Of the approximately 70 million people who go bowling each year, more than 30 million hit the lanes at a Bowlero location. One of them is Jason Belmonte — the best professional athlete that you’ve probably never even heard of.
A native of Australia, Belmonte plays on the Professional Bowler Association Tour and has been named Player of the Year seven times since making his debut during the 2009-10 season. Just the second player in PBA history to complete the Super Slam (winning all five major championships), Belmonte is the PBAs all-time winner with 15 majors, four more than any other bowler.
Both lauded and mocked for using a two-handed approach to deliver his balls, the 40-year-old will actually have completed the illusive Super Slam three times over if he can win the U.S. Open a second and third time, as he’s won all of the other majors at least three times. As Belmonte tells InsideHook, that’s certainly the plan.
“It’s a wild idea to me to be able to have the Super Slam three times over when there’s only currently myself and Mike Aulby who own it once. To win all the majors at least three times each would be super crazy to me. That’s a goal,” he says. “I also want to win my eighth Player of the Year award. That would be a record. I have 15 majors, but I want to reach 20. Those are three things I want to tick off while I still feel that hit of excitement and adrenaline whenever I lace the shoes up. I still feel this is exciting. Until that feeling dissipates, I’ll keep doing it.”
The thing is most people, even diehard sports fans, don’t have any clue about what Belmonte is doing and what he’s already accomplished due to the relative obscurity and lack of media coverage of professional bowling. Belmonte, who’s been rolling with two hands since he first stepped on a lane at 18 months old and never changed his style despite decades of chirping from his naysayers, is largely cool with that arrangement.
“When I go to a bowling center or tournament, I get that hit of fame where I cannot go anywhere without being stopped for photos, autographs and conversations,” he says. “It’s okay and I handle it the best I can because I know when I leave that type of insane fame goes away. I don’t have to worry about running to a car because paparazzi are chasing me. It’s a really tough one. I like going into a bowling center and everyone wanting to get a piece of me, but I love I can go to a coffee house and walk in, walk out, no problem. I don’t have to get an entourage of people to do errands for me. I want the game to be better, but I don’t know if I would enjoy being a LeBron James-type character.”
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Though Belmonte, a married father of three, is unsure if he’d want to have the public profile of a player like James, he certainly wouldn’t mind being paid like the four-time NBA champion.
“The financial aspect of the game is the only thing we’re lacking. I do wish we had more money, but I also know as soon as we have more money in our game the people who are giving it to us will expect us to be more visual,” he says. “If you want something from these people, you’re going to have to give something back. If what they want is for you to be front and center more often, well, that’s a decision you have to make as an athlete. I don’t think the most famous athletes in the world enjoy the prospect of having to hide everywhere they go because it’s mayhem when they don’t. But on the flip side, they earn $30 or $40 million a year and can provide a lifestyle for their loved ones that is extremely luxurious. That’s something you can be a little jealous of.”
They may not be in the same tax bracket, but Belmonte and James are both definitely in the GOAT conversation for their respective sports. James, 38, is almost certainly reaching the end of his reign in the NBA. Whenever Belmonte returns his bowling shoes for the final time, even if it is tomorrow, he’ll depart his sport as one the most accomplished bowlers in PBA history.
“People have these water cooler conversations. ‘Who’s the best bowler? Who’s the best left-hander? Who’s the best two-hander?’ That used to bother me because I didn’t want to be the best two-hander. That was not the goal,” Belmonte says. “The goal was to be the best to ever throw the ball beyond the foul line. Period. I didn’t care how, I just wanted to be the best that has ever done it. In basketball, you can have an argument about who is the best guard and who is the best forward and who is the best center. They’re different positions that serve different purposes. In bowling, we don’t have that. We shouldn’t have that. It should just be who is a better bowler and who wins more. That’s where I hope to leave my legacy. I don’t want my name to be in the conversation about being the best two-hander. No, I want my name to be in the conversation of being the best that has ever thrown a ball, period.”
Belmonte’s name is already in that conversation, even if most people don’t know it.