Let it be said at the outset that Houshang Bozorgzadeh (born Nov. 28, 1935 in southern Teheran)—the celebrated 3-time Iranian National Champion and Captain/Coach/Manager of eight U.S. World Teams--is very proud of his name, and so does not want, however affectionately, to be called “Bozo” for short. He prefers simply “Houshang”—which is understandable since, after hearing all the garbled attempts U.S. players have made, perhaps he himself no longer knows how to pronounce his last name. Oh, alright, it’s “Buh-zorg-ZAHD-ay [the last syllable riming with “way,” as in making his way].
Houshang began his life—his table tennis life—the first year he went to high school. “I developed very fast,” he says—perhaps because he was already a well-coordinated volleyball and soccer player.
At that time in Teheran there were no Iranian National Championships, but after Iran’s first participation in the World Championships in 1951, it was not long before as many as a 100 basement clubs had sprung up in Teheran alone. To go in and play someone on one of maybe four tables would cost you 10 cents an hour.
“Everybody played,” said Houshang—only his parents didn’t, and didn’t even know their son played…until it was too late. “Like parents everywhere they wanted me to study hard, to plan for my future. They didn’t like it that at least half my time was spent playing table tennis.”
But Houshang soon got it together. Soon he was spending all his time at table tennis—constantly practicing his half-volley game. There was, however, one man, Amir Ehteshamzadeh, who continued to stand tall over Houshang, whom he could not beat.
Amir was quite something—was a very proud, very independent man who was often in trouble with authorities. The most famous story about him—at least that’s printable here—was his disqualification at the 1959 World Championships in Dortmund, Germany. One morning preparatory to play he was on line for breakfast and, unaware of the meaning of a sign in both German and English (languages he didn’t read)--that only one milk per person was allowed--Ehteshamzadeh took two, or tried to, but he was stopped, and the extra milk forcibly taken from him. It was thought (as if his reputation had preceded him?) that he’d understood the sign and had simply been defiant.
Ehteshamzadeh was so embarrassed, so angry, by this that he became, as Houshang says, “very naughty.” He did more than give the authorities the “F___ You” finger, he went back to the table on which sat 50 or so milks and stuck two fingers into this glass, that glass—into every single glass. This may have helped make him one of the most affectionately talked about sports heroes in Iran, but it did not endear him to the German tournament officials who turned thumbs down on him for the rest of the Championships.
In 1955 Amir had apparently put his fingers or fist someplace else quite unwanted, and in his absence Houshang, at 19, won his first National Championship. The strategy he used was all his own. “When my opponent hit the ball hard, I returned it close to the net; when he hit the ball soft, I returned it deep. Block after block I brought him in and out until I out-positioned him and either forced an error (it’s hard for players to move and hit at the same time), or maneuvered to get a high ball I could smack in with my forehand. I alone developed this style, and when later I traveled all over the world, players had never seen my unique chop-block game before, and I was very effective against them.”
Bozorgzadeh’s first outside-the-country match for Iran was in Basra, Iraq in 1956. Play followed in small international tournaments in such exotic places as Karachi, and in India, Ceylon, and Thailand. In 1957, participating in his first World Championships in Stockholm—Houshang Captained the Iranian Team to a successful 17th-place finish, and he himself made the 16th’s of the Singles.
Houshang’s opportunity to come to the States for the first time occurred when, in Teheran in 1957, he met U.S. Team Captain Bill Gunn (who’d earlier that year led our U.S. Team to the Stockholm World’s) and his two accompanying players, U.S. Champion Bernie Bukiet and Junior Bobby Fields. What the three of them were doing in Iran Bill tells us in his later Captain’s Report:
“It all began when our [U.S.] Ambassador to Afghanistan wired the Sports Section of the U.S. State Department that as a gesture of good will American athletes take part in Afghanistan’s week long annual celebration of its independence. A gigantic sports program, to which athletes of many nations are invited, is always a part of this celebration.
Since table tennis is the major sport of this Asian country [sic: surely questionable, though the Afghan Association was a member of the ITTF], the USTTA received an invitation to send two players, and a playing captain… delegated to arrange the tour with State Dept. officials. The scope of the tour was enlarged to include also Iran, West Pakistan, East Pakistan, India, and Ceylon, subject to approval of the governing Table Tennis Associations in each and the State Dept. representatives….”
Teheran was this U.S. Team’s first stop on a projected two-month Tour, and the visitors are “startled,” are “almost overwhelmed” by the welcome:
“It seemed that every official and player of Iran was there to greet us, including all the young lady players of Teheran, to whom we were individually introduced. Garlands of flowers were hung around our necks and it seemed we shook hands and signed autographs by thousands, amid flashing of cameras.”
