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The American charged through his life until its pitiable end, courting the approval of posterity -- and he wasn't Richard Nixon. His Chinese counterpart had a knack for the philosophical aphorism and always seemed to find himself in the maelstrom of events -- and he wasn't Mao Zedong.

During a brief and fateful window of time, the two alighted long enough to find each other. Both stood at the center of the U.S. table tennis team's visit to China in 1971, a diplomatic démarche that ended 22 years of self-imposed isolation from the West for the People's Republic and set in motion a chain of events that will culminate in the forthcoming Beijing Olympics. But the two men who catalyzed that trip weren't Henry Kissinger or Zhou Enlai either.

This is a story, rather, to which the Great Man Theory doesn't apply. Instead circumstances elevated two ordinary men from the basement rec room of history. Before Nixon could go to China and touch off the change that has resulted from Ping-Pong Diplomacy, Glenn Cowan first had to get on a bus -- and Zhuang Zedong had to be on the bus to greet him.

On April 4, 1971, at the World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya, Japan, Cowan emerged from a practice venue. A member of the U.S. team, he had just rallied with England's Trevor Taylor and, hoping to catch a ride to the main stadium, flagged down a shuttle bus bearing the tournament logo. Climbing aboard, he found it filled with the Chinese team, which, as a condition of its participation, had been promised exclusive lodging and transportation.

From Cowan's shoulder-length hair and floppy hat, the passengers knew they had an exotic interloper in their midst even before spotting the usa on the back of his warmup jacket. Cowan, 19, leaned against the closed door of the bus for lack of a seat and, facing the mute stares of his fellow passengers, broke the silence. "I know my hat and hairstyle and clothes look funny to you," he said in English. "But in the U.S. lots of people look like this."

Zhuang, a 30-year-old, three-time world singles champion, watched from the back, listening to an interpreter's translation as the American held forth to no response. After a half-dozen years' absence from international competition, the Chinese had agreed to send their table tennis players to Japan in what they called the spirit of "friendship first, competition second." Yet on orders from Chairman Mao they weren't to pose for photos, exchange flags or initiate conversation with Americans. Indeed, Mao had once said, "Regard a Ping-Pong ball as the head of your capitalist enemy. Hit it with your socialist bat, and you have won the point for the fatherland." As Zhuang says today, "At that time we were still in the Cultural Revolution. Any exchange with Westerners would be [attacked] with vicious labels, such as 'treason' or 'spy.' So when this American guy got on the bus, nobody dared talk to him."

Yet in the awkward space of those moments, Zhuang felt himself torn. What of the charge to the team to put "friendship first"? What of the core teaching of Confucianism, in which he'd been raised, which holds nothing more precious than harmony? For all Zhuang knew, this American had boarded the bus to offer a greeting, and as the team's most accomplished player, the Chinese star felt a particular responsibility to reply in graceful kind. "I was thinking, China has been well-known as a country of hospitality for more than 5,000 years," he says. "If everyone ignores that American athlete, it would be ironic. Then I looked at him and thought, He's not involved in issuing policy. He's just an athlete, an ordinary person."

Zhuang stood and started up the aisle toward Cowan. His teammates urged him to stop and one tugged at his shirt to restrain him, but through the interpreter he began a conversation. "Even now," says Zhuang, "I can't forget the naive smile on his face."

Zhuang decided to give Cowan a gift. "At that time China was poor," he says. "We had nothing much but very small things, such as traditional wooden fans, emblems with Chairman Mao's portrait and silk handkerchiefs." He regarded them all as inadequate. "Since he is an American athlete, I thought I should give him a bigger present." He pulled from a bag a brocaded tapestry woven in the silk-producing city of Hangzhou.

Cowan patted his pockets and opened his own bag, looking in vain for something to offer in return. Then the interpreter asked Cowan if he knew who had greeted him. "Yes, the world champion Zhuang Zedong," Cowan replied. "And I hope your team does well."

By now the bus had reached the venue, where photographers captured the two smiling athletes disembarking, Cowan with the brocade and Zhuang at his side. The next day several Japanese newspapers ran front-page pictures, and the AP and Agence France Presse picked up the story. As a result, Zhuang was upbraided by the deputy of the Chinese delegation. "Chairman Mao told us we should differentiate between American policymakers and common people," Zhuang protested. "What was wrong with my action?"

