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The 11th Frame: The story of Steve Cooper, the Xcalibur and the reactive resin revolution — and what I wish I could ask him

JEFF RICHGELS | Posted: Monday, March 2, 2020 9:00 am

This is one of the two historic Xcalibur bowling balls Marc McDowell used to win the 1992 PBA AC-Delco Classic, setting off the reactive resin revolution. It is at Rob Bailey's Pro Shop in Sun Prairie. The other is at Bowl-A-Vard Lanes in Madison. Photo by Jeff Richgels.

If there was one historical story I wish I had the time to do as thoroughly as I did this story, it’s the story of the Xcalibur and the birth of reactive resin, arguably the most impactful technological change in bowling history.

Things like automatic pinsetters and scorers were hugely impactful changes, but they didn’t change the nature of the sport as reactive resin did.

Especially when coupled with exotic cores, reactive resin coverstocks hugely increased potential scores on soft lane patterns, while also resulting in far greater lane transition that made the game more complex and difficult on tough lane patterns — ironically leading to a reverse revolution of sorts to plain urethane in recent years.

As I'm nearly 58 years old, I lived through it as a bowler and a journalist, as well as a close friend and teammate of Marc McDowell, the man famous for launching the Xcalibur frenzy when he won the 1992 AC-Delco Classic on the PBA Tour.

I became a full-time news reporter for The Capital Times starting in 1990, and only wrote the occasional bowling story for the paper when Mac made a PBA Tour show.

The short columns I wrote for the Ten Pin Journal in Milwaukee for many years weren’t the proper forum for telling the story of the Xcalibur and the man most associated with its creation: Steve Cooper.

By the time I started 11th Frame.com more than a decade ago, the Xcalibur story was too daunting a project for the time I had available.

That remains the case, and now it’s impossible to do the story proper justice as Cooper died of a brain tumor several years ago.

I did vaguely recall an interview with him many years ago that I saw published in a bowling newspaper. Someone sent me a copy of it back then, but I couldn’t find it.

However, the posting of a picture of one of the two Xcaliburs Mac used during that famous AC-Delco Classic led to a long string of comments and eventually to Dustin Markowitz sending me the story he wrote for the California Bowling News in 2011 after he interviewed Cooper not long before he died of a brain tumor.

Markowitz’s story follows and then the questions I wish I could ask Cooper. A PDF of the California Bowling News issue of Dec. 8, 2011 that the story appeared in is attached to the bottom of the story.

This story is set free for all to read because it’s centered on Markowitz’s piece


What Happened To Bowling? The Beginning Of The Change

By DUSTING MARKOWITZ
California Bowling News
December 8, 2011

NORWALK — For the last several years I have searched for an answer to a question that has plagued the bowling industry in “what happened to bowling.”

I traveled far and near attempting to figure out what people were complaining about and, more importantly, why. After many hours of interviews, columns, opinions and videos my search landed me in a place where I put the blame solely on the bowlers but I now realize there is more to this problem then just acidic attitudes towards the game.

I knew that in order to find all the answers that I would have to dig further and find a point where the sport divulged. Everything that has an ending has a beginning and, for what modern bowling has become, that beginning is Steve Cooper.

While that name may not ring a lot of bells in modern circles his inventions and contribution to bowling have completely changed the landscape of the sport.

Steve was the man responsible for Reactive Urethane bowling equipment and the pioneer of modern designed weight blocks. He was also a man who had gotten so frustrated with where bowling had gone that he had essentially isolated himself from the sport.

It had been almost two decades since Steve’s designs had hit the scene and nearly as long since he had spoken to anyone about it. I knew that he had to still have some sort of insight into the business so I made it my mission to find him and find out what he had to say.

Landing an interview with the elusive Steve Cooper was not an easy task as most of his professional contacts had lost touch with him years ago. After several weeks of searching I finally managed to contact La Habra 300 Bowl’s General Manager Mickey Curley who shared some fond memories of the days when Steve ran the pro shop out of the center and his Nu-Line company out of a warehouse in Whittier, California.

With a little coaxing I was able to get Steve’s personal phone number and prepared myself to talk to the man whose X-Calibur bowling ball opened up the floodgates to the modern game.

Of course I got his voicemail when I first called but luckily for me he called me back. To be perfectly honest, I got more then I intended.

At first it seemed that Steve was hesitant on sharing his viewpoints on the bowling industry. Neither he, nor anyone else, had tried to get him involved in bowling since he essentially sold his ball rights to Columbia in 1997.

“No one has tried to contact you,” I asked with genuine shock.

“If they have I haven’t wanted to talk to them,” Steve said with a laugh. “I just don’t really follow it anymore. I was unable to bowl after a roofing accident I had so I was involved in the design of the equipment instead. Eventually I just got so tired of the lies and the BS of the business. It’s just not what it used to be.”

“What lies are you referring to,” I inquired.

“I meant that all of the reactive balls built after the X-Calibur, until today, can’t be built any better. The USBC has a set of rules now that they didn’t have until after the X was built. In my opinion all of the C.O.R.’s, C.O.F.’s, RG differentials and etcetera can’t be combined with any surface or combo of weight blocks to build something that hasn’t already been built. Again, in my opinion anybody could say that they can build a better ball but I want them to show it to me. At least with new cars they can add new stuff to make them better but with bowling balls I think they have peaked. It just can’t be done.”

Steve went on to tell me a little of the history of his product including getting his chemist to design a ball that would react harder on a lane using new materials. He spoke of his then partner dismissing the idea behind Reactive Urethane saying that he simply didn’t think it had any viability. Steve felt his partner was “crazy” and instead put the bowling ball into production.

