USA Table Tennis

In 1950, Chicago teenagers Marvin Prager and Marvin Leff could be found bonding in competitive play at, say, the local Lake States Open. Fifty-five years later, having made their table tennis mark together for decades in Florida, Prager was remembered by Leff and his wife Caron in a congratulatory note read at the 2005 Hall of Fame Banquet in Las Vegas. Recognition he’d always had, but Inductee recognition was a long time coming.

In 1951, a senior in a Windy City high school, Prager was a wanted young man…particularly in synagogues, in Yiddish theater, for he was already a professional singer, had been since he was 8. Five years into a new millennium later, one might see/hear Marty’s dramatic love song to Terese Terranova amid the stars of the Stratosphere, and later, on Finals night at the Closed, his bring-down-the-house-rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

From being a semifinalist in the U.S. Open Under 18’s, Prager quickly graduated to the big time, for at the 1952 National Team Championships (NTC’s) he was a member of the winning Chicago team, and at the 1953 Kansas City National’s he forced future 4-time National Champ Erwin Klein into the 5th, after 3 of the games had gone to deuce. Then he paired with former Pacific Coast Champion Abbott Nelson in Men’s Doubles to cause quite a stir. A stylish defensive player like Marvin, their games clicked. Still, their advance was surprising: a 24-22 3rd game helped them to beat Harry Lund and me in 4, then, when, reportedly down 20-15 match point to Schiff and McClure, it appeared all was over for them, they rallied to eke out a 23-21-in-the-5th win. After which, though they were lookin’ good with a 2-0 lead in the final against Miles and Somael, they couldn’t find the winning finish. Still, U.S. #2 in Doubles wasn’t bad.

            In the March, 1954 issue of “Paddle Poop,” the Northern California TTA’s strangely self-deprecating title for its informative Newsletter (though the print was so tiny you needed a magnifying glance to read it), we learned that Chicago-based Marvin “Marty” Prager was on a West Coast exhibition tour, and that he’d just won the Jan. Oakland Open at the Bushrod Playground, beating the #1 seed Allan Herscovich, the former Yugoslav/Italian International, and the #3 seed Mendel Milstein, reportedly the 1949 Champion of Berlin. The writer reporting on this tournament tried to answer the question, “Has anyone seen this guy Prager play before?” No? Well, here, he finally concluded, was the poop:

 

“…Those who know Reisman casually could have sworn it was he at the table. The resemblance in facial features, build, footwork, stance, and even in speech is so striking that Prager has become accustomed to the nickname ‘Marty.’ But unlike the famous Reisman, Prager’s principle source of potency is his defense. As he shattered Herscovich…it was apparent that this was a brand of defense not seen before in the West….”

 

            So when I first met “Marty” Prager—I’ve always called him ‘Marty’—he was quite a player, and so was his prodigy-protégé Norbert “Norby” Van De Walle, just last year inducted into our USTTA Hall of Fame. Like Bernie Bukiet, they played out of Millie Shahian’s Chicago Net & Paddle Club, which for years Marty, directing tournaments there, helped manage, kept running really. I don’t mind telling you—no, I do mind telling you—that Bernie, Marty, and Norby, through a number of Midwest tournaments on their way to making the 1957 U.S. Team to the Stockholm World’s, had so intensely frustrated me that on occasion I’d tried my best to slap down a wall or two.

In the mid-‘50’s, while Norby was winning many Championships, local, regional, and national, he was having almost daily workouts with Marvin, often his winning tournament doubles partner (though for a while, I readily acknowledge, Steve Isaacson and I were able to hit through them). Norby was a lock to make the ’57 U.S. World Team, and, since enough of the Selection Committee members were impressed with Prager’s “runner-up position at both the three-star Central and Western [Opens],” as well as his “outstanding [9-2] play in the NTC’s [National Team Championships]” where in expedite he gave Doug Cartland his only loss, they voted Marty on the team too. So it was settled then, Prager would go to…What’s that? His voice teacher objected, urged him not to go to Sweden, might damage his—but Marty quickly bleeped a VERY high note or two at her, and went off to Stockholm.

Millie Shahian, who was on that ’57 U.S. Team, despised the appointed Team Captain, but had nothing but praise for Prager when after the World’s the Team, committed to giving separate exhibitions, split into two wings. Showing his “sheer love of table tennis,” Millie said, Marve took “charge of the Team touring England, doing by far the best job of all the tours I’ve been on—quietly & efficiently, only interested in the best for the team.”

