Black Widow of pool Jeanette Lee: Cancer ‘will never be in remission’

INDIANAPOLIS — All those brutal chemo treatments were finished and her Stage 4 ovarian cancer was gone. Jeanette Lee wanted it to be gone. It had to be gone. That’s what she told herself in those deep, sometimes dark, moments of thought that only a person battling cancer can understand.

‘I did everything I was supposed to do,’ Lee says in ‘Jeanette Lee Vs.,’ an ESPN documentary that premiered Tuesday night.

But her doctor told her otherwise. She had done everything she was supposed to do, but cancer has its own ideas.

‘He said, ‘No, you’re not in remission,’ Lee, 51, said fighting back the tears she didn’t know would come in front of the ESPN film crew. ‘But why not? I don’t understand. What’s it going to take for me to go into remission?’

Lee will never forget the doctor’s words: I’m sorry, but I don’t believe you’re ever going to go into remission.

‘I was like, ‘What do you mean never?” Lee says in the film. ‘So, I’m supposed to live every month, every year forever thinking I’m just on the edge of the cliff?’

It’s been nearly two years since Lee was diagnosed with ovarian cancer that had metastasized to other parts of her body. It’s been a tough two years. As she fought cancer, ESPN followed the billiards legend for its latest installment of the network’s ’30 For 30′ series.

But the film is about so much more than Lee’s cancer. It is the story of a woman, who in her sport of pocket billiards, spit out competitors as she rose to the No. 1 player in the world. It is about a sweet, endearing personality who was known to ‘eat her opponents’ alive.

It is the story of the Black Widow.

‘Jeanette saw the table like no one else’

Lee was 18 years old when she walked into a dark, smoky Manhattan pool hall in New York City and watched a guy make a clean shot into the corner pocket of a billiard table. Lee knew nothing about pool, but that shot that man pulled off, it fascinated her.

She went back to that pool hall and went back again. Lee wanted to learn more about this sport of billiards. She watched day after day, all those men making shots on a green felt-covered table she never knew were possible. She was hooked.

Lee never could quite explain the lure, the enchantment of a somewhat seedy sport that sucked her in at 18, a girl who always thought she would be an elementary school teacher.

But it did. And Lee decided to try her hand at pool. She practiced – and practiced some more – and she became one of the biggest superstars to take a cue stick and ricochet a ball into a pocket.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Lee was a 20-something woman who transcended a sport that was an afterthought in the mainstream world of football and basketball and became an international superstar. She was in ESPN’s The Body issue, walked the red carpet at the ESPY Awards and was featured in People, Glamour and Sports Illustrated.

At the height of her early success, Lee was based in Indianapolis and lived in Carmel and Mooresville. She could be spotted with other Indy sports superstars, Peyton Manning, Helio Castroneves, Travis Best and Edgerrin James, whom Lee once called the best celebrity amateur pool player she’s ever competed against.

But none of them could beat Lee. Not even close.

‘Jeanette saw the table like no one else,’ Tom George, Lee’s longtime manager, told IndyStar in 2021. ‘The movement of the balls, the geometric patterns. She saw all of it.’

Lee had a rare combination of unbelievable talent, beauty and allure playing a sport reserved, before then, mostly for men, George said. Lee’s career soared; she became a legend.

But in early 2021 at the age of 49, a seemingly invincible Lee was diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer. The diagnosis was grim. Lee posted an update to her cancer fight earlier this year, saying she has newfound hope.

It’s the hope that comes with the fight it takes to be a world-renowned pocket billiards player. The fight it takes to be a woman who, early in her career, was told she would never beat the men.

‘Stage 4 ovarian cancer, the odds are not great,’ Lee said in a video posted in January. ‘But I feel like if I went by the odds of me becoming No. 1, I never would have become a world champion.’

‘I immediately had haters’

That fight, that perseverance and Lee’s rise to fame in a male-dominated sport as an Asian American is the focus of ‘Jeanette Lee Vs.’ an ESPN ’30 for 30′ documentary which airs 8 p.m. Tuesday.

‘Face it America, you only watch pool because of Jeanette Lee, the Black Widow,’ the trailer to ‘Jeanette Lee Vs.’ begins.

‘I was really competitive,’ Lee says laughing. ‘When I was beating people, it was baaaaad.’

‘Jeanette Lee Vs.’ trailer – ESPN Video

The documentary goes on to call Lee ‘fierce looking, focused, determined and mesmerizing.’ But her success wasn’t always easy.

‘I remember playing pool every day from morning until night. I immediately had haters,’ Lee says in the film. ‘I think I did stick out as an Asian American.’

People said that Lee’s look, her attitude, her dress, wasn’t good for the women’s tour. Instead, ‘she became a role model for no-holds-barred Asian American womanhood,’ the film says.

When Lee came on the pool scene, ‘it was like a bomb coming through,’ the film says. An unlikely bomb who wanted nothing more than to show people that a woman, a minority woman, could battle against the men.

The daughter of Korean immigrants, Lee spent her childhood in Brooklyn. Playing pool was the farthest thing from her mind as a young girl. She had dreams of becoming an elementary school teacher.

But inside that dark pool hall at 18, Lee’s future was transformed into something she never saw coming.

At the height of her fame, Lee was an icon who could nab sponsorships that had nothing to do with billiards, chalk or cues – including a 7-year deal with Bass Pro Shops. She appeared on numerous national TV shows, including Good Morning America, Crook & Chase and Hard Copy. She had a part in the Walt Disney film, The Other Sister, directed by Garry Marshall.  

‘She was like nothing else her sport had seen,’ ESPN says in its preview of ‘Jeanette Lee Vs.’ ‘A vision of confidence, even swagger, as she stalked the billiards table. Dressed, always, in her signature color, with a two-fingered glove on her bridge hand and a stony, icy glaze that never seemed to change.’

ESPN’s ’30 For 30′ on Lee takes viewer’s back to her beginnings where, as a young child, she suffered from scoliosis, a painful spinal condition that required surgery.

‘Lee rebelled as a teenager and fell in love with billiards one night when she walked into a pool hall in Manhattan,’ ESPN says. ‘Within a few years, she was playing tournaments and headed toward the professional circuit. Soon, women’s billiards was a mainstay on the fledgling ESPN2 network and Lee’s unapologetic approach to self-promotion made her a television star.’ 

The film takes viewers through Lee’s fight against bias as a minority and through her latest fight with cancer.

‘As the film illustrates through extensive access to her life today,’ ESPN says, ‘(the cancer) is a struggle she continues to fight, now as a single mom with the support of her children and extended family.’

Ursula Liang, who directs the film, said there is no better time to bring to the forefront the story of an Asian American icon who persevered.

‘She battled fierce opponents, trying times, debilitating pain, personal demons and persistent criticism,’ Liang said in a statement, ‘but (Lee) remains a singular presence from a breakout era of pool — an unforgettable figure, the Black Widow.”

‘Jeanette Lee Vs.’ airs 8 p.m. eastern Tuesday on ESPN. The film will be made available on ESPN+ immediately after its premiere, along with the rest of the 30 for 30 library.

Follow IndyStar sports reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow. Reach her via email: dbenbow@indystar.com.

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