March 18, 2017 10:02:19 PM
What ever happened to ping pong? Do kids still play it in basements? It's a great game -- improves coordination, reflexes and provides an easy way to socialize. Table tennis, the sport, while using the same table, paddle and ball, is something altogether different. More on that in a minute.
My first exposure to ping pong was at The Y when I was a kid. What a place that was.
There were bike racks out front for our Schwinns and benches on the old porch. Inside there was ping pong, billiards and a dimly lit, claustrophobic gym where you could shoot hoops with basketballs worn smooth and darkened by the sweat of uncountable hands. Like your grandma's attic, everything was old and musty.
In the summer there were swimming lessons where you began in June as a Minnow and hoped to be a Shark by August.
Older bachelors, the ones who drank coffee in the cafes and drifted like ghosts down the sidewalks of small Southern towns, lived upstairs. Sometimes they would come down, sit in the upholstered chairs and attempt to watch TV amid the tumult. The Y was of another time and place, even then.
I was reminded of all this last week after an exchange with Jim Darnell, a native son of Columbus, an acclaimed microbiologist/researcher still delving into the mysteries of the cell at 86. We profiled Jim, who lives and works in New York, in Catfish Alley a few years back.
Jim and I correspond from time to time, and I'm always astounded by his memory of Columbus and its townspeople of more than half a century ago.
In a recent conversation, he mentioned the photographer O.N. Pruitt, so I mailed him the recent issue of Catfish Alley featuring Mr. Pruitt's pictures along with another issue with a cover story on someone of his generation he might have known, the effervescent Edwina Williams -- that's Mother Goose for you kids.
A few days after my mailing Jim sent an email: "Well, you sure upset my afternoon -- I'll get back to my work now, BUT I sure enjoyed the Winter 2016 issue of C.A. and the Pruitt stories."
Hoping Mr. Pruitt and the magazines didn't impede the march of science too much.
Apparently, they did. A little more than an hour later I received another email:
"Edwina married the third best ping-pong player at the YMCA, circa 1947 -- usual 'rankings' were Robert Stovall (may actually have won or at very least did very well in Jackson at state championship one year) and Bam Williams (Edwina's late husband) was third best. Guess who was second best?"
Ping-pong tournaments? Or, as it's referred to in the sporting world, table tennis?
Turns out we've got a table tennis powerhouse in our backyard. Mississippi College in Clinton was the 2015 national table tennis champion. Before that, they were runner-up three years in a row and runner-up again in 2017. One hundred and fifty U.S. colleges have table tennis programs; MC's is only 10 years old.
Andy Kanengiser, who for 30 years reported on higher education and government for the Jackson Daily News and then the Clarion-Ledger and now handles public relations for MC, is the team sponsor.
We have some Chinese superstars on the team," Kanengiser told me Saturday morning. "The school has one of the best table tennis teams in the nation."
The team has a Chinese coach, a former player.
"If you're a Chinese student and want to get a good education, MC is a good option," Kanengiser said.
A retired Chinese businessman, an MC alumni, living in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area has taken an interest in the program and provides financial assistance to Chinese table tennis athletes; the school provides tuition.
The MC table tennis team is so formidable it is having trouble finding opponents willing to play, Kanengiser said. To its credit, Mississippi State University, which has two female players, plays MC.
Anxious to test your ping-pong prowess? As a promotion before the April 9 national championship in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, the team is having an open house. On March 28 at the Alumni Gym from 5 to 7 p.m. on the MC campus in Clinton, you can go head-to-head with a member of the school's table tennis team.
Wish Jim, Robert and Bam were around. We'd ride down for the show.
Birney Imes III is Publisher of The Dispatch.
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