They say you should never meet your heroes. I seem to have spent this year doing little else. First up was Doctor Who - "my" Doctor, Peter Davison, to be precise - at a Sci-Fi-Con in Edinburgh's Corn Exchange in February, then I followed that up by crossing swords (quite literally) with the stars of hit '80s TV show Robin of Sherwood in May. The latest celebrity to find himself caught in the cross hairs of my radar was snooker legend Jimmy White who I tracked down to the picturesque market town of Faversham last weekend. I promise I'm not stalking these people, honest, though some of them might be forgiven for taking out restraining orders before I'm through. Growing up, Jimmy White was my idol and the man who first kindled my lifelong passion for snooker, pool and other green baize pursuits. Were it not for him my interest in cuesports might have been little more than a passing fad. But from the moment I first witnessed the thrilling spectacle of the Wimbledon Whirlwind compiling a breathtaking century break at the Crucible Theatre, I was so completely enraptured by his speed, flair, panache and artistic touch that I was hooked for life. White, who was once described by a journalist as having "the pale cheeks of a James Dean and the nervous system of a fighter pilot on amphetamines", brought a rush of much-needed excitement into my life with his audacious long potting and virtuoso use of side and spin, creating dazzling shots which frequently appeared to defy the laws of physics. Over the course of the next 30+ years, supporting Jimmy would prove to be a white-knuckle ride with more highs and lows than a drug addiction. The fact that I, along with millions of others, have stuck by the lovable rogue through countless tortuous Crucible campaigns, six heartbreaking world final defeats and a series of off-table misadventures worthy of a prime-time soap opera is testimony to the unique brand of White Magic which this remarkable sporting personality continues to weave over his adoring public.
If Jimmy White hadn't existed, it would frankly have been necessary to invent him. The biography of this real-life Artful Dodger is so far-fetched it reads like a pulp fiction novel. He has overcome cancer, a crack addiction, a gambling habit which cost him over a million pounds, a disastrous hair transplant operation which left him in agony, and a fire which gutted his flat in Surrey and destroyed everything inside it - though thankfully his precious cue was in the car and escaped unscathed. When his bull terrier Splinter was dog-napped and held to ransom in the late 90s, White arranged a clandestine rendezvous with the shadowy culprits at Epsom Clock Tower to pay the ransom and have the beloved family pet returned safely. He had a cameo role as himself in the Chinese film Legend of the Dragon (1990) and played the part of dodgy snooker club owner Vic Lee in the 2009 film Jack Said. He has been awarded the MBE for services to snooker, won the 2003 Poker Million tournament, finished third in the 2009 series of I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!, has endorsed four computer games and co-written two thoroughly entertaining autobiographies - Behind the White Ball (1998) and Second Wind (2015) plus a coaching manual, Jimmy White's Snooker Masterclass (1988). Brought up in Tooting, he discovered snooker almost by accident by stumbling across Zans Billiard Hall whilst playing truant from Ernest Bevin Comprehensive. His headmaster, Mr Beattie, eventually realised that trying to force the young tearaway to attend school was a losing battle, so he struck a deal - if Jimmy agreed to turn up in the morning then he was free to play snooker in the afternoons. Before long he was competing in money matches, not only in London but all over the country, thanks to the help of his first 'manager', a black-cab driver known as 'Dodgy Bob'. White completely dominated the amateur circuit in the late-70s, becoming the youngest ever winner of the prestigious English Amateur Championship in 1979 and the youngest ever World Amateur Champion the following year, destroying Australian Ron Atkins 11-2 in the final in Tasmania.
The story of Jimmy White's quest for snooker's Holy Grail - the world professional title - has become the stuff of legend. In 1982, at the age of just 19, he blazed a scorching trail to the semi-finals where he led Alex Higgins 15-14. White was 59-0 up in the next frame, requiring only a red and a colour to reach the final, but after missing a tricky red with the rest he could only sit and watch as the Hurricane compiled a near-miraculous 69 clearance to save the match and deny him victory. Two years later White himself staged one of the greatest and most cavalier recoveries ever seen in a Crucible final, storming back from 4-12 down overnight to get within a frame of parity with arch-rival Steve Davis before ultimately losing a classic encounter 18-16. Even then this hiccup was widely considered to be only a temporary delay in White's inevitable coronation. Regarded at the time as the game's greatest natural genius, he had already inherited Higgins' mantel as "the people's champion" and most pundits believed it was merely a matter of time before he claimed snooker's ultimate prize.
