Before he was 11…13…15…17 and out of the Junior’s, Jimmy Butler had won a remarkable 24 U.S. Open and Closed Championships. Already he stood tall in the History of U.S. Table Tennis, and, as was apparent to everyone, his stature in our Sport could only continue to grow and grow and grow.
From the beginning, Jimmy’s father, Dick, had coached him, along with a sometime assist from visiting Chinese coaches Li Henan and her husband Ai Liguo. Seven-year-old Jimmy, his proud papa says, “has been playing now a little over a year. He serves, pushes, blocks, and hits off both wings.”
But it was Jimmy’s brother Scott, three years older, who first began winning U.S. Championships and training abroad. Mother Sue began a Swedish-American Exchange Program with Nisse Sandberg, founder and benefactor of the celebrated Angby Club just outside Stockholm, involving host families on both continents. Scott celebrated his 11th birthday with the Torsell family in Sweden, and was quite astonished that after he’d blown out the candles on his birthday cake they came back lit again! Could anyone doubt there was something magical about going to Angby, to Europe?
“Without my brother,” Jimmy told me late in his career, “I would never be the player I’ve become. He was a great blessing. He looked after me when we traveled and was always in my corner.” In 1981, Scott interviewed the then 10-year-old Jimmy, and perhaps it comes as no surprise that Jimmy says, “I don’t like drill and stroke practice…[but] I know it helps me improve and my dad makes me do it.” His biggest problem? “Temper, keeping my head….If I think I should win and I’m not winning that bugs me.” (Can you imagine this sweet-looking little kid ever getting upset?) Jimmy also says in this interview, “I don’t really like easy matches. It’s no fun.” He says, “I like to go for the big shot even if the game is close.” His goals as a 10-year-old? “I enjoy traveling. I like to be in the paper and on TV. I like to see my picture in public and be known for something special.”
In the spring of 1982, U.S. Juniors Jimmy (11), Scott (14), Khoa Nguyen (15), Brandon Olson (15), and Sean O’Neill (14) go in a group to China, thanks primarily to a determined Sue Butler who acts as their chaperone. A great trip of course—how the kids enjoyed cavorting at the Ming Tombs. But, says Sue, Jimmy has a little problem. He broke a baby tooth molar and the filling came out. That meant he had to go to the hospital, for the tooth was already infected and had to be pulled. “Pulled with an anaesthetic?” asks Sue. “Of course,” said the Beijing nurse disdainfully—as if to say, “How backward do you think we are here?” The bill? $1.10.
A highlight of this trip, as if the Tooth Fairy—in the person of Chinese President Xu Yinsheng—had granted a wish, was the Chinese Men’s Team’s practice session with their young visitors. Even World Champion Guo Yuehua was there to give the boys a pointer.
For his 13th birthday, in Feb., 1984, Jimmy’s in Sweden. After five weeks he brings back his table tennis loot: an inflatable raft, Kodak disk camera, crystal bowl, tool set, silver gold cups, gold-etched plate, sweat suit, toaster oven, and tennis racket. Guess he played o.k., huh?
A turning point in Jimmy’s career comes at the 1985 Closed—in the semi’s against Defending Champion Eric Boggan. After losing the first game, Jimmy was at deuce in the second and when Eric served and moved fast to follow with a forehand, Jimmy placed a perfect ace-return to Eric’s far forehand that won him the point and thereafter the game. Down 2-1 and match point in the fourth, Jimmy escaped again, and went on to score an upset victory. He thus became the youngest male player (at 14) ever to reach the final of a U.S. Men’s Championship. No, he didn’t win. That honor went to arch-rival, future Olympian Sean O’Neill.
Jim now scores his first big tournament win by taking the 1986 Nissen Open over U.S. University student from Thailand “Hank” Teekaveerakit who’s about to become our 1986 National Champion.
