Barney J. Reed, who believes himself to be the only full-time professional table tennis player in America, owns a 1995 Geo Prizm, a California medical marijuana card, and a deep-seated distrust of Ping-Pong's ruling oligarchy. I learned about the latter on the first day of the 2012 North American Olympic trials, when Reed came across a flaw in the surface of his table, a ragged scratch that appeared to have been done over with Wite-Out; as soon as he knew it was there, he was utterly distracted by its presence, and once he was distracted, he could not contain his sense of moral outrage. He stopped play, and for several minutes the proceedings reached a stalemate, with Reed standing up against the injustice being perpetrated upon him and the officials refusing to accede to his demands.
"It's your job!" he said. "Don't walk away! You've got to fix the table! Listen, it's not my fault, and it's not your fault. But we've got a simple solution — change the table."
But they did not change the table, and insisted they would not change the table until after the match, which Reed promptly lost to 20-year-old Canadian Andre Ho. The format of competitive table tennis is best-of-seven, with each game played to 11, and at the time of his discovery Reed trailed three games to one, so it wasn't hard to discern the element of gamesmanship inherent in Reed's filibuster. "At that point, he needed something," admitted his father, who is named Barney Reed as well (middle initial: D) and is his son's coach. But it was also indicative of Reed's ongoing agitation with the sport's American caretakers, who he feels haven't done enough to procure sponsorship and support, nor to elevate a game that is still regarded in this country as a casual pastime practiced in half-finished basements.
"This is the Olympic trials, and they said they were going to give us the most perfect conditions they can give us," Reed told me. "And somebody overlooked the fact that there's a big imperfection in the table."
I tried to ask him if there were rules for an occurrence like this, and whether the officials might simply be abiding by those rules, but to Reed, a 33-year-old with an unkempt sweep of brown hair and the mischievous good looks of Russell Crowe, those questions were almost beside the point. "A stupid rule is a stupid rule," he said.
Such is the interminable struggle of Barney Reed's adult life. A column in the local newspaper that day noted his longtime reputation as the "bad boy of Ping-Pong," and he has regularly been portrayed as a McEnroe-esque scold, which feels a little inaccurate, since Reed is viewed by most of his peers as a stand-up guy when he is not feeling shafted by the system. He is a compelling character in a sport filled with stone faces, and he has spent his entire adult life scratching out a living, taking extended journeys to Europe and the Far East, competing at second-rate tournaments held in dimly lit Dominican venues, and winning stakes matches using his own sandal as a paddle. His father, a Ping-Pong teacher and ex-board member of USA Table Tennis, raised him in the game — at the age of 6, he was playing in tournaments — and Reed long ago made the choice to bypass college in order to play Ping-Pong. Over the years he's had occasional brushes with celebrity, playing on television against Conan O'Brien and in Las Vegas against Tone-Loc and evangelizing to people like me about the day when the sport would finally be able to leverage its grassroots popularity into big-time sponsorship deals. "I mean, the national beer-pong champion makes 50 grand," he says. "But our sport right now has no light at the top."
And so Reed lives from week to week, in an apartment near San Jose, and plays in about 25 events a year. He drives the car he won for playing an exhibition at a dealership 17 years ago, and his share of the rent is $400; he lives with his girlfriend, who qualified for the Olympics as a table tennis player in 2000 and now works in a dental office. When I asked Reed if his girlfriend still plays competitively, he admitted that there wasn't much more to accomplish in Ping-Pong once you'd made the Olympics, which is the one thing he has never done. Every time he comes close, something unfortunate befalls him — twice, he's failed drug tests, once in 2002 for a performance enhancer,1 which briefly made him a late-night punchline and led to a two-year suspension, and once in 2008 for marijuana, though he contends that the medical marijuana card should have exempted him. He said he'd never played on this particular brand of table before, and that his serves, which rely on heavy spin, were "digging" instead of "sliding," and his father told me, "It's like he's being held back."
Before he left the gym, Reed took several pictures of the scratched table with his iPhone, though there didn't appear to be any sort of appeals process, so what he planned to do with this evidence I don't know. I don't think he knew, either, but he couldn't help himself.
"It's kind of ironic," he said, "that this shit always happens to me."
The Olympic trials were held in April at the Bond Park Community Center in Cary, North Carolina, a suburb of Raleigh replete with housing subdivisions and apartment complexes and strip malls plumped up by chain restaurants. (The official athletes' hotel was the Embassy Suites, which cost $75 per person for a double room.) NO OPEN GYM VOLLEYBALL THIS WEEKEND, read one of the signs above the information desk at the community center; the Canadian and American national anthems played each morning over the gym's tinny speakers, a local massage therapist offered treatments for the players, and a food truck in the parking lot sold discount hamburgers.
