Marcus Jackson is getting a workout, and he’s working up quite a sweat. For an hour, barely pausing, he serves and volleys over and over again with coach Jack Huang. He’s 17, a top-ranked U.S. junior and a regular since the age of 7 at the Maryland Table Tennis Center (MTTC).
It’s early evening on a Friday. Marcus and Coach Jack are almost alone in the cavernous warehouse tucked away in an industrial park off Frederick Road in Gaithersburg. Filling the emptiness with the “whack, whack” of paddle on ball at one of a dozen tables that will soon be in full use with 50 or so eager players, you might say they’re making quite a racket.
The largest of the state’s three fulltime ping-pong palaces grows champions from the ground up. They come here when they are barely able to see over the table and develop into big-time competitors, raking in the trophies and medals that have made the MTTC a national powerhouse in the world of table tennis.
Marcus, from Hyattsville, is here with his father, aunt, and cousin. He is among the few African Americans who frequent the place, which draws largely from the Chinese-American community. That makes sense, as the center’s two coaches were ping-pong pros in China before immigrating here, and table tennis is the most popular recreational sport in China, with an estimated 300 million players. Rating sheets on the wall here are in both English and Chinese.
But there are also players here with roots in Iran, India, and Sri Lanka. There are even a few American-born white males and children.
Can you say multicultural?
There are also tournaments for all ages and levels, as well as spring, winter, and summer camps. Coaches Huang and Cheng Yinghua both began playing in China as young children and were members of the Chinese National Team. After immigrating, Coach Jack was the top-ranked player in the United States in 1990, and Coach Cheng almost continuously from 1988 to 2000.
In 1991, Jack and Cheng co-founded the center with Larry Hodges, a Prince George’s County native and table-tennis journalist who has written two books on the subject and, for 12 years, edited USA Table Tennis magazine.
Larry, 49, also excels at the game and is quite a trickster, serving from several tables away and keeping the ball in the air—with his breath.
Located in this nondescript warehouse since 1997, the center is open year round, seven days a week. It has about 100 members, with families paying $450 a year, single adults $350, and “juniors” (those under 18) $225. There are another 100 or so who aren’t members but often use the facility, paying a drop-in fee of $7 per person for two hours.
“Someone called us the ‘friendly neighborhood warehouse table-tennis community,’” Larry says.
Friendly, yes, but also competitive.
To the uninitiated, the game looks simple enough, repetitious, even. But, says Coach Jack, “Everything you need to do right: foot work, motion, forehand, backhand, spin, speed.”
Table tennis “is very subtle,” Marcus adds. “A small spin can make all the difference. It’s a tactical game. Many don’t realize that. You have to be very smart. I don’t know any dumb people who play this game.”
On this particular evening, Jack’s charges also include 8-year-old Amy Lu, of Germantown, who started playing with her father, Shawn Lu, 55, a computer programmer, in their basement. She’s been taking lessons from Jack for eight months.
“She’s smooth, fast, very quick,” he says, predicting her future success in competition “if she try hard.”
“Here,” says Amy, meaning the region in general, “everybody likes basketball.