In an interview I had with Jim, we talked about aficionado parents and their kids. Both of us agreed that teenage players had to be embarrassed at times by their intense parents. Said Jim, “A son sometimes acts like he doesn’t want his parents to watch him, and tries to give that impression, but in reality I was always peeking around the gym when I was a teenager to make sure my parents were watching me.” Jim emphasizes that both his mom and dad gave him “every opportunity within their reach to improve. They are an embodiment of selfless love,” he says. “I can never repay them.”
At the October, 1988 World Team Trials, Jim finishes first. Two months later though, at the Closed, he gets sick, throws up before his match with Teekaveerakit and loses to him deuce in the 5th.
In the fall of 1989, Jim will go to Falkenberg, Sweden for four months. He’ll be coached by 1971 World Champion Stellan Bengtsson, and will sometimes go to Stellan and wife Angie’s house (Angie’s the former Angelita Rosal, a U.S. Hall of Famer) and hang with their twins.
At the ’89 Closed, Jim has a torturous but very gutsy come-from-behind series of round robin wins that get him undefeated to the final where in a 10-1 tiebreaker he loses to O’Neill. USA National Coach Larry Hodges observes that Jim won 8 out of 9 deuce or 19 games and “will be extremely dangerous when he learns to play as well early in a match as he does at the end.” But there’s some consolation for Jimmy—he and brother Scott win the Men’s Doubles after being triple match point down to Eric and Brian Masters.
At the 1990 Olympic Festival, Sean beats Jim in the final, 19 in the 5th, on a paddle point after Jimmy had been 20-15 down.
Jim returns for 10 weeks to Sweden to again be coached by Bengtsson. “I learned to train hard from Stellan,” he says. “He taught me discipline and a work ethic.”
That first, wonderful, always-to-be-remembered U.S. Men’s Championship arrives for 19-year-old Jim at the 1990 Closed in San Diego. He had problems reaching this final against John Onifade, though—most notably from Teekaveerakit again. Jim was behind 2-0 and 19-18 in the 3rd when he had what he calls a “serve flashback.” He thinks back to when in last year’s Team Trials he was down 10-1 in the deciding game to Hank and began a series of backhand serves that had saved him. So why not serve backhand now? Why not, indeed, and he eventually wins in five. Jim, I might add, will be acknowledged by his peers as having the best serves of any U.S. player. But of course he’s worked at developing them.
Coach Hodges will later say Butler’s forehand is no longer the “liability” it was before his training in Sweden. (Some teenage liability he had.) He attributes Jimmy’s win to the fact that he’d relied less on his strong backhand and began looping with his forehand, especially following his often disguised serves. Jim says, “I’ve developed this one serve where I have the same motion at the start, and then change at the moment of contact for more deception. My racket kind of flies up by my head, and at the last second the motion changes for the speed, spin, and length of the ball.”
The new U.S. Men’s Singles Champion has just given the nicest anniversary gift possible to Mama and Papa Butler. It turns out that on Dec. 23, 1961, precisely 29 years earlier, Dick and Sue were married. This, then, was indeed a day to remember.
Jim, honored by the first of his four Table Tennis Athlete of the Year awards, is now at the peak of his game, and through his twenties will face, in addition to the usual challenges from Sean O’Neill, Dan Seemiller, and Canada’s Joe Ng, opposition from formidable Chinese expatriates —Cheng (“Chen”) Yinghua, “Jack” Huang, Huazhang Xu, and fast-hands pips-out players “David” Zhuang and Canada’s “Johnny” Huang.
At the ’92 North American Olympic Qualifier, Jim comes first, though he loses a match to Seemiller who’s adopted a mix of chops and counter-attacks that in several tournaments gives Jim lots of trouble—as if he can’t always focus on what Dan’s doing. But he has an encouraging win over Sean who’d beaten him in the final of the ’91 U.S. Closed.
The May, ’92 Hall of Fame tournament brings Jim further encouragement. He beat Sean, deuce in the third; then Xu; then “Chen”—and raised his rating from 2677 to 2743. At the ’92 U.S. Open he had a win over England’s World #22 Carl Prean, and at the Olympics he upset the Czech Thomas Janci, World #37. Then at the September Sears Invitational final, Jim was up 2-1 over World #26 Peter Karlsson—but lost the 4th at 19 and then the 5th. But it wasn’t too tough a loss to take—his runner-up prize was $4,000.
