As a child growing up with three brothers in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, I learned to compete in multiple sports. When we weren’t out throwing baseballs or shooting baskets, tossing a football around or kicking soccer balls, we headed down to a dusty basement to play ping-pong, officially known as table tennis.
There are plenty of sports in which concentration is key, but none more than table tennis. While I could barely keep my eyes open in math class, the angles and geometry of table tennis was riveting. Every shot or block was an instant calculation. One learned by losing as much as by winning points.
Our table was built by my father, who somehow figured out a way to building a folding ping-pong table, paint it a proper if slightly lighter shade of slightly shiny green, and line the edges and center with tape as well. It was a fine table, made of wood thick enough to make the ball respond appropriately when so many ping-pong table tops in that era were built with thin composite materials on which the ball did not bounce truly.
A mushy ping-pong table is an affront to the game. So are players who wittingly or unwittingly play the game outside the domain of the rules. But we learned the rules and lived by them. Each of my brothers had success in playing the game across the spectrum of occasions afforded us. My next eldest brother Gary proved to be the most exceptional of all with his superb reflexes and hand-eye coordination that for years he also employed in the sport of fencing.
I certainly did not beat my older brothers much in the game of table tennis. But we’d play in that basement despite the pipes jutting out from the wall. Laughingly, we named these difficulties the “Water Meter Shot” and other such attributions to impediments to play.
When we moved to a giant house in Elburn, Illinois, the ping-pong table was hauled up several flights of stairs to the massive A-Frame attic. There were played matches without interruption of any kind. Our patented “loop” shots could tower feet above the table and coming singing off the surface with a jump of spin. Our only infrastructure challenge was a six inch gap along the entire perimeter between the floor and the wall. If table tennis balls went down the gap they were mostly gone forever.
That was another aspect of the game we treasured and understood in terms of playability and performance. Some ping-pong balls were light and feathery. They turned the game into a pitty-pat that was insulting to the senses after playing games with a heavier ball at high speeds.
Friends had often challenged us during our years in Pennsylvania. We’d head over to the Arnold’s house where their commercially-produced table was a pleasure to play upon. But the ceilings were lower and certain aspects of our collective games were eliminated. That meant fighting it out in table-blocking matches that were intense, but not nearly so athletic or thrilling as open space table tennis where agility comes into play, not just stubborn racket practice.
Over the years of playing and in so many basements, one learned how to adapt in all kinds of playing conditions. From footing on carpet or slippery tile, or carpet on slippery tile, to bad lighting and cramped quarters, it was often a question of how to adjust to the limitations of the playing quarters in order to figure out how to win.
When I was fourteen years old, our next-door neighbor in Elburn was a pastor of the Congregational Church where I was confirmed. Hearing that I liked to play table tennis, he openly challenged me to a match, so I invited him to play a few games upstairs in the attic. During the warmup I measured his style and reasoned that while he was a steady player, there was no real threat in his game. So I played defensively in the early stages of the match until my hand-eye confidence felt strong enough. Then I started smashing point after point when his return service came floating back from my volleys.
At one point the ball struck him smack in the gut, and he blurted out an audible, “Shit!” I almost laughed, but was shocked as well. He didn’t apologize, but tossed the ball back to me to continue the game. And I won.
That was the only match we ever played. But it taught me a lesson in theology that I never forget. It made me realize that the holiest of men is still a human being. That made me respect him even more in some ways. I knew then he was making an honest effort, and I thanked him for playing me.
Sooner or later we all branched out to play in park district, high school and other tournaments. I won a few of these age-group competitions, and was not afraid to take on anyone that came my way. I’d still get trounced sometimes back at home, but with age the matches became closer and perhaps I even won a few games against my brothers.
My brother Gary won the title at Kaneland high school and we were four years apart in age, so I never had to play him there. But I followed in his shoes and made a bit of a splash as a sophomore beating older players. The same held true in my running career at that school, making the varsity team as a freshman and leading the cross country team to its first-ever conference meet victory.
Those were big deal accomplishments to me during high school, and then our family moved ten miles east to another town and it was akin to starting over. The ping-pong table occupied space in the basement of a split-level house that barely contained the four grown boys in our family.
And after that, we brothers hardly got to play table tennis any more. But when I moved off to college I found a playing partner in a classmate named Jim Nielsen, who loved the game as much as I did. We also happened to be teammates in cross country where the competition level was fierce all the time in practice and meets. But Jim and I would still beat on each other in the Ylvisaker hall freshman dorm table tennis room, playing match after match even when our legs were tired from long running workouts.
