Karl King sizes up a hit on Monday at the Booker T. Washington Recreation Center. He is among four to six players who regularly take advantage of the opportunities to play pingpong that the city affords.
Karl King sizes up a hit on Monday at the Booker T. Washington Recreation Center. He is among four to six players who regularly take advantage of the opportunities to play pingpong that the city affords.

Putting it all on the table

Published 6:59pm Saturday, March 16, 2013

Passion for pingpong makes for long nights

Twice a week, when five o’clock hits, a small group of Suffolk residents descend upon the Booker T. Washington Recreation Center for table tennis.

The Suffolk Parks & Recreation Department has designated a time in the evenings for intramural table tennis for ages 18 and up. The players most often arrive directly from work. Isaac Bowers, a city employee, has a special room with two pingpong tables all set up and ready for use.

On Monday, the first to arrive was William Russell. He began playing table tennis in earnest when he was in college, and now has 25-30 years under his belt, which has even included organized play at Old Dominion University. Now, he plays for reasons that don’t involve keeping score.

“Believe it or not, I’d do it just for the exercise, and it’s a lot of fun,” he said.

The nights spent at the rec center do not involve any score keeping beyond a given volley, which Russell said “keeps the ego out,” but that doesn’t mean the sessions lack intensity. Upon his arrival, Russell changed his shoes to ones that would offer extra traction to work the 10-15 feet of space between the end of the table and the wall.

Russell was later joined by friends and fellow experienced players Henry Patrick and André Stevenson. Stevenson, who has played for 35 years, explained what the night turns into once the players get warmed up.

“When it really gets into a practice session, each person might be against this wall or sliding across the floor, shots that are actually just incredible,” he said.

“It’s pretty competitive, only from the standpoint that we hit and we’re serious about the long volleys,” Russell said. “And by doing that, the key is to see if you can really extend them and then, at the last second, someone decides, ‘Well, I want the point,’ and then you try your best to keep that person from getting the point, and it gets to be really, really interesting.”

Russell estimated that some of the volleys go 30-35 shots.

Bowers enjoys watching them play, observing that “they love it, and they’re serious about it too.”

Aside from a passion for the sport, a favorite reason to play was the exercise. Richard Lawler, a veteran player who recently discovered the city’s provision, shared what the sport can do.

“It works your whole body,” he said. “ Your mind, because you have to pay attention to what the other person’s doing, the type of spin and stuff that they’re putting on the ball. It works on your reaction.”

“I’ve lost quite a bit of weight playing table tennis,” Russell said. “I’ve lost — believe me — over 70 pounds.”

Stevenson described it as the new total exercise for your body, comparing it to popular workout programs like Insanity and P90X that do not use weights.

“And they come from basically a lot of the same type of strenuous stuff that we do, only we just add a little heavier dose of cardio in it,” he said.

Lawler belongs to different table tennis clubs and remarked that he has seen children as young as 6 and adults in their 70s and 80s playing the game.

Another reason the participants enjoy the city sessions is the camaraderie. Stevenson, who recently had knee replacement surgery, walked with a cane and was not able to play, but was there nonetheless.

“It’s good fellowship, good exercise all around,” Henry Patrick said.

The city originally offered the opportunity to play at the East Suffolk Recreation Center.

“They noticed that we were just all over the place, that we just couldn’t really cut loose,” Stevenson said. “So they gave this place to hit, and it’s been lovely.”

“Honestly, there’s really been nothing that we’ve asked for that (the city hasn’t) tried to get us,” he said.

He theorized that it initially might have been a test to see if he and the others were serious.

“When they see that you’re hitting for three or four hours, they figure you’re really enjoying this, on a regular basis,” Russell said.

Stevenson hopes interest will grow from people in the community, prompting another expansion of the city’s table tennis offerings.

Among the latecomers tied up with work on Monday was Karl King, Patrick’s brother-in-law. King, a 20-plus year veteran of the game, learned how to play in Suffolk and has been coming to the rec center ever since he heard of the opportunity to play.

“Very seldom I miss a day,” he said. “I love it.”

He proceeded to settle in for a long stay with the other players. Their sessions generally end at 9 p.m., but only because Bowers has to close the center.

“Because, man, we’ll hit all night if he’d let us,” King said.

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