What sounded like popping corn — bob-bop, dink-dink-dink, thwack — emanated from three simultaneous games of table tennis, a veritable showcase of the Olympic sport, at Kennedy Memorial Park in Hempstead Village.
Constantly moving, the players inside the recreation center sweated through their T-shirts, and cries of “aiee” could be heard when balls went astray. A sideways glance or two at an opponent, and even a “less noise please” directed at spectators, betrayed players’ emotions.
But don’t call it pingpong. Not to members of the loosely organized Hempstead Table Tennis Club, or KP Table Tennis Club, as the players call themselves.
“When you don’t know the game, you will call it pingpong,” said club member Elliot Brown, 57, of Massapequa, who’s been playing there for 33 years and happens to be assistant supervisor of the village’s parks department. “Once you start training and get serious about the game, that’s table tennis.”
The club has been meeting at Kennedy Memorial Park at least twice a week for more than three decades, since its founding in the 1980s by table tennis devotees. A dozen or more die-hard table tennis fans regularly show up to hit balls on tables donated about a quarter-century ago by one of the players.
World-class competitors and amateurs from around the tristate region have dropped by to hone their skills with club members and pick up new techniques, the lifestyle for tournament competitors. As part of the now-defunct Greater New York Table Tennis League, the Hempstead club competed against other teams — at the United Nations, the Grumman Corp. plant in Bethpage, the Lost Battalion Hall in Queens, as well as locations in Brooklyn, New Jersey and more. In years past, the club also hosted the regional championship under the auspices of USA Table Tennis, the sport’s professional association, although the Kennedy park club isn’t currently a member of the organization.
A player wins by scoring 11 points. Players are rated from zero to 3,000, with the number going up or down depending on the USA Table Tennis tournament guidelines. Under this system, several of the Hempstead players have achieved “master” level, meaning a rating of more than 2,000.
Most of the Kennedy table tennis members seem hardwired for the sport, going to area clubs as many as six days a week, sometimes playing as late as 1 a.m.
“There’s a core group of table tennis aficionados, and we will show up in snow or storm and play table tennis,” said Westbury resident Eric Stamp, 75, whose vehicle sports the license plate MR PONG. “We get in there, we joke, we call each other names, and it’s all done in jest, and we go home without malice.”
The uninitiated may think the goal is simply to hit the ball over the net, but devotees say it’s the sport’s physical and mental complexity that got them hooked.
In the hands of a good player, a thwack can turn the ball into a white blur. Control of the ball — how it spins, its speed, where it hits the table — depends on factors including player’s grip and the length of the “pips,” or “pimples,” on the paddle blade’s rubber surface. The material used for the paddle makes a difference, as does the floor underfoot. A wood floor has more “give,” meaning the ball doesn’t fly as fast when it’s hit, Brown noted.
Even the dust and dirt picked up by the ball hitting the floor can affect how it connects with the paddle.
“A lot of people see this sport and don’t know what you have to put in to play well,” Knox Fuller, 56, of Rosedale, Queens, said after pausing every so often during his match to wipe the rubber surfaces of his paddle.
HOME AWAY FROM HOME
On a recent evening at the park, about 16 players showed up, and the jokes at each other’s expense were plentiful. Apparently, the older players there have taught the others everything they know. After decades together, the regulars know everyone’s accomplishments and never-to-be-
When club members aren’t playing, they watch and tell table-tennis tales — often the same stories over the decades.
“It never gets old,” said Andrew Gorsira, 65, of St. Albans in Queens, who was Guyana’s national champion about 45 years ago, before moving to New York in 1977. “You would bring it up again and the guys would laugh. These are all fun guys.”
To the regulars, table tennis days at the park feel like a favorite local barbershop, a home away from home.
Melvyn Maxwell, 64, of West Hempstead, who started playing the game as a teenager in Barbados, has garnered at least 40 trophies and awards in tournaments. Nowadays, he comes just to watch because glaucoma has hurt his game. “It’s guys hanging out, having a good time and trying to get exercise now that we’re older,” he said.
Maxwell was struck by the “athleticism” and quick moves the first time he watched a tournament in Barbados.
When he came to the New York City in 1978 — a decade before table tennis would become an Olympic sport — he searched two years for a place to play. He was about to give up when he took the bus with friends to attend a basketball game at Kennedy park.
“I walked in to turn to the right, to go with the guys, and then I heard that sound, the famous sound of the table tennis ball — and I turned left,” Maxwell said. “I didn’t even play basketball that day. I went back on the bus, got my table tennis equipment and came back. Life flowered again.”
Unlike other clubs, there are no dues or fees; and the regulars are willing to teach anyone who wants to learn. Players can keep a table until they lose; many clubs have a two-match limit, giving others a chance to play.
While those at other clubs may play and leave, the Hempstead players said, the Kennedy park regulars are like a community, sometimes dining out after closing time, celebrating birthdays and attending funerals.
That evening, Taurean Lloyd, among the youngest regulars at age 21, played doubles with Horace Roberts, 86, of Springfield Gardens, Queens, who made a name as a top competitor in Trinidad.
Lloyd, who follows top players in the world of table tennis, knew Roberts when he first saw the older man at Kennedy’s rec center about three years ago.
“When he walked in, I called his name,” said Lloyd, a Nassau Community College student from Uniondale. “He didn’t know who I was. But I sat down and talked to him. We played a match, and I lost. But he saw that I could play. I talked with him like I had known him all my life.”