Then “a triumphal parade from airport to the city, with loud speakers blaring and crowds waving welcome.” Later, there were receptions, “a luncheon at beautiful Shambrun Country Club given by [the Iranian TTA President] Mr. [Mahmoud] Hadjebi, and dinner at the magnificent Dharhan Hotel high up on a mountainside.”
The featured U.S. vs. Iran match, held in the Teheran University Gym, with Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi and Queen Soraya in attendance, saw Bukiet and Fields win the Doubles, but both lose in the Singles to both Bozorgzadeh and Edmond Korlov. “The Iranian boys [Houshang was then 21] proved too strong and steady,” said Gunn, “however I had hoped that there had been a little more time for…[Bernie and Bobby] to become accustomed to the extreme heat and altitude, which had an effect on them.”
Anyway, said Gunn, after a follow-up successful match in Tabriz, “We made friends, and I reiterate that there is nothing like friendly competitions in the field of sports to further international understanding and peace.”
The Shah, Houshang would one day tell me, was a good tennis player, and also had an interest in table tennis. On occasion Houshang would be invited for dinner, and to play with him, at his Golestan Palace. “The Shah could hit the ball,” Houshang said to another interviewer. And he was generous—would give Bozorgzadeh and his teammates pocket money. “Every Christmas,” said Houshang, “we would have all new clothes from him.”
“Were your games ever close?” I asked the National Champion. “He generally scored 10-15 points from me,” said Houshang.
“And what about the Shah himself? One hears stories. What kind of a person was he?”
“The Shah I knew,” said Houshang, “was a great leader. I don’t believe he killed anybody—I don’t want to believe that. Certainly he was a very nice man to athletes, very likeable. I don’t know what happened when I eventually left Iran to live in the U.S.—but I’m still shocked by it.”
After the U.S.-Iran matches, Houshang, at the invitation of Bill Gunn, became the Shah’s first official Iranian athlete in the U.S. Since he’d done so well in the Asian Games, he should have been a visiting celebrity, but I can’t find a word about his visit in the official USTTA publication of the time. Maybe no one in the States knew what to make of his highly individual, not to say eccentric game? For, as had been proven abroad, even very good players would find their timing disrupted by Houshang’s change-of-spin serves, exasperating chop/block returns, and interruptive broken-wing forehand kills.
“When I first arrived in the United States,” says Houshang, “I knew how to say only ‘Yes’ and ‘Thank you very much.’ My optimism, though, was immense. I came to New York City with Gunn and hob-nobbed with the rich (or at least I thought they were rich)—and they all seemed so hospitable, so eager to teach me how to make money, how to dance. I thought America with her everybody-has-pocket-money culture was a paradise. Bill Gunn was even talking about sending me to Yale.”
No, Houshang did not go Ivy League. Nor did he win the 1958 Asbury Park, N.J. U.S. Open—but only the winners stopped him. In the quarter’s of the Singles, “Hashung Boryogzahde,” as the USTTA Newsletter had it, lost to Marty Reisman in 5, and in the Doubles Houshang/ Bobby Fields were beaten in the semi’s by Reisman/Dick Miles, also in 5.
Eventually Houshang would become a U.S. citizen. But in 1958 and for years to come he would remain the Iranian Team’s Captain/Coach—and one who still had a few things to learn. It’s with rueful good humor that Houshang tells of his prejudice concerning the soon to be well-known Vietnamese defensive star Mai Van-Hoa. “He was short” (as a volleyballer Houshang himself must have had a height problem), “so whenever he’d asked me to practice with him, I always begged off, could never take him seriously.”
When Houshang went to the Asian Games in 1958, however, his attitude changed—and with good reason. This nondescript little guy he’d been ignoring beat the Japanese World Champions Ogimura and Tanaka who for four years had been dominating the Sport, and so helped Vietnam to win the Team title. After that, Houshang was quite happy to practice with Mai—that is, if he’d let him. And he would, for Houshang himself finished 3rd behind Mai and runner-up Ogimura.
In 1959 at the World Championships in Dortmund, in the Singles, Bozorgzadeh, down 2-0 to Miles, forced the multi-time U.S. Champion into the 5th. Dick would get to the semi’s before, up 2-0, he’d lose in 5 to the winner, China’s Jung Kuotuan. “My hardest match?” he’d said when it was all over. “Against Bozorgzadeh.” Houshang, meanwhile, would go on in Dortmund to win the World Consolation Championship.
The Iranian government had been sending Phys. Ed students to different countries—and with Bozorgzadeh’s successes it was no surprise that in 1960 he was granted a full-time scholarship to come to the U.S. and study at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. Houshang of course was not your average jock. In addition to improving his volleyball, soccer, swimming, and wrestling skills, he minored in Industrial Arts and learned welding, woodworking, painting, and repairing of all kinds. One of the first things he made and painted was of course a table—a table tennis table, something apparently that heretofore couldn’t be found on campus.
