Table tennis takes off in Triangle

Staff WriterJuly 23, 2010 

— It's a table tennis free-for-all that feels more like a secret poker game.

Every Friday night, when most community centers all but shut down, Brier Creek's comes alive. Twelve top-of-the-line tables are rolled out onto the gymnasium floor, and about 45 addicts flock from all over the Triangle.

For more than three hours, it's organized chaos. White plastic balls fly across the gym. Grown men and women sprint like they're in the Wimbledon finals.

And you're welcome to join the madness. Just bring your A-game, pay the four bucks - and don't call it pingpong.

"Serious players call it table tennis," said Min Hsu, 57, an engineer who has played since 1983. "Pingpong is more for the basement player, someone who wants to play around. This isn't pingpong."

Sure, upscale Brier Creek, all the way up there in Raleigh's extreme northwest corner, might seem an unlikely venue for such an assemblage. But it's close to two major interstates, which means it's a short drive for most who live in Raleigh, Durham and Cary.

And this sport's appeal is spreading faster than an Olympic serve.

There are more table tennis venues in Wake County now than ever. Cary hosts the nation's largest round robin tournament every year. Celebrities such as Susan Sarandon are helping make the sport cool by turning nightclubs and bars into table tennis palaces, and Christopher Walken starred in a slapstick comedy about a pingpong master wanted by the FBI.

Jim McQueen, the Triangle's unofficial table tennis czar, has organized games and lobbied for the sport since the late 1960s. He credits the sport's recent popularity surge with growth and diversity in the area, and table tennis' appeal to those looking for something competitive but cheap.

Friday night, at least six countries were represented at Brier Creek.

"Internationally it's popular, like badminton and soccer," McQueen said. "In many countries, kids grow up playing the sport. And the world is just getting more international."

McQueen said recent media attention, and even Walken's box office dud "Balls of Fury," helped.

In 1967, McQueen and one of his N.C. State professors persuaded the city of Raleigh to let them host table tennis nights on Fridays at the Pullen Park Armory. They painted sheets of plywood green, set them on saw horses and begged their friends to play to show the city there was interest.

Eventually, McQueen's crew moved to Lions Park on Friday nights, where they met until 2002, when they moved to Middle Creek in Cary because it's air-conditioned. Cary's Bond Park also hosts national tournaments, and some play in the Bond Park Senior Center on Monday nights.

Almost immediately after the city broke ground on Brier Creek's community center several years ago, McQueen petitioned for another table tennis night.

Now, between venues in Durham, Raleigh and Cary, the regulars have somewhere to play every night of the week - except Thursdays, when many of them meet to play in McQueen's basement.

"We constantly dream of having a dedicated, full-time spot for table tennis where you come in, swipe your card and play," he said.

ray.martin@newsobserver.com or 919-836-4952

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