On returning from the World’s, Marty look-alike met Marty look-alike in the quarter’s of the 1957 U.S. Open, and Reisman was 19-in-the-4th hard-pressed to beat Prager (U.S. #5 that year). The following season, just before the Men’s NTC’s, Marty hurt his wrist in a match with the strong St. Louis cum Chicago player Allan Levy, and thereafter never felt as comfortable playing as before. But, taking the place of the ailing John Varga, he ran the Women’s Team Championship at the Net and Paddle Club.

In the early ‘60’s, Marty’s #1 pupil, Van de Walle, would return to his native Belgium with his family. There he became that country’s #1 player, and more power to him, for Marty always said he was more pleased by Norby’s successes than his own. After continuing to coach other players at his and Millie’s Chicago Club, including 1965 U.S. World Team member Pat Havlick Pecora, Prager in 1968 went to France.

So, m’god, what did he do there that, at the 1988 U.S. Open, sent the Captain of the French Team looking for him? Ah! Twenty years earlier, this Frenchman had been the top player and coach of the Montpellier Club, and he remembered playing Marty’s Club and Marty himself—in a barn.

 Never mind—one has to start anew somewhere. By 1972-74, Marty says he’d helped hundreds of kids enjoy the Sport, had built up a Club team in a suburb of Nice that in the beginning was not in a class with a thousand others but which would eventually become the #3 League team in France and which would advance, annually, at least one of his pupils to a position on either the Junior or Senior National Team. No other American Coach before or since ever made such a contribution, he says, or continued to make such a contribution, for a number of his players went on to become coaches and were able to make a living in the Sport.

But why, thought Marty, continue to develop Internationals for France? Why not try to do the same for the U.S.? Though even as he returned, it was clear that he was no longer going to be in sunny Nice with his La Trinitie Team where the successor he’d trained would produce, among others, Christophe Legout, and where Table Tennis was subsidized.

In 1974, when Jack Howard was telling me that Prager “was the most knowledgeable person in U.S. Table Tennis,” one of the Sport’s great benefactors, Joe Newgarden, decided Marty would manage his Miami Club, “Newgy’s.” It was the “finest commercial club I’d ever seen,” said aficionado Bard Brenner who’d later win the first State Bank of Miami Open Championship Doubles with Marty, even while race riots were erupting almost outside their door.

Marty spent most of those Newgy days running tournaments and coaching locals, two of whom won U.S. Closed Class A Championships—Jerry Thrasher (in 1976) and Joe’s own daughter Nancy (in 1978). Occasionally something really special would occur—like when Newgy’s hosted the National Taiwan Team in a friendly Match.

In those years, Marty was still playing in tournaments—and, indeed, my most memorable match with him came in 1980, in the U.S. Closed Over 40 Doubles. Howie Grossman and I were playing Marty and Marv Leff—with Rufford Harrison as Umpire. We were playing under the short-lived “Boggan Point-Penalty Rule,” so-called because it seemed that Scott, Eric, and I had been too exclamatory during play, and it had gotten to the point where umpires, having to make a judgment call, didn’t know whether to penalize a player for calling out or not. (Was a sotto voce “Damn!” worse than a moderately loud exhortation to “Hit the ball!”?)

So when at 18-all in the 5th, Marty, on missing a return, grunted an “Oh!” Harrison penalized him a point, made our lead not 19-18 but 20-18. Naturally we all protested this call, but Rufford held firm. What a downer—Harrison was just absurd. So, looking directly at Rufford, I said loudly, distinctly, “…[Scurrilous] you!” Of course my aim was to return the absurdity, dramatically redress the penalty, have a point taken away from us. Harrison flashed a look back at me and said, “You’re defaulted!” “Oh, Rufford,” I said, and went in search of the Referee. When I told him the story, he got us a new umpire, and reinstated the score to 19-18….Some fun, huh?

In the1980’s, Marty, who’d been working with the physically challenged in France, began coaching Terese Terranova, a very competitive athlete in various sports before she’d been paralyzed in a bad car accident. From not knowing how to hold a paddle she soon became very good, so good that, as Caron Leff tells us in a Profile of Terese, she began to think that she might have a chance to win the 1987 World Wheelchair Championship in Brisbane, Australia. With the help and encouragement of her close friend, trainer, and coach, Marty, she dedicated herself to that end. Caron said that Terese trained for 18 months, six hours a day, 6-7 days a week—doing “separate nautilus training for strength and endurance,” and adhering to a “special diet” used by Jimmy Connors and Martina Navratilova.

