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Those were the glory days. Through most of the '80s and '90s, Aleta Rzepecki Sill was the best woman 10-pin bowler in the nation. She could walk into any bowling center, anywhere, and ...

Well, she'd pretty much be ignored. But that was professional bowling, especially for women.

"Obviously," Sill says now, "I didn't do it to get rich, because I'm not."

And she didn't do it to become famous, except in the close and clattering world of bowling, where her name was familiar even if her face wasn't.

"I just loved my sport," she says.

Sill, 52, loved the competition. Loved the mental aspect, the 80 or 90 percent of the game at high levels that takes place above the neck. Loved the connection to her beloved grandparents, loved the camaraderie, loved coming home to the place that loved her back ...

Sort of, when it gave women's bowling a thought.

She was nominated for the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame in 2007. Didn't get in.

Nominated again in 2008. Didn't get in.

She didn't know about either, it turns out, so it didn't hurt, and then not long ago, the executive director of the hall walked into the Aleta Sill's Bowling World pro shop at Country Lanes in Farmington Hills.

Congratulations, he told her — and "I stared at him for just a minute, trying to process it."

The induction ceremony starts at 7:30 tonight at MotorCity Casino, with a reception at 6; for tickets, call (248) 473-0656.

Picture Derek Jeter, from Kalamazoo and the New York Yankees. MSU basketball coach Tom Izzo. Hockey's Sergei Federov, shortstop Barry Larkin, ex-Lion Doug English, Olympic marvel Sheila Taormina — and Sill, who drove more miles for less reward than any of them, and might well rank higher among the greats of her game.

Rewards started early

Sill was the first woman to top $1 million in earnings, back when first place might pay $3,000.

She won 31 titles, including the Triple Crown twice. A few weeks ago, in the Tuesday night league where she averages 215 just for fun, she rolled her 35th perfect game.

Or maybe it was her 36th. She's lost track, but "I still love the feeling," she says: Tenth frame, everyone gathered around, three shots left to make the whole place go berserk.

It's a long way from being 5 years old, just trying to keep the ball on the hardwood.

Sill's family lived with her grandparents then in Detroit, before her mom and dad moved to Dearborn Heights. She cherished Steve and Adeline Zuke — Adeline remained her best friend until she died — and she'd watch them play at Oxford Lanes in Dearborn.

One night, they let her throw a few. In that pre-bumper-bowl world, everything wound up sideways, and Steve said, "We're not going to pay for gutter balls. You have to learn to keep it in the lane."

Incentives helped. When she broke 80, they bought her a ball. When she broke 100, they bought her bowling shoes.

When she won $105,000 in 1997, her 18th year since she joined the tour fresh from high school, she bought herself a motor home.

The next year she cashed a $40,000 check for winning the U.S. Open and bought a bigger one, the better to travel with her dog and two cats. A million dollars in prize money is impressive, but when it's spread across 21 years on tour, you learn to temper your splurges.

Dogs, cats and hopes

Home today is Livonia, where she probably has two other claims to fame among the Hall inductees — smallest house, at 1,412 square feet, and most animals.

Sill and former touring pro Michelle Mullen, her partner in yourbowlingcoach.com and otherwise, have four cats and three dogs — all rescued.

It's a deliberately simple and tethered life: teach, evangelize for the sport she loves, clean up after the pets.

Mullen says that if Sill even thought about the Hall of Fame, she never mentioned it.

Sill concedes that yes, she did, but as rarely as she could. When your victories were shown on television at 2 a.m., if at all, you temper your hopes.

As a teenager, she says, "I wouldn't even tell people I bowled. It wasn't cool."

Tonight, she can tell Derek Jeter. It doesn't get much cooler than that.

nrubin@detroitnews.com

@nealrubin_dn

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