Since the distressing news broke on Monday evening that Paul Hunter had died from stomach cancer aged only 27, his fellow snooker stars have been queuing up to pay lavish and heartfelt tribute. One of them, Neal Foulds, pointed out the tendency to overdo the praise when someone dies, but added that in Hunter's case, it could not be overdone.
Not many sportsmen are universally popular with their peers as well as the fans, but Hunter was as close as snooker got, which was all the more remarkable given the way he was marketed, as the "Beckham of the baize".
Good-looking, charismatic, and cheekily happy to admit to having had sex with his then girlfriend Lindsey in their hotel room during a break in the final of the 2001 UK Masters - a winning formula he went on to repeat in 2002 and 2003 - he seemed like a refreshing antidote to the notion that snooker players are the unhealthily wan and flabby products of a youth misspent in dimly lit, smoke-filled clubs. When the BBC revived its series Superstars, Hunter was the token snooker player invited to take part. He represented vitality and virility. And now, unbelievably, Lindsey is his widow.
When famous people die young, it is usually the result of snorting too much or living too fast. Their deaths might shake us but they don't make us confront our own mortality, because we don't live like that. But if cancer can cut down a seemingly gilded guy like Hunter, five days before his 28th birthday, then we are reminded that it can pounce on any of us at any time. He didn't die because of the way he had lived, he just died, before he even had the chance to see his baby daughter walk or talk. Sporting stardom can end in some pretty cruel and abrupt ways, but it's not supposed to end like that.
For me, the news of Hunter's death was especially poignant, because I interviewed him - in March last year - on the morning that he consulted his doctor for the first time, after suffering from sharp stomach pains. Just before I arrived at the Syngenta Sports and Fitness Club in Huddersfield, where he practised, my mobile phone buzzed. It was Hunter's manager, Brandon Parker, to say that Paul would be at least an hour late because he had an urgent appointment in Leeds with his GP. I told Parker that maybe we should rearrange the interview.
"No, Paul knows you've come a long way to see him," he said. "He doesn't want to let you down. He'll drive over after the appointment."
Sporting stardom's not supposed to be like that, either. I've known only moderately famous Premiership footballers to cancel or cut short interviews for some almost comically insubstantial reasons - not quite because they've broken a fingernail but not far short. And a fortnight ago I was offered an interview with a genuinely celebrated England footballer, as long as I agreed to two conditions: one, that the article should not appear in the sports pages but "nearer the front of the paper" because X was being "rebranded", and two, that X would have the right to see the copy before publication, and order changes as he saw fit. That's the sporting universe in which we operate. Therefore it's no paradox to say that Hunter, a man who operated indoors, was a breath of fresh air.
He turned up in a flashy Mercedes that day in Huddersfield, not far from the hospice in which he died on Monday, and told me that appendicitis was the worst-case explanation for his stomach pains. He was worried that he might need an operation. "I said to the doctor that it really hurts when I breathe in," he said. "He felt around on the side that hurts and said, 'That's your appendix'. We shall see. I've heard that if you do have 'em out you're not allowed to drive for six weeks. That's no good for me. I have to drive out here every day to practise."
At the time, Hunter was the fourth-best snooker player in the world, with the trappings to prove it. He had the Merc, and another Merc for the wife, and an unmortgaged, detached house with its own bar. But he practised at the Syngenta, which had been the nearby ICI factory's social club, not because it was smarter than his previous place of practice, Guiseley Conservative Club, but because it was seedier. The Con Club didn't have the beery atmosphere he liked, or enough of the types who filled the Syngenta: rough, sharp-witted, mostly unemployed blokes who never treated him differently just because he was a star, and probably didn't treat him differently just because he had cancer. That was how he liked it.
He laughed when I ventured that you could take the boy out of the Leeds council estate, but not the Leeds council estate out of the boy. It was true, he said. He was blissfully politically incorrect. He thought that snooker tournaments should have boxing-style "dolly-birds" holding up cards to announce what frame it was. "Not topless, like," he added. "Maybe in bikinis." And when we talked about the groupies who followed him round from venue to venue, he said, warmly: "I've had a few of them following me everywhere for five or six years now. I sometimes wish they could be a bit better-looking, like, but they're really nice people. Anyway, I'm taken."
