15 May, 2024 03:33 AM4 mins to read

Dene O'Kane in 2004. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Dene O'Kane - Figure 1
Photo New Zealand Herald

New Zealand snooker legend Dene O’Kane has died after a tragic accident at his Waiheke Island home.

O’Kane – who captured New Zealanders’ hearts some three decades ago with his incredible exploits at the World Snooker Championships – is understood to have fallen at his home earlier this week and died yesterday in hospital, according to snooker colleagues and friends.

The 61-year-old became a household name as a quarterfinalist in the World Snooker Championships in 1987 and again in 1992.

Dene O'Kane in typical pose at the Heretaunga Snooker Classic in 2006. Photo / Paul Taylor

He rose to number 18 in the world in 1991/92 - and stayed in the top 32 until 1996 - before eventually retiring as a pro with earnings of £415,000 ($864,910).

O’Kane later became a real estate agent but his passion for snooker and cue sports always remained, playing as a senior and in various exhibition matches on the other side of the world.

He was also the chairman of premier cue club Massé and secretary Bernie Endres said today the news of O’Kane’s death was devastating.

Endres recalls gathering around a television set in 1987, with flatmates and friends, watching O’Kane’s exploits with the cue, as the New Zealander made the quarterfinals of the World Snooker Championships. He repeated the feat five years later, in 1992.

Dene O'Kane - Figure 2
Photo New Zealand Herald

In 2016, Endres travelled to the UK with O’Kane when he played in an exhibition event alongside fellow snooker legends Stephen Hendry, Dennis Taylor and Steve Davis.

“That was the esteem he was held in,” said Endres.

The exhibition event was held on the eve of the World Snooker Championships and Endres described the crowds of people following O’Kane as an “eye-opener”.

“I remember talking to Dennis Taylor and he was going on about how much he admired Dene. He talked of how difficult it was for those guys in the UK to break through to the pro circuit let alone for someone from a country at the bottom of the planet. Someone who had left home at his age, with no money to survive and to make it on the pro-circuit.”

In an interview with sports broadcaster Mark Watson two years ago, O’Kane reflected on his career.

“It could always have been better, that’s what I say. But when you’re up there at the top, you’ve just got to get what you grab, what you can and I had some very, very good years on the pro tour.”

He went to the UK as a 17-year-old amateur and New Zealand champion.

“That was early 1981 in the middle of February, which is a stupid time to go, you know, because it’s the heart of winter... but I turned up Heathrow. I had two suitcases of snooker cues and 700 quid in my pocket.”

Dene O'Kane - Figure 3
Photo New Zealand Herald

He turned pro in 1984: “That was really the start of a serious career for me.”

Earlier, Christchurch-born O’Kane had been inspired by the Sunday morning television show Pot Black. As a 12-year-old he practised on a makeshift snooker table using a table tennis table, a broom handle and ping pong balls.

He’d read library books to clue up on the sport and some of the leading players, and - after he and his family moved to Auckland - eventually started playing on real tables in Birkenhead and Takapuna clubs.

“I was young and had to dodge the police for a few years.”

“I was fascinated with the game and just loved it. As soon as I saw it, it was just like love-at-first-sight kind of thing.”

His idols included John Spencer and Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins.

New Zealand snooker legend Dene O'Kane. Photo / Paul Taylor

“When Alex won the world championship in 1972 that was big headlines because he was a real renegade from Northern Ireland. He was one of the fastest and most talented players to this day that has ever played the sport.

“He was a little bit bigger than the game in some ways, a personality like George Best in football.”

Across his career, O’Kane won 10 New Zealand titles, two Australian opens, two Oceania championships, and three World Masters Championships in 2004, 2005, and 2008.

Endres said he had last seen O’Kane two weeks ago, picking him up from Mt Maunganui after O’Kane had been to see his elderly mother.

“He was always great company, a real character.”

Editor-at-Large Shayne Currie is one of New Zealand’s most experienced senior journalists and media leaders. He has held executive and senior editorial roles at NZME including Managing Editor, NZ Herald Editor and Herald on Sunday Editor and has a small shareholding in NZME.

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