Meanwhile, at an underground mall, Cowan had found a T-shirt that fused an American flag with a peace symbol above the words LET IT BE. At the stadium Cowan embraced Zhuang and gave him the T-shirt. According to The Little Ball Moves the Big Ball: Behind Ping-Pong Diplomacy, by People's Daily journalist Qian Jiang, Cowan then "dragged Zhuang in front of a TV camera." Asked if he'd like to visit China, Cowan replied that he would, touching off another day's worth of news stories.

What happened next remains murky. The Chinese claim that J. Rufford Harrison, the No. 2 table tennis official in the U.S. delegation, came by their compound and, invoking the budding friendship between Cowan and Zhuang, wondered if the U.S. might visit the People's Republic after the worlds, as teams from Canada, Colombia, England and Nigeria had already been invited to do. Harrison denies this; he says that someone in the U.S. delegation might have broached the idea with the Chinese, but then only half seriously because, as he says, "we didn't think it was possible."

In any case the Chinese thought the Americans were fishing for an invitation and went into an uproar. Some pointed out the "improper" timing; the U.S. and China were backing opposing sides in the Vietnam War, and in the past year the U.S. had expanded the conflict by invading Cambodia. Others, still accustomed to the reflexive denunciations of the Cultural Revolution, lashed out at Zhuang for bringing on the situation. But others defended him, agreeing that this was the logical result of "friendship first." An official traveling with the delegation decided to check in with Beijing.

At first, officials rejected the idea of an American visit. Premier Zhou Enlai, Mao's second in command, agreed with their decision but forwarded the request to Mao. Zhuang, who has lectured on Ping-Pong Diplomacy for years, picks up the tale: "Mao indicated he agreed, but asked that the [U.S. request] be returned to the foreign ministry, to be documented for future use. If that was the end of the story, there would be no Ping-Pong Diplomacy."

A day later, though, Mao took some briefing papers with him to bed. After taking his usual sleeping pills, he came upon press accounts of the encounters between Zhuang and Cowan. According to Wu Xujun, Mao's nurse, upon seeing photos of the two exchanging gifts, he was moved to exclaim, "My Lord, Zhuang!" He told Wu that the American team should indeed be invited.

One hurdle remained: Mao had ordered Wu to disregard any directive he issued after he had taken sleeping pills. Seeing her hesitation, he insisted that his instructions should nonetheless be carried out. After Wu pressed him again to reassure her that he had really changed his mind, Mao kept himself awake until Wu returned with word that she had telephoned the foreign ministry with his order to formally invite the U.S. team. "That was on April 7, the last day of the championships," says Zhuang. "Everything was just on time."

Later that morning, Harrison was hailing a cab in front of the U.S. team's hotel. A taxi stopped, and two Chinese men stepped out: Song Zhong, leader of the Chinese delegation, and his interpreter. At an organizational meeting at the start of the tournament, Harrison had tried to introduce himself, only to watch Song turn his head in rebuff. Now Song was beckoning Harrison into the lobby, where he asked how the U.S. delegation might react to an invitation.

Two days later, at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, an officer used a black marker to strike out the travel restrictions in the delegation's passports. Harrison and U.S. Table Tennis Association president Graham Steenhoven asked William Cunningham, the China-watcher in the embassy, whether they should expect to be humiliated or threatened. "I told them that this represented an enormous breakthrough in U.S.-China relations," Cunningham recalls. "I said they wouldn't have invited you if they intended to humiliate you."

Mao told Wu he had invited the American team in recognition of the inevitable: "The friendly Sino-American relationship is definitely the trend. Look, the encounter between Zhuang Zedong and Cowan is so natural. They bear no grudge against each other. Even though there was some hesitation, this was caused by history."

Cowan and Zhuang had forged their friendship in a diplomatic environment much more favorable than anyone without security clearance in Washington or Beijing could have known. Over the preceding months Zhou Enlai had received a visit from Koji Goto, president of the Japan Table Tennis Association, which would be hosting the worlds. Goto appealed to Zhou to end China's absence from international competition and send a team to Nagoya. On March 15, acting on Zhou's recommendation, Mao approved China's participation.

