Jimmy Butler Interview

By Rahul Acharya | April 12, 2015, 12 a.m. (ET)

I had watched 44-year-old Jimmy Butler play before, but never had the opportunity to speak to him until recently. Jim was one of sixteen invitees to the Grand Final of the 2015 North American Tour held in early February at my home club. 

I would have loved to ask Jim few questions during the event, but he was busy between playing and commentating. So, Jim agreed to do this interview over email. In hindsight, I am glad that it happened this way because Jim had a spectacular performance at the recent National Team Trials and he was able to share that experience with us.

Anyways, in the short conversation that we had, I was amazed at Jim's humility and approachability. Initially, I was a bit intimidated to speak to him. After all, he's a multiple times U.S. Champion and let's not even compare our heights! But Jim was really nice about it and so here it goes...  from Jimmy Butler, 2015 U.S. Men's National Team Member!

Quick facts about Jimmy Butler:
Highest USATT rating 2765
Highest world ranking #70
2015 U.S. Men's National Team Member
Four-time U.S. Men's Champion (1990, 1992, 1993, 2014)
Two-time U.S. Olympic Team Member (1992, 1996)
2011 USA Table Tennis Hall of Fame Inductee

********************
Jimmy Butler (Four-time U.S. Men's Champion)
Photo: Glen Randmer

With Jimmy Butler at Westchester TTC

1. First off, congratulations on making it to the 2015 U.S. National Men's Team! How did it feel?
It felt great making the team. I was most excited about the opportunity to play again in the Pan Am Games. It is an event that is played only once every 4 years, and it is a very fun competition to be a part of. 

2. Did you have any expectations going in to the team trials? Did you feel any added pressure as a result of your historic comeback in 2014? Tell us what you were feeling before the trials.
My expectations were to qualify... I didn't care where I finished, I just wanted to make the top 3. I always put some pressure on myself to do well. I don't feel pressure due to my previous results. My goal is to keep getting better. I am not satisfied with my level right now, but at the same time I'm pleased with what I have accomplished so far since returning 3 years ago. I will continue to get better. I don't foresee any big jumps... I see myself slowly improving each year.

3. Did you meet your expectations? Are you satisfied with the way you played every match, or you would have done something differently? 

I was disappointed in my performance on Day 1. I was flat and lifeless in my play. I was upset after my first round loss and played more angry the second day. I was happy with my energy and fight when taking the 2nd spot. I can't say I ever watch myself on video right now and like what I see. I'm a project in the making.

4. Tell us about how you got started with table tennis?
My dad started me when I was 5 years old. My brother Scott (4 years older) started before me. He was a very good player winning the 1989 National Doubles title with me. I followed my dad and brother's lead. 

5. What equipment do you currently use?