That summer he came East. And found a job as swimming instructor and lifeguard at the Edgewater Beach Club in Eatontown, N.J., not far from Asbury Park. Someone once asked him if he ever “saved anyone.” “Saved a dog,” he said.
A girl he dated at this time brought him one evening to Bobby Gusikoff’s New York City Club, where he remembers Leah Neuberger’s husband Ty, who liked to bet on table tennis matches (and anything else), backing him against Miles. Houshang said he and Dick must have played 8 hours straight, or more, while for much of that time his date slept. (Yes, she did go out with him again, but never to a table tennis club.) Houshang said he couldn’t lose because he wasn’t betting much and Neuberger was giving him money whether he beat Miles or not. (The real test of wills was between Dick and Ty?)
In September of 1960, in the company of Bobby Fields, Houshang went to his first Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) tournament in Toronto—and did very well. He beat former world-class star and then Canadian National Champion Max Marinko in the quarter’s, and N.Y.’s Marty Doss in the semi’s, before losing to former and future U.S. Champ Erwin Klein in the final. He also teamed with Doss to take the Doubles.
While Houshang was going to school in Iowa, he represented Iran in the ’63 Prague and also the ’65 Ljubljana World’s where, in Swaythling Cup play, he defeated not only the entire U.S. team (Bukiet, Danny Pecora, and Jerry Kruskie) but the entire #3 Korean and Russian teams as well. Likely it was there in Ljubljana that Houshang was playing Anatoly Amelin in a climactic match that would decide whether Iran would prevail over Russia or not. If Houshang won, glory to him, his teammates, and supporters—not the least of whom, watching the match, was that same Mr. Hadjebi who’d welcomed the U.S. Team in ’57. He was still the President of the Iran TTA and a personal friend of the Shah.
Up 18-9 in the deciding 3rd, Houshang seemed to have victory in hand. But then Amelin began to get hot, began winning point after point—and Houshang began to hear behind him little gasps and urgent shouts—impossible to make out, but ones that understandably suggested worry. Alright, alright, dammit, I’m trying hard, he mumbled to himself. But 18-13…18-14…18-15….More gasps, more shouts and little screams, more commotion….I’m trying, Houshang thought, I’m trying. Can’t you see I’m concentrating only on the match?…18-16…18-17….And now suddenly all was quiet behind him. Had his supporters given up on him? But though they might have lost faith, Houshang steadied, played beautifully, and ran out the match! He hurriedly shook hands with Amelin and the umpire, then spun round triumphantly for his reward, half a step on the run to jump into his teammate Amir’s arms or anybody else’s. Only…there was no one there!
Turned out that Mr. Hadjebi, the Presidential friend of the Shah, had suffered a serious, though not fatal, heart attack, had been taken away, and all had shortly followed to see if he lived or died….
I won’t say other surprises followed, but certainly other successes did. At the ’66 Asian Games in Bangkok, Houshang reached the semi’s. At the ’67 Stockholm World’s, he’d again meet the Americans—would beat Klein and Dell Sweeris, but this time would lose to Pecora. And at the ‘69 Russian-Iran Matches in Baku, he’d finish #1.
After getting his university degree in the mid-‘60’s—years later he’d be back in Iowa doing post-graduate work—Houshang had to abide by the contractual agreement he’d signed with the Iranian government. His studies were to have benefited his native country, right? Right. So for six years, through his attendance at the Munich, Nagoya, and Sarajevo World’s, Houshang taught physical education in the Teheran American School, was Technical Advisor to the Iranian Minister of Physical Education and Culture, and continued as Player/Coach of the Iranian National Table Tennis Team.
Just what Houshang demanded of his charges in the way of eye, hand, and foot exercises no doubt depended on their relative skill level, but he once told me about coaches he’d known who’d urged their win-hungry players to keep throwing peanuts or little pieces of candy up in the air. The idea, of course, was for the player to catch them coming down, in his mouth—for hand and eye coordination. “One Iranian,” said Houshang with a twinkle, “was so good—honestly—he was like a dog. He could even catch an apple in his mouth.” Here Houshang took a little jump, looked up and growled. “Every American would lose to him,” he said as I started to laugh. “You try to catch an apple and you’d see—you’d break your nose.”
Houshang also told me about a bicycle-coaching method he saw in Russia. There was a bicycle wheel for the aspiring player to practice on—and an attached speedometer. You took your racket and put it on the wheel and began to stroke—to rub up and follow through, to rub up and follow through, to rub up and follow through—until your arm just couldn’t go up anymore, not even once. There was also a two-step, or a four-step exercise that one did on a stairway. Up with the left foot, then down with the left while up with the right, then up or down left, up or down right, backwards and forwards—yeah, I haven’t got it quite right here, but it doesn’t matter so long as you believe, as Houshang and I certainly do, that nobody could do it for more than 10 minutes—his legs just wouldn’t move after a while.
