"Competition of the Week" story # 7

Grand Rapids, Michigan           September 22, 2001

Looking back on my hard-fought "Competition of the Week" 4 victory, I would have to attribute my success to MODERN ODDYSEUS' GUIDE TO ALWAYS WINNING # 4 - Do it to make your girlfriend proud.
     And boy, let me tell you, I was as excited as only a boyfriend could be, when I called up my Brasiliana the next day to hear how proud she'd be that I wore 79 articles of clothing at once.
     And she was proud. Naturally.
     Only, her news wasn't so good: she was breaking up with me. This was probably due either to her not liking one of the ties I wore or to the 9000 miles that separated us. Either way, it's a bummer.

"It's the best thing that you ever had ... the best thing that you had is gone away." - Radiohead ("High and Dry")

And so, one minute I was looking at myself in the mirror and seeing the proud champion of the wear-the-most-clothes competition. The next, I was seeing a guy who'd just lost Georgia as his girlfriend.
     It was a little sad, but, as the saying doesn't go, "Out with the new; in with the old." That's because I had "Competition of the Week" 5 to look forward to. And my friends and I would be playing an old, great, homemade sport called street ping pong.
     Street ping pong is as rough as Georgia was gentle. The game can best be described as a mix between football, rugby, hockey, a bar-room brawl, the dash for survival between a fox and a hare, and ping pong. It's played in my basement - not on the streets - but if you don't have the rugged toughness of a gangster, the garbage-picking resourcefulness of a runaway kid, and the strange habit of talking to yourself like a bum, then you shouldn't hope to survive.
     The sport was invented years ago by my cousin, Kyle "Abner Doubleday" Healy. It was he who saw the boxes, wires, and furniture of my basement not as annoying obstacles that swallow forever the balls we played ping pong with but as annoying obstacles that swallow forever the balls we play STREET PING PONG with. The difference was that the competitors now wanted their balls to be swallowed.
     This is because the point of street ping pong is to pack into sweaty scrums with fourteen other 360-pound lunatics and try to kick a football-shaped ball four feet behind the sweaty 360-pound guy whose hand is in your crotch and whose head is up your - no, wait, that's the point of rugby, if there is a point to rugby. The point of street ping pong is to get a ping pong ball to stop its bouncing tendencies on your opponent's side of the court, using techniques like ping pong pancakes and Fox Box Shots, but no 360-pound Englishmen scrum-backs.
     What this does to a normal ping pong game is it makes the entire basement part of the playing field - including the computers and fireplace, even the garbage can if you're hungry and resourceful and my dad has recently thrown away some chips. It means the ball can bounce twice or a hundred times on your opponent's court, and he'll still be in the point until momentum or an obstacle cause the ball's bouncing tendencies to cease.
     Let's review, to make sure you get this. Ping pong. Fun? Well, of course. Street ping pong? Heart-pumping, head-exploding fun. A sweaty, 360-pound Englishman with his hand in your crotch? Only during rugby would this possibly be fun; otherwise, you've got some explaining to do.
     Street ping pong brought some friends and me together on a recent Thursday. Chris and Bill Hatch showed up, and they prepared to square off in the first match of the day's tournament.
     MODERN ODDYSEUS' GUIDE TO ALWAYS WINNING # 5 - Objects at rest tend to stay at rest; objects in motion tend to stay in motion. (I oughtta get a Nobel Prize in Physics for coming up with that.)
     Luckily, Chris had the knowledge of Newton's Laws of a street-performing juggler that you need to survive in street ping pong. He picked up an idle ball, tossed it in the air, and smacked it with his paddle. The tournament was on.
     Chris's serve blatantly missed hitting the table and soared through the air towards a large box in the opposite corner of the room. Bill Hatch stood, guarding the box, and the ball fell off his chest. It bounced off the tiled basement floor, and Bill returned it to Chris's side of the room.
     Chris was posed at his end of the table, eager to pounce on any ball aiming to get lost among the computer, printer, and wires at the wall behind him. A well-placed ball by Bill still could travel into the basement's corner corridor, pinning Chris in the narrow entryway few ball exit from. Instead, it hit harmlessly off the wall. Chris returned it towards a chair to Bill's left, and both competitors sprinted after, poised to repel any body-check their adversary might be offending. They slapped the ball around until it returned to Chris's side and got stuck behind some side wall boxes, dead.