Jim and I made it all the way to the doubles finals as he once recalled in an online conversation. We lost to a pair of Laotian players as I recall. I made it to the singles finals against the Luther College tennis ace named Jeff Renken. Though I held my own against the senior, he beat me for the title.
For some reason I never entered the Luther College table tennis tournament again after my freshman year. And following college, the main occasions to play were against my brother-in-laws in the 1950s basement of my wife’s grandparents.
Those were competitive matches in a different sense than the tournaments. Usually they’d come in the wake or a big meal, and it was everything one could do to muster concentration after chowing tons of turkey or ham and desserts along with a few beers. But we fought it out and had some laughs all those years. But I still hated losing, especially to my wife’s sister’s husband, a player whose game involved crowding the table. I was somewhat defenseless against that strategy without room above the table to send soaring loop shots his way to back him up. So he erased my advantages and I’m suspecting I lost more than won most of those games.
Then one Christmas my wife’s brother invited me to join him to play some matches over at a longtime friend’s house. I wound up playing match after match against the family aces until the dad finally stood across from me at the table. He was clearly there to defend the family pride and protect the name of his household. Part of me felt mercy for the gentleman, but he wasn’t a terrible player, so I felt it fair to play him full out.
I played all those years with a foam rubber paddle with a smooth face to it. It has one blue side and one red side. The science of paddle rubber and the art of using it had begun to evolve in the 1970s and I hated using those hard pebbled paddles without any foam in them. Much worse were the sandpaper paddles found in so many rank basements. Yet many’s the time I’d pick up even those dull instruments and wipe the table with the player opposite. Faced with such rude tools, one has to turn to the basics of cut backspin and angled shots. It’s a mental game as much as physical at that point. But table tennis always is.
I defeated the Old Man that day but it was an epic battle of sorts. One of the challenges of basement ping-pong is always lighting. On top of dealing with shitty paddles, the other object to overcome was glare from basement windows or low light in general. Both can turn a table tennis match into a squintfest.
Which is why the set up at the Vaughn Center this weekend for the Aurora Open was so impressive in terms of its detail. The organizers even hoisted sheets of black plastic up to the roofline to block out southern window exposure. It would not do to have nearly world-class players trying to see through glare on the tables. There was plenty of room around every table for players to retrieve or set up shots. The new style of table tennis balls is plastic, I was told, not comprised of the same flammable material from which they were once constructed. I’ll admit to burning a few table tennis balls for the fun of it back in the day. The chemical flames had a liquid lick to them, perfect foil for a childlike pyromaniac.
But my brother informed me, “The plants where they made the tennis balls kept blowing up.” I agreed that is never good.
Watching the matches was an instruction on how far the game has come and perhaps on how far I’ve been left behind. My paddle grip is tradition with two fingers flat on the backhand side. Most good players now use a pen-like grip and the result is backhands that are as devastating as forehands. The serves are now a ceremony of body position and paddle angle.
The rules are largely the same. The ball cannot bounce twice on the opponent’s side to count as a legal serve. That’s a big difference from how basement table tennis is played. They must also leave the table within the end of the opponent’s side and between the two white lines marking the table edge. Again, that is never enforced in basement table tennis.
Nor is the requirement to toss the ball into the air on each serve. Many’s the time when players I met sort of smacked the ball right out of their hand, a tactic that makes serving much easier and can result in really deceptive play. But having principles and enforcing the rules when playing pickup table tennis or any other sport is an unpopular ideal and even frowned upon as lacking a sporting instinct in situations where Bro competitiveness is one the line. “Deal with it!” I heard one asswipe yell at me for calling a serve illegal when it bounced two times before leaving the table.
Watching the high level of play and witnessing the focus of the young players on the floor made me realize my table tennis days are fairly much over. Probably ten years ago I joined my brother at his table tennis night and barely won a match against the worst player in the large group of forty-some players. I realized that climbing the ladder and earning some sort of ranking, especially with a torn ACL as I had in those days, would take more doing than I wanted to do.
What I most admired in watching the tournament was the diversity of people in terms of age, race, gender and more. Young kids played old aces. Women played men. Heavy dudes with guts faced off with lean prodigies and you know what? The matches were all closely contested. There is something to greatly love in that kind of sporting even. While soccer may be the world’s game, I’m willing to say that table tennis comes close in terms of its national diversity. Who knows, I could well find myself playing the game again. One should never be afraid of trying something new, even when it’s an old hobby.