When his obligatory service in Iran was up, Houshang returned to the States. Accompanied by his family--wife Elmeda (“Ellie”), daughters Mina and Gity, and son Amir (named after his “naughty” Iran teammate and doubles partner Ehteshamzadeh?)—he settled in Independence, Iowa, where he’d applied for and gotten the post that, after many years of service and the coming of a new millennium, he’d retire from—that of Recreation Therapist at the Mental Health Institute there.
Houshang’s always taken his therapy work at the Institute seriously. He feels he’s been of considerable help to addicts, alcoholics, the depressed. Such people particularly need to discover how to use their leisure time wisely, productively. Sports, games, dances—these are important. It’s not a country club life Houshang and his charges lead, but under the supervision of his experienced eye, clients can learn to hope again, to motivate themselves to do something positive rather than give in to despair and self-destruction.
I’ve no doubt that in his daily life Houshang praised rather than criticized. But when I first met him—at the 1972 CNE’s in Toronto--he was very critical of the Canadian organizers and the Sheep and Swine Building venue. It wasn’t only the lack of showers that I wrote he complained about:
“…the 7 tables should be reduced to 6, the courts barriered; there ought to be small tables for the umpires; lights should be strung up, the windows curtained to keep out the glare; one ought not to be threatened with default when the matches aren’t time-scheduled and when one sitting, through the first round, the second, like Humpty-Dumpty on the wall at the circle’s edge, can’t even hear his name called through the loudspeaker…[Also,] barriered-off practice tables ought to be set up where one didn’t have to chase the ball into animal droppings….”
At the 1973 U.S. Open—the record-setting 6th straight U.S. Open that Dal-Joon Lee won—D-J’s toughest match was with Houshang: 24-22 in the 4th. At the 1974 $1,000 Jan. Rockford, IL Open, the U.S.’s #1 World Team member Danny Seemiller’s only 5-game match was with Houshang. With the coming of the world-class players to the 1974 U.S. Open, the now 38-year-old Houshang showed again, in losing 19 in the 5th to quarterfinalist Japan’s Tokio Tasaka, that he was still a formidable player.
A slipped disc prevented Bozorgzadeh from going to the 1975 Calcutta World’s, but at the U.S. Open he again played a thrilling, though again losing match—this time was beaten by the Yugoslav #3 Miran Savnik in 5 (after Houshang had 27-25 saved the 4th).
In the fall of 1975, Houshang and sponsor George Nissen, perhaps the biggest name in trampolines, put on their first Nissen Open--which, in the years to come, primarily because of Houshang’s personal appeals, would annually draw to its Cedar Rapids venue some of the best players in the country , including the perennial winner Danny Seemiller. Indeed, as USTTA Editor Tom Wintrich will say later, some people came to this tournament annually just to hear the hospitable Houshang’s “traditional welcoming speech.” On doctor’s orders, Director Houshang was not to play in this tournament, but though he followed the doc’s advice with regard to Singles, he couldn’t resist partnering the visiting Yugoslav Zlatko Cordas to a win in the Doubles—and ended up in the hospital with a ruptured disc.
At the ’76 Philadelphia U.S. Open, he was back with Cordas again, only this time Zlatko was his opponent—and, as had been happening, Houshang again played a gutsy though losing match (staving off a 4th-game defeat with a stubborn 28-26 win). However, there in Philadelphia, in his first year of eligibility, he won the Senior’s (Over 40’s) by beating 2-time U.S. Open runner-up Jack Howard in the final.
Though for another 20 years Houshang will remain a strong competitor, he’s soon going to shift his focus more towards coaching and managing players, helping them, rather than playing against them. You begin to see this in the late summer and fall of ‘76 when, for the first time, he becomes the Captain of the U.S. Team to the Toronto CNE, a position he’ll repeatedly hold until the demise of this historic tournament in the early 1990’s. He’s again critical of the Canadians, this time primarily because they’ve not given his players any financial assistance whatsoever, not even free entries. Ever solicitous, in the second Nissen tournament he runs, he declines to enter and spends much of his time making sure players are met at the airport and that they’re accommodated so they’ll have good vibes about the tournament. (Said one wit, “Nobody ever gets defaulted here—except Houshang.”)
Good vibes are important to Houshang—and these he’ll try hard to instill in his Team players at the many World Championships he’s about to Captain/Coach them to.
The first of these is in 1977 at Birmingham, England where our 5-4 wins over Belgium and Italy and Danny Seemiller’s perfect 26-0 record catapult the U.S. Men’s Team into First Division play at the next World’s. At the U.S. Open that follows, Houshang, defending his Senior’s title, has Bukiet 2-1 and at 22-all in the 4th before having to give up his Championship to him. Again up 2-1, he loses (as he will, up 2-1 the following year) the Hardbat event to the visiting German league player Franz Huermann.
