In the fall of 1968, I began watching members of the St. Louis table tennis club play in the auditorium of our church. I had never seen table tennis played at a high level so I was enthralled. One night my father asked one of the players, many times St. Louis champion Larry Chisholm, if he would hit a few with me. I had only played ping-pong a few times in my life but Larry told my dad I should enter an upcoming tournament. I actually won the boy’s singles in that small tourney but—if I remember correctly—there were only 3 entries!
A few months later I bought my first inverted sponge racket and started to practice in my basement with my childhood friend Jim Foley and to play once a week with the St. Louis TT club. (All under the tutelage of Mr. Chisholm.) In the fall of 1969, I went to a tournament in Kansas City where I won 3 trophies—I was now hooked. In early 1970 at the US Nationals in Detroit, I reached the quarterfinal of the boy’s Under 15s where I lost to Danny Seemiller
—who would become perhaps the most legendary US table tennis player of all time. Shortly thereafter I achieved my first national ranking of #13 in the junior boys. In 1971 I finished 3rd in the St. Louis city championship in the men’s singles and won a number of boys under 18 events in major tournaments around the midwest.
In the fall of 1972, I won my first men’s singles tourney, and our 3 man St. Louis men’s team finished 9th in the national team championship out of over 100 teams. I played some close matches in that tourney with many of the top men’s players in the USA and Canada and had a win over the #19 ranked player in the country. (I also had a near win over George Braithwaite, a member of the US Men’s team that had played in China in 1971.) I was only 17 and now one of the top 5 or 6 junior players in the country.
Over the next few months, I won a number of men’s singles events in tournaments in MO. and IL and was also the men’s singles finalist in the Great Plains Open—the major regional tourney in the Midwest—in both 1973 & 1974. (In 1973 I lost to Richard Hicks and in 1974 to Houshang Bozorgzadeh, both ranked in the top 10 in the USA and both members of the USA table tennis hall of fame.) I also played close matches with a number of the country’s other top 10 ranked players.
During this time I also played tournament matches against a number of players ranked in the top 20 in the world, including players from South Korea and China, but I was soundly beaten by all of them. I only averaged 11 or 12 points a game against world-class players. (Table tennis games were then played to 21 points.) At that time I was ranked about #50 in men’s singles in the USA. (Bear in mind though that there were only about 10,000 serious tournament table tennis players then so this is nothing like being the 50th-best tennis player, golfer, etc.)
In the summer of 1973, I was asked to train with some of the best players in the country and was also invited to do exhibitions at the halftime of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball games. But I decided to college instead. I played a little bit in my first year of college and won all the tourneys in St. Louis but I was bored with table tennis because I couldn’t improve without moving to play with better players. I soon quit playing.
I did make a brief comeback in 1978, mostly because I had never flown in a plane, and I found out that the winners of regional tourneys of the Association of College Unions International were flown to Houston for the national college championships. I won my regional in a tournament in Kansas and got my plane ride but lost to the eventual winner in an early round. I did win the Missouri State Men’s Singles and Doubles titles in 1978 but that was basically the end of my brief career.
I tell this story primarily for my grandkids. Perhaps they will get a kick out of it. However, I want them to know being a philosopher is much more rewarding, fulfilling, and important than playing ping pong—duh! Moreover, any of our skills are trivial in the big scheme of things. Still, I had fun climbing the table tennis ladder and you can learn things from sports. Most importantly, I made many good friends along the way—especially Jim Foley, Rich Berg, Rich Doza, George Hendry, Dan Dunay, Joe Windham, and Frank Mercz.
But sometimes I think my dad got the most joy from my playing. He built a trophy case in our family room to display my many trophies and he loved boasting about my skills. Shortly before he died I thanked him for helping me get into table tennis all those years ago and of my fond memories of battling—well they were pretty one-sided battles—with some of the world’s best players.
In the end, though I’m glad I chose my path. I think I am a good philosopher, friend, father, husband, and citizen of the world. So much more important than being a decent ping-pong player. Still, when we recollect a part of our past, we sometimes wonder about the lives we might have led had we made different choices in the garden of forking paths. Perhaps, if I had moved and played against better competition, I might have made the national team. Or perhaps had I followed through with an internship as a medical ethicist at the Cleveland Clinic in the mid-90s I would be much wealthier than I am now! Or perhaps … And I’m sure my readers can say the same thing about their lives. So many ways they could have been otherwise. They could have been better, but remember that they could have been worse too.
For all of us, there are many lives we could have lived, but we only lead one. And so we should try to live that one well.
Yes, that’s me in the picture above. I’m in my early 30s and my dad asked if I would do a table tennis exhibition in his retirement home with my friend George Hendry. What I remember most was that the table was on a carpet—a no-no in table tennis as the bounce becomes unpredictable—and the lighting consisted of a few lamps far away from the table—you could hardly see the ball. My dad was the mc. I hope he enjoyed it.