It seemed an odd venue for a congregation of the best on the continent at anything, but elite United States table tennis is not what it is in China (where it has become a national pastime) or in certain parts of Europe and Scandinavia.2 In America, there are 20 million recreational players, but to take the game seriously is still considered a funny thing to do, largely because it is difficult to watch without hearkening back to the rec room in which we came of age, a dank subterranean space where aged paddles were bound together with Elmer's glue and balls regularly vanished under radiators. The game is played on such a small scale that at its highest levels every movement appears overexaggerated; when you witness the best table tennis players feint their way through a serve, stomping their feet and flailing their arms, it can feel like a comedic interpretation of modern dance. Hence, Ping-Pong3 has become fodder for Christopher Walken spoofs and cult video games, and the pool of top players is very small.
As there is no real prize money and no centralized training facility, Ping-Pong in the U.S. is often played at the higher levels by teenagers who haven't yet reached college. A number are highly intelligent students who face a choice between, say, the Ivy League and the thankless route Barney Reed took, and for fairly logical reasons many wind up abandoning their ambitions after graduation and never coming back. On the women's side this year, the three best U.S. players are Asian American teenagers from California; on the men's side, the great hope for the future is Michael Landers, a 17-year-old from Long Island who has his own conditioning coach and practices at a glitzy downtown Manhattan table tennis club partly owned by Susan Sarandon. 4
Landers started playing one summer at the age of 9, when a broken arm during a game of hide-and-seek prevented him from competing in any sports with physical contact. He has since spent time training in China, he receives a sponsorship stipend from Kellogg's, and he bears an endearing resemblance — both in looks and demeanor — to the actor Michael Cera. Over time, Reed has become a sort of de facto big brother to Landers, in part because he never felt like he had a support system when he was coming up in the sport. "People shouldn't judge other people based on their behavior on the table," Landers said of Reed. "He teaches me things and shows me the world, pretty much."
This was Landers's first Olympic trials, and the pressure, he told me later, was utterly crushing. In his first match, he somehow managed to cut his arm on the table (there is bleeding in Ping-Pong), and in his second match, he led 3-2 and then lost the final two games. After every six points, players are given towel breaks, but in between they kept wiping their hands on the table, sometimes on a certain spot near one edge or the other that they'd arbitrarily determined as the optimal place.5 It made for a strange ritual of volleying and wiping; many told me they were so nervous during the trials that it was difficult for them to generate the kind of power that they normally could.
Since games are only played to 11 (they used to go to 21, before the rules changed to breed more excitement), momentum swings were fierce and unforgiving, and even the briefest lapse in concentration could be fatal. The matches were sweaty and noisy and tense, and between points, many of the younger Asian competitors encouraged themselves with motivational Chinese exhortations like "Sah!" and "Cho!" that apparently don't have any concrete meaning even in Chinese. When players are nervous, their shots tend to graze the top of the net and the edges of the table for unreturnable winners; if this happens to you, eliciting a gasp from the fans in the bleachers, it is terrible luck,6 and if it happens for you, it is the product of years of meticulous training. "You're thinking two or three shots ahead, but you only have a millisecond to react," Landers said, and often he found himself just trying to find a way to keep the ball on the table, which, when one is under immense pressure and trying to concentrate on a celluloid sphere 40 millimeters in diameter, can be a little bit like trying to swat at a knuckleball with a spatula.
On the second day of the trials, a woman sitting behind me in the bleachers asked if I would mind sliding a little bit to the left, so that she could "give my player access to my energy." Her hair was adorned with Creamsicle-colored streaks, and she was wearing tight black pants, and I presumed she was someone's wife, or someone's girlfriend, or someone's sister, and then later I learned that she was actually a freelance energy coach. Her name was Lorena, and she grew up as a gymnast in Romania and now lives in Ottawa, and "her player" was a Canadian named Pierre Luc-Hinse.7 I tried to ask if the Canadian government had paid her way to North Carolina for the trials, or if she made any money at all from this, or how exactly her theories were crystallized into practice, especially when it came to Ping-Pong. She didn't seem willing to engage on the paradigm through which my questions were posed, and instead kept talking to me about vibrations and the importance of growing in three dimensions and other concepts beyond my earthly ken.
"Table tennis," she told me, "is totally mental."
This became evident the more time I spent around Ping-Pong players: They are micromanagers and obsessives because the precision of their sport requires it. Before every match, one player is permitted to select the game balls; they do this by spinning each ball like a dreidel and then placing a finger atop it. It can't be too wobbly, and it can't be too soft, and if it does not meet specifications, it is discarded. I watched one of the American teenagers, Erica Wu, disqualify at least four balls using this method, even though it was nearly impossible for me to tell the difference between them.
In addition, every paddle at the Olympic trials is inspected and tested, since top players regularly replace the rubber covering on their paddles every couple of months. The rubber coating must be approved, and the updated List of Authorized Racket Coverings (LARC, No. 32B) runs four pages long and includes the Palio Drunken Dragon and the Palio Emperor Dragon, as well as the Xiom Sigma I, Xiom Sigma II, and Xiom Sigma III. A racket cannot be too thick and too flat, and it cannot be too concave or convex, and it cannot contain foreign substances like glue or lighter fluid, which may enhance both spin and speed. "Most of the time, we can smell it," one of the official testers told me, though later, one of the players told me about something called Booster, or Speed Glue, which is illegal, highly toxic (hence its illegality), and virtually undetectable, and is used by nearly all the best players. It's difficult to say just how much of a physical difference it makes (though it certainly makes some), but when sport is contested in miniature like this, the psychology is crucial.