On then he travels, with Danny and Ricky Seemiller, to Hong Kong for an Invitational, where Houshang, in a front page article for the USTTA magazine Table Tennis Topics, will interview the world’s best player, Guo Yuehua of China. Then, since Houshang’s friend George Nissen very supportively paid for the airfare, the Team hopped a flight to Teheran, paid a visit to Houshang’s sister’s home, and played successful matches against the best of the Iranians.
In the ’78 U.S. Open Senior’s, Houshang loses in 5 to the eventual winner, Howard. And several months later in the U.S. Closed Senior’s, though he’s beaten 19, 20 in the Singles by winner Bill Sharpe, he takes the 40 Doubles with Howie Grossman. Since every year Houshang has been playing closely contested matches for National titles, I have to think if he only concentrated on his playing he would have won more. But who knows? On the one hand, his continued Captaincy of the U.S. Team brought him lots of “juice,” roused his spirit to want to play, but, on the other, just thinking about his many managerial duties had to prove a distraction to him.
At this late ‘70’s time, while at one of the Minneapolis tournaments he’d repeatedly gone to, Houshang balanced his Barna racket on high in a phone booth down the street from the Club, called his wife before leaving for Iowa, then went back home to discover after a while that his racket was missing but that he couldn’t remember where or how he’d lost it. Two months later he was back in Minneapolis for another tournament, and back in that same phone booth making a call when he chanced to look up—and, unbelievably, there, still perched precariously on the little ledge above, was the lost racket.
Another lost and found story has to do with my losing my plane ticket home at the Nissen tournament. It’s not on my person, not in my table tennis bag, and not in any drawers, or closet, or anywhere else in my hotel room. I mournfully tell my tale to Houshang, and it comes back to him that maybe that envelope he remembers inadvertently kicking the day before at the tournament site had something in it. Could it be? Off we go first thing in the morning to where the custodian keeps the trash bags—no, they’ve not been taken away yet. And so he and I start in, looking…and, miraculously, Houshang finds the envelope and my ticket inside.
Joining the Seemiller brothers on the 1979 U.S. Team—and they, too, will be there for years—are the Boggan brothers, Eric, the 15-year-old ’78 U.S. Men’s Champion, and Scott, who will be the 1981 U.S. Men’s Champion. Playing in the Championship Division at the Pyongyang World’s, our players, tie after tie, were clearly outclassed. Moreover, spurred on by national pride, the North Koreans en masse—players, umpires, spectators-- wanted to win, even to the point of cheating. Generally speaking they didn’t much like us, or we them. But, as Houshang said, Pyongyang was a clean and scenic city.
At the 1980 U.S. Open, Houshang gets to hoist a trophy. His players, Danny, Eric, and Ray Guillen take the Team event. Seemiller’s wins over Sweden’s Appelgren and South Korea ‘s Kim Wan are key. In the Over 40’s, Houshang gets by Bohdan Dawidowicz in 5, but loses to George Brathwaite in the final.
One of the annual stops for many players on the U.S. “circuit,” and one which Houshang will repeatedly bring the developing young Iowans, U.S. Boys’ Champions Scott and Jimmy Butler, to, is Bill Hornyak’s Michigan City, IN “Duneland All-American.” In the Dec., 1980 Topics, Houshang pens a thoughtful, appreciative article to Bill for his success in making that year’s tournament better than ever.
The 1981 Novi Sad World’s provided another triumph for Houshang, for again the U.S. Men’s Team, thanks to an important win over Hong Kong, advanced to Championship play at the upcoming Tokyo World’s. From the beginning, Houshang was getting good vibes:
“…A popular pastime of the players from the various countries was that of exchanging pins and badges. Many friendships developed in this way….Even the waiters in the restaurants were very enthusiastic and speeded up their service when an athlete would give them a pin. Like back in the States, many [Yugoslav] children and young people were going about seeking autographs. Our team was especially popular. While leaving or entering the arena, they sometimes had to literally run so as to avoid being delayed for half an hour or longer.”
Of course Bozorgzadeh was very proud of his team, and rightly singled out Danny for being always “emotionally and physically ready to play,” and pointed to his amazing 66-1 record in Second Division competition over the years. He also predicted that Eric “should surely have a great future in world competition,” and complimented Scott for keeping his composure in a match when the umpire made a bad call and Scott’s opponent didn’t correct it. Actually, Scott might have done better to express anger, for the bad call obviously blew his mind and when he got it back it was too late, and we lost this tie to the Netherlands. Danny valued Houshang’s advice—in part because Houshang valued his. I myself particularly appreciated how understanding Houshang was with the sometimes difficult Eric. He listened to him, even when Eric, on receiving his advice, might bluntly reply (“That’s the dumbest f______ thing I ever heard”). Regardless of what outsiders might think of his liberal approach, Houshang was skillfully sensitive to Eric’s needs and as a result got good performances from him. Further, Eric’s teammates approved of the way Houshang handled Eric, for they knew the strength of this teenager’s psyche was key to his play. Houshang will also have nice things to say about Scott (whom he also sometimes criticized) after he and Eric fought it out in the final of the next U.S. Closed.