His rivalry with Davis in the 80s was one of the all-time great sporting match-ups, comparable with Borg-McEnroe, Navratilova-Evert and Bristow-Lowe. The pair became as synonymous with each other as Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty or Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham. As with those other classic sporting rivalries the appeal came largely from the contrast of styles - Davis, a clean-living, non-smoking virtual teetotaler with a precision-engineered textbook tactical game, versus White, the completely unpredictable maverick genius who played all-out attack and had, as legendary commentator Clive Everton once put it, "sampled most forms of mischief known to man". They contested some of the most memorable snooker matches it has ever been my pleasure to witness, including a bruising world championship semi-final in 1990 in which Jimmy edged out the Romford Nugget 16-14, at the end of which Davis - ever the consummate gentleman - graciously applauded Jimmy off the table. Alas for the Whirlwind, he had finally overcome his old foe only to find a brand new one waiting in the wings in the form of Stephen Hendry. In one of sport's cruellest ironies, Jimmy White had come of age just as the the most prolific winning machine in the history of the game was also making his breakthrough. The rest, as they say, is history. Hendry would go on to deny White the title in four Crucible finals, including 1992 when Jimmy surrendered a 14-8 lead, and 1994, when he missed a black off the spot in the deciding frame when just a few pots away from securing the title.
I endured each and every one of those gut-wrenching defeats and still carry the emotional scars to this day. So why, you might ask (and many have), do I continue to put myself through this emotional wringer? Quite simply because there is not, never has been and never will be another player quite like Jimmy White. True, Ronnie O'Sullivan might have surpassed his genius and others, such as Judd Trump, might have matched his flamboyance and flair, but none of the game's other mavericks have come close to achieving his level of sportsmanship, likeability and across-the-board magnetic appeal. It is no exaggeration to say that Jimmy White played a huge part in making me the man I am today. He taught me the values of honesty, fair play, humility in victory and magnanimity in defeat. Throughout all his tumultuous ups and downs, he never once sulked, never gloated, never made excuses or argued with referees, never banged his cue in frustration and never treated his opponents with anything less than 100% respect. After a match, you could barely tell whether he had won or lost. He even called all his own fouls when the referee hadn't spotted them, for heaven's sake - a lesson which many a "diving" footballer could learn from. For all his flaws in his private life, he was never anything less than a fantastic role model in his conduct and attitude on the table. In my last blog, NLP - The Modelling of Excellence, I spoke about the importance of choosing positive role models congruent with our own innate beliefs and values. I've realised in recent years that I was modelling Jimmy, either consciously or unconsciously, throughout much of my life. He instilled in me the importance of integrity and was the living embodiment of the old adage "It doesn't matter whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game". And boy, could he play!
World Championship defeats aside, there have been no shortage of highlights in White's glittering career, not least the sublime 147 maximum he compiled at the Crucible in 1992. He has claimed every other major accolade in the game, including the UK Championship and Masters titles, the prestigious World Matchplay (twice) and the Six-Red World Championship. In 1984 he teamed up with Hurricane Higgins to win the World Doubles and he was twice a member of the England World Cup-winning team. In 1995 he was the unlikely hero of Europe's epic 16-15 victory over the USA in the trans-continental Mosconi Cup 9-Ball pool tournament. One of his most memorable seasons came in 1990-91 when he completed a stunning hat-trick of three back-to-back major titles, culminating with victory in the men's singles of the Mita/Sky World Masters - Barry Hearn's Wimbledon-style rival to the official world championship - which netted the Whirlwind a then record first prize of £200,000. He was widely expected to win at the Crucible that year, particularly after Hendry fell in the quarter-finals, but more world final misery was in store for Jimmy and his army of supporters when the Liverpudlian John Parrot produced a freakishly brilliant opening session from which White was unable to recover.
His resilience is, however, remarkable. No matter how many knocks and heartbreaking setbacks he endures, the Whirlwind just keeps on bouncing back. Even now he still hasn't abandoned his world title ambitions. At 57 years of age, he has outlasted all of his rivals and contemporaries to be the oldest player remaining on the professional circuit and continues to compete on the main tour as well as in seniors events. In many respects he has had the last laugh. Whilst his arch-rivals Davis, Hendry and Parrot have all noticeably declined with advancing years and withdrawn from the main stage, Jimmy's flair and fluency remain intact and have made him the most dominant player on the Legends Tour where he hoovers up titles while Hendry sits and scowls morosely at the carpet. He won the inaugural World Seniors Championship in 2010, beating Parrot in the semis and Davis 4-1 in the final, and has since added the UK, Irish Masters and World Six-Red titles to his seniors trophy collection. Just a couple of weeks ago, White brought the house down in an exhibition match by making five centuries, including a 147 maximum, and he regularly holds his own in exhibitions with his great friend and world number one Ronnie O'Sullivan. His love for the game remains undiminished and his virtuoso shot-making and break-building as wondrous as ever.
He could have been forgiven for being bitter about his Crucible defeats, but nothing could be further from the truth. Last weekend I was fortunate enough to attend an "Evening With Jimmy White" event in Faversham, Kent, which included dinner with the Whirlwind himself and his entourage. Jimmy arrived at The Spice Lounge Indian restaurant full of bounce, clutching a cuecase so large it looked more likely to contain a machine-gun than a snooker cue, and accompanied by his glamorous partner, Sky walk-on girl Jade Slusarcyk. Jimmy was clearly relaxed and at peace with himself, mingling jovially with his fans, posing for selfies and signing autographs with the enthusiasm of a man half his age. He appeared completely without rancour; his rapier-like wit and mischievous banter as razor-sharp as ever, treating complete strangers as though he had known them all his life. In the exhibition which followed later that night at the town's Alexander Centre, he took on nine promising amateur players and dazzled the crowd with his scintillating shot-making. When he opened one frame by sinking ten reds and ten blacks, the entire room was holding its collective breath in anticipation of another maximum. Sadly he just ran out of prime position, but nobody present was left in any doubt that the old White Magic was still well and truly intact.
