Bang! There go the bowling pins, as Benton Lu knocks down another strike on the bowling lane. He stands there quietly, and admires his work. Then he turns around, and walks back to the resurfacing machine to grab his ball.
Lu returns to position to deliver another strike. He cocks his left foot back, and begins to walk slowly towards the lane, like a lion getting ready to devour its prey. His eyes look as if he was in a trance—not blinking, keeping his target within his line of sight. He begins to pick up the pace. Like watching a shark attack scene from Jaws, you can’t help but to feel Lu is about to put an end to this game.
He releases the ball onto the lane—clank, clank, and clank—and not a single bowling pin is left standing. Lu walks away like a cowboy who just won a quick-draw gunfight. But this is not the American Old West. This is the Manor Bowl in San Leandro, California.
Lu is a junior at Oakland Senior High School, and a current member of its bowling team, which is considered a student club sport. The team competes against local schools, such as Oakland Technical High School, Kipp King Collegiate and Coliseum College Prep Academy.
Lu has been going to the bowling alley with his father, sister and brother ever since he was 7 years old. It was a weekly family activity. “I wasn’t really good at first. I was young, and I would just pick up the ball with two hands and toss it down the middle. And I guess over time, bowling for so long had a positive effect on me,” said Lu.
“I remember going to bowl with my father and sister, and I hit a turkey at such a young age,” he said, referring to hitting three consecutive strikes. “They were just cheering me on, and it is a fond memory I have with them.”
Lu’s father has always been a bowler. “I remember one of the first things that my father taught me when I was learning how to bowl was the arrows—that the arrows is where you should aim to roll the ball down the lane,” said Lu. He said the arrows are important because they control where the ball rolls on the lane. His father also taught him that, depending on how frequently the ball has run down the lane, the oil will begin to dry out, and the ball will start to grip onto the surface. That eventually will cause the ball’s path to curve, preventing that perfect strike.
Lu said the hardest part about learning how to bowl was controlling the ball. “At first, I used to just throw out the ball and hope it would hit something. But now I am getting older, and I am beginning to understand the concept behind bowling,” said Lu. So far, his highest score is 213. “That is my greatest achievement,” said Lu. “The highest score you can receive in bowling is 300, and that is by bowling a perfect game and hitting all strikes. 213 is not that bad.”
Before high school, Lu just bowled with friends and family—he did not compete. It had always just been about having fun for him, and playing the game he loves. But his freshmen year, Lu decided to join the bowling team not only because he enjoys the game, but because he has a strong relationship with the Coach Carlos Shelby. “My coach was actually my security guard at my old middle school, and we have known each other for five years, and we have a unique bond,” said Lu.
Lu says his relationship with his coach allows him to be himself, and really helped him feel at ease during the tryouts for the team. Lu describes his coach as someone who pays particularly close attention to details. “He always corrects everyone’s form. He makes sure we are holding the ball correctly, that we are in control, but most importantly that everyone is having fun,” said Lu.
Lu does not see himself as athlete, but instead as bowler. “To me, being a bowler is someone who is familiar with the game, and knows how to bowl—someone who displays comfort when they approach the lane, and knows that the rules to the game,” said Lu.
Lu says that bowling is different from other sports because there aren’t any physical requirements, and he believes this is what makes bowling great. “In other sports, such as basketball, you normally need to have height. Football, size. And bowling, there is no physical requirement. Anyone could do it,” said Lu.
But bowling does require skill. Lu says a good bowler needs to have good form, and be consistent in how you approach the lane and release the ball. And last, but not least, is to have fun. “My coach said to me once that there is no point in playing this game if you are not enjoying yourself,” said Lu.
The bowling team at Oakland High normally has a winning record. They stand at four wins and one loss so far this season, which is set to end in December.
Benton’s friend Victoria Truong who is also on the bowling team describes him as “confident in his skills. He does not waver and tries to challenge himself to do better than he did in previous games.”
She said Lu constantly is finding ways to lift his teammates’ spirits, both in bad and good times. “Encouragement is a strong point of Benton’s. Whenever a teammate feels down for doing poorly, Benton would be there to cheer them on,” said Truong. “He believes they can do better, and he wants them know that.”
His coach, Carlos Shelby, said that Benton’s personality is kind, and that shows through his interactions with others. “Benton was beating ninth and tenth graders when he was in the sixth grade,” said Shelby. “He is an important part of the team because he keeps everyone together in his own quiet little way.”
“He is a good person all-around,” Shelby continued. “He has good grades, family, and is an all-around good individual.”
Lu constantly challenges his skills by frequently visiting the bowling alley. He bowls on his own once a week outside of his normal practice with his team. “I’ll just go to the bowling alley, and work on my game, staying sharp, and focused,” said Lu. “I try to fix my form, and get my ball to roll more in the middle of the lane. But when there are pins in the corner, I’ll focus on knocking those down as well.”
For Lu, practice makes perfect. “If we lost a big game, I’ll just tell my teammates, ‘Hey, it’s fine, we’ll get them next time,’ and I’ll be on my way to the bowling alley the next day to practice some more,” he said.
Lu is looking forward to finishing high school next year, and hopes to attend the University of California at Davis. He has his eyes set on Davis because is interested in business and finance, and believes the school’s managerial economics program will be a good fit for him.
While there are many men’s recreational college bowling teams, there are only 2 schools that offer scholarships for men’s bowling at the National Collegiate Athletic Association. This is an organization that manages all sports competed at in the college level. The Division 1 or 2 level. And while there is a professional league—the Professional Bowlers Association (PBA) was established in 1958—only a select few can earn livable wages. According to the PBA, in 2016 their highest-paid bowler raked in $168,290, while their lowest-paid player only brought in $25,700. Many professional bowlers earn their money with PBA by competing in championship tournaments, and go on tour.
Lu wishes that that bowling was a more common sport among college athletic teams, because it would open up doors for many students to gain scholarships. “Some people who are talented at bowling might not have the funds to pay or college on their own, but with a scholarship that could change,” said Lu. In college, Lu plans to join a competitive club team to keep his passion for bowling alive.
Benton’s parents are proud of their son’s accomplishments, and his ability to maintain good grades while pursuing his passion for bowling. They hope that he will graduate from college, and pursue great career opportunities like his older siblings. “He hopes to do business in the future, and we hope that leads to a good-paying job for him,” said his mother, Binh Ngo.
After college, Lu sees himself returning to Oakland, and starting a career in finance. But Lu said that if given the chance of bowling bowl professionally came along, that “is definitely an opportunity I would take.”
This story is part of a series. You can also read about two other Oakland student athletes:
Ronald Jenkins is a senior football player at Skyline High School, and is focused on earning a Division 1 athletic scholarship to play football and help him pay his way through school. Click here to read his story and see a video.
Hannah Hoang is a junior and a volleyball player at Oakland Senior High School. Her goal is to play volleyball in college. Click here to read her story and see a video.