At the 1980 U.S. Open, Houshang had a reaction to the (no air-conditioning, bathrooms usually off the floor) Spartan dorm accomodations inexpensively offered to the International teams, but not accepted by the Chinese and Koreans who felt their players ought to have comfort and privacy. “It should be made clear to all International Teams (including ours),” Houshang wrote in his Captain’s Report, “that entries and hospitality are free. It is extremely important that International Teams be accorded treatment equal to that they receive in other Table Tennis lands.” Well, yes, that’s what should happen. But how much would it have cost—who? the USTTA?--to put up at a local Holiday Inn just the Chinese and the Korean contingents while the other teams hollered? Meanwhile, on court, Houshang himself had cause to be a little upset, for in the Senior’s the winner, D-J Lee, beat him deuce in the deciding 3rd.
After Houshang wins the 1982 U.S. Open Senior Doubles with Brathwaite, and comes runner-up to him in the Singles, he assumes the role of Captaining the players at the Indianapolis National Sports Festival. Always alert to the niceties, he writes to--or, since his English needs a little polish, responsibly has another (his journalist-trained wife?) phrase his “Thank You” thoughts to--Mayor William H. Hudnut, III:
“…We enjoyed your town, practicing there and competing in front of appreciative audiences. The events were extremely well organized, and the patriotic flavor and generous hospitality did so much to generate enthusiasm. We were really impressed when complete strangers, seeing us in uniform, would stop to help, offer us a lift, and so on. When in queues, they would offer our athletes their place in line.
We have fond memories of the Indianapolis ‘personality.’
Thank you so much.”
At the ’83 Tokyo World’s, the U.S. Men have their best showing under Captain/ Coach Houshang—they stay in the First Division. Eric, Danny, and Ricky all have their moments of glory: Eric wins 17 straight matches in the Team’s and Singles before losing in the 8th’s to World Champion Guo Yuehua; Danny battles World runner-up Cai Zhenhua into the mid-game 5th, and Ricky has wins over Top 12 world-class stars Mikael Appelgren and Milan Orlowski.
Danny and Eric then follow up this showing by winning the Team event at the’83 U.S. Open over Canadian, Chinese Taipei and South Korean teams. And, while Houshang himself wins two events at the ’83 CNE’s, Danny again takes the Singles there.
As Houshang nears 50, others momentarily relieve him of some of his earlier responsibilities. Dennis Masters manages the ’83 Pan-Am Team, and Li Henan Ai and husband Ai Liguo, who’d taught our best U.S. Juniors when they’d trained in China and now also the Gee sisters and others here in the U.S., are the first of the coming wave of Chinese coaches and players. But, as one fellow put it, Houshang’s “enormous energy and enthusiasm for the sport” is undiminished.
At the 1984 U.S. Open Senior Doubles, Houshang teams up with visiting Russian Coach Igor Klaf and loses a tough deuce in the 3rd final to D-J Lee and me. However, he’ll more than avenge that loss in ’85: paired with Bohdan Dawidowicz in the Over 40 Doubles at the Open he’ll beat Derek Wall and me 25-23 in the 3rd , and then at the National’s will down me in the final of the Hardbat event. In ’86 at the Miami Beach Open he’ll win the Hardbat, and at Vegas he’ll finish second to George Hendry in the Over 40’s. At the ’87 Open, he’ll come second in the 50 Doubles, but at the ’89 Closed in San Diego, he’ll win that event with Dawidowicz , and come second in the Over 40 Doubles.
With Houshang again the Captain, the U.S. Team, with an important 5-4 win over Italy, finishes 14th in Swaythling Cup play at the ’85 Gothenburg Worlds. This, however, during Houshang’s remaining tenure as Captain of our World Team—at New Delhi (now without Danny and Eric) in ‘87 (26th), Dortmund in ’89 (20th), at Chiba City in ’91 (15th)—is the best we can do.
With Bozorgzadeh as Coach, our 1987 Pan-Am Men’s Team took a Silver, and the U.S. scored another when Sean O’Neill reached the final of the Men’s. Though at the fall CNE’s, the U.S. Men were again beaten by Canada, Captain/Manager/ Player Houshang did contribute to a Senior Team win over the Canadians. The next year, he’d be pleased to see, the table tennis tournament would be moved to a more respectable venue.
