Playing Pong

Words by Sloane Citron

Photos by Scott R. Kline

Blame it on our basement in Amarillo. It wasn’t much of a basement compared to the ones you see on the Peninsula these days, but it worked for us. One rectangular room about 20 feet by 30 feet, no windows, a bit damp. It was there as a six-year-old that I started playing ping pong with my big brother, Danny. Five years older than me, he would always win.

But over the years, during the cold, dark Amarillo winters, I got better. I became a good defensive player, able to return most of what Danny sent my way. As the years passed, I learned to take on his slices and his big slams alike, and finally was competitive with him and would sometimes win. Our games became contests of will—long points, frenzy and, occasionally, emotional flare-ups.

Move forward a generation. Four years ago, Coby, my youngest, moved 7,500 miles away to go to college and then decided to stay in his newly adopted homeland. The first time he came home, wanting to spend time together and not having time to go play golf, we got out the ping pong table, secured some decent paddles and balls and started to play.

Within days of that first game, playing “pong” became the most important thing in the world to us. That first visit—about a month long—saw us play 15 games a day or close to 500 games. We got good and quickly our battles reached a whole new level of drive and energy from those of my childhood.

From then on, whenever Coby would come home, our focus was on one thing: playing ping pong. The dimension of our games is odd in that we are competitive and want to win, but we also want each other to win. There is a dichotomy there that I can’t say I fully understand, part of it about the self and part about the love we have for one another.

Coby is often gone for eight months or longer but when he returns home we are immediately back at it. It takes us about two days to get back into form. We defined our game: 12 points, win by two, switch serving every two points, no sucker serves. And if you hit any part of the table, whether on serve or a regular shot (even the side of the table), it’s good. Our regular drill is to play five games at a stretch.

Coby was recently home for a good long visit, as two of his siblings had new babies. The darkness that would fall upon us at around five in the afternoon was unacceptable and so we installed a large halogen light on our roof. It was magical, really, allowing us to go out into the black night at nine o’clock and play as late as we wanted, the cold air perfect on our exercised bodies.

Our games this past visit were nothing short of vicious. Points were sometimes 25 shots long—back and forth, slams and returns, short shots just over the net, hits off the side of the table with unbelievable returns from the ground. Sometimes we would throw our paddles at a shot, get it in, and then keep playing with our hands. Every day we thought of nothing but getting out there to play. And nothing stopped us: rain, wind, and injuries were just variables in the games.

We play in silence, since talking disturbs our concentration. I will say this: Coby, like my brother Dan before him, is the better player. I’m annoyed when I lose four games in a row to him, but I try to focus on how lucky I am to have him home. But here’s the deal: while he can slam better, spin better and hit harder, I am still the “returner.” And just like those times in our Amarillo basement, I can frustrate Coby to the point where he breaks; then I am able to win a point and sometimes a game or a series. We fight like hell to win and then go inside laughing to see what’s on TV. An hour or so passes before one of us looks up and asks, “Ready?” And the answer is always a resounding, “Yep! Let’s go play pong!”