The Battle of the Paddle

Loot dreams, pre-teen stars, Russian immigrants and (cough) very old men have the St. Louis table-tennis scene popping off

It's a hot August night in St. Louis, Brother Love, one that even Neil Diamond would appreciate. Inside the sweltering Twelfth and Park Recreation and Roller Center, burly East St. Louisan Sean King is tearing through his regular hard-ass Tuesday-evening game of pingpong -- that's right, table tennis -- with his buddy Jimmy Kimple.

King and Kimple talk a fair amount of shit, as ballers are apt to do. Of course, it helps that the fiery King is "hitting everything," according to 69-year-old onlooker Stanley Sokol.

"He's a tough cookie," says Sokol. "I don't need that kind of workout."

Jennifer Silverberg
Sean King -- regarded by his playing partners as a master of intimidation -- flashes his death gaze at Twelfth and Park.
Jennifer Silverberg
Sean King -- regarded by his playing partners as a master of intimidation -- flashes his death gaze at Twelfth and Park.

"He thoroughly enjoys demolishing you. He tries to intimidate you," adds 70-year-old George Conlee, a white guy who, with his mustache-free facial-hair pattern, has been affectionately dubbed "Abe Lincoln" by his fellow gym rats.

"Table tennis in this country tends to attract a pretty individualistic type of person," explains Conlee. "If they got along better, they'd all be playing volleyball. And if [table tennis] weren't so cheap, they'd probably be playing racquetball, too."

Playing on the other side of the court is a black former hooper, Melvin Lowe, who played guard at Langston University in tiny (population 1,470) Langston, Oklahoma, which, according to Lowe, had "one service station, one café and the school."

Lowe, now a stiff-necked 53-year-old phys-ed teacher at Columbia Elementary in North St. Louis, looks shabbily retro in his white V-neck T-shirt, green cargo pants and throwback gray Reeboks. He, like King, has a wicked backhand. But Lowe, a Tulsa native, is here for more than just a brisk afternoon workout. He's here because belonging to this club feels different.

"St. Louis is, from my experience, sort of a segregated town," observes Lowe, who's lived in the Lou for 30-plus years. "You have this population over here and this population over there. In the club, you got everybody -- you got Asians, blacks and whites, people from Switzerland. Something about table tennis seems to remove our displaced segregation."

Table tennis is the second most popular participatory sport in the world, right behind soccer. Approximately one of every sixteen residents of Shanghai (population 20 million) plays recreational table tennis. The sport, which has thrived primarily in the Pacific Rim and Europe in the modern era, gained considerable credibility when it was officially included in the 1988 Seoul Olympiad and boasts a surprisingly weighty diplomatic relevance, having opened the door, at least symbolically, to unprecedented U.S.-Chinese relations in the Nixon era.

But despite such international gravitas, pingpong is still a backyard bumpkin's game at heart.

The St. Louis Table Tennis Club, with more than 100 members (that's big, by national standards) who meet several times each week at both the Twelfth and Park Center and the Creve Coeur Government Center, is "as strong as it's been in twenty years," says top local player Eric Seiler, 47. The club features a still-active granddaddy who had his mug spread across a Wheaties box in 1936, not to mention a father-son tandem of Russian immigrants who routinely dominate regional tournaments.

Up Interstate 55, a fledgling movement financed by Chicago millionaire Robert Blackwell Jr. is afoot -- squarely aimed at making the American heartland a veritable China West for table tennis, which, some believe, is a Tiger Woods away from rubbing shoulders with more popular U.S. sports. Finding such a cub will require a forceful entry into the hard-to-penetrate demographic of teenage boys, a dicey proposition given that the wrinkly set still hovers provincially over table tennis. This, by Blackwell's standards, discourages the young'uns from picking up paddles.

"The problem with table tennis now is, it's just full of old men," he laments.

On the other hand, in a more general sense, the modern American era of sport has become increasingly compartmentalized, seemingly intent on grooming youngsters to be one-trick ponies like Woods, tennis' Williams sisters and -- to give failure its due here -- former Oakland Raiders quarterbackócumónarcotics gadfly Todd Marinovich.

"Kids don't know nothing about table tennis. Shit, most adults don't know what they're talking about," explains the 34-year-old King, a car salesman who claims to have bowled 30 perfect 300 games (by way of comparison, the Pro Bowlers Association record, held by Parker Bohn III, is 60). "There are not too many kids on this planet whom I'd call athletes. Jackie Robinson was an athlete. Jim Brown was an athlete. Not too many people know he was an All-American lacrosse player at Syracuse."

Which plants pongers in the middle of a critical conundrum: Is there really room for table tennis to break into a youth market that's more narrowly focused on the glamour sports than any generation before it?

Twelve-year-old Art Kheyfets, state champion in Missouri's under-13 age bracket, knows something about table tennis. At the Creve Coeur Government Center, where the club meets on Wednesdays, Kheyfets and his 36-year-old father, Alex, are working through an elaborate set of rally exercises. It's a far cry from the "R-A-L-L-Y" horseshit that the basement player uses, between swigs of Pabst, to determine who gets first serve.

As at the Twelfth and Park facility, eight tables are set up at the Government Center, four on each side of a curtain. But unlike the inner-city digs, Creve Coeur's got air conditioning -- so the house is packed with pong enthusiasts from far and wide.

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