In 1986 the Nissen Open had been played in conjunction with the U.S. World Team Trials. Now, along with the’87 Nissen tournament, Phase I of the Olympic Trials was held, under Bozorgzadeh’s direction, at the same University of Northern Iowa venue. Houshang singled out 10-time Nissen Champ Danny Seemiller and multi-time U.S. as well as Pan-Am Champion Insook Bhushan for special praise. In return, John Soderberg in his Topicswrite-up of the Trials, had complimentary things to say about the indefatiguable Houshang:
“…He arranged for reasonable tournament hotel rates, oversaw the hanging of a banner or two at the tournament site, organized the Saturday night pizza outing, caused a couple of local journalists to cover the event, arranged free coffee, orange juice, and rolls for the players during the early morning matches, and constantly shuttled players and officials to and from the airport.”
This was good preparation for the 1988 Olympics--for in Seoul, as Topics Editor Steve Holland tells us, Houshang will have the following managerial duties:
“…checking on the draws, scouting other players, and watching over the players’ health, food, medical needs and housing. He also will take photos and write articles for Topics and be responsible for keeping the players posted on news about security.”
In one of his Olympic write-ups Houshang describes the Team’s quarters (that required a one-hour bus trip each way to the venue):
“The Olympic village was a beautiful place. Each apartment [building] had 13 floors, and each room was luxuriously appointed with television, refrigerator, and kitchen. The food and drinks were free. Initially, we had direct telephone call capability to the United States, but that privilege was revoked after two days, during which time the U.S. delegation’s phone tab had reached $12,000 [sic].”
Regarding these same quarters, he also quotes tennis star Chris Evert as saying:
“‘I am used to room service in the morning and hotel suites,’ and with a wry smile, ‘I wouldn’t want to do this year around.’ Her apartment was next to ours in the village, but we never did see her there.”
Houshang tells us how both ABC and NBC were very interested in our South Korean expatriate Insook Na Bhushan—how they made separate trips “to the street of her birth and high school,” and how she had “her own cheering section as her old high school friends were on hand with their lusty voices.”
He also quotes Dusan “Dule” Osmanagic, the Yugoslav Coach who on seeing NBC and CBS crews interviewing U.S. players, couldn’t resist joking:
“We [all the ITTF member-countries with the best players] ought to get together and in some way lose to one of the U.S. players. With the publicity they would receive on getting a medal, I am sure table tennis would become as popular as tennis in the world of sport and we would all be rich.”
In analyzing South Korean Yoo Nam Kyu’s Olympics win in Seoul, Houshang spoke of his “fast footwork,” ability to contact the ball at “peak trajectory,” “emotional toughness,” and, particularly, his “strategic ball placement.” Yoo also “effectively mixed up his serves, which constantly kept his opponents second guessing. Since Yoo did not play a formula game, it was difficult for opponents to develop a strategy.” Houshang felt that Yoo’s smash “was not meant to overpower his opponent,” but to be hit “away from his opponent’s power and position base.” Throughout, said Houshang, Yoo “kept his poise, had confidence in himself.”
Editor Holland was impressed that, after returning home from Seoul, Houshang had driven more than two hours to Steve’s home in Muscatine, Iowa to deliver his Olympic stories and photos in person. But he was also deeply affected by what happened shortly after:
“While headed back from a pizza run, we saw three youngsters skateboard in front of us on a busy four-lane highway. Most people would have only honked and cursed. Houshang, who was driving, pulled his car to a stop, rolled down a window and scolded these three. He scolded them in such a loud voice that I think they will never commit such an act again.”
Houshang continued writing articles for Topics. From his report on the 1989 Dortmund World’s (here our Women’s Team finished a respectable 12th), I’ll take but one excerpt—one detailing the “magnificent opening spectacle” I wish I’d been there to see:
“Imagine 100 projectors lighting the hall in spectacular colors, focusing on the dancing clown, with paddle in hand, standing in the middle of the stadium when suddenly the ceiling above opens and thousands of table tennis balls rain down like a heavy shower, covering the floor, with athletes running to the center to pick them up, then either batting or throwing them to the audience.”
In covering the 1989 U.S. Open, Houshang offers this passage: “Some critics, when comparing winning the U.S. Open to winning the equivalent in Sweden, France, Italy, or Japan, say it is like being the King of Pitcairn Island compared to [being on] the English throne.” Pitcairn Island, one and all will almost certainly not remember, is that small British Island in the South Pacific where the mutineers of the H.M.S. Bounty settled.
On Captaining a U.S. Men’s and Women’s Team to the 1990 French Open, Houshang expresses the hope that, by repeatedly sending teams abroad, the U.S. will begin developing players (Jimmy Butler, who’s about to win his first National’s, is a case in point). Perhaps this trip “reflects a commitment on the part of the USTTA leadership to develop pride in a U.S. table tennis movement”? “The best way to develop this pride among our players, and prestige in the world-wide table tennis community, is to regularly compete among the world’s best.”