“I gave the balls to a lot of my friends in Southern California and they just started to win everything with them. People began to really see what the equipment could do and I just got tons of orders for them. I had orders for 100,000 bowling balls but I could only produce about a 1,000 a week. It was crazy.”

Throughout the early 90s, scores started to balloon with the X-Calibur bowling balls and others in the industry struggled to catch up. With demand for his equipment and bowling scores soaring, the then ABC seemed to be completely caught off guard by what had happened.

“They simply didn’t know what the X-Calibur was and they kept asking me for more balls,” Steve recalled. “I don’t know what they did with them but it got to the point where I told them no. They had approved it but again they just didn’t know what that ball was going to be capable of. It made the game too easy and they didn’t know what to do to regulate it. I believe in the end I helped the bowlers but hurt the game.”

Unlike many involved in the bowling industry, Steve seemed to be totally realistic of the current state of bowling.

“The X-Calibur was one of the things that killed bowling,” Steve continued. “It made it too easy and the scores these guys fire off now are just ridiculous. I remember reading about the guy who averaged 261 and that’s just a joke. It’s a joke that these guys are averaging so high when back in the 70s and 80s they would be nothing more then a 170 average. There used to be a time when you would throw a shot and make a one board adjustment but these guys today are playing fifth and sixth arrow and just sailing the ball right. It’s stupid and even after ABC changed all the rules they still don’t seem to know what to do.”

“Do you think the association is at fault for where bowling is today,” I asked.

Steve paused for a second before asking a rhetorical question.

“What has the association done? I may have taken away from the shotmakers but the association has done nothing. I mean really, what has USBC done?”

Steve’s opinions were not limited to just USBC either. He criticized the PBA saying that the formats today take away from the best bowler winning and therefore the interest in the game.

“There used to be a time when the PBA was the highest rated show on Saturday afternoon. It was for a reason because the best bowlers competed in a known format to determine a champion and people wanted to watch. Now I don’t even know when the PBA is coming on and I don’t understand the formats they use. The Exempt tour and their patterns are a joke. When I toured we would go out and adjust to whatever was laid out there. Nowadays I read that guys won’t bowl because it’s the Cheetah or the Shark or whatever. It’s ridiculous.”

In the nearly two hours I spoke with Steve I had an opportunity to discuss many subjects, both past and present, about bowling. In the end I found that there seemed to be a lot of animosity towards the sport but also a lot of passion as well.

Ultimately, I was forced to ask him two questions. “Do you regret inventing the X-Calibur and is there anyway to still save bowling?”

Steve paused and with a voice that was laced with resignation said “I don’t regret it because if it wasn’t me it would have been someone else. As far as bowling goes, I don’t know if it can be saved. At least I don’t know of a way to do it.”

Getting to speak with Steve Cooper was an honor and the knowledge he shared with me was something I will treasure forever. Although I had hoped for a better understanding of how to save bowling I instead walked away with a better understanding of how bowling came to this point. To you the bowlers I promise my search for answers will continue and I hope yours will as well.


Thanks to Dustin for sending me his story so I could post it and make it readily accessible to all via the internet.

I had heard many times that the creation of the Xcalibur was an accident, but Cooper told Markowitz “a little of the history of his product including getting his chemist to design a ball that would react harder on a lane using new materials.”

I would want to ask as many follow-up questions as necessary to get the full story of how the Xcalibur was created.

Markowitz also credits Cooper with being "the pioneer of modern designed weight blocks," and I'm pretty sure Faball had the first exotic weight blocks in the mid-1980s. Update: After my story, long-time PBA Tour ball driller and coach Bill Hall and USBC Hall of Famer Bill Spigner both reported that John Randolph of Akron, Ohio, developed the first exotic weight block in the mid-1970s and it was in the clear ROSE ball.

Cooper also told Markowitz that he didn’t regret inventing the Xcalibur “because if it wasn’t me it would have been someone else.” I would have tried to flesh out why he believed that and what evidence he had for that belief.

Cooper told Markowitz that he believed the Xcalibur “was one of the things that killed bowling,” so I would want to know if he wishes he had presented the ball to the American Bowling Congress (this was pre-USBC) before marketing it.

He bemoans what ABC/USBC have not done, but perhaps if ABC had the Xcalibur before it was released they could have written rules to close the door before the horse was out of the barn, so to speak.

I’d also like to ask Cooper about what he might have done different to try to meet the incredible demand for the Xcalibur and profit more from the invention of a lifetime.

I’d also have to call him out on his ridiculous statement that the latest balls weren’t much better than the Xcalibur, when even in 2011 the Xcalibur would have been so much weaker than the current resin balls that it would been little more than a spare ball. Here is what he told Markowitz:
“I meant that all of the reactive balls built after the X-Calibur, until today, can’t be built any better. The USBC has a set of rules now that they didn’t have until after the X was built. In my opinion all of the C.O.R.’s, C.O.F.’s, RG differentials and etcetera can’t be combined with any surface or combo of weight blocks to build something that hasn’t already been built. Again, in my opinion anybody could say that they can build a better ball but I want them to show it to me. At least with new cars they can add new stuff to make them better but with bowling balls I think they have peaked. It just can’t be done.”

Or perhaps he meant that ball technology had peaked within the rules in 2011, which would be different and an arguable point. I'd love to ask him.

If I could have a couple hours with Cooper, and extended time with the others involved in the creation of the Xcalibur, I think I’d have one heckuva story. Maybe when I’m retired from my real job, I’ll take the time with the others.