Sports

James Burns: One man's love for ping-pong is a tear-jerker

James Burns, sports editor
James Burns, sports editor

How about story of a love, unbelievable heights and eventual breakup to start this Tuesday morning?

OK then.

My wife and I bought our first home. Wait, that's not true.

We're buying our first home.

It's a nice spread in a cul-de-sac. Big enough for a young family of four to put down its roots.

Here's the catch: Any shred of bachelorhood that survived the wedding and the birth of our children has officially been targeted for a garage sale, Goodwill or the garbage.

The wife says so.

There are a few items I'm willing to let go.

Like the box overflowing with boots and sneakers, some two sizes too small.

The fraternity paddles, most of which were broken ceremoniously.

And, of course, the Ab-tronic.

Oh, you know about the Ab-tronic?It's a belt that fits around your waist, sculpting your abdomen into a turtle shell with bursts of electricity.

Mine must have been broken.

But the ping-pong table...

Sorry, hon, not without a fight.

I bought it off a neighbor for $25, slightly warped and stained from the rain. It was a green table with white lines.

It jerked like a shopping cart when you moved it, because one of the rollers was broken. But as I wheeled it into my garage that afternoon, I celebrated the steal.

What a fool, I thought, running my hand over its green surface the way Nicholas Cage would a Shelby Mustang.

It didn't take much to make the table playable again.

A new wheel and net.

A set of paddles.

A bucket of orange balls.

And away we went.

It was clear then that ping-pong and I would become good buddies.

And we were.

For years.

Our friendship blossomed in college, where roommates and fraternity brothers dubbed me the Prince of Paddle.

We kept the table in the house, under the beer-can chandelier in the dining room.

It became a part of my life, a part of my inner circle.

It stood by me the night I crammed for that Economics final -- a test I was certain I would fail.

And when I passed (barely) and celebrated so hard my legs felt like spaghetti strings, it gave me a place to crash.

It never once told me to turn off the video games or hang up the phone. And when I couldn't find my keys or the cable bill, guess who was Johnny On The Spot?

Golfers have caddies.

Drivers have crew chiefs.

Maverick had Goose.

I had Mr. Ping and his good brother Pong.

Simply, Ping and Pong made me a better man -- and quite the player, too.

There was the night I turned away all comers at the Greek Games, winning match and after match with a soft, curling serve and a big, looping forehand.

I became so good, so untouchable on my table, that I often challenged myself with handicap matches.

I began playing with an all-wood paddle, peeling off the rubber grips, and became twice as dangerous.

The game slowed down for me, and I learned to read my opponent's body language and eyes. I played the game the way Bobby Fischer would play chess -- three or four moves ahead, setting myself up for victory.

Hard cross-court.

Drop shot.

Slam.

As I've grown older, crossing into the realm of responsibility, long work weeks and mortgage payments, the paddle wars have grown few and far between.

Most of the time, the table just stands along a wall in the garage, peeking over boxes and other storage items.

In a few short days, I'll roll it out, dust it off and tighten the net one last time.

Not for play, but for show.

If I'm lucky, potential buyers will see the wear and tear and decide it has no value. If I'm lucky, I can sneak it onto the moving van.

Chances are, though, that life's vicious circle has finally caught up to me and my table.

Chances are a teenager -- not unlike myself many moons ago -- will happen by my driveway, see Ping and Pong sitting there and realize he's got enough cash in his Spiderman wallet to make off like a thief.

And as that teen wheels it away, I hope he quietly celebrates his steal.

What a fool, he'll think as he disappears around the corner.

What a fool, indeed.

James Burns is sports editor of the Sun-Star. He can be reached at jburns@mercedsun-star.com.

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