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

The United States' best shot at a 2004 Olympic medal may well be one of Blackwell's imports, southpaw Ilije "Lupi" Lupulesku, a Yugoslavian immigrant and onetime world champion who, though in his thirties, still has the chops to compete with the world's best and could conceivably earn U.S. residency in time for Athens.

If Lupulesku, who has a propensity for grunting like an orgasmic cheetah on return volleys, opts out, the next most likely Killerspin contenders to drink Moya's prescribed Tiger milk are seventeen-year-old Hoosier Mark Hazinski and Lupulesku's lanky twelve-year-old nephew Lorencio.

What separates Hazinski and young Lupulesku from most of the St. Louis bunch is that they have managed to meld the two distinctive styles deployed by "Wheaties" Hendry and "Hearing Aid" Hendry. Their table coverage is superior, and if their opponent wants to throw down, well, they can throw down, too -- sometimes stepping way back from the table for a whack-a-doodle-doo clobber shot.

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.

In April 1971, amid Cold War tensions, an American table-tennis team, fresh off the World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya, Japan, got a surprise invite from their Chinese counterparts. Time magazine called it "the ping heard round the world." No wonder -- it was the first time a group of Americans had been invited to China since the Communist takeover in 1949.

Twelve months later, the Americans returned the favor by hosting the Chinese team in the Motor City, thus cementing an era of "pingpong diplomacy" highlighted by a historic state visit to China by President Richard Nixon that paved the way for diplomatic recognition of Beijing in 1979.

Some game, eh?

For St. Louisans such as Lowe and Conlee, though, it's all about the diplomacy that takes place at one table between two people (or among four, if you're playing doubles). "For me, it's an outlet for physical fitness," explains Lowe. "That was my primary objective. Now I've run across the socialization aspect of it.

"In addition, there's a protocol that I find different than other sports. They make a policy that, after a match, you shake hands with your opponent. It's a small little thing, but I think it goes a long way in terms of relationships and ethnicity. If you're on the basketball court, you just play."

For his part, Conlee has been dealing with the temporary loss of his 32-year-old African-American doubles partner, Dominik Childress, who is undergoing treatment for a brain tumor. Childress still shows up at Twelfth and Park from time to time to hit the ball around, and he works a flexible schedule as a maintenance worker for AmerenUE when his health permits. Last year, before his diagnosis, Childress was named outstanding athlete at the Show-Me State Games.

So when the man the brothers like to call Lincoln wants to talk diversity, rest assured he's spewing more than just Clintonian "let's have a conversation on race" lip service.

"There are more variety of people with respect to race, age, income," exclaims Conlee. "We got people down there who are out of work, then we've got doctors. We don't always get along. We're like a family. But I'm proud of it."

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