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

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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."

"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 quarterbackcumnarcotics 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.

"In a year, Art is gonna beat everybody, having a coach like Alex," predicts 76-year-old racketeer Charles Klotzer, who ranks ninth in his age group nationally (and is the editor emeritus of the St. Louis Journalism Review).

At this point, steady septuagenarian Tom Klutho enters the Kheyfets' half of the gym, sees that they're practicing and swiftly puts his racket down at another table to signal "he got next." Several other players pass on the Kheyfets' table as well, a sort of silent, nurturing acknowledgment that Alex, a Russian immigrant who came to St. Louis at age 22, can take as much time as he needs to train his prodigy.

As the Kheyfetses work their forehands, Art consistently keeps his racket below sea level, thus limiting his opponents' ability to predict where the next shot will go.

At long last, the real match is on, and Art, hell-bent on knocking the crap out of every ball, overpowers his father and wins.

"He exhausted me a little bit, which is good," observes Alex, who, when he chooses to really crank it, is one of the club's top two players. "He's twelve -- he thinks he can hit anything with everything."

Conlee describes top-notch table tennis as "chess on wheels." Whereas the basement beer-pong player might wag his paddle in a relatively nonchalant manner during halftime of the Rams' game, the St. Louis club member's hand and brain must produce absolute synergy to achieve victory.

It is simply not enough to react quickly and bang balls at this level. These players think at least two shots ahead, conjuring well in advance the wicked backspin drop shot that'll have the opponent spread-eagled before bumping his chin on the table's edge.

After losing his second match of the day, young Kheyfets is in good spirits as 32-year-old club member Chance Key strolls over to flip him some shit about the kid's missed forehands and rock-star tournament schedule. Key then compares Art to the Backstreet Boys and asks him where his next tournament is.

"I don't know. Somewhere in Illinois," giggles Art.

Top-flight players will attest that playing in tournaments is everything at a young age, so it should come as no surprise that Alex schleps his protégé to quite a few regional meets throughout the year.

Although pingpong was the first sport he introduced Art to, Alex is careful to encourage athletic balance in his son's life. Art -- a proficient soccer and street-hockey goalie (he says he will make his move to the ice shortly) -- is happy to oblige. This only makes sense, given that Art's classmates at Parkway Northeast Middle School "don't really know" he plays table tennis, a sport that is notably absent from the physical-education activity menu.

So for now, young Kheyfets will have to settle for beating up on adults, at least when he's not engaged in sanctioned tournament battles. Whereas it would be very difficult for Art to arch a shot over the hands of the rangy Key, victory is entirely plausible on the little green table.

"It's cool. I mean, beating them [the adult competitors] in something is good enough," enthuses Art.

Sokol, Conlee and 82-year-old George Hendry are sitting in the lunchroom of a rather posh senior citizens' residence in Clayton, sipping vegetable soup while Hendry tries to figure out what the fuck is wrong with his right hearing aid.

Hendry, who only recently moved out of his house in University City after his longtime maid died, is anxious to show his longtime buddies his new digs.

"I was gonna show these fellas my room upstairs, 'cause they're candidates to get in here," he cracks.

"I don't have that kind of money," whips back Sokol, a retired, scratchy-voiced Soulard native who spent his entire career as a civilian electronics specialist for the Army and Coast Guard after a tour in Korea.

This would all be standard-issue geriatric patter were it not for the fact that all three of them were pummeling table-tennis players several decades their junior in Creve Coeur the night before.

The middle tables on the southernmost side of the Government Center gym are dubbed "challenge tables," where winners stay on until they lose, thus placating the more competitive athletes. Meanwhile, on the other six tables, combatants play two games, scored to eleven points regardless of outcome.

At those well-attended Wednesdays, Hendry -- a CPA who has beaten down prostate cancer and still goes into his University City office 25 hours a week -- is a deity.

"I never beat him," laments the otherwise jovial Key, a banker who lives at St. Louis Avenue and Kingshighway. On this particular Wednesday, Key is sporting a navy-blue "John Ashcroft: Family Values" T-shirt -- for which the apolitical Key (the shirt belongs to his girlfriend) reveals "people at the club were giving me so much shit about." Undaunted, Key brashly declares that he's soon going to walk the streets of predominantly liberal University City with the shirt on just to see what kind of looks he gets.

Key is no slouch. He's lean and agile and possesses a Fila-fresh whippersnapper forehand that should -- and often does -- pummel his opposition. But against a player like Hendry, hardly anything works. Where once Hendry skipped and smashed around the table like a pit bull, the Ford Mustang of American table tennis has managed to do what all the great ones do -- he's reinvented his game in order to maintain dominance.