At the ’90 U.S. Closed Houshang is still winning—the 50 Doubles, again with Dawidowicz. Gradually, however, as younger, stronger players come into his Age events, and he loses some competitive interest, he will reach fewer finals—this is particularly noticeable after he turns 60 in the mid-1990’s. Still, in ’92, he’ll win the 40’s at the Louisiana Open (and also feel that some criticism is called for: “most students at LSU were not aware that the tournament was being held….[Wouldn’t ]journalism students…welcome the chance to interview Olympic athletes”?). And in other ‘92 tournaments…the North American Qualifier, Augusta Hall of Fame (with its unique Parade of Champions—and Houshang ever at-the-camera-ready), Laguna Hills Meiklejohn, and CNE, where he’ll Captain the U.S. Senior Team…he’ll come runner-up in age events. In ’93, he and Richard Hicks will win the Over 50 Doubles at the U.S. Open. In ’94 he’ll beat Pete May, 19 in the 3rd, in the Hall of Fame Over 50 final; then in the 50’s will come second in the South Bend St. Joe Valley, as he will in the 50 Doubles at the U.S. Open. At the ’95 Missouri Open, he’ll score two more seconds; then ditto at the ’96 U.S. Open (with Venezuelan and Austrian pick-up partners). Even as late as the ’99 U.S. Open he and Reisman will finish 2nd in the Hardbat Doubles.
Of more importance to Houshang even than his play though, which as you can see he kept at a high level even as he aged, was his continued involvement for so many years as U.S. Team Captain/Coach/Manager. It was with great reluctance that he had to give that up. In ’91, he Captained the U.S. Team to the Chiba City, Japan World’s where, with the help of Chinese Coach Zhi Yong Wang, the Men had a dramatic win over Denmark that brought them into the Final 16. But then, with U. S. Team Leader Bob Allshouse and former World Champion Li Zhenshi as Coach working in concert to bring Pan-Am gold and silver back home, Houshang’s long tenure as indispensable advisor to our Elite was about to end. At the ’92 North American Olympic Qualifier, he held his last, rather titular position--not as Captain or International Level Coach, but as Trainer, for Bob Fox and the Chinese Coaches would lead the Team to Barcelona…and beyond.
Houshang’s table tennis life that I’ve briefly highlighted here is mirrored much more extensively in the photo albums he’s put together over decades of involvement in international competition. But photos in hand or not, in the Sport Houshang so loves and has been defined by for 50 years, there’s always a gem of memory, another experience very closely resembling the real one, yet perhaps offering a surprise or two, to be brought up and looked at. With the following recollection then, I’m going to close this Profile of the now 66-year-old Bozorgadeh by showing him in one of his past roles--as imaginative Player/Coach.
Perhaps for Houshang the best way for a coach to teach, for a pupil to learn, is to bring together both body and soul in practice. One way to do this is through some Creative Drama exercises in which every player can learn about self and, by sharing his humanity, about others—players, opponents, who are of course much like self. Houshang, using Danny Seemiller and a number of other players, myself included, demonstrated in an impromptu clinic more than a quarter of a century ago what might be gained from such discipline.
One very interesting exercise involved a Marcel Marceau-like pantomime of one player, the follower (Danny) trying to copy another, the leader (Houshang). Before they even got to the table to face each other in the alter ego mirrors of the playing court, they began practicing—the left-handed Danny trying to do the right-handed Houshang’s every inverse move. Of course the idea was to try to understand and anticipate your opponent’s, or, more deeply, your own actions.
In the beginning, the guided exercise movements among the pairs of participants had to be rather predictable, and in the process served the added purpose of limbering them up—hands out and around clockwise, simulated bird flights, knee bends, stretches, bicycle pedaling with the hands, and so on. One could see in an instant, though, that the exercises were designed to appeal to the imagination--to take the drudgery out of mere mechanical practice.
When the pairs got to the table, each player taking his turn at being leader, the self-examination began to border on the mystical. It was first eerie, then revelatory, as the players more and more began to synchronize their movements—so that after a while each was beginning to anticipate the other’s movements despite their sometimes quite different playing styles.
“Some clubs I’ve been to,” said Houshang, looking round at his audience, “put five or six mirrors up, like in a ballet school, and have their players work out privately or in pairs.” Like the Chinese, I thought, who, working from films, photos, and notes, trained many of their practice players to be mirror images of the best Japanese, Swedes, Yugoslavs, Hungarians.
Fascinated that day, we continued our Creative exercises. On and on we went--trying to sidestep here, there, swinging a little wildly this way and that, trying to keep up with the imaginary little ball hurtling through space we tried to insist was real. Not only our dancing master but even the most self-conscious of those who were slowly drawn into the inner circle of this little clinic could grasp the possibilities of the pantomime.
“Table tennis,” said Houshang, as time ran out and the lesson came to an end, “is the best game to see yourself.”