Confidence often stems from repetition, from practicing the same shots over and over again, and this is the reason the Chinese have an edge, says USA Table Tennis high-performance director Doru Gheorghe: "It's not easy to learn. It's boring." In China, children who show promise are pulled from phys-ed classes at a young age and shipped off to academies. In America, no child wants to learn Ping-Pong that way, largely because the game has no serious cultural currency other than as a social tool. There are exceptions in every generation, like Reed and like Landers, but what's the point of spending meticulous hours indoors among adult coaches, getting really good at something that, compared to other more potentially lucrative activities, will never pay off?
And so the gulf between the Americans and the Chinese, Gheorghe says, "is like the Atlantic Ocean." All weekend long, the American women struggled with a Chinese Canadian immigrant named Chris Xu, who was 25 years their senior. Xu played a style known as "chopping," a defensive tactic meant to capitalize on the impatience of the gang of American teenagers. The most promising American, Ariel Hsing, wrote the words "4 Steps" on her arm so she'd remember to take extra time (she normally takes three steps) before her returns — eventually, exhausted and frustrated, she eked out a victory and won an Olympic spot. This was all she'd hoped for; the odds of her actually medaling in London are astronomical.
"You nearly gave me a heart attack!" one of her teammates squealed at her in the hallway.
"I nearly gave myself a heart attack, OK?" Hsing said.
By the time the final day of competition came around, Michael Landers had been eliminated from contention. After he lost his final match, confronted with the realization that he had upended his teenage years and dropped out of school and taken classes on the Internet for his junior and senior years, and it had still not been enough to make the Olympics, Landers found a hiding place behind the Bond Park Community Center and cried. When I met him in New York City a couple of weeks later, he was on his way to a last-ditch, long-shot Olympic qualifying tournament in Qatar, but he also told me it was "kind of a relief, now that it's over." He said he planned to keep playing table tennis through the 2016 Olympic trials, but even as he was telling me this, I thought, Who could see that far ahead at the age of 17?
Since the Canadians won the first two days of mini-tournaments, it came down to one match to determine the American qualifier, between Reed and Timothy Wang, a rangy 20-year-old from Houston. In the first game, Reed gently chastised a woman for using a camera flash, and he lost 11-9; in the second game, with Reed leading 6-2, his father — sitting in the coaches' box behind the court — decided to use a timeout, which infuriated Reed and devolved into a heated public discussion. He wound up losing, 13-11. "We got into a father-son argument rather than a coach-player argument," the elder Reed told me afterward. "Even just driving here today, I made a couple of wrong turns and he was snapping off at me. He took his emotion toward me and distracted himself."
With his son trailing three games to one, Barney Reed's father made one last effort to transfer the distraction to Wang: He gathered up the roller suitcase holding his son's clothing and equipment, and walked out of the gym while the crowd in the bleachers gaped at him. There was no reason for him to sit in the coaches' box any longer, and once again, his son needed something — "We discussed whether if I walked out, would it affect your opponent more than you? And I think it did" — but it wasn't enough. Wang won Game 5, and earned the Olympic spot. When I asked Reed if he planned to come back in four years, he did not hesitate: He said he would, and his father told me that his son was just reaching his prime as a player.
The next time I saw Barney Reed was in Brooklyn, at a hipster Ping-Pong collective in Williamsburg called PiPs, where Pabst Blue Ribbon is sold on a donation-only basis and an Internet radio station is headquartered upstairs. He and Landers were both on their way to the qualifier in Qatar (Landers's parents had agreed to pay for Reed to travel and serve as a chaperone),8 and they had both entered an open tournament with a $300 first prize to raise some extra funds for their journey. Reed told me he was thinking about taking a job teaching table tennis at the headquarters of a dot-com giant in California; Landers told me he'd chosen to attend NYU over Johns Hopkins, in part so he could keep playing Ping-Pong. Reed introduced me to an old friend of his, one of the scores of friends who have peeled off from the sport over the years, a prolific junior player who quit a decade ago to become an artist.
It was a small field at PiPs, and no one took it too seriously. Little grassroots events like these had consumed Barney Reed's life: He once played in a carpeted church rec room in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, because he needed the money, because he always needs the money. He navigated the field with ease, defeating Landers in the finals, and then they awarded him his prize in dollar coins, 300 of them piled into a bucket, because these are the sorts of things that always happen to Barney Reed: Even when he wins, there are complications. What could he do about it? This was the life he chose. He shrugged at me, eased the bucket into his duffel bag, and then he wandered off to see if he could hustle up a beer.