Such a work ethic paid off in a burst of successes. She did win in Brisbane—Singles, Doubles, and Teams. Wow, World Women’s Wheelchair Champion! Afterwards, back in the States, at the U.S. Open in Miami, she won the U.S. Over 40 Women’s against all stand-up opposition. Then at the 1988 Paralympics in Seoul, Korea, Terese became a double gold medallist by winning Singles and Team. Marty said that, “Perhaps the greatest thrill of my table tennis career came as they played the National Anthem and raised the American flag at the Medal ceremony with Terese at the #1 spot on the awards podium.”

After Joe Newgarden had transferred his Miami business to Tennessee, Marty, with the help of one of the Newgy regulars, Harry McFarland, set up a club at Legion Park and gave lessons and ran tournaments there. Marty also directed special high-level tournaments—those at Miami’s Fountainbleu Hotel or at the Florida International University, for example. By the late ‘80’s, Prager-pupil Randy Cohen was Florida State Men’s Champion at 13. “All I need is a kid with normal hand-eye-foot coordination, who is willing to work hard and has the support of parents,” Marty has said. “I can fill in the bottom line.” He also adds that Terese is a fine coach in her own right, and serves as their students’ tournament tactician, for, he says, she can read a match as well as anyone.

In 1992, Hurricane Andrew dropped by and its effects were legion.

So too have been Marty’s, but constructively—for he’s long had a reputation as an observant, demanding coach. With the Club having given way, he and Terese found a two-table Center in the Laurel Gardens Apartment Complex in Coral Springs. They were helped there by Activities Director Calvin McLeod, whose son Casey, a Feint chopper, was the U.S. Open Under 10 Champion. Now Marty and Terese could concentrate on making winners out of a cluster of kids living conveniently together there in the Complex. 

Marty’s aim was, is, to give each of his students a game—his or her game. With perhaps three lessons a week—and mental and physical preparation 7 days a week—Marty’s pupils have always been highly programmed. “Literally every move they make,” says Marty, “is under my supervision, whether I’m actually in their presence or not. Everything is down on paper; the particulars of a Training Program, lessons, tactics, logistics for round robin competition and for playing every tournament in sight.” 

As of the mid-90’s, here were just some of the successes these determined coaches and kids had accomplished together. T.J. Beebe, ’93 Under 12 Junior Olympic Champ, ’94 U.S. Open Under 14 Champ, and both the ’95 Under 16 Junior Nationals and Under 14 Junior Olympics Champ; Josh Bernstein, U.S. National Boys Under 10 Champ; and, the most endurable of these boys, all now of course young men, Keith Alban, ’93 U.S. National Boys Under 10 Champion; ’94 U.S. Junior Olympic, U.S. Open, and U.S. National Boys Under 12 Champion; ’95 U.S. Open Boys Under 12, 14, and 16 Champion.

Keith, who went on at 15 to play for the U.S. World Team, I have to admit, I’m quite partial to. Turns out—I presume it was one of Marty’s imaginative assignments—the kid once traced a picture of me out of my 1976 Winning Table Tennis. No wonder he got so good. Would my own kids ever have done such a thing, taken inspiration from such copy, tried to learn?

With the success of these boys, Marty, in 1997, was named USATT Developmental Coach of the Year, for which he received an appropriate USOC Award.

By 1998, an ever-improving situation with Florida’s CSCCA (Coral Springs Chinese Cultural Association) enabled Marty and Terese, what with “summer camps and clinics…to expand a two-table, once a week program into a six-table, six times a week [more] active program.”

‘We know the kids, the parents, have to sacrifice,” says Terese, “and we want always to be there to give them encouragement. We’re pretty strict with the kids, we demand a lot. But though we try to keep them focused, we know we have to keep it all fun too.”  

            Marty’s CSCCA coaching continued to be impressive. He and Terese took 12 kids to the 2002 Jr. Olympics and between them they won 6 gold, 12 silver, and 7 bronze medals. At the 2005 Jr. National’s/Jr. Olympics, 6 of their pupils—Keith Alban, Josh Bernstein, Kai and Brian Lam among the Boys, and Diana Li and Amy Huang among the Girls, brought home 13 golds as well as half a dozen silver or bronze medals. Further, at this recent Closed, Amy, in particular, distinguished herself.

So Marty and Terese are still going strong. “The old man and the gimp,” they laughingly call themselves. Meanwhile, they take a cue from their longtime prize pupil, Keith Alban, today with Ben Johnson the leading adult player in their Club. Oh, yes, Keith had quit—the first time for a day. Then he’d reconsidered; “Life is too boring without table tennis,” he’d said.

An axiom, Ladies and Gentlemen, we can all relate to—and one that brings me to our Hall’s latest inductee, a man for whom life in his 70’s is never boring…Marvin “Marty” Prager.