Lloyd said the older players look after him, counseling him not just on his dream to compete professionally in table tennis but about life. When his grandfather died of prostate cancer a few years ago, he said, the older players supported him and emphasized the importance of taking care of himself through stories about their age-related health issues.
“Table tennis is one of my main sources of friends,” the young player said.
Bill Nelson of Hempstead has been nicknamed “Pops” by club members because he’s the oldest old-timer at age 89. He remembers hearing about the club’s creation and then having to wait about three weeks for the tables to arrive. At the time, he was on the table tennis team at Grumman Aerospace Corp. in Bethpage, where he operated the machine that puts rivets on fighter-jet wings.
He said playing the game keeps him young. “I’ll be doing this until the day I die,” Nelson said after playing a match.
At one point during the night, Stamp and Brown, touted by club members as experts at replacing the paddles’ rubber surfaces, refurbished Fuller’s paddle.
After peeling the rubber off the paddle’s wood “blade,” Brown applied glue evenly to the wood and the rubber, waited a few minutes for it to dry, then pressed them together. Stamp then used a box cutter to trim the excess rubber from around the blade, leaving smooth, clean edges. To keep the edges sharp, he cuts only two rubber surfaces per box cutter blade.
Several players replace the rubber every couple months or so on paddles, which can cost hundreds of dollars and are made with as many as 17 layers of wood and perhaps carbon.
Brown said his most expensive paddle cost about $300. Asked what makes it worth that price, Stamp joked that “it plays by itself.”
STILL A ‘BEGINNER’
That kind of investment illustrates enthusiasts’ commitment to the sport.
“The moment I thought I was getting better, the more I learned I was at the tip of the iceberg” in table tennis, said Brown, who calls himself a “beginner” after 30 years playing.
Club members at Kennedy said they approach the game as they would chess, evaluating their opponents’ styles, psyching them out and trying to hit a ball out of the others’ comfort zones. Some will flail their arms just before serving the ball so opponents don’t know what to expect.
“You’re constantly thinking and changing strategies because of what’s coming at you from the other side of the table,” Stamp said. “I love that.”
The combination of mental and physical aptitude is a challenge that fans say keeps the game fresh. That’s why players visit various clubs to face — and perhaps learn — from opponents.
Eric Boggan, one of the world’s best players of his time, hailed from Merrick and practiced with Hempstead club members, especially just before tournaments, several current players recalled. He won the 1978 and 1984 U.S. National men’s singles and the 1983 U.S. Open men’s singles, then was inducted in 2003 into the USA Table Tennis Hall of Fame.
When played well, table tennis looks intimidating — even to athletes in other sports. Kennedy regular Roberts tells the story of inviting famed boxer Muhammad Ali to play a game, kind of a meeting of two champions in their fields.
Roberts, winner of several senior category championships and considered the club member who’s gone the farthest in the sport, met the boxer in Las Vegas in 1990 at the U.S. National Table Tennis Championships.
The boxer declined, Roberts said: “He came and watched and said there’s no way he’s going to be able to play because the ball is too fast.”
Still, Lloyd described the game as an equal-opportunity sport. It’s inexpensive and requires just a ball, paddle and table, he said. One doesn’t need huge muscle to play. “You work with what you have,” he said.
Whether you call it table tennis or pingpong — as it’s known in China, which arguably has the most players worldwide and has dominated the sport at the Olympics — Hempstead club members insist that the sport deserves more respect. They want matches televised along with big sponsors and big pay for professionals.
Some colleges and the National Collegiate Table Tennis Association offer scholarships. And new table tennis clubs are cropping up on Long Island and beyond. Actor Susan Sarandon’s SPiN club in Manhattan has grown into a national chain.
But despite the sport’s growing prominence, the number of Hempstead club players has dwindled by about half compared to 20 years ago. Club members are getting older, and several have died.
Stamp said table tennis has attracted younger fans elsewhere but not in Hempstead — and he’s not sure why. Steps away from the tabletop matches on a recent club night, the basketball court was filled with young spectators cheering during a game.
“Very seldom would you see people come in here and watch us play table tennis,” Stamp said.
Some table tennis enthusiasts believe that sports with more pay, such as baseball, tennis and basketball, corner the market in the United States. Even losers in tennis tournaments can win tens of thousands of dollars, they said, while those who win table tennis tournaments might get just $125, not enough to pay for travel and hotel costs. In some countries, like Sweden and China, club members argue, table tennis’ top players can make millions. “In this country, the prize money is a pittance,” Stamp said.
When Hempstead Village Mayor Waylyn Hobbs Jr. visited the club recently, he heard players’ requests to promote the game to the younger generation and to replace the tables. “It’s important because not everyone is going to play basketball,” he said. “Not everyone is going to play baseball.”
Either way, Hempstead table tennis club members said they’re not worried about the sport’s future at the park, where there’s a true love for the game.
If one needs proof, it may be Pops Nelson. At one point when he drove a cab, he would jump out for a couple games at the park during lunch or when he didn’t have passengers, then jump back in the cab to finish his shift.
Nowadays, he can still hit the ball with the younger players, even though his reflexes have slowed: “You got it in your head, but you don’t have it in your hand anymore.”
He knows players like to win and that works for him. “If I start losing to them … I don’t care,” Nelson said. “I just like to play.”
Join the fun
The Hempstead Table Tennis Club welcomes children and adults interested in learning the game or playing matches. Paddles and balls are provided. Nonresidents of the village are also welcome.
WHEN | WHERE 4 to 9 p.m. Thursdays and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays at Kennedy Memorial Park, 335 Greenwich St., Hempstead Village