He certainly was. And no, he said, he didn't mind in the slightest me bringing up for the millionth time the invigorating sex session during the 2001 Masters.
"It will never leave me, but it's a nice thing to talk about. I enjoyed all the fuss, to be honest. And we did it the next two times. The year after I was 5-0 down and came back to win 10-9, and last year against Ronnie [O'Sullivan] I was 6-1 and 7-2 down and still won. In the breaks, we did exactly the same. Well, different positions, like. I can't explain why it helped. I suppose it relaxed me, made me feel happy about myself. You've still got to get out there and pot the balls, though. I did take her to Malta a few months ago and it didn't work there."
I wrote last year that Hunter's somewhat unreconstructed attitude to women might gnaw at the sensibilities of some Independent readers, but that it was impossible not to like him, for he was so disarmingly friendly and candid.
And funny. He thought it a huge joke that he'd been picked to take part in Superstars, and I told him that every snooker generation has a pin-up, with the accompanying misconception that he might also be a bit of an athlete. In Superstars years ago it was Tony Knowles struggling with the squat thrusts.
"Aye, he said, smiling. "There were 39 athletes and me. There was only me who smoked, only me who drank. The bike ride was a nightmare, 800 metres uphill. Obviously I came last, and when I got off my bike, I tried to walk but couldn't. I just fell on the floor and someone came over and gave me a San Miguel and put a fag in my mouth. I remember [the runner] Jamie Baulch saying to me one morning, 'I shouldn't have had that glass of wine' last night, and I'm thinking, 'Jesus, I shouldn't have had them three jugs of sangria". I had to race against him in the 800m and he's like, 'I'm not looking forward to this'. I'm thinking, 'You're a fucking runner aren't you? I never even run to the end of my driveway'."
Both laughing, we then walked over to Hunter's table, the table the Syngenta kept exclusively for him, especially heated to make it faster. He set up various practice shots and, on his own turf, he suddenly looked like a man who could do anything. What he wanted to do most, as a Yorkshireman as well as a snooker player, was win the World Championship at the Crucible in Sheffield. Even as a child he had dreamt about it. I expect his priorities changed over the past 18 months. But it is unspeakably sad that he will never again get the chance to try.
'I can't tell you how special he was'
He had everything, the world at his feet, and it's such a shame. He had the looks, we called him the 'Beckham of the baize', and he played up to it. He was one of our characters and a fantastic player who was magnanimous in defeat
Ken Doherty, former world champion
I was playing for his charity last night, to do with the cancer he had. I was halfway through the exhibition and a guy gave £10,000 to the charity and then we got the news. The whole room went silent and it was quite eerie really. It's so, so sad. He was a tiger on the snooker table, but off the table you couldn't have met a nicer fellow. As soon as he got beaten, or he won, he was back to Paul Hunter and that's a very hard quality to have. I can't tell you how special he was. He was a credit to life. He will be in my heart for the rest of my life.
Jimmy White, six-time world finalist
Paul played the game with a smile on his face. He was a bright and bubbly character and I never heard him complain. He was always such a happy person. We're all going to miss him.
John Parrott, former world champion
Paul was just a really nice guy and a great player. Before he took ill, Paul was in the top four in the world and maybe even had his best days to come. Every player on the circuit was pulling for Paul to come through because he was just a genuinely nice guy who never fell out with anyone. He just wanted to play the game.
Stephen Hendry, seven-times world champion
This is terrible news. I've followed his battle closely. We all loved Paul. My thoughts are with his family right now.
Alex Higgins, former world champion
Paul was a man who had everything going for him - an outstanding talent, good looks, fame, riches, charm and a beautiful wife. This shows us just how quickly life can change. It's a bitter blow for snooker but most importantly for his family and our thoughts are with them.
Sir Rodney Walker, World Snooker chairman