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Continued: A fascination that became a passion

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Last update: August 7, 2008 - 11:26 AM

BEIJING - When he realized baseball's All-Star Game would be played in Yankee Stadium this summer, Bob Fox thought of his favorite sport being showcased on its most hallowed ground.

Unlike most Americans, he thought of table tennis in China.

"It's similar,'' he said in Beijing this week, gesturing as if to encompass the entire country. "This is Mecca.''

So what is Fox doing here? How did a Twin Cities resident and U of M alum become the manager of a group of Chinese players representing the U.S. Olympic table tennis team in China?

Actually, his story is typical of what could be called the less-appreciated Olympic sports, the story of a guy who fell in love with a game and volunteered his time until he became indispensable.

Fox attended high school and two years of college in Michigan, then finished his undergraduate studies at Minnesota. He was attending Duke law school when he had an epiphany:

Law school wasn't nearly as much fun as playing table tennis.

That's "table tennis,'' not ping-pong, which Fox describes as the game you play "after Sunday dinner down in the basement, with a beer in the corner and if you bounce it off the pipe, you get extra points.''

Fox admits "ping-pong'' is what he played while killing time in law school. An animated storyteller, he demonstrates the grip and motion of a ping-pong player, putting his thumb behind the face of an imaginary paddle and making a short, jabbing motion.

Table-tennis players, Fox explained, make sweeping, athletic shots reminiscent of a tennis player's topspin approach, and move their feet like ballroom dancers. Table tennis is the sport that thrives in China, a country so rich in talent that it fills other countries' Olympic rosters, including the United States', with castoffs.

"This is the prime sport here,'' Fox said. "I mean, there are some changes going on, but this is a huge sport in China, a huge piece of the culture. It's also a piece of the history and the tradition here.''

Fox made it to the finals of an intramural tournament at Duke when he met his first table-tennis player, the North Carolina state champ. Fox lost, 21-3, 21-2. He was hooked.

After starting his law career in the Twin Cities, Fox attended a table tennis tournament at the Minneapolis armory, and was amazed at the variety and quality of shots he saw. Soon he was visiting local bars that doubled as table tennis emporiums.

"I started taking lessons and playing in a handicap league, and then playing twice a week, then three times a week, then I started going to camps, and by the time I was 50 I was in the top four in the country for over-50,'' Fox said. "Then I started thinking, 'Well, I'm really not going to get any better,' and then we had the Olympic Festival in the Twin Cities, and they asked me to the be the local coordinator, and I did that.''

He wound up becoming the table tennis commissioner for the next four Olympic Festivals. Because he speaks Spanish and had been to Barcelona, he wound up managing the team in the Olympics.

Now he's managing in his fourth Olympics. This would be his fifth, but he missed the Athens Games because of a heart ailment.

He doesn't call himself a coach, because his players don't look to him for expertise. Instead, he offers encouragement, and keeps the mood light with -- what else? -- lawyer jokes. "I've got a million,'' he said.

What's one he's told his players? "Lawyer's sitting in a bar,'' Fox said. "Guy comes up to him and says, 'I can make you the richest, most powerful person in this whole town, you will win every one of your cases, all I want is the souls of you, your wife and children.'

"The lawyer sits there for a while. Finally, he says, 'What's the catch?' "

Fox is a founding faculty member at Metropolitan State University, and he recently visited the Nixon Library. It wasn't law or teaching that earned him an invitation, but a reunion of the U.S. table tennis team that visited China in 1971.

"It brought back a lot of memories,'' Fox said.

Fox is probably the only table tennis official at the Olympics whose memories include, as he likes to put it, "Beer Pong.''

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP. jsouhan@startribune.com

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