In the meantime the geopolitical stars had aligned. In 1969 China had suffered hundreds of casualties in border clashes with the Soviet Union, and the Chinese, fearing the massive buildup of Soviet troops along a 2,700-mile stretch to their north, saw the value of the U.S. as a counterweight. Beijing was also eager to join the U.N., expand its influence and push out its noncommunist rivals on Taiwan. Finally, Mao wanted to tamp down the excesses of the Cultural Revolution and edge his country into the community of nations.

Washington had its own reasons to pursue a closer relationship. A strident anticommunist throughout his career, President Nixon had begun to reassess the country behind the Bamboo Curtain. "There is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation," Nixon had written in Foreign Affairs in 1967, a year before his election. In a speech in February 1971 Nixon had actually referred to "the People's Republic of China," not Communist or Red China -- a first for a U.S. president. Although the Vietnam War raged and Beijing still ritually denounced the U.S. and its allies as "U.S. Aggressors and All Their Running Dogs," the realpolitik favored by Kissinger, Nixon's national security adviser, called for triangulation among the three world powers. Most immediately, an opening with China could pressure the Soviets in the stagnant Strategic Arms Limitation Talks. A month before the U.S. delegation was invited to China, the state department quietly lifted its ban on travel to that country.

"There had been about a year of back and forth," Kissinger says today. "China had sent us a specific proposal to come to Beijing, and we were on course to answer favorably. Then in the interim they invited the Ping-Pong team, and that reinforced in our minds what the Chinese had already told us secretly. Privately, we were torn. On the one hand the invitation reinforced what we already knew from their messages, yet on the other, we didn't want to get dragged into a domestic debate about China. We wanted to play it all very low key. As it turned out, it worked out well for us."

Kissinger understates the result. The U.S. team's tour -- and the Chinese team's return visit a year later -- would be triumphs of stagecraft in the service of statecraft, captivating the press and public as they advanced the interests of both nations. In his memoir White House Years, Kissinger refers to the Chinese knack for making "the meticulously planned appear spontaneous." And the invitation to the U.S. team, he says, was carefully planned: "Only Mao could have ordered this. And only Zhou could have orchestrated it."

But if the accounts to emerge from China over the past few decades are to be believed, two people thrown together by chance hastened the process. Asked last month if he knew of the American athlete who had inadvertently boarded the Chinese team bus, Kissinger said he did not.

Phil and Fran Cowan put a Ping-Pong table in a room of their home in New Rochelle, N.Y., sometime in the late '50s. Their son Glenn, a lefthander, was a natural at bowling, swimming and baseball. At age eight he began to play table tennis, at home with friends and at a club in town. "Our table was at an angle because the floor was off-kilter," Fran Cowan says today. "We said, 'We'll raise the table.' Then we said, 'That's not good because Glenn will be off-kilter.' So we put in a new floor. That was the beginning of it."

Glenn soon began to ply the tournament circuit and bring home trophies. At nationals as a 12-year-old he reached the semifinals playing one age group up. Out in Los Angeles for a tournament in 1964, Glenn told his dad, "Let's move out here." The Cowans relocated two years later to Bel Air, where Phil, a TV executive, took a job doing Hollywood p.r.

With a looping topspin forehand and a delicate touch, Glenn beat his great rival, John Tannehill of Ohio, in the under-17s at the 1967 U.S. Open in San Diego. The California fans mobbed him afterward. "With the onrush of the accolades, they couldn't give him enough ears," USTTA official Tim Boggan would later write of Cowan. Two years later Cowan won another U.S. Open, and by the time he qualified for the Nagoya worlds he already had a deal for a signature paddle. "Glenn was obsessed with table tennis," says his mother. "He was young, with nothing to worry about except to go and play what he loved."

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But soon after the move to California, Cowan's father died of lung cancer at age 48. Glenn, 15, struggled to adapt. "It was a really hard time," Fran Cowan says. "He wanted long hair, so I said, 'I'm not gonna fight it.' When my husband was alive, he didn't have long hair. But there were things I could fight and others I had to let go."

