The Return Of King Pong

February 24, 2003

In the '70s my family had a Ping-Pong table that was hemmed into
our basement like a photograph in a frame, so that the walls on
all sides--as in indoor soccer--were legally in play, in what my
brothers and I called the National Indoor Ping-Pong League, whose
brief (but hypercompetitive) existence may have owed to its
unfortunate acronym: NIPPLe.

I have seldom thought of the game since then--or at least not
until last April, when a young Ping-Pong obsessive named Barney
J. Reed was suspended for two years by the International Table
Tennis Federation after testing positive for an anabolic steroid.
Reed, one of the few world-class American-born players, made Jay
Leno's monologue (though Leno called him "Barry" Reed), Paul
Harvey's radio show, the front sports page of USA Today and This
Week's Sign of the Apocalypse. It was even suggested by one
unscrupulous reporter--this one--that Reed was secretly corking
his paddle.

"He got more press than table tennis has gotten in the last 25
years combined," says Reed's father, Barney D. Reed, an
elementary-school table tennis instructor. "At least since
Nixon's Ping-Pong diplomacy." Then, as quickly as he became
infamous, Reed fils joined Rubble and Fife on the scrap heap of
Barneydom.

Or did he? "I can beat most Americans with my shoe," says Reed,
24, by telephone from Taiwan, where he's living in Nixonian
exile, training nine hours a day, seven days a week, for a
triumphant return to competitive Ping-Pong in July, two years
after his last sanctioned match. Laugh at this and he says
softly, "It's not a joke: I've beaten many people with a sandal."

It's true. Reed with a shoe in his hand is like Khrushchev with a
shoe in his, only more volatile. He can wax any star of hiphop,
with a flip-flop, at Ping-Pong, but Reed used standard equipment
when rapper Tone-Loc--who travels with his own paddle, towel and
entourage--challenged him to a match at a sports retailing
convention in Las Vegas last year. On the very first point Reed
looked right and served left, with the sidespin of a cyclone. "It
was like a crossover dribble," says Reed, a trash-talking McEnroe
of the minicourt. "I almost broke his ankles."

Twenty million Americans have played Ping-Pong recreationally,
and every one of them is, in his or her own mind, a round-robin
Rod Laver. "Most people, when they hear what I do, think of beer
pong, the basement table, the ball rolling under the heater,"
says Reed, who started playing at three, began entering
tournaments at six and left high school after 10th grade to be
home-tutored in a table-tennis-intensive curriculum. Many
spectators at an exhibition are surprised to see Reed standing as
far as 40 feet from the table to receive a professional return.
He always explains to them, before the ball arrives at 100 miles
an hour, "I had a really big basement growing up."

Like any other child raised in North America, Reed dreamed,
unrealistically, of becoming the next Jan-Ove Waldner. Who
didn't? Fifteen years ago, Sweden's Waldner--the Michael Jordan
of Ping-Pong--could monopolize a table like Charlie Rose. Today,
Reed and his generation are not chasing Swedes but Chinese.
"Table tennis, at its highest level, is a form of martial arts,"
says Reed. "You're on your toes, making striking motions at a
ball, and I think that's why it's such a huge part of Asian
culture."

While Reed would like nothing more than to beat the Chinese at
their own game--in their own basement--at the Beijing Olympics in
2008, he will not do so at any cost. Thus Reed, then 6 feet, 160
pounds, "was [only] trying," says his father, "to beef himself up
in the eyes of the opposite sex" when he bought a $30,
over-the-counter, perfectly legal bottle of supplement containing
androstenedione at a GNC store in Atlanta two years ago. "It was
not," says the younger Reed, "something I bought in Mexico and
[injected into] my butt."

Indeed, the arbitration tribunal that upheld Reed's suspension
said, in its decision, "We are convinced that Reed did not intend
to evade the antidoping rules or to obtain a competitive
advantage." No matter: He lost all his sponsors, save one. His
mother, a dental hygienist, had a patient ask her if she'd heard
about the Ping-Pong player who tested positive for steroids.
"That's my son," she replied.

"I was made out to be a druggie," Reed says now, still in a daze
from the media attention. "I don't want to be looked at as a
cheat like Ben Johnson for the rest of my life."

The elder Reed is now working to raise funds for a national
training program in San Diego and dreaming of televised table
tennis. "Maybe we need to have an entourage in hooded robes
follow a player to the table, like in boxing," he says seriously.
"The future of our sport may very well be that."

But for the moment the younger Reed is content to lay low while
living monastically with two dozen Taiwanese table-tennis
acolytes in the provincial city of Tainan. Reed hopes that his
life is becoming a variation on the line emblazoned on all those
PingPong balls that may, for all I know, still be under the
boiler in the basement of my boyhood home:

REMADE IN TAIWAN.

B/W PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER

"I don't want to be looked at as a cheat like Ben Johnson," says
suspended table tennis star Barney Reed.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)