December 7, 2012
Marty Reisman, 82, a Wizard of Table Tennis, Dies
By DOUGLAS MARTIN in the New York Times
"Marty Reisman, a wizard at table tennis, the sport in which he captured national championships, won and lost fortunes on wagers and moved crowds to laughter — sometimes using a frying pan as a paddle — as an opening act for the Harlem Globetrotters, died Friday in Manhattan. He was 82.
The death was announced by Table Tennis Nation, an organization he founded two years ago to make his sport even more fun. Cooper Fallek, its chief operating officer, said the cause was complications of heart and lung ailments.
Known as “the Needle” for his slimness and quick wit, Mr. Reisman traveled the world to hustle movie stars and maharajahs, winning enough to become a three-time millionaire — and losing enough to be a three-time former millionaire. Once, when an 11-year-old asked for a lesson, he suggested a side bet.
“I took on people in the gladiatorial spirit,” he said in an interview with The New York Times in March.
He was good enough to win 22 major table tennis titles from 1946 to 2002, including two United States Opens and a British Open. Many consider him one of the 10 best ever to play the game. In 1997, at 67, he became the oldest player to win a national championship in a racket sport by winning the United States National Hardbat Championship.
In an interview with Forbes magazine in 2005, Sir Harold Evans, the writer and editor, who is a table tennis aficionado, credited Mr. Reisman with “the greatest drop shot ever seen on the face of the earth.”
Mr. Reisman cut a flamboyant figure. He favored Borsalino fedoras and Panama hats and fashionable, bright clothing. Before beginning a game, he habitually removed a $100 bill from his roll to measure the net. He talked fast, forever promoting what he termed “the Reisman myth.” His signature trick was breaking a cigarette in half from across the table. If the bet was large enough, he would play sitting down. If it was very large, he would play blindfolded.
He had a cause bigger than himself, however. After the Japanese player Hiroji Satoh showed up with a new kind of paddle to beat Mr. Reisman at the world championship in 1952 in Mumbai, then known as Bombay, Mr. Reisman crusaded against it. The old kind of paddle, called a hardbat — the one Mr. Reisman liked — was covered with a thin layer of pimpled rubber. The new one had smooth, thicker rubber and no pimples, and propelled the ball at greater speeds. He lost the argument; the new model became the game’s standard.
Not least of his objections was that the newer paddle was relatively soundless; he liked to react to the whack of paddle hitting ball, in the manner of an outfielder running at the crack of the bat.
“Before, there was a dialogue between the two players, wherein a 6-year-old child could understand the difference between offense and defense,” Mr. Reisman told The Times in 1998. “Today a point is made or lost with an imperceptible twist of the wrist.”
Table Tennis Nation promotes a version of the old-fashioned paddle, one covered with sandpaper rather than rubber. The thinking is that sandpaper rackets foster longer volleys. “This racket is the purest reflection of a player’s ability,” Mr. Reisman said.
For 20 years, starting in the late 1950s, Mr. Reisman operated the Riverside Table Tennis Courts at 96th Street and Broadway. It became as famous in its orbit as Stillman’s Gym was in prizefighting. Dustin Hoffman, Kurt Vonnegut, David Mamet and a group of violinists from the Metropolitan Opera were regulars. Bobby Fischer found relief from the rigors of chess there. Freddie the Fence, Herbie the Nuclear Physicist and Betty the Monkey Lady were institutions at Riverside.
Usually lurking in a little back room was Mr. Reisman, hoping for a challenging match with a worthwhile wager. In 1972, The New York Times Magazine described him as “coiling and uncoiling in preparation for the occasional mongoose foolish enough to challenge him.”
Martin Reisman, the son of a cabdriver, was born in Manhattan on Feb. 1, 1930. He told Forbes that he came to the sport after a nervous breakdown when he was 9 years old and found it soothing. He was city junior champion at 13. Soon he was hustling for real money at Lawrence’s Broadway Table Tennis Club at 54th and Broadway, a former speakeasy with bullet holes in the wall. At 16 he was touring England with a three-man exhibition team.
Three years later, he and Doug Cartland became the opening act for the Globetrotters. They played “Mary Had a Little Lamb” with frying pans, and hit balls across the net with the soles of their sneakers.
His betting ways got him in trouble once when he was 15. Participating at the national tournament in Detroit, he had placed a $500 bet on himself with a man he thought was a bookie, dropping five $100 bills into his palm. The man turned out to be the head of the United States Table Tennis Association. Police officers escorted Mr. Reisman from the tournament.
He is survived by his wife, Yoshiko; his daughter, Debbie Reisman; and several grandchildren.
Mr. Reisman once marveled that he had built a career around a game usually played in the basement next to the clothes dryer. “A funny way to spend a life,” he said."
As I wrote about here, Marty was gave me my very first table tennis lesson. I'll miss him.