Glenn embraced the hippie persona in all its hedonism. "I do escape in drugs," he once told Boggan, who was part of the U.S. entourage in China. "I choose to because they give me a world that fits my needs."? At the same time, Tannehill remembers, "he could go to the table and have perfect strokes without practicing very much at all. He had tremendous natural ability, more than anybody I've ever played."

Cowan had brought drugs to Japan, but thought enough to flush the stash down a hotel toilet before the team left for Hong Kong. On the eve of the team's passage into the People's Republic, Cowan met a woman at a bar and went home with her. History will gratefully record that she set the alarm, and Cowan returned to his hotel room by 5:30 a.m.

Several members of the USTTA's executive committee had tried to block Cowan's inclusion on the trip, out of concern for the image he would project. But a few hours later he joined 14 others who walked across a railroad bridge and into history as the first noncommunist group of Americans to visit China since Mao and his Red Army seized power in 1949. "The American team could not have been more representative of the U.S. if the State Department had handpicked it," longtime AP China correspondent John Roderick, who accompanied the team, told SI before he passed away in March. "It was what foreigners often thought of Americans: friendly, racially diverse, individualistic, original in thought and action."

From the moment they arrived in the People's Republic, members of the U.S. delegation ate food and more food. They sat through a ballet staged by Mao's wife honoring an all-female Red Army regiment and visited the Great Wall. At one point they discovered the Chinese had no idea that, not two years earlier, man had walked on the moon. Gazing out at peasants in fields from a train, Cowan said to Boggan, "I really believe life is simple. It's all the other people that make it complicated."

The Chinese threw matches to keep things close -- it was their way of honoring "friendship first." When Cowan realized that his victory in front of 18,000 people at Beijing's Capital Stadium was coming gift-wrapped, it was an affront to his idealism. "F--- you," he muttered at his opponent, according to Boggan. "I'd have beat you anyway."

Just before the team left Hong Kong, a newsman had asked Cowan if he wasn't afraid of being brainwashed. In fact, Cowan pursued exactly what he wanted during the eight-day trip. He tried to line up deals to promote Chinese table tennis equipment in the U.S., and he plotted to get a spot on the cover of LIFE. "There was a combination of shrewdness and innocence, like a hippie opportunist," Boggan recalls.

At one gathering an interpreter blanched when Cowan asked if Mao were dead or alive, and the crowd laughed when he hiked his foot up on a table to tie his shoe. "The Chinese had never seen a person with long hair and hippie ways," says Tannehill. "Thousands of people would surround him in the streets. They loved him but were also a little terrified of him, because China was very straitlaced then. They saw him as an extraterrestrial almost."

The abiding fear of USTTA president Steenhoven was that some gaffe would cause the Chinese to decline the offer of a return visit to the U.S., which Steenhoven was counting on to grow the sport. Jack Howard, Cowan's roommate, was charged with forestalling any international incidents. "Steenhoven said we don't need any clenched fists or stuff like that," recalls Boggan.

There were a few uncomfortable moments at the team's audience with Zhou in the Great Hall of the People when Cowan asked the Chinese premier for his opinion of the "hippie movement" in the U.S. For the record Zhou took Cowan seriously: "Young people ought to try different things. But they should try to find something in common with the great majority -- remember that." And finally: "I wish you progress." The front-page headline in The New York Times, using the spelling of Zhou then prevalent, read CHOU, 73, AND 'TEAM HIPPIE' HIT IT OFF.

Ten days after the tour, in a message delivered by the Pakistanis, Zhou told Nixon that "the Chinese government reaffirms its willingness to receive publicly in [Beijing] . . . the President of the U.S. himself for a direct meeting and discussion." The President and his national security adviser toasted what Kissinger called "the most important communication that has come to an American President since the end of World War II."

And just when history might take itself too seriously, there was Cowan, telling the press back in Hong Kong, "What I am is my message. I loved China. I loved the Chinese. Where else, man, would you see a child of three carrying a child of two in its arms?"

