Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. For many people in the pool world, it was Jeanette “The Black Widow” Lee. Her trademark black wardrobe, the focused “stare” she had while setting up a shot, and her commitment to her craft is comparable to the late Kobe Bryant’s “Mamba Mentality.”

You can say the theme of ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary, Jeanette Lee Vs. is perseverance. As a young kid, her family emigrated from South Korea to live in Crown Heights, New York, where Jeanette was one of the few Asian-American students. At 12, she was diagnosed with scoliosis – a health battle she would deal with her entire life. Her father left her family when she was just five years old. When it felt like all was lost, she walked into a pool hall in Manhattan at 18 and found her purpose. Under the tutelage of legend Gene Nagy, she began constructing her game that would later dominate the professional pool world in the late 90s and early 2000s.

Director Ursula Liang uses footage of present-day Jeanette Lee with her family to reflect on her impact during the apex of her pool career. When you’re the first at something, there will always be dissenters. For starters, pool was a male-dominated sport back in the 90s. Secondly, Lee’s ethnicity was a constant breeding ground for stereotypes. She played the game with relentless tenacity, intelligence, and was not afraid to utilize her attractiveness – a match that helped elevate the Women’s Professional Billiard Association along with players Ewa Laurance and her rival, Allison Fisher. Even though many of the “classic” players didn’t take to her style, it’s undeniable that Lee’s rebellious nature brought walls down as no one else could. Liang also takes the audience through the social landscape of the late 90s. At the time, there was very little Asian-American representation in sports and television. Lee’s ascent in the pool spectrum, advertisements, and later Hollywood was significant in the fight for representation.

Just think about her nickname, “The Black Widow.” It doesn’t seem like there’s a challenge fathomable that could take somebody like that down. Within the documentary, Lee explains how hard playing pool was with her back issues. Even then, she was able to win a gold medal and reach these unfathomable heights.

This is why her terminal cancer diagnosis was so jarring – reserved for later in the documentary. Even though Lee’s treatments were successful, her doctor expressed that she may never go into remission. This woman's life mantra was to smash any challenge or comer. However, she’s left asking, “So, I’m supposed to live every month, every year, forever thinking I’m just on the edge of the cliff?” Even in her tiredness, there’s a fight in her – only this time, it’s something she can, unfortunately, lose to. It’s a cruel twist of life that you wish somebody who has had to sift through so much not to have to deal with.

If there was ever a monument to her legacy, Jeanette Lee Vs. is here to tell the story. No matter the obstacle, “The Black Widow” is there to meet it with open arms.