Darko's Game

Darko Rop is tall and thin and amiable, and he looks about as imposing as a grown-up Opie Taylor. This is your basic world-class Ping-Pong athlete.

"I love the table tennis," he says in his Yugoslavian way, and he and his sparring partner are going at it, and the ball is bouncing like bullets across the table. Darko looks like a metronome set at high boogie.

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These are unusually good times for Houston's apostles of Ping-Pong. For so long, they have wandered homelessly in a land of infidels, but the days are gone now that they will ever have to surrender another gym to basketball players. The time has passed that they will ever line up their tables on tennis courts, or apologize again to the owner of the ceramics shop next door for knocking down his wares as they crash into the walls chasing a return. They have done all this, and all this is in the past.

"Now I have a club," says the smiling Darko. "I can play every day."
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In the last two months, Houston has become the home of two Ping-Pong clubs -- Vector Sport Table Tennis Co., in a strip mall at the corner of Bissonnet and Kirkwood, and the Houston Table Tennis Center, on West Bellfort between Xpress Lube and the Meyerland Animal Clinic. The owners insist it's only coincidence they opened their clubs simultaneously and dreamed the same dream at about the same time. With its large immigrant community, Houston is going to become a Ping-Pong capital, they say. Houston will be on the Ping-Pong map.

Asian players are a league apart globally, and already, local Asians seem to have accepted Vector Sport as headquarters. Usually, they occupy all eight tables in the hollowed-out storefront. Scott Wong, the owner, plans to expand with demand, but down on Bellfort, Roland Schilhab and his anonymous partner are operating under the theory that if you build it, they will come. Now, with what many agree is the biggest, best place to play Ping-Pong in the whole United States of America, Schilhab waits for them to come. At his Houston Table Tennis Center, the ball bounces between Nigerians and Swedes, Romanians and Jamaicans, but on recent nights, on most of the 24 tables, nothing bounced at all, and it remains uncertain whether enough of the local population will journey beyond their garages to play this game.

"It will take some time," says Darko with confidence, "but Americans will be fascinated to learn the difference between table tennis and the game of Ping-Pong played in the basement."

Inside their great, new cathedral, the players gather round to explain the mysteries of their faith. The church is empty, and they are eager to win new converts. As Schilhab plans it, the HTTC will become a major tournament center -- a national hub for players of Darko's level, who, in turn, will provide an education to unschooled locals, who eventually will stand in line here to play.

Right now, however, the first feeling to strike you, if you are unschooled, might be a sense of awe that something so large could be dedicated to something so small. If you are used to balls with heft, big balls like footballs and basketballs and baseballs, how can you appreciate a giant monument to Ping-Pong except as a monument to excess? It seems too much for too little, and these people who can sweat swatting four grams around, they just seem too strange.

"Oh yeah, sure it bothers me," says Miraj Oak, sitting down all wet after a match. Not too long ago, he was judged the best table tennis player of all the billion people in India. But as a systems analyst in Houston, he tells people this, and they say to him, "You mean Ping-Pong?"

No, not really. Ping-Pong is to table tennis what pool is to billiards, they say. It's speed and spin, anticipation and placement. It's like chess and boxing and tennis all at once and much faster than each, the mind and feet and hands all jitterbugging together. Most of the world understands, and when the world championships are broadcast around the globe every two years, most of the world tunes in. Americans remain in the dark because they don't understand what they see, because they have been confused by that discount-store garage game, Ping-Pong.

Eighteen years ago, Claude Jones was a Marine in Okinawa when the natives taught him some strokes. Now, sitting at his desk, doing what engineering technicians do, he sometimes waves his hand through the air as though he's conducting some silent symphony. "Loop the ball! Loop the ball!" he'll cry out uncontrollably, and his co-workers know then he's having a Ping-Pong moment. Word gets around about Claude Jones and his passion. Sometimes, a stranger will approach and say yeah, he's a player, too, and why don't they go out and hit a few? But Claude Jones wants to know first what kind of equipment the man prefers. If the answer is your basic sandpaper paddle, Jones says no, he's sorry, but they play a different game.

Equipment is important to the connoisseur. Nothing will do but the $600 Stiga tables that are as smooth as glass. The net should stand precisely at six inches, and Jones carries a special measuring device to ensure it's neither a millimeter higher nor lower. Some players squeeze and spin dozens of balls before selecting the perfect specimen to whack. In most of their big athletic bags, a jar of glue is standard gear. Each time they play, they reattach the rubber on their paddles, believing, as Darko explains, that this loosens up the rubber, so you can spin right or left, like a car with soft tires.

Brain damage used to be a hazard, but "now they are making the safer glues," Darko says, "and they are not so harmful to the body."

In Belgrade, Darko began by slapping balls to his dad across the kitchen table. He discovered that the wonderful thing about table tennis is that "it's not mechanical," he says, not like running, which he also excelled in, but which is "the same thing over and over." In table tennis, he says, you have to think.

By 1991, when he came to the United States to visit his sister, Darko was one of the best players in Yugoslavia. The war started about then, and he decided to stay. To support himself, he became a neuromuscular therapist, and to practice his sport, he made frequent journeys to Europe and Asia.

That's how it was until a few months ago, when Schilhab opened his shop, and Congressman Bill Archer recognized that if the U.S. had more solid citizens like Darko Rop, we probably wouldn't be such global Ping-Pong embarrassments. Archer pushed through Darko's citizenship papers in time for the Olympics and announced that Darko was going to be the first Ping-Pong-playing Texan to make the country proud.

The man from Belgrade would have been glad to oblige ("I love America," he said), except that a couple of days after Archer's announcement, Darko slammed back the shot that would have won him a spot on the team, and it missed the table by a single inch. After that, he lost.

"It did not go," he explains with a shrug. "Next time, it will go."
From back home, Darko has imported Victor Subong to practice with him. You can find them every evening and many mornings at Schilhab's club, doing forehand diagonals for ten minutes and backhand diagonals for ten minutes, and five minutes down one line, five minutes down the other, and then all over again and over and over. Darko says the difference between a good player and a better one is practice. He's got four years to get it right.

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"I wish we were playing tennis," he says, smiling. "Those guys are millionaires!


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