3-cushion’s Boy Wonder never grew up. Or will he?


Posted by Bert VAN MANEN on April 4, 2015

Bert van Manen– 2015. Name:Johan Loncelle. Occupation: taxi driver. If you live in the USA or Asia, I quite understand if you’ve never even heard of him. He used to be a professional 3-cushion player, and a bloody good one.  When Loncelle played the game as an 18, 21, 24 year old, he showed as much promise as Daniel Sanchez, Dion Nelin, or Filipos Kasidokostas. Yes, he was THAT good.

The naturally gifted Belgian is born in June 1979, and picks up a cue before he’s even in middle school. He wins three consecutive junior titles in his country in ’96,’97 and ’98. It’s obvious that he will become world class. Lucky enough to benefit from the teachings of Tony Schrauwen, one of our game’s most inspirational figures (died in 2005), Loncelle can play any discipline. Not only does he love 3-cushion early on, he masters the free game and is also a crafty balkline and 1-cushion player as a teenager.

– 1997: Plays and wins the Minolta Classic with Caudron, they beat the “Scandinavian” team of Blomdahl and Nelin in the final.

– 1998: First European junior title, Nikos Polychronopoulos the runner-up.

– 2000: A 42 in 16 innings match against de Coster, a 42 in 15 against Leppens.

– 2000: Second European junior title, beats Thorsten Frings in the final.

Loncelle’s rise is in the golden era of 3-cushion, and he never even considers to learn a trade or to study. There will be only one job in his future: professional 3-cushion player. As outright foolish as that sounds in 2015, it was rather defensible in 2000. Even as a 21-year old, Loncelle has no problem finding teams in Belgium and the Netherlands who pay him to defend their club colors. And he does well. Johan always wins much more often than he loses, and he pleases spectators with his dynamic game.

– 2003. Makes 40 in 12 against Boigneres.

Things are hunky dory for a few years. He makes a living, builds his reputation. Not many players can say they have beaten a tough cookie like Raimond Burgman five times in a row in league matches, but he can. There’s a (first) win over the legend, Raymond Ceulemans in 2001. There’s a more spectacular win over Semih, then the world nr. 1 (50-20 in 19) in 2002. In 2004, he is on 1.649 general average at the halfway point, the 7th best player in the strongest league in the world at that time.  His game is not that of a former balkline player at all: neat and soft and precise are there when he needs them, but they play second fiddle to fierce, fearless and flamboyant.  He has a big stroke, and he loves speed.

As intuitively as Loncelle makes the right decisions on the table, he makes the wrong ones in his billiard career and private life. In 1999, he refuses to represent Belgium in a balkline tournament (the federation claiming it is a quid pro quo for the lessons they have provided), and as a result is disallowed to defend his 1998 European junior title in 3-cushion. There is another suspension by the Belgian federation in 2001 (later overruled by a judge), when Loncelle arrives fifty minutes late for a match. Teammates complain about his tardiness, inability to keep a schedule and diva behavior. He comes from society’s fringe, and it shows in the unkempt appearance and lack of social skills.

It gets worse. Johan hangs with the wrong crowd, where substance abuse is the norm. He gets caught, tests positive for cocaine in 2006, and is banned from all competition for two years.  It does not stop him from practicing, because when he returns in 2008 he shows form right off the bat. A 45 in 16 match against Claesen, a run of 19, a 40 in 13 match against de Backer. He is now teammates with none other than Marco Zanetti, and the Italian maestro shows respect for Loncelle’s insights. MZ has a thing or two the Belgian needs to know about position play, but he gets schooled on a group of bank shots himself.

Not unlike Blomdahl, Johan has spells at the table where he no longer seems to care about position, because he feels he can make anything. Marc Celen is the victim in early 2010, when Loncelle makes 45 in 14. Later that year, there is a match against Ronny Daniels, where Loncelle is on 38 after six innings, the crowd hoping for a world record. He loses the magic but wins the match (50-18 in 21), having made at least half a dozen points of jaw-dropping quality, two of those bank shots that (maybe) only Sang Lee would have tried.

– 2011. Caught a second time, cocaine again. His defense is the same as it was in 2006: “Somebody must have spiked my drink.” It is the response of a child, and it does him no good in court. Eight years the verdict this time, and what a high price to pay that is. Loncelle loses a big chunk of his billiard life, the sport loses one of its best talents ever.  We can watch him again in 2019, because – I am simply convinced – he will make a second comeback. Billiards is what he knows, it is what makes him Loncelle. Once a professional 3-cushion player, and a bloody good one.