He was one of those flawed but magnetic sportsmen who transcended the game that made them famous to strike a chord with the wider public.
And as with other news this week it took a football man to put the death of Willie Thorne into perspective.
“Deeply saddened to hear my friend has passed away. One of life’s great characters. A marvellous snooker player and a lovely man, who’s potted his final black much too soon,” wrote Gary Lineker after his fellow Leicester sporting legend died, aged 66, in a Spanish hospital after a battle with leukaemia.
The man known as Mr Maximum, because in his 80s heyday he would regularly rattle in 147 breaks during practice, was much more than one of the old Pot Black guys.
Willie belonged to a select band of household names like Hurricane Higgins, Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor, whose skill and charisma helped pull in TV audiences of up to 18 million and made snooker mainstream entertainment.
But the British public who took him to their hearts as a TV pundit, member of Chas & Dave’s Matchroom Mob who had a hit with Snooker Loopy, and then a Strictly dancer, knew him as more than that.
He was a showman and a character, with a dry wit, who relished sending himself up, especially over his bald head.
His flaws, such as a serious gambling addiction which left him bankrupt and suicidal, made him all the more human and likeable.
As a giant of the green baize from a later era, Ronnie O’Sullivan, said on hearing of Willie’s death from respiratory failure: “A beautiful man. Big heart, great company. Will be missed by a lot of people.”
William Joseph Thorne was born at home in Anstey, Leics, in 1954. His father, Bill, was a coal miner, and his mother, Nancy, a secretary.
His first contact with sport came through watching Leicester City with his dad, but his love of football diminished in his early teens when snooker captivated him.
When his father became a steward at the local Conservative club, Willie found the snooker hall and was on the tables at every opportunity.
Within six months he was the best player at the club.
He also excelled at billiards and won the junior national title six years in a row.
In 1970 he became the country’s under-16 champion in both billiards and snooker and there was no doubt where his future lay.
In the early 70s he played as an amateur while having various jobs, including a modelling assignment, when he could still boast a full head of hair. Soon after winning the national under-19 snooker title he became the youngest pro player in the world.
He ran a snooker centre in Leicester city centre in the early 80s. It was there he met Gary Lineker and they struck up a friendship so close that the footballer was best man when Willie married Fiona Walker in 1985.
The couple had twin sons, Tristan and Kieran, and a daughter, Tahli.
Willie’s early promise never translated into a glorious snooker career. The best he did in the World Championship was reach the quarter-finals.
And he won only one ranking tournament, the Mercantile Credit Classic in 1985. That year was a watershed.
He was on course for victory in the UK Championship final against Steve Davis after surging into a commanding 13–8 lead but missed a straightforward blue in the first frame of the final session and went on to lose the match.
The knowledge he had once again wilted under pressure in the heat of battle crushed him.
A few months later he achieved his best world ranking of seven, but his game went downhill as he struggled to control a growing addiction to gambling that had started when he worked as a bookies runner as a teenager.
“I lived for years with 20-odd accounts and credit cards, robbing Peter to pay Paul,” he recalled in 2011.
“When the cheques came in I’d pay the losing ones, endlessly covering my back. For years I got away with it. But eventually it caught up with me.”
While playing as a pro he would win enough money to just about cover his debts, but after retiring in 2002, and becoming a commentator for Sky and the BBC it was more difficult.
His gambling and extra-marital affairs cost him his marriage. He once placed a huge bet on John Parrott getting beaten in a game after hearing he had lost his cue and had to borrow one at the venue.
Willie was commentating on the match for the BBC, and later admitted: “I put £38,000 on Parrott to lose because he told me he didn’t have his cue, but he ended up winning the bloody game. I’m having to close the commentary by saying ‘it’s unbelievable’, spewing up as I say it.”
He hit rock bottom in 2015 as his addiction spiralled out of control and he was more than £1million in debt.
One day, heavies turned up at his house and threatened to cut off the fingers of his second wife, former Miss Great Britain Jill Saxby, to take her diamond engagement ring.
She eventually discovered him in a Leicester hotel room, weeping on the bed with a knife in one hand and a suicide note in the other. It was his second attempt at taking his life.
The pair moved to Spain, but Willie faced further financial woes as he lost his commentating contract with the BBC and was declared bankrupt.
Last year his wife of 24 years left him, saying she could no longer put up with his gambling addiction.
In March, after battling prostate cancer, he announced he had been diagnosed with leukaemia.
But it won’t be the sadness of his complicated private life that Willie will be remembered. It will be for the warmth and self-deprecating humour.
In the 1986 hit Snooker Loopy – featuring fellow pro players Davis, Taylor, Terry Griffiths and Tony Meo – the lyrics say of Willie: “When the light shines down on his bare crown, it’s a cert he’s gonna walk it. It’s just not fair giving off that glare.” And he sings: “Perhaps I ought to chalk it.”
And his appearance on Strictly Come Dancing in 2007, when he sportingly grinned his way through humiliation with partner Erin Boag, being voted out in 12th place.
As a sign of how much he was loved, more than £17,000 had been raised on a GoFundMe page to help pay for his cancer treatment in Spain, before his carer, Julie O’Neill, announced he had died yesterday. That money will now go towards his funeral.
The affection that he drew from everyone who met him was best summed up by snooker legend Taylor who said: “Sometimes Willie would walk into the players’ room full of maybe six world champions and jokingly say ‘Right, who was the most famous person in here until I arrived?’
“He’d often say in recent years when he met someone ‘Pleased to meet you, Willie Thorne, big star in the 1980s’. Or ‘I used to be Mr Maximum, now I’m Mr Minimum’.
“RIP Great One. That was my name for him. The Great WT.”