At the House of Billiards in the San Fernando Valley in the mid-70s, I got to meet Robert “Rags” Woods. He was an old man. He was tall and wore vintage suits. I quickly realized it was not a “look.” They were his suits. In his day, Rags was a solid hustler and great all-around player. He played Greenleaf. He played everybody. He was African American. I got to ask him the question: “who is the greatest black player that ever lived?” I thought I knew the answer, the world champion Cisero Murphy. Without any pretext of a pause to reflect, Rags said “Mr. Evans.” That was the first time I heard the name James Evans. Not the last. Later, I asked Johnny Ervolino: “no contest, James Evans.” Still later, I asked Cisero himself. Cisero was famous, justifiably in the elite of a generation of the best players. He liked himself and happily shared his own assessments about his skills in all things. He responded: “Mr. Evans.”
James Evans is a ghost. Scant documentation exists. He owned a pool room in Harlem at the height of the borough’s renaissance. A direct contemporary of Ralph Greenleaf, it is said that they played many times and that Evans more than held his own. It is said that he was a great money player who disdained entering tournaments. Others have compared him to baseball’s Josh Gibson, the best player of his day—but not allowed to compete in the big arena because of racism. It is said that James Evans actually took a world championship in a challenge match against Erwin Rudolph in the late 1920s, and that a plaque on the wall of long-gone Bensinger’s in Chicago proved it. It is said that Mr. Evans was an upright family man. It is said that he drank, womanized, and went to the track. All of this is true. Or false. Or something shifting in between.
James Evans’ legacy rests upon vague recollections of men dead for decades, told to others, and retold, embellished until foggy and translated into folklore. Still, there is a consensus. There is little doubt Mr. Evans was the best black player who ever lived. Being truly great at something is a remarkable thing, even if it is just a game. It’s Black History Month. We honor James Evans and the other men and women who excelled with little hope of receiving accolades and rewards automatically granted to others.