It was the early 1970s — the era of the Vietnam War — and Minnesota Fats was in town to promote a Prisoner of War/ Missing in Action (POW/MIA) fundraising event at Memorial Hall.
At the time Fats was a well-known, fast-talking, bigger-than-life figure in the sports world.
He was known for his tall tales, engaging banter and his unabashed self-promotion. In 1970, he had his own TV show — Celebrity Billiards with Minnesota Fats — was featured in the movie “The Player,” and was a colorful guest of TV talkers like Johnny Carson and David Frost.
He claimed the Minnesota Fats character in the 1961 film “The Hustler” was a depiction of him, although, in truth, he changed his name from New York Fats to Minnesota Fats after the movie came out.
Regardless, even Muhammad Ali said he had to take a back seat to Fats when it came to bombast.
And the way Todd Recher, the co-owner of Airway Billiards remembered it, Fats was in fine form when he came to Dayton that time and made a side trip to the Pic-Wic Billiards Club on North Dixie Drive to put on an exhibition.
“He did his trick shots and went into his spiel about how nobody had ever beaten him,” Recher said. “That’s when the crowd started chanting, ‘Deeno!…Deeno!…Deeno!’”
It was a call to the cue for Deeno Gounaris, the local jewelry store salesman who, at age 42, had stunned some of nation’s top pool players to win the Ohio State Open Nine Ball Championship at Pic-Wic in 1970.
“After he won that tournament he was quite a local celebrity,” said Recher, who, as a wide-eyed 16-year-old, had watched Gounaris win the crown and was there that day Fats got to boasting, as well.
“With the crowd cheering, Deeno went and got his cue and they played,” Recher said. “They played nine ball — a race to three (the first player to win three games) — and Deeno beat him handily!”
Several years later, in an interview with the Dayton Daily News’ Ron Jackson, Gounaris reflected on that Fats shaming:
“Minnesota Fats is the Muhammad Ali of our sport. He really puts on a show…Of course nine ball isn’t his specialty. One pocket and bank pool are.”
While Gounaris was kind in his remembrance, Fats feigned ignorance and indifference.
A year or so after they met, Fats was back in Dayton to do some promotion for a pair of new Elder-Beerman stores that were opening. He was interviewed by the Journal Herald’ Bucky Albers.
“I own six limousines,” he boasted. “I got ‘em spread around, one in St. Louis, one in Chicago. I got one I ain’t even driven. There’s a cat sleeping under it, and I don’t want to wake her.”
Fat’s then boasted: “I ain’t never lost a match. Know that I’ll go anywhere on earth and play anybody, but nobody wants to play me.”
And that’s when Albers asked about the three games Deeno Gounaris had won against him.
“Deeno Gounaris!” Fats bellowed to Albers. “Who’s he? If I don’t know him, he can’t beat Shirley Temple!”
Fats was told Gounaris and several top players were playing in a tournament at Forest Park Plaza. He was asked if he was interested.
“See here,” Fats said as he pulled out a plane ticket. “I’m playing an exhibition in Miami Beach. If they have a $200,000 crowd, I get $120,000. How do you like that? (So) I should go over (to Forest Park) and try to beat Geeno Donaris (sic) for a bottle of cologne?’”
Whether Fats was smelling cologne or comeuppance, he wanted no part of Deeno that day.
“That was typical Fats,” Recher laughed. “Full of bluster and B.S.”
As he sat at the bar of his billiards parlor on Needmore Road the other evening, he was remembering Gounaris, who had been his mentor and long-time friend.
Gounaris died on May 24 and is being buried on July 7. He was 88.
His wife, Tula, preceded him in death. He is survived by his three children, Perry, Stacy and Leah, and four grandchildren, Ayla, Enya, Romie and Carson.
A viewing will be held from 9:30 to 11 a.m., July 7, at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church at 500 Belmonte Park North in Dayton. The funeral service is at 11 a.m. and will be followed by burial at Woodland Cemetery and a dinner afterwards back at the church.
‘Smooth as silk’
Gounaris told reporter Jackson he was 14 — four years under the age limit — when he started sneaking into 29 Billiards, an upstairs pool hall run by a former baseball player. Under the tutelage of Howard “Jake” Spitler, he began to practice four hours a day and by the time he was 18 he had run nine straight racks of nine ball.
Years later, when Gounaris won the state nine ball championship at Pic-Wic, the then 16-year-old Recher was in the audience.
“I had been enamored with pool for a couple of years and my dad took me out to see these guys,” he said. “ I knew the names of some of the guys who were playing, but I didn’t know Deeno. But then there he was this local guy beating the best guys in the country. It was really cool to see Deeno win.”
The two became friends and within a couple of months Deeno had invited Recher play in the weekly tournaments at Forest Park Billiards.
“At the table he was calm and collected, just smooth as silk,” Recher said. “He was always dressed up and wore a diamond pinky ring. When he walked in, he look like the guy who owned the room. He became my idol.”
Stacy Gounaris said the feeling was mutual from her dad: “He just loved Todd. He looked at him as if he were another son.”
And she agrees with the sartorial assessment of her dad: “He was a Dapper Don. Until the day he passed, he was the sharpest dresser in town.”
Yet what made him stand out most among the top pool players back then was that while they traveled the country and played full time, he stayed here and worked as a jewelry salesman — at places like Rogers Jewelers, Colonial Jewelers, Richard Potasky and Mayor Jewelers — and had other interests.
“He was a true jazz lover,” Stacy said. “We were raised on jazz. The first concert he ever took me to was Buddy Rich and Stan Kenton.
“He also loved to dance. He and my mom loved to jitterbug. And oh, he loved women, too. He loved to flirt.”
Mostly, though, he was a real family man, she said: “He loved his family.”
She started to laugh: “But if Mom wanted something, he went out and made the money. I remember many times he brought my brother and me to the pool hall and got us each an Orange Crush and then went and played.”
He was called “The Maestro” and his baton was his hand-crafted Balabushka pool cue — called the “Stadivarius of cues,” a collector’s item because only 1,000 or so were made.
“He paid $150 for it and mom almost divorced him,” Stacy laughed. “It was worth thousands when he went to sell it, but some young guy really wanted it and he made him a real deal. That was my dad.
“He was just a good-hearted person.”
As he sat at the bar, Recher brought out a newspaper photo of Gounaris with the trophy he won in 1970 and then showed a picture of him some 26 years later standing alongside Jason Miller, the two-time world bank champion and former world all-around champ.
Miller had just won a tournament at Airways and Gounaris had finished second even though, as Recher noted “he was 25 years past his prime and had limped around the tables: He had hip surgery about a week later.”
There weren’t a lot of guys like Gounaris and that’s not just because of what he did with a cue in his hand, but how he did it.
“There was a code in town,” he told Jackson back in 1979. “You win like a gentleman and you lose like a gentleman.”
Some years before that — as Recher was playing in those weekly tournaments with Gounaris — Todd’s dad picked up on that.
“In the beginning my dad would drive me there and then stay and watch,” Recher said. “Many of the guys were ne’er do wells. A lot of them, the only thing they did was play pool.
“My dad would always say, ‘Son, be like Deeno, not these other guys. He works for a living. He has a family. Be like him, not these bums.’”
He liked what he saw in Gounaris. He felt he had a special air about him.
Kind of smelled sweet, like cologne.