Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Would you pay $1,000 a year for a ping-pong membership?

By combining the sport of table tennis with an exclusive social club, SPiN New York has created something entirely original. We are introducing the concept of advance table reservations, up to 5 days or 5 minutes in advance. If you have a date, a highly anticipated grudge match, a limited amount of time to play at lunch or if you just want to sneak in a pre-dinner match, making a reservation will fundamentally change your experience of playing table tennis in Manhattan.

That's the motto of SPiN New York , taken from the club's website, not an Onion article. Membership is $1,000, or $100 per month, unless the entire family wants to join. That costs $1,500. Benefits include overnight paddle storage and locker room access, perfect for those marathon matches that end with both warriors drenched in sweat, wondering where they can keep their sacred weapon until the next battle. Or rentals are available. Fifteen bucks for a half-hour of standard tables, $50 per half hour for a stadium court (stadium court?).

Several recent magazine and newspaper stories have mentioned SPiN, many of which focus on table tennis becoming the next big thing. A Star-Tribune article quotes a tournament's organizers who hope to turn ping ping into "the next poker." Presumably that means they want ESPN to eventually devote 68 hours of programming each week to an event that leaves millions wondering: Why in the hell is ESPN broadcasting this again?

But any mocking I do of SPiN is brought on only by jealousy. I never wanted to be a Boy Scout, nor did I have the ability, skills or courage needed to earn merit badges. I never wanted to join a fraternity and they wouldn't have wanted me. I've never really wanted to join a country club. But joining an elite ping-pong club? This is my dream. It's not a lifelong dream, because until I read about SPiN a few weeks ago, I never even knew such a thing existed.

My life of ping pong dominance started when I was 8 and my parents purchased a table for the Fury basement. I don't even know what compelled them to buy one. As best I know there wasn't a long line of family table tennis stars. The only things I remember about the original installation are my father's curse words, as mom and dad haplessly negotiated the awkwardly sized beast down a flight of steps that were narrower than a Hollywood starlet. They live in the same house, and the table sits where it's been for the last 26 years. It has more clean laundry on its surface now, but otherwise looks the same. If they ever do move, they've long said that the table is staying. The only way it will go back up those steps is in multiple pieces.

I took to the sport immediately - like Mozart to the piano - though I could barely see over the top of the table those first days. It didn't take long until I was beating my dad on a consistent basis. Part of him probably felt fatherly pride. The other part - the vocal part - just muttered more curse words. I'd easily beat friends, neighbors, mom, cousins, and uncles, one of whom was so upset he stormed out of my parents' home and drove back to his college dorm. In fourth grade, and again in fifth, I won our county ping pong tournament, beating high school kids and adults. The local paper took my picture. Ping pong was my ticket to fame. Dressed in black one year, I was a miniaturized version of Federer at the U.S. Open, a heartless killer. I tracked down every shot, possessed a Sampras-like serve and put foes away with a dominating forehand.

As childhood gave way to my teen years, I next conquered classmates during gym class. They were easy prey. Too easy, to the point of boredom. Eventually I squared off against our phy ed teacher, a former top college wrestler and a man who became an Olympic-caliber performer in whatever sport our gym class had each week, from dodge ball to badminton. He possessed outrageous athleticism and enjoyed his well-earned status as a sporting god. And ping pong might have been his best sport. Legend had it that he'd never lost to a student. He was the Soviet hockey team, the Dream Team, a young Tyson and the 2007 Patriots rolled into one. Then I beat him in seventh grade. And eighth. And again in ninth. I started to wonder if I should drop out of school and join some camp that catered to ping pong prodigies.

In college, though, I began facing players with similar talents. Maybe I wasn't ready to challenge the Chinese in the Olympics. In Fargo, while working at the newspaper, I re-established my dominance, becoming the premier player employed by The Forum. Though to be fair to my opponents, all of the matches took place at parties and my foes usually had a blood-alcohol level higher than their point total. But they'd yell the same curse words, the same ones previously said by my dad, friends and classmates. It felt good to be back on top.

Today I only play when I'm back home and my dad or my nephews or niece want to play. I've certainly lost a bit from my game. It's hard knowing you peaked at something when you were 13 years old. On a recent trip, the unthinkable happened and I lost a game to two of my nephews, although to undermine their newfound confidence, I hinted at the possibility that I'd thrown part of the game in an attempt to build up their self-esteem. I know, it's confusing to me, too. In reality they were legitimate victories, and I said the same curse words my dad did nearly three decades earlier, though at a louder decibel.

Ping pong is a sport made to be played in basements. Players should have to beware of low ceilings. They should negotiate dangerous corners and track down wayward shots that go behind the furnace. I can't say I understand the need for an elite club on Park Avenue devoted to the sport. But God do I want in.


Dad said...

I will admit that unlike basketball where it took awhile before I started losing ping pong was immediate loses. However, I did push some great 7 game matches.

Jerry said...

I don't recall "storming" out of the basement. I just learned to repsect the brick corner after you ran me into it a few times. I think I still have the scars.

Mike said...

Did you ever beat Captain Nemo in badminton? He challenged me twice after I won the ladder tournament and I don't think I even scored a point against him. Freakishly good.

Shawn Fury said...

Storming out, silently stalking out and driving back to Mankato...similar things. I think it was after you lost in softball out at the lake, too, so you were in a bad mood.

Mike, no one beat him in badminton. He probably only gave up 10 or 11 points in that sport in his entire teaching career. Also, you won the ladder tournament in your class? I'm not sure what kind of accomplishment that is, considering.

Anonymous said...

Shawn, I suggest a trip to this place. My college friend has a top-of-the-line ping pong table (endorsed by the NATTAFAFHFHFDHFH or something) and it was crazy how much spin you could generate off that thing. The surface was almost tacky. It was great. Maybe you played on that during the Forum days. WOrth checking out, though, because it's much better than the old green ones that I had a as a kid.

Shawn Fury said...

If you ever get out here for a trip, Miller, we can go there for a repeat of previous trouncings. To make up for it, I'll agree to go bowling with you so I too can taste overwhelming defeat.