Bear Heroes #8

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A mural in his home city of Belfast will serve as a tribute to Alex Higgins.

From time to time, The Bears award the title of Hero of the Bears to someone who we think has had a big impact on others in any way whatsoever. They maybe someone famous known the world over or some unsung hero who does something for others without any reward for themselves. The one thing you do need to become a Hero of the Bears is you have to be someone very special!

Following his premature death at the weekend, we have decided to make Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins a Hero of the Bears. Alex was snooker’s first and biggest television superstar. At the age of only 23, he became the world champion at his first attempt and opened up snooker to whole new younger audience.

Alexander Gordon Higgins was born on the 18th March 1949 into a Protestant working-class Belfast family. He started playing snooker and billiards at an early age and at 11 was hustling at a seedy hall in Belfast called the Jampot. It was here that he developed the speed around the table that earned him his nickname.

In 1968, he won the Northern Ireland Championship when he was still an amateur. He turned professional in 1971 and defeated John Spencer in the final of the World Championship to become the youngest ever winner.

So began a 20-year journey of self-destruction, wrecking hotel rooms and being kicked out of India for drunkenness. Often his violent, drunken outbursts brought him into conflict with snooker’s governing body. They fined him thousands of pounds throughout his career, usually for abusive language and ungentlemanly conduct.

Higgins was an obsessive gambler and was reported to have lost £13,000 on horses in one day.

He admitted to smoking marijuana and using cocaine. His wayward behaviour ended his two marriages, but throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he was still winning tournaments. In 1982, he became world champion again by defeating Ray Reardon in the final. He was UK champion in 1983, and won the Irish Masters in the same year and again in 1989.

By 1990, Alex was in serious trouble. After losing in the first round of the World Championships, he announced his retirement saying that snooker was the most corrupt game in the world. On the way to making this announcement, he was alleged to have punched the tournament’s press officer. That incident, and a number of others, including a threat to have the Northern Ireland captain Dennis Taylor shot, brought him a one-year playing ban.

His playing career never recovered from the ban and Alex continued to slide down the rankings. His closing years on the pro-circuit were spent competing in interminable qualifying rounds for major tournaments with little success.

He developed throat cancer in 1997 but continued to play smaller events in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland. Although his enthusiasm for the game remained, his health and financial welfare began to deteriorate. However, this year Alex had been in remission from the cancer for almost a decade even though he had undergone several operations, suffered pneumonia, and had suffered from breathing problems.

In May, a charity dinner was held in Manchester in order to raise £20,000 for the snooker legend, who had been living off baby food after losing his teeth because of radiotherapy. He attended the event but looked shockingly gaunt.

Last Saturday, 24th July 2010, Higgins was pronounced dead.

It was a sad end for a man who was often obnoxious and whose defeats were, in his view, seldom down to him. Yet, Alex did more than anyone to popularise the sport of snooker through his rare talent and undoubted charisma.

The tributes have poured in since Saturday…

To people in the game he was a constant source of argument, he was a rebel. But to the wider public he was a breath of fresh air that drew them in to the game. He was an inspiration to my generation to take the game up. I do not think his contribution to snooker can be underestimated. He was quite a fierce competitor; he lived and breathed the game, very much a fighter on the table.

– Six-time World Champion Steve Davies

Alex Higgins was one of the real inspirations behind me getting into snooker in the first place. He is a legend of snooker, and should forever be remembered as the finest ever snooker player.

– Three-time World Champion Ronnie O’Sullivan

We just remember the games when he played, everybody wanted to watch, he was exciting, nobody knew what would happen, it was dangerous. It’s a sad loss. They say every genius is bordering on mad and Alex was certainly that. You never knew if he would jump into the crowd or hit the referee or walk out or what he would do. But he was also a fantastic cue man and played some great stuff. He created shots that everybody now copies. To have only won the world title twice didn’t do justice to his talent. He could have won it many more times.

– Former player Willie Thorne

When he came on the scene, he was the major element in transforming snooker from a widely played folk sport into a major crowd and television attraction.

– Snooker commentator Clive Everton

Shortly before his death Alex was asked if he would still like to play snooker, he replied, “People stop me in the street every day and say ‘when you coming back Alex, when you going to show these so-and-sos who claim to be snooker players how to play the game?’

“I say, I’m not healthy enough as yet. But I’d love to.”

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The Bearkeeper

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A sad and lonely old man who used to have a life but it has now been taken over by his dedication to the cause of saving Renault Bears, running Jammy Toast and searching eBay, car boot sales, charity shops, lofts and even under beds for his beloved bears. He has even now taken in Flat Eric to save him from homelessness – his life is no longer his own!

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