USA Table Tennis

For the first 30 years of his life, Bob Fox had little or no contact with table tennis. After he’d graduated from the University of Minnesota and was attending Duke Law School he played some student pong. Once he was somehow paired against a very good North Carolina player—good enough to beat Bob (“Oh, my god—he can loop!”), 21-2, 21-3. However, six years after he’d gotten his law degree, the 1974 U.S. Open Team Championships were being played in Minneapolis, and, after attending a Dick Miles exhibition publicizing the tournament, he decided to come watch it. He wasn’t disappointed: sitting in the upper balcony, he got closer to the play than he’d thought possible—Paul Raphel’s racket sailed by and landed behind him. Hey, he thought, this game’s got drama, got ACTION. So he joined a local league.

            An unknown player to begin with, he gradually makes his move. At the 1979 U.S. Closed he’s the Under 1700 runner-up to Topics photographer Robert Compton. By the end of 1981 he has an 1841 rating. Three years later he’s close to 2000. Just past his 48th birthday, he’s about 2150. Two years later, he’s excelled in his age group, and with his combination bat—spinny rubber on the forehand, long pips on the back—has risen to become the #2 player in Minnesota behind Brandon Olson.

            So, o.k., Bob, as they say, has been a “useful” player. But, more importantly, he’s made himself useful elsewhere. At the law firm he’d joined, he worked with tax-exempt organizations until, one thing leading to another, he got involved as one of the founding faculty of Metropolitan University in St. Paul. Here for many years, until his recent retirement, he’d teach courses in Intro to Law, Constitutional Law, History of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, a Seminar on the Supreme Court, and Educational Philosophy. He’d also develop another outside interest—he became more knowledgeable, more savvy about wine—to the point where one evening in the mid-‘70’s he and a friend, feeling flush, treated themselves to a 1961 ($120 a bottle) Rothschild red. Reportedly he now has—shhh—a 400-bottle wine cellar. Also, Bob likes to travel, and, as he aged, he helped groups watch the wine do the same—took them on tours of vineyards.

            When Bob was in his mid-forties, he started, so to speak, a new career—one that for the next 20 years would quickly promote him to be the perennial Leader of USA Teams to major competitions not only in this country but all over the world. Again the table tennis turning-point came to him via Twin Cities competition. That’s where the 1990 U.S. Olympic Festival was held, and Bob was named “Local Coordinator.” Then, for the four remaining Festivals he was appointed the overall “Commissioner.”

            Having been the co-Tournament Director of the Mar., 1992 North American Olympic Trials, Bob led five top American players—Insook Bhushan, Jim Butler, Diana Gee, Lily Hugh, and Sean O’Neill—(and his own son Andrew) to the July-Aug. Barcelona Olympic Games, where Bob’s ability to speak Spanish was very helpful. Tampa was the send-off U.S. city (Busch Gardens was an Olympic sponsor)—and Sean and Diana did a demonstration and signed autographs at the George Steinbrenner Boys and Girls Club there. The U.S. end-up point was the White House, and a salute by the President and Mrs. Bush to the Olympians. Arnold Schwarzenegger attended, as did USOC Board member Steinbrenner, giving Bob a photo-op he took full advantage of. “What were the President and First Lady like?” I asked. “President Bush was charming,” he said, “and Mrs. Bush was almost charismatic.”

            I’ll continue with more of Bob’s U.S. Team travels in a moment, but I want to mention some of the other Association work he did. He was the 1992-94 U.S. Open/Closed Awards Committee Chair (he himself had been the 1992 recipient of Minnesota’s Ed Ells Leadership and Service Award). From 1995-2000, he Chaired the USATT National Team Committee—which meant he budgeted and planned for National Team activities and events. During the 1996-2000 years he was the Alternate USATT Representative to the USOTC. And from 1994 on, this General has also been a soldier in the trenches—an Operations/Control Desk worker at the U.S. Open/Closed.

            1995 saw Bob as the Team Leader to the Pan Am Games in Mar del Planta, Argentina. Pete May, who wrote up the Games for Larry Hodges’ Table Tennis Today magazine, said, “All Team details were handled by Team Leader Bob Fox, who did an incredible job. He seemed to do everything from driving the van, planning schedules, making sure the draws were fair, passing out uniforms, clearing medical records…the list is endless. Where does he get the energy?”

            Todd Sweeris, the Men’s winner at the ’95 Olympic Festival, disappointed that it would be the last Festival, had high praise for its Commissioner. As the USATT’s Player Representative at this time he writes a Letter to Table Tennis Today praising Fox. “He does a fantastic job of dealing with the individual needs of the players, whose ages run from 13 to 56 and whose personalities differ just as greatly….Thanks, Bob, for all your hard work and for making the Olympic Festival the most professional tournament we have! It was a real pleasure working with you!” (Later, Todd will give the Introductory speech for Bob at his 2009 Hall of Fame induction.)

            Bob leads another large contingent of players—Jim Butler, Amy Feng, Sweeris, Lily Yip, and David Zhuang—(and this time his own daughter Briana) to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Sean O’Neill in the USTTA magazine takes us through the matches, and Gary Ruderman, doing a video shoot for the ITTF, describes what congested Atlanta is like—by day at the Georgia World Congress Center, by night at Buckhead, the trendy party-scene neighborhood of Atlanta.

