Opening Volley (cont.)
Ten days after the tour, in a message delivered by the Pakistanis, Zhou told Nixon that "the Chinese government reaffirms its willingness to receive publicly in [Beijing] . . . the President of the U.S. himself for a direct meeting and discussion." The President and his national security adviser toasted what Kissinger called "the most important communication that has come to an American President since the end of World War II."
And just when history might take itself too seriously, there was Cowan, telling the press back in Hong Kong, "What I am is my message. I loved China. I loved the Chinese. Where else, man, would you see a child of three carrying a child of two in its arms?"
Stardom seemed to await Cowan upon his return home, and he wore his fame ostentatiously and awkwardly, like that floppy hat. He landed a guest spot on Dinah Shore's talk show. Someone approached him to cohost a pilot for a variety show. He wrote The Book of Table Tennis, or at least posed for the instructional photos. And he signed with an import-export firm to promote a Chinese-made paddle called Double Happiness. The U.S. was an international table tennis also-ran, but Cowan alone could make up in style much of what he and his teammates lacked in substance. "Glenn was a rock star," remembers Robert Lange, a former doubles partner. "He was the biggest thing [U.S.] table tennis had ever seen."
"He thought he was going to really make it big," says Connie Sweeris, one of Cowan's teammates in the U.S. delegation. But the TV show never panned out. And the imported paddles couldn't be secured in mass-market quantities, so the role for Cowan -- to make promotional appearances -- never came off.
Shortly after his return to the U.S., Cowan was taken to see a doctor because "he was acting a little erratic," says his mother, who's now 93 and an executive assistant at the Improv, the comedy club in Los Angeles. The diagnosis: Glenn was bipolar. "He felt people were spying on him," Fran says. "He went into the hospital, and they gave him medication to keep him on an even keel. If he went off it and got high, that would throw him off. Pot was his thing: He took the drugs and didn't take his medication."
When the Chinese team visited the U.S. in the spring of 1972, Cowan didn't take part in the tour. His manager and friend, former U.S. Open champion Bobby Gusikoff, had to escort him back to California from the tour's starting point in Detroit. "Glenn freaked out," says one former U.S. table tennis official. Cowan fell into a cycle: He would go off his meds, get hospitalized, then be released after 72 hours. "It went on for years," his mother recalls. "It was exhausting for the family. There is nothing in the world you can do about it."
Cowan fell hard for fellow California-based player Angelita Rosal, with whom he played mixed doubles in the early 1970s. He claimed to be Mick Jagger's half brother, then serenaded her with the Rolling Stones' Angie, telling Rosal that Jagger had written it for her. He would make schizophrenic references to "MGM," which stood for "Mao Glenn Mick." "He was obsessed with Mao and Mick Jagger," recalls Danny Goodstein, who befriended Cowan in the fall of '72. "He had somehow made that connection and put himself with them.
"I remember one time he was dropped off at my door," adds Goodstein. "He was out of it, talking nonsense. I drove him to [a mental hospital] in the Valley. He kicked a coffee table, and they took him in. Every spring it seemed like he freaked out. My idea is that the team went to China in the spring and he had the fleeting fame, and after that went away, it became a triggering event. It was almost a running joke -- springtime, time for Glenn to flip out."
Cowan eventually picked up a teaching credential at UCLA after graduating from Santa Monica College. He taught school for a stretch and sold shoes. "He always saw it as a real comedown, this worldwide celebrity out there selling shoes," says Sandy Lechtick, who hired Cowan at his headhunting firm in the early 1990s, and remembers him as intrepid in all he did. "He was most fearless when it came to girls and competition. When he was here as a recruiter he had that same fearlessness. That's why he did well."
Throughout, he haunted the Hollywood Table Tennis Club. "He was still playing almost until the end," says Fran Cowan, who displays Zhuang's gift to her son in the dining room of her Westwood home. "He loved it. He had an addictive nature. He was addicted to Ping-Pong, he was addicted to drugs."
About a decade ago Cowan briefly married, but the relationship ended after two months. By then, having discovered paddle tennis, he was hanging out on the courts at Venice Beach, hustling games. He lost his apartment, then spent several years living out of his car and on the streets, Lechtick says. "He'd be at the courts at Venice Beach, begging money. He'd be barefoot and borrow someone's racket and still win. Even when he was homeless, he always had a backpack with that Ping-Pong book he wrote."
Around 2000 Cowan underwent a bypass operation following a heart attack. He died of another heart attack on April 6, 2004, the eve of the 33rd anniversary of China's invitation to the U.S. team. He was 52. "He was like a comet," says Lange, Cowan's former doubles partner. "Flashed through the sky and then gone."