Throughout the night he engaged mischievously with his audience, making eye-contact with members of the crowd, drawing them into his magical world, and bantering with commentator John Virgo and MC Colin Phillips. Jimmy has that special stardust - the essential X-factor - which makes the difference between being merely a great player and being an icon who has transcended his sport. This is a man who has never hidden nor denied his flaws but has well and truly owned them. He freely admits that his crack cocaine addiction in the '80s probably cost him 10 world titles and makes no secret of the fact that he paid a heavy price for his rock star lifestyle. He's never blamed anyone other than himself for those Crucible defeats and, by taking responsibility, seems to have avoided the common pitfall of descending into bitterness and regret. Does he wish he'd done things differently? Of course, but he's also wise enough to know he can't change the past. Jimmy is still doing what Jimmy has always done - living in the moment and enjoying every last second of it.
He's surprisingly philosophical about those Crucible defeats, even going so far as to suggest that if he'd beaten Higgins and won the world title back in '82 he would most probably have killed himself celebrating on alcohol and cocaine. This ability to see the positive in what most would regard as a bitter disappointment is one of the assets that sets White apart and keeps him motivated even after all these years. Nowadays he lives a more sober lifestyle, has quit smoking after putting himself through cold turkey, no longer does drugs and, he says, barely drinks - though this last claim is accompanied by a cheeky wink and a wry chuckle! Girlfriend Jade, 24 years his junior but every bit a match for him, has clearly been a stabilising influence, as have his five grandchildren. Jimmy has also clearly learned lessons from the heartbreak of losing his great pal Higgins, who died in 2010 after a long battle with throat cancer - his body ultimately ravaged by years of smoking, alcoholism and malnutrition - a dreadfully sad ending for a man who did much to contribute to the popularity of the modern game. By contrast, Jimmy appears to have the world at his feet. He's a successful pundit on Eurosport's snooker coverage and also has his own successful business, Jimmy.com, selling a range of Whirlwind-branded products including high-quality snooker cues, accessories, luxury watches and eau de parfum. I'm lucky enough to own one of the brand's cues - autographed by the great man himself - and can promise you it's a thing of beauty and plays like a dream.
Having had his main tour card renewed for another two years, Jimmy is still chasing that elusive first world title at the Crucible. This is a man who has never abandoned hope, nor belief in his own natural ability. As he himself admits, his failure to win the world title may even have been what's kept him alive, sharp and motivated to compete. Had he won the worlds at a young age he might have crashed and burned. Instead he continues to battle away, competing against the world's best and relishing every new challenge that life throws his way. It seems to me that White has unintentionally stumbled across the very meaning of the Holy Grail in which the object of the quest always remains just tantalisingly out of reach. The whole point of such a quest is that the journey is ultimately more important than the destination. The Holy Grail is a carrot - an incentive - used to keep us moving forward, growing, evolving and striving for constant improvement. Few could argue that the Whirlwind's quest for the world title has done just that. Maybe that's why he still has his hunger after all these years while others, like Hendry and Davis, do not.
Were he to somehow do the unthinkable and lift the famous cup at the age of 58, it would surely rank as the greatest ever sporting fairy tale. Here at Phoenix we're great believers in the power of fairy tales and in the principle that all things are possible to those that believe. Jimmy hasn't abandoned hope and neither have we. But whether he achieves the ultimate feat or not, the Whirlwind will have left a legacy that few, if any, can match. He continues to bring joy to millions with his style and panache and serves as a standard-bearer for the very highest levels of professional sportsmanship. He has taken every defeat on the chin and has never given up. With more bounce-back than Zebedee, he exemplifies the qualities of resilience, eternal optimism and the importance of living life to the full. Stephen Hendry is fond of quoting Kenny Dalglish in saying: "Show me a good loser and I'll show you a loser". This type of statement is frankly why Jimmy is universally loved and Hendry, with all due respect, is not. Being defeated in a snooker match does not make someone a loser and no amount of silverware can buy respect, affection and popularity, as Hendry knows only too well. There's much more to being a winner than just the single-minded pursuit of trophies. It's about how you respond to adversity, the ability to keep picking yourself up, dusting yourself off and trying again. Hendry walked away from the game because he couldn't handle being beaten. By contrast, Jimmy's love for snooker drives him on and on regardless. The Whirlwind has never needed any official title or trophy to be considered The People's Champion and that's what he will always remain, in our hearts, now and forever. If that doesn't make him a winner then I don't know what does.