To fully appreciate the game, however, it's important to understand a bit about its history. Table tennis began as a hobby in England toward the end of the nineteenth century. Throughout, the Europeans, Japanese and Chinese have squashed the comparatively insular backyard 'n' beers U.S. version of the sport into an internationally irrelevant competitive rut that America has, to this day, failed to crawl out of.

"In those other countries, table tennis is actually a sport," notes U.S. Olympic coach Danny Seemiller, a South Bend, Indiana, resident. "Over here, it's more of a game."

Despite the current surge in membership, table tennis has long been the bastard stepson of the St. Louis sports community. Although the St. Louis Table Tennis Club enjoyed some stability in the 1940s and '50s, gathering at the old Drake Hotel at Natural Bridge and Euclid avenues, the club has moved more frequently than a juvenile-delinquent foster child ever since.

Essentially Hendry's game is a waltz to Key's spasmodic tango -- and Fred Astaire typically prevails here. For an apt comparison, look no further than clay-court tennis. The power player who, on a hard-court surface, would normally rip through his opponent like shit through a goose is helpless against the steady player who, on clay, is more patient and adept at a range of trick shots.

While Key bounds about the table, Hendry's feet move maybe six inches either way. He relies on a customized racket that's flat on the forehand side and has long pips (undulating rubber stubs) on the backhand side. The longer pips diabolically reverse whatever spin the opponent has put on the ball.

Although technique and experience certainly matter in the final tally, what doesn't is the opponents' varied backgrounds. Where they live ain't worth a squirt of piss. Ditto their skin color, profession, education or age. Especially their age.

"We've got Indian, Chinese -- it's really a very diverse group," says Sokol. "These guys have [educational] backgrounds that make me look uneducated."

As a youngster, Hendry epitomized the type of multidimensional athlete King believes is lacking in the modern era. To wit, Hendry averaged a 193 the lone year he bowled, played on the Beaumont High School basketball team, starred for the Washington University varsity tennis team and, nowadays, shoots his age in golf.

But before all that, Hendry, under the expert tutelage of Northside YMCA instructor Bill Price, became a table-tennis prodigy (Price went on to train Jimmy Connors in tennis). He won the junior nationals in 1935 at age fourteen, and the next year, competing against men old enough to drink and drive, he became the youngest player to ever win the prestigious Western Open, a distinction that earned him the holy grail of commercial athletic recognition, World Series be damned.

At the age of fifteen, Hendry had his grill emblazoned on a Wheaties box, inspiring a legion of would-be table-tennis champs to eat up but good every morning before school.

A couple more years of teenage dominance ensued before Hendry shelved his paddles to serve his country in World War II. Providing an early boilerplate for Michael Jordan's "quit while you're on top but leave the door cracked" style of retirement, Hendry wouldn't play table tennis competitively for another 40 years or so -- before coming back to regain his throne atop the sport in relatively short order.

Former St. Louis Table Tennis Club president Rich Doza has a favorite tourney yarn: the day then72-year-old Hendry pulled off a shocking upset of twentysomething Peruvian champion Andr Wong (who'd just beaten thenU.S. champ Seemiller). This qualified him for the round of 32 at the U.S. Open in Midland, Texas.

"We're out in the center area, and we're warming up," begins Doza. "This guy comes by -- he's on the Japanese team. He says we have to leave 'cause he has a match. I said, 'So do we.'

"The guy couldn't believe he had to play this old man. He thought he'd be playing André Wong, and instead he's playing his grandfather. His English was a little shaky, so he just couldn't understand that George had beaten André Wong."

The ageless-wonder theme is a common one with these guys. They are so freakishly youthful, it's damn near impossible to play Jimmy the Greek with their age. Their exploits in exercise are as unique as they are herculean. King's partner, Kimple, who earns his keep as a laborer at Willert Home Products, supplements his pingpong by roller skating to C&C Music Factory ditties beneath the disco balls at Saints and Skate King. No weights, no bats, no blading: Old-school flavor never tasted so good.

In a middle-school gym in Columbia, Missouri, Art's papa, Alex Kheyfets, is locked in a nip-and-tuck Show-Me State Games quarterfinal battle with Zbigniew "Z.B." Mastylo of Kansas City.

The crowd, if you can call it that, almost exclusively comprises Kheyfets and Mastylo's fellow competitors. Attendance has presumably been sapped by a bigger regional tournament at Fontbonne University the weekend before -- featuring more than $1,100 in prize money.

This tournament, according to Daniel Todd of the Columbia Table Tennis Club, is all about prestige, and Todd thinks Mastylo's got what it takes to carry the day in the men's open division, in which competitors from all age brackets can compete.

"He's tough as nails mentally," Todd says of Mastylo, who used to be his teammate when he lived in Columbia.