Or as Tannehill puts it, "After China, everything seemed to be useless." Then he poses a rhetorical question that could serve as Cowan's epitaph. "How could you do better than world peace?"
By the early '60s, China's table tennis players lorded over their sport the way Kenyan marathoners dominate theirs today. Zhuang Zedong was best of them all, winning world singles titles in 1961, '63 and '65. But in 1966 Mao launched the Cultural Revolution. In a massive and bloodthirsty turning of the tables, students and peasants took vengeance on teachers and intellectuals. As China withdrew into a madness of its own making, millions were killed, jailed or exiled to the countryside, to be reeducated in the ways of Mao's Little Red Book.
When China skipped the worlds in 1967 and '69, members of the clannish table tennis community tried to find out if the champion with the easy smile and a forehand drive that former U.S. titlist Dick Miles called "the most perfectly executed stroke in the game" had survived. "Dead or Alive?" wondered a caption beneath a photo of Zhuang that ran alongside an SI report from the 1969 worlds. In fact Zhuang and other members of the team had been jailed, charged with allying themselves with Mao's rival, Liu Shaochi -- ironic, given that Zhuang had once said, "I owe my entire table tennis success to the study of Mao Zedong's philosophy." At that, he was lucky: Three other Chinese table tennis greats committed suicide during the late 1960s, including Rong Guotuan, who in '59 had become the first Chinese to win a world title in any sport.
Zhuang's role in Ping-Pong Diplomacy catapulted him back into favor. When the Chinese team returned the U.S. team's visit in 1972, Zhuang, by then a deputy in the National People's Congress, served as delegation head. He performed card tricks during airplane flights -- making "the meticulously planned appear spontaneous," to use Kissinger's phrase. He shared wisdom infused with as much Zen as Mao. ("Though Ping-Pong is a highly competitive sport, there is no real victory or defeat. There is always both. Just as there is no life without death, there is no death without life. The whole world is unified like this.") Upon returning to Beijing, Zhuang settled into a job as Minister of Physical Culture and Sports.
Yet the heady years of the early 1970s turned out to be only a pause before the chaos returned. Attacked in 1976 for being too close to Mao's widow and the discredited Gang of Four, Zhuang lost his ministerial position and had to find work as a street sweeper. Then he was denounced publicly for, among other things, "wearing a Swiss-made watch" and tossed once again into jail. In '77 he reportedly used a belt to try to hang himself in his cell. The sudden way China's political winds would shift -- the back-and-forth rally of what and who is in and out of favor -- only underscores what a risk Zhuang took on that bus in Japan.
The reward on that risk has been bountiful. Within a year the People's Republic would join the U.N., and the SALT talks would open a path to U.S.-Soviet détente. Meanwhile, sports continued to play a central role in opening up China. Beijing received IOC recognition in 1979 and sent a full delegation to the 1984 Olympics, taking some of the sting out of the Soviet Union's boycott of the Los Angeles Games. When Deng Xiaoping took over, he introduced market reforms with a declaration that "it doesn't matter if the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice." The IOC awarded the 2008 Olympics to Beijing in '01. "The legacy is that we haven't bombed each other," says Tannehill. "Without the make-love-not-war idea that Glenn [espoused], we might not be here."
Upon learning of Cowan's death, Zhuang wanted to know how Americans had reacted. In fact no news outlet beyond the table tennis world carried an obituary. When Zhuang dies, he pointed out, everyone in China will know. The irony of it: In the individualistic society that mints and worships celebrities, Cowan is forgotten; in collectivist China -- where to be one in a million is to live among a thousand more just like you -- Zhuang is fully rehabilitated and heralded as a man who forever changed his country's course. Ever the diplomat, Zhuang in 2006 hosted several American players and officials, as well as Fran Cowan, on a 35th-anniversary return visit to China. At dinner the last evening the group sang a karaoke version of Let It Be in Glenn's honor.
"I only know how to play Ping-Pong, how to hit the ball from this side of the table to the other," Zhuang said last September before an audience at Southern Cal. Then he got just right the sentiment at the heart of Let It Be: "Sometimes the ball drops. Sometimes it goes out-of-bounds."
It's the kind of existential musing that might as easily have come from Glenn Cowan, who discovered the hard way that if the world leaves you off-kilter, you can't just put in a new floor. But with someone else, a person to supply a Pong to your Ping, that world might be brought into something closer to equilibrium.