USA Table Tennis

Yep, you could read about it in the morning paper:

"'It was definitely an upset,' Bobby Gusikoff, 26, said, still sweating and breathing hard after trying to keep up with Jack Howard's bustling-type running game. 'And a surprise. I've played him hundreds of times and he's never beaten me. He sure was good tonight though.' Howard was actually more surprised than anyone by the outcome. 'Before the match I didn't give myself much of a chance,' he said. 'But I had absolutely nothing to lose. It's different when you're supposed to win; the pressure is on you. I'm at the top of my game now, I had everything in my favor."

The year? 1962. After an unusual 6-year absence from tournament play during what would normally be a player's peak time, Jack had come back to win the Long Island Open --beating a disgusted Bernie Bukiet in straight games in the semi's and an astonished Bobby Gusikoff, 19-in-the-5th, in the final.

And, yes, you would have to say that if Jack could defeat these two National Champions he was at the top of his game--at least what game he had then, momentarily, for he had never been ranked in the Top 10, and would not be ranked in the Top 10 this Long-Island-victory-year, or the next year, or even the next.

But by that '65-'66 season, when I, returning to the sport, had begun practicing with Jack at Gusikoff's New York Club, he'd been getting consistently better. Now he was both an excellent defender and a punishing attacker with arguably the best backhand loop in the country. "The name of the game is SPIN," he was saying, and with another look to the future was urging Table Tennis to adopt some new scoring system that would make the sport more exciting to the spectators.

In the fall of 1966, the N.Y. Team of Jack, Dick Miles, Freddie Berchin, and I won the USOTC's--and Jack, in losing only one match, beat four Top 10 players. From now on, until his retirement, he would stay at the top of his game. Perhaps even win a National Men's Singles Championship?...

Uh, this was the '66-'67 season--world-ranked Dal-Joon Lee's first in the U.S.

At the '67 Eastern's, Jack wins the first game from D-J, rounds the table, hand outstretched. When D-J looks puzzled and says, "That's just the first game," Jack feigns amazement and replies, "What! We play more than one game?" Actually, they played three more: -14, -13, -9. Never mind, Jack would have other opportunities to play D-J.

At the 1967 USOTC's, Howard had a 16-1 record. Who'd he lose to? D-J. And then at the '68 U.S. Open there (after almost falling in the quarter's to the newly arrived Thai, Surasek, 24-22 in the 5th) was Jack in the final. Who'd he lose the Championship to? D-J.

Deja vu for the '68-'69 season. At the USOTC's, Jack again had 16 wins and again lost to D-J. At the '69 U.S. Open he lost to D-J in the semi's.

However, that season, in Geza Gazdag's 3rd Vanderbilt Invitational Tournament in New York City, Jack did very well not only to beat 9-time German National Champ Conny Freundorfer but 19-year-old Bernd Jansen, the German #2.

In the 1970 Toronto CNE tournament, Jack was again stopped in a prestigious final--but only by another world-class player, the Czech #1, Yaroslav "Yardo" Stanek, whom he won the Doubles with.

About this time Jack began to take on other responsibilities. Of course, even after he'd ascended to the Top 10, Jack'd had his share of losses--to fellow Californians Erwin Klein and Glenn Cowan, for example, and to the smooth-stroking New Yorker from the Dominican Republic, Errol Resek. Now perhaps Jack's game would suffer because he was becoming more and more interested in Coaching?

In 1968 he'd assisted former World Champion Ichiro Ogimura at his Los Angeles clinic. And in '69 he'd helped U.S. Team Captain John Read at the Munich World's--had become Wendy Hicks's coach, and Glenn Cowan's too. He'd also become more and more outspoken.

At the '69 San Francisco Open, at an open USTTA meeting, Jack, having just returned from the World's, said that "U.S. players have all the ability, everything, that foreign players have, except good practice habits and self-discipline."

He began to push for special International Team Squad (ITS) Matches at big tournaments, and wanted to improve our Women's play by involving them in matches against strong men players.

He objected to the USOTC format of so many meaningless matches. "Why," he said, "should a man's record consist predominately of wins over 15 weaker players. This is no accurate test of stamina, imagination, or ability. It's just busy work." Weaker teams should have to play off for qualifying spots before any of them are put up against the better players.

And, faced with spectators shouting out advice to their favorites, some of them showing the poorest taste or sportsmanship by yelling in the middle of a point, what nonsense, he argued, to insist that he, Jack, the Coach, not be allowed to say, without disrupting play in the slightest, "Wendy, serve short."

The USTTA ought to have a Rating System? O.K. Taking his cue from an old college professor who believed it wasn't enough just to criticize, that one himself had to take action to improve things, Jack spent months and months devising a Rating System based on the International Chess Federation's formula.

But still he continued to play--and, oh, oh, in the '70 National's his opponent was that troublesome Resek.

"I know what's on Jack Howard's back," says my six-year-old Eric running in and out beside me, while Jack, grim-faced as usual, is playing Errol.

"What's on Jack Howard's back?" I ask Eric, humoring him.

"JACK HOWARD," he says, spelling out the letters on the back of Jack's shirt.

Talk about pressure, talk about too many irons in the fire that burned in the smithy of Jack's psyche--that's to talk about the Nagoya World's, and, afterwards, the venture into the unknown, the so-called "Ping-Pong Diplomacy" trip, with Jack as U.S. Team Captain, and Cowan as his friend, confidant, and #1 problem child.

Glenn, the paparazzi's delight; the tabloid leader of our Group: the hippie/opportunist waiting, hoping, for the best of those many pictures of himself to develop--look back at him out of Life.

In Hong Kong, the night before we're all to leave in the morning for Canton to go into Mainland China, Glenn has suddenly disappeared, is gone all night! Finally, with daylight, he appears.

"Where in hell were you?" Team Captain Jack roars. He's been beside himself with worry, agonizing over whether he should make Glenn's embarrassing absence public. "I walked the streets looking for you! I thought maybe you were lying in an alley someplace!"

Such an innocent Cowan was. Fortunately the long-haired Chinese girl's bedroom clock had rung--and Glenn had awakened as out of one dream into another: the Let It Be trip of a lifetime.

And something of a disturbing trip for Jack, for us all. As I was committed to write for the New York Times, so Jack was committed to write for Newsweek. We tried to be observant, but we were necessarily polite guests. When, coming in to take our "foreign-correspondent" place, the professional journalists arrived--all of them so unabashedly pushy--Jack said, "Seeing them work, I feel as if I've never read a book, or written a letter, or even talked to someone."

It seemed that Jack had to go abroad to see how dissatisfied he was with his life in the States. "My own job, it's all grist," he said. "It's all fat. None of it satisfies me. I've got to break away, get down to essentials, set up new priorities, new standards." And, suiting the action to the word, the word to the action, he came home and, without the prospect of even a temporary job, said he was going to quit IBM for life.

And quit the table tennis world he did rather shortly thereafter too. But not before he'd lost to D-J in the quarter's of the '71 National's, and not before he'd lost to D-J again in the final of the '72 National's.

Had there been no D-J Lee immigrating to the U.S. in Jack's time, Jack Howard would have been (once? twice? three times? four?) the U.S. Champion.