            Bob details the Team Processing, the Village (mini-mall) accommodations, the warm-up practice play, the Draw and Opening Ceremonies. “Rather than drawing plastic eggs with names inside (Barcelona), or folded pieces of paper with names on them from a cup (Mar del Plata), the Draw was done more quickly with a computer hooked up to a large screen display for all to see.” Bob tells us that, as a prelude to the Opening Ceremonies, “President Bill Clinton, First Lady Hilary Clinton, and daughter Chelsea (sans Socks) came into the Village and participated in a ceremony and gave wonderful speeches (Hilary was particular good).” Bob is thrilled to see Muhammed Ali, whom he will meet at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, light the Olympic Flame. In teaching his History of Civil Rights course, Bob realizes what a great American hero Ali was, and is. He’s the symbol of a person not being afraid to be what he/she is, a representative of freedom and independence.

            From 1996-1999 Bob’s the Director of the National Team Trials. These of course are extremely important to the players. Larry Hodges tells us that “USATT/USOC-sponsored National Team members receive a stipend, health and sport accident insurance, full team apparel, and are sent to selected international tournaments. Athletes also have the opportunity to use the USOC Athlete Support Program, which includes elements such as tuition assistance and job service.” So Director Bob’s gotta make sure all get scrupulously fair treatment.

            In 1997, Bob’s our Team Leader to the Manchester, England World Championships. That means, as usual, “he’s responsible for the administrative duties of the U.S. National Team including credential arrangements and travel plans. He makes certain that coaches and players do not have to concern themselves with anything other than their coaching and playing. The famous Chinese player/coach Li Zhenshi once said to Bob, “Some people do one thing and talk as if they’ve done a hundred; you do a hundred and talk as if you’ve done one thing.” Fortunately at Manchester, Bob also had some budget control, so when our players couldn’t eat the food the tournament served. they all switched happily to Chinese.

            Every once in a while Bob and his traveling players have to face up to trouble. The trip to the ’99 World Championships in Eindhoven, Netherlands was one such nightmare. Fresh from their Team’s unprecedented all-the-gold wins in the Winnipeg Pan Am Games—er, tired from rerouted flights and troubled by lost luggage with endless forms to fill out—half the U.S. contingent struggled into Eindhoven to connect with its other half. Team Leader Fox, who was taken to the wrong hotel, has to be ever diligent. He’s got USOC “tracking” specialists trying to find lost bags—including his own. Meantime: “We have to buy playing outfits…and shoes…unless—what’s your size? We don’t all play at the same time—maybe we could share?” Such unpleasantness—one woman team member who accompanied Bob to go out and buy clothes, was embarrassed at the need for getting women’s underwear. It was all as warm-up disorienting as playing the opening preliminary matches. In this prolonged August heat-wave, play was in an un-air-conditioned “Ice-Rink,” half a mile’s sweltering walk from the main venue, the Indoor Sportcentrum, also un-air-conditioned. For many it must have been a real bummer of a trip.

            As Team Leader to the 2000 Olympics, Bob goes to a Preparation Seminar in Sydney prior to the Games with National Coach Dan Seemiller and USATT Administrator Margaret Smith. They tour “the incredible 115,000-seat Olympic Stadium,” and Bob says this Olympic Village has the best conditions he’s seen—better than in Barcelona or Atlanta. While competing in Sydney, the U.S. players were happy to see Bill Gates—the Bill Gates—rooting for them. Bob wanted to present him with an appropriate USATT remembrance or two, but his bodyguards wouldn’t allow it. Finally, though, Gates did come over to the Team of his own accord.

            The Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia World’s provided a puzzle or two. One: how our Women’s Team could lose only one match and yet finish 33rd (some format, huh?). And Two: Bob was looking to find out how the (tripartite?) LAW worked there: (Indigenous law; Colonial British law; and Islamic law—what law trumped another, what governed who, where?) 

            At the 2003 Pan Am Games it was August in Santo Domingo—and “not having air-conditioning in the playing hall and an open ceiling made the playing conditions really rough.” However, our Team did have the opportunity to visit the Presidential and Residential Palaces and meet with the President of the Dominican Republic.

            The 2004 World’s in Doha, Qatar—some good things about this trip for Bob. One was the several-days warm-up the Team had with the Romanians and the eye-opening opportunity to see the rigorous training these players go through. Also, said Bob, “the National Wine Research Center gave out bottles of wine at every meal we had with the Romanians who didn’t have to pay.” And of course there were the opulent digs. Bob and multi-task USATT Director “Doru” Gheorghe shared a huge suite with all-around balconies facing the sea.

            Before the 2005 Guangzhou World’s, our players were given the benefit of a four-day Camp at Gao Jun’s East China University of Science and Technology in Shanghai . Bob and players thanked generous sponsors, the Double Fish and Xu Shao Fa Companies. And, hey, Jun made the quarter’s.

            Bob was also leading us at last year’s Beijing Olympics. The fifth-place finish for the U.S. Women’s Team (Gao, Wang Chen, and Crystal Huang) was the best showing for any American table tennis team in the Olympics. And, hey, Wang Chen made the quarter’s.

            For Bob to keep his enviable position as Team Leader for so many years means he sure has been doing many things right, not the least of which is earning the respect of the players. He always keeps a low profile, but he’s always there at the matches. He wants the players to feel they’re being supported. He doesn’t try to do critical analyses, but applauds and roots vigorously, and, if need be, offers a shoulder for a player to cry or at least lean on.

            Veteran star George Hendry, who represented the U.S. at a World Championship decades ago, says, “Bob Fox’s legal training and sense of fair play has earned him the respect of everyone he works with. He knows the sport inside and out.”

            In summing up what everyone realizes Bob stands for, I share with you his own credo:

 

                        I believe in respect and civility.

                         I believe in thought, deliberation, and cooperation.

                         I believe in consistent hard work

                         I believe in fairness and openness.

 

            “I’ve enjoyed every bit of work I’ve done for the athletes,” Bob says—“I hope I’m not finished helping them. Meanwhile, I’m incredibly pleased to be honored by this Hall tonight. Thank you.”