Stardom seemed to await Cowan upon his return home, and he wore his fame ostentatiously and awkwardly, like that floppy hat. He landed a guest spot on Dinah Shore's talk show. Someone approached him to cohost a pilot for a variety show. He wrote The Book of Table Tennis, or at least posed for the instructional photos. And he signed with an import-export firm to promote a Chinese-made paddle called Double Happiness. The U.S. was an international table tennis also-ran, but Cowan alone could make up in style much of what he and his teammates lacked in substance. "Glenn was a rock star," remembers Robert Lange, a former doubles partner. "He was the biggest thing [U.S.] table tennis had ever seen."

"He thought he was going to really make it big," says Connie Sweeris, one of Cowan's teammates in the U.S. delegation. But the TV show never panned out. And the imported paddles couldn't be secured in mass-market quantities, so the role for Cowan -- to make promotional appearances -- never came off.

Shortly after his return to the U.S., Cowan was taken to see a doctor because "he was acting a little erratic," says his mother, who's now 93 and an executive assistant at the Improv, the comedy club in Los Angeles. The diagnosis: Glenn was bipolar. "He felt people were spying on him," Fran says. "He went into the hospital, and they gave him medication to keep him on an even keel. If he went off it and got high, that would throw him off. Pot was his thing: He took the drugs and didn't take his medication."

When the Chinese team visited the U.S. in the spring of 1972, Cowan didn't take part in the tour. His manager and friend, former U.S. Open champion Bobby Gusikoff, had to escort him back to California from the tour's starting point in Detroit. "Glenn freaked out," says one former U.S. table tennis official. Cowan fell into a cycle: He would go off his meds, get hospitalized, then be released after 72 hours. "It went on for years," his mother recalls. "It was exhausting for the family. There is nothing in the world you can do about it."

Cowan fell hard for fellow California-based player Angelita Rosal, with whom he played mixed doubles in the early 1970s. He claimed to be Mick Jagger's half brother, then serenaded her with the Rolling Stones' Angie, telling Rosal that Jagger had written it for her. He would make schizophrenic references to "MGM," which stood for "Mao Glenn Mick." "He was obsessed with Mao and Mick Jagger," recalls Danny Goodstein, who befriended Cowan in the fall of '72. "He had somehow made that connection and put himself with them.

"I remember one time he was dropped off at my door," adds Goodstein. "He was out of it, talking nonsense. I drove him to [a mental hospital] in the Valley. He kicked a coffee table, and they took him in. Every spring it seemed like he freaked out. My idea is that the team went to China in the spring and he had the fleeting fame, and after that went away, it became a triggering event. It was almost a running joke -- springtime, time for Glenn to flip out."

Cowan eventually picked up a teaching credential at UCLA after graduating from Santa Monica College. He taught school for a stretch and sold shoes. "He always saw it as a real comedown, this worldwide celebrity out there selling shoes," says Sandy Lechtick, who hired Cowan at his headhunting firm in the early 1990s, and remembers him as intrepid in all he did. "He was most fearless when it came to girls and competition. When he was here as a recruiter he had that same fearlessness. That's why he did well."

Throughout, he haunted the Hollywood Table Tennis Club. "He was still playing almost until the end," says Fran Cowan, who displays Zhuang's gift to her son in the dining room of her Westwood home. "He loved it. He had an addictive nature. He was addicted to Ping-Pong, he was addicted to drugs."

About a decade ago Cowan briefly married, but the relationship ended after two months. By then, having discovered paddle tennis, he was hanging out on the courts at Venice Beach, hustling games. He lost his apartment, then spent several years living out of his car and on the streets, Lechtick says. "He'd be at the courts at Venice Beach, begging money. He'd be barefoot and borrow someone's racket and still win. Even when he was homeless, he always had a backpack with that Ping-Pong book he wrote."

Around 2000 Cowan underwent a bypass operation following a heart attack. He died of another heart attack on April 6, 2004, the eve of the 33rd anniversary of China's invitation to the U.S. team. He was 52. "He was like a comet," says Lange, Cowan's former doubles partner. "Flashed through the sky and then gone."

Or as Tannehill puts it, "After China, everything seemed to be useless." Then he poses a rhetorical question that could serve as Cowan's epitaph. "How could you do better than world peace?"

