Wide World of Sports with Chris Schenkel. Only gentlemen of a certain age know what that is. It was broadcast on Saturday afternoons and became a kind of religion. In 1966, I was 12, I tuned in and saw something truly stunning; a tournament final between Luther Lassiter and Cisero Murphy.
Those names! Luther Lassiter. Alliteration made for a marquee. Money player. World champion. And Cisero Murphy. Cisero with an “s.” A strange name. His given name conjures up the Classical World, a name of oration and debate; an Elysian name. The surname is pure County Armagh and evokes images of hardened immigrants in the 19th century; tough men who carried in their pockets everything they owned and would just as soon crack you one as look at you. A name of high and low, of ideal and action.
I watched Cisero Murphy play. Spellbound. He was methodical. Inexorable. He wore a dark sharkskin suit. On every shot, just before his final stroke, he would pause for a split second. He described it as “taking a picture” of the shot. He won that match. He won a lot. He won the World’s Championship of Straight Pool in his first opportunity to participate.
Cisero Murphy, one of the best pool players who ever lived, was inducted into the Billiards Hall of Fame in 1995, and died the following year at age 60—still owing Danny Barouty 40 bucks (this is a pool story after all).
Murphy’s biography is an all too common one in urban America. He grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, had 7 siblings, and a gone father. He dropped out of school at age 15, worked odd jobs, boxed, and sought community in the pool room. Murphy has been compared, rightly, to Jackie Robinson as a pioneer of breaking down the color barrier in sport. He knew who he was and where he came from. In a profession not known for its altruism, Murphy was an exception. He often visited veterans’ hospitals and senior citizen homes, and started “Billiards in the Streets” with New York City Parks and Recreation Department—a program where he instructed young people about the game.
Cisero Murphy, champion, world beater, was from a time and place where everything for him was hard fought, hard won and hard lost. He had mettle. He took what he could, gave back what he could, and earned every good thing that ever came to him.