In the '70s my family had a Ping-Pong table that was hemmed into our basement like a photograph in a frame, so that the walls on all sides—as in indoor soccer—were legally in play, in what my brothers and I called the National Indoor Ping-Pong League, whose brief (but hypercompetitive) existence may have owed to its unfortunate acronym: NIPPLe.
I have seldom thought of the game since then—or at least not until last April, when a young Ping-Pong obsessive named Barney J. Reed was suspended for two years by the International Table Tennis Federation after testing positive for an anabolic steroid. Reed, one of the few world-class American-born players, made Jay Leno's monologue (though Leno called him "Barry" Reed), Paul Harvey's radio show, the front sports page of USA Today and This Week's Sign of the Apocalypse. It was even suggested by one unscrupulous reporter—this one—that Reed was secretly corking his paddle.
"He got more press than table tennis has gotten in the last 25 years combined," says Reed's father, Barney D. Reed, an elementary-school table tennis instructor. "At least since Nixon's Ping-Pong diplomacy." Then, as quickly as he became infamous, Reed fils joined Rubble and Fife on the scrap heap of Barneydom.
Or did he? "I can beat most Americans with my shoe," says Reed, 24, by telephone from Taiwan, where he's living in Nixonian exile, training nine hours a day, seven days a week, for a triumphant return to competitive Ping-Pong in July, two years after his last sanctioned match. Laugh at this and he says softly, "It's not a joke: I've beaten many people with a sandal."
It's true. Reed with a shoe in his hand is like Khrushchev with a shoe in his, only more volatile. He can wax any star of hip-hop, with a flip-flop, at Ping-Pong, but Reed used standard equipment when rapper Tone-Loc—who travels with his own paddle, towel and entourage—challenged him to a match at a sports retailing convention in Las Vegas last year. On the very first point Reed looked right and served left, with the sidespin of a cyclone. "It was like a crossover dribble," says Reed, a trash-talking McEnroe of the minicourt. "I almost broke his ankles."
Twenty million Americans have played Ping-Pong recreationally, and every one of them is, in his or her own mind, a round-robin Rod Laver. "Most people, when they hear what I do, think of beer pong, the basement table, the ball rolling under the heater," says Reed, who started playing at three, began entering tournaments at six and left high school after 10th grade to be home-tutored in a table-tennis-intensive curriculum. Many spectators at an exhibition are surprised to see Reed standing as far as 40 feet from the table to receive a professional return. He always explains to them, before the ball arrives at 100 miles an hour, "I had a really big basement growing up."
Like any other child raised in North America, Reed dreamed, unrealistically, of becoming the next Jan-Ove Waldner. Who didn't? Fifteen years ago, Sweden's Waldner—the Michael Jordan of Ping-Pong—could monopolize a table like Charlie Rose. Today, Reed and his generation are not chasing Swedes but Chinese. "Table tennis, at its highest level, is a form of martial arts," says Reed. "You're on your toes, making striking motions at a ball, and I think that's why it's such a huge part of Asian culture."
While Reed would like nothing more than to beat the Chinese at their own game—in their own basement—at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, he will not do so at any cost. Thus Reed, then 6 feet, 160 pounds, "was [only] trying," says his father, "to beef himself up in the eyes of the opposite sex" when he bought a $30, over-the-counter, perfectly legal bottle of supplement containing androstenedione at a GNC store in Atlanta two years ago. "It was not" says the younger Reed, "something I bought in Mexico and [injected into] my butt."
Indeed, the arbitration tribunal that upheld Reed's suspension said, in its decision, "We are convinced that Reed did not intend to evade the anti-doping rules or to obtain a competitive advantage." No matter: He lost all his sponsors, save one. His mother, a dental hygienist, had a patient ask her if she'd heard about the Ping-Pong player who tested positive for steroids. "That's my son," she replied.
"I was made out to be a druggie," Reed says now, still in a daze from the media attention. "I don't want to be looked at as a cheat like Ben Johnson for the rest of my life."