By the early '60s, China's table tennis players lorded over their sport the way Kenyan marathoners dominate theirs today. Zhuang Zedong was best of them all, winning world singles titles in 1961, '63 and '65. But in 1966 Mao launched the Cultural Revolution. In a massive and bloodthirsty turning of the tables, students and peasants took vengeance on teachers and intellectuals. As China withdrew into a madness of its own making, millions were killed, jailed or exiled to the countryside, to be reeducated in the ways of Mao's Little Red Book.

When China skipped the worlds in 1967 and '69, members of the clannish table tennis community tried to find out if the champion with the easy smile and a forehand drive that former U.S. titlist Dick Miles called "the most perfectly executed stroke in the game" had survived. "Dead or Alive?" wondered a caption beneath a photo of Zhuang that ran alongside an SI report from the 1969 worlds. In fact Zhuang and other members of the team had been jailed, charged with allying themselves with Mao's rival, Liu Shaochi -- ironic, given that Zhuang had once said, "I owe my entire table tennis success to the study of Mao Zedong's philosophy." At that, he was lucky: Three other Chinese table tennis greats committed suicide during the late 1960s, including Rong Guotuan, who in '59 had become the first Chinese to win a world title in any sport.

Zhuang's role in Ping-Pong Diplomacy catapulted him back into favor. When the Chinese team returned the U.S. team's visit in 1972, Zhuang, by then a deputy in the National People's Congress, served as delegation head. He performed card tricks during airplane flights -- making "the meticulously planned appear spontaneous," to use Kissinger's phrase. He shared wisdom infused with as much Zen as Mao. ("Though Ping-Pong is a highly competitive sport, there is no real victory or defeat. There is always both. Just as there is no life without death, there is no death without life. The whole world is unified like this.") Upon returning to Beijing, Zhuang settled into a job as Minister of Physical Culture and Sports.

Yet the heady years of the early 1970s turned out to be only a pause before the chaos returned. Attacked in 1976 for being too close to Mao's widow and the discredited Gang of Four, Zhuang lost his ministerial position and had to find work as a street sweeper. Then he was denounced publicly for, among other things, "wearing a Swiss-made watch" and tossed once again into jail. In '77 he reportedly used a belt to try to hang himself in his cell. The sudden way China's political winds would shift -- the back-and-forth rally of what and who is in and out of favor -- only underscores what a risk Zhuang took on that bus in Japan.

The reward on that risk has been bountiful. Within a year the People's Republic would join the U.N., and the SALT talks would open a path to U.S.-Soviet détente. Meanwhile, sports continued to play a central role in opening up China. Beijing received IOC recognition in 1979 and sent a full delegation to the 1984 Olympics, taking some of the sting out of the Soviet Union's boycott of the Los Angeles Games. When Deng Xiaoping took over, he introduced market reforms with a declaration that "it doesn't matter if the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice." The IOC awarded the 2008 Olympics to Beijing in '01. "The legacy is that we haven't bombed each other," says Tannehill. "Without the make-love-not-war idea that Glenn [espoused], we might not be here."

Upon learning of Cowan's death, Zhuang wanted to know how Americans had reacted. In fact no news outlet beyond the table tennis world carried an obituary. When Zhuang dies, he pointed out, everyone in China will know. The irony of it: In the individualistic society that mints and worships celebrities, Cowan is forgotten; in collectivist China -- where to be one in a million is to live among a thousand more just like you -- Zhuang is fully rehabilitated and heralded as a man who forever changed his country's course. Ever the diplomat, Zhuang in 2006 hosted several American players and officials, as well as Fran Cowan, on a 35th-anniversary return visit to China. At dinner the last evening the group sang a karaoke version of Let It Be in Glenn's honor.

"I only know how to play Ping-Pong, how to hit the ball from this side of the table to the other," Zhuang said last September before an audience at Southern Cal. Then he got just right the sentiment at the heart of Let It Be: "Sometimes the ball drops. Sometimes it goes out-of-bounds."

It's the kind of existential musing that might as easily have come from Glenn Cowan, who discovered the hard way that if the world leaves you off-kilter, you can't just put in a new floor. But with someone else, a person to supply a Pong to your Ping, that world might be brought into something closer to equilibrium.