Mastylo has what is universally acknowledged to be the ideal physique for table tennis. He's short, quick, muscular and, as St. Louis' Seiler notes, has "strong legs." He's also way fucking intense -- barking Polish expletives at himself after every point, regardless of whether he wins or loses.

By contrast, the balding, portly, mustachioed Kheyfets yields very little emotion. If you were to play a word-association game upon seeing Kheyfets, you'd be prone to instantly utter, "Pizza Hut manager" -- not "stud athlete." But for all of Mastylo's physical advantages and McEnroe melodrama, Kheyfets beats his butt the last two games to move into an all--St. Louis semifinal, in which he will face Sokol and Seiler will square off against Klutho.

Of the triumphant quartet, Sokol's semifinal march -- during which he beat the much higher ranked Todd in the quarters -- is perhaps the most surprising. Common thinking, according to Hendry, is that "when you're young, you pick it [pingpong] up fast; when you're old, it's tough."

But Sokol, whose gritty southpaw style and ongoing banter with the crowd make him an entertaining anomaly by table-tennis standards, didn't really start playing the sport until he was 50. As he inevitably loses to Kheyfets, the target of most of his wry quips is Conlee (a.k.a. "Abe"), who is content to cheer on his teammates from the bleachers after getting swept out of the tourney early.

The beauty of watching Sokol in this match is that, much like the Patrick Ewing--less Knicks nobly bowing out of the '99 NBA finals against the Spurs and their twin towers (Tim Duncan and David "Admiral" Robinson), he knows he's going to lose. And when you know you're going to lose, you garner the freedom to ham it up.

So Sokol follows the carefree underdog's roadmap, mockingly complaining that his bad back (he doesn't have a bad back) is costing him the match and griping about how he's too old for the sport, period. All Kheyfets manages is a passing smirk as he disposes of the comedian across the table.

Although frustrated at times by the terrifically steady Klutho, Seiler wins the other semi rather easily and is now primed to challenge Kheyfets. Like Kheyfets, the six-foot-four Seiler doesn't fit the physical mold of a superior table-tennis player. Kheyfets plays an uncharacteristically sloppy match, but Seiler is even sloppier, twisting his ankle and falling on the last point of the match, which he loses to Kheyfets, three games to one.

In the consolation round, a giddy Sokol is landing so many shots that nick the table and fall off (making them impossible for Klutho to return) that one begins to wonder whether it's skill and not just luck.

"Six fuckin' edge balls," blurts a defeated Klutho, shaking his head in disbelief.

Charismatic stars in individual sports are hardly a dime a dozen. Whereas, without Woods, the postGolden Bear PGA might still be best known for its uncanny ability to induce Sunday-afternoon slumber, the same could be said of women's tennis without Anna Kournikova and the Williams sisters, skateboarding without Tony Hawk, track and field without Carl Lewis or men's tennis without McEnroe and Connors back in their heyday. Good as he is, Pete "Unibrow" Sampras has never really cut the mustard, even after his marriage to Veronica Vaughn.

"We don't have a Tiger Woods that kids can look up to," explains USA Table Tennis programs director Debbie Moya. "We need someone up on the [Olympic-medal] podium."

But if there's one guy determined to put table tennis on the map, it's Robert Blackwell Jr., a smooth, witty, multilingual "serial entrepreneur" who, at a youthful-looking 41, is, simply put, black America's wet dream. Hell, he's America's wet dream -- and he's convinced that table tennis can become America's sport, too. This year alone, Blackwell plans to sink a cool million into Killerspin, his startup clothing line and table-tennis team that is an international who's-who.

Killerspin already has plans for a December 28 blowout in Chicago that, Blackwell hopes, will attract more than 4,000 live spectators and hundreds of millions of television viewers -- the vast majority of whom will undoubtedly tune in from overseas. After that, a national tour may be in the offing.

"St. Louis would likely be our second or third stop," forecasts spokesman Dan Shomon, a St. Louis native.

Perhaps the most significant demographic in Killerspin's target strategy is twelve- to nineteen-year-old boys, young fellas that Blackwell likes to refer to as "too kids" -- as in "too fat, too short."

"It's such a great game once you see pros play," says Blackwell.

Remarkably, the Killerspin team sweats it out in a South Chicago gym not unlike the uncomfortable facility at Twelfth and Park, where seventeen-year-old Joe Guinness -- a ringer for Braves pitcher Tom Glavine and a lefty to boot -- thinks there's something to Blackwell's strategy of exposing kids to top-flight competition.

"Oh yeah, I'd like to see it on TV," proclaims Guinness, whose friends have seen world-class table tennis by way of satellite on the Fox Sports World network. "A lot of people see that and say, 'Oh my God, those guys are good."

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.

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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