     Bill Hatch led, 1-0. Twenty points to go.
     The game chugged on. "C'mon you sissies!" I yelled. "If you keep playing this lackluster, I'm gonna destroy you!" Their game lacked the sport's usual spirit. The pace was slow; the physical content was avoided; nobody roared out his name like a gorilla to celebrate a good point.
     Bill Hatch tactlessly placed no pressure on Chris. Chris freely dribbled the ball beneath the table and secured it to the floor with his paddle past halfcourt. He repeated this "ping pong pancake" strategy. Bill's big; his slow-adapting defense and impotent offense fell hard. Chris captured the day's first win.
     He and I met next. My strategy was to chase around the bouncing ball like a fetching dog. When it was in my territory, I swatted it to Chris's side as quick as humanly possible - hitting it between my legs or off the back wall and ceiling or bouncing it beneath the table, if quickest. On Chris's side, I raced to keep the ball out of Chris's paddle's reach. I amied the ball towards obstacles; when possible, I pancaked it.
     Chris matched my pace, making for an exciting, physical game. In the split-seconds he had with the ball, he capitalized on my open court's vulnerability by directing the ball into the fireplace or a corner crate. My earlier boasting went unvindicated, and Chris grabbed his second win.
     My next foe was Bill Hatch. He squared out his large back-end towards my speeding chases, and he gained some ball control. But, he failed on every single ping pong pancake opportunity, and this sealed another loss for him. One memorable point, he and I sprinted downcourt, pushing, and I smashed the ball towards the spectator chair, where it tattooed Chris's forehead with a round, red circle.
     The head-exploding fun briefly paused, for a juice and water break.
     Round 2 would decide things. Chris and Bill Hatch rematched.
     Many times in this game, Bill Hatch was faced with a wide-open ball on Chris's court. And every time he tried executing the ping pong pancake maneuver - a tricky trick to master - the ball popped loose from his descending paddle. He fell victim to a rare street ping pong massacre. By a 21-7 score, Chris improved to 3-0.
     Facing Chris, I knew I had to win to have a chance at tying his win total. Early on, sweat dripped on us. Chris breathed hard, fatigued. I stormed out to a huge 14-5 lead. Competative Chris came back. My play didn't slip a notch, but Chris just refused to let the ball die on his side. His shots found my side's wires, boxes, and troublesome corners.
     The game reached a crucial point. Chris and I returned shots and aggressed. I deposited the ball past the spectator chair and into Chris's corner corridor. Bill Hatch scrambled to avoid the action, and Chris raced to keep the ball alive. I came after. Chris juggled life into the ball, while my body pushed against him as a wall blocking his only exit.
     Somehow, Chris slipped the ball through me. It bounced high in the middle of Chris's floor. Through the air, I dove past Bill. My paddle dragged the ball down with it. I thudded on the floor, only to see my difficult diving pancake effort was a nonsuccess. The ball shot out to my half of the court.
     Chris hustled to it. Falling down, he tried with the last of his energy to scoop the ball into a box. Twice, it couldn't top the side of the box. I came and cleared the ball from my court. Chris and I fought after, and I grounded the ball into some wires, dead. 17-14 I led. We lay, exhausted. I celebrated by gasping my high school nickname like a gorilla. "Psycho!!!"
     But, Chris's heart just would not fade. He tied the score, took a 19-18 lead, and didn't look back.
     And so ... with a 4-0 record ... "Competition of the Week" 5's happy winner: Chris! Who improves to 2-0 in "Competition of the Week" play.
     Bill Hatch and I played for bragging rights. Court conditions were bad. A film of sweat covered the floor. Quick turns became dangerous and impossible. My racing strategy was screwed.
     Bill's "Fox Box Shot" strategy (common amongst the best-record players) shone for the first time on the day. In one set of five serves, he fit two past me into my large corner box and placed two more in the small center box.
     In a tense moment, the ball hung in the air like a queen bee above my side of the table. Bill watched it with a baby's concentration, and successfully cradled it to the table with his paddle. His first pancake! He slammed it again, flattening the poor ball, to drive home his relief. And yelled, "Bill!"
     Bill got the win. Street ping pong is the best sport ever.
     With no girlfriend to make proud, I could feel my "Competition of the Week" prowess slipping ...

- Modern Oddyseus (3-2)

Add'l stats. Ping pong pancakes:
Chris - 24
me - 21
Bill Hatch - 2

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