After beating David Zhuang to win his second (1992) National Championship, Jim is elated to find that the ITTF’s Table Tennis Digest has recognized him as “The Most Improved Player of 1992.”
At the ’93 World’s, Jim, who says he has “a higher intensity when he plays internationally,” has double match point on China chopper Wang Hao, about to be World #31; and against China’s World #20 Ding Yi he’s up 1-0 and 19-14—but can’t win either. Also, against South Korea’s 1988 Olympic Champion Yoo Nam Kyu, Jim’s up match point before succumbing. Then, back in his second country Sweden, in a Falkenberg league match, he has a win over World Champion Jan-Ove Waldner.
No wonder then he’s about to win his third and last (1993) U.S. National’s—again over David Zhuang, himself coming into blossom as a preeminent U.S. star.
And now, not for a finish to his career but for its high point. At the 1995 World Team Cup quarter’s in Atlanta, Jim’s about to play France’s Damien Eloi in the 5th and final match. But, o.k., if Butler is tight, O’Neill will get him laughing with his warm-up tactics. He darts about the table, gesturing and talking to self, pretending to be Jim’s opponent, the frenetic Frenchman. And on losing the first, Eloi was visibly upset, and would stay that way for the rest of the match. While Jimmy, after winning that seemingly slow-motion final point in the second, could hardly believe it was over. And then “I’ve won!” he thought. “We’ve won! We’ve done the impossible—we’re in the medal round!” That, he says, “was the greatest moment of my career. I remember jumping up and down, and Chen and David and I embracing each other. It was the best feeling I ever had as a table tennis athlete.” Never mind they’d go on to lose to the powerful South Koreans, the U.S. had made its best international showing in 45 years, “and for the first time in my career,” Jim said, “I felt like I belonged.” Belonged the more when he was named MVP of the tournament for his thrilling clutch play.
Before coming to the Nov., ’95 U.S. Open Team Championships, Jim found he was a physical wreck. “My whole skeletal structure was a mess,” he said. “I’ve always had problems with tight muscles, but I never knew I had five dislocated ribs from a fall when I was younger. I’ve also developed curvature of the spine over the years. After colonics, eating meatless meals, taking advantage of neuro-muscular therapy, practicing meditation, even seeing an American Indian Medicine Man, he concludes that “Health is everything.” In the gradual process of healing, he’ll discover “an innovative system of muscle-wellness therapy” that he can explore when his table tennis career is over.
More successes follow—another Olympics, another Pan Am, and more autographs to sign. At the ’96 U.S. Open in the Team’s he beats Romania’s Vasile Florio who’s about to win the Singles. In the final of the Louisiana Open he beats ex-Romanian Razvan Cretu in an incredible -19, 22, 31 match. Losses follow too—particularly to Chen Yinghua, former member of the Chinese National Team.
The matches now begin to have a déjà vu quality to them—except for one that makes History: Jim’s Hard Bat match against Marty Reisman. It wasn’t notable that Jim beat quixotic Marty, only a year or so away from being 70. It was that this hyped match was given a prominent place of attention at the 1998 U.S. Open—even though play was understood by one and all to be a match for thousands of dollars in private wagers, heretofore something that would have drawn a demonstrative thumbs down by Association officials, for recognized gambling had always been anathema to them.
Near septuagenarian Reisman showed remarkable stamina, and would keep his juices flowing into the new millennium. But 27-year-old Butler was to say, “By the end of ’98 my body was beat up, and I felt I’d accomplished all I could. I’d done my best and received many blessings, but I no longer had any attainable goals.”
Maybe so, Jim. But that was then and this is now. And we here tonight still have our attainable goals—and one of them, I’m happy to say, is to see you ensconced in our Hall of Fame. Ladies and Gentlemen, a round of applause, please, for our newest Player inductee, Jim Butler, who, though unable to be with us tonight, will be represented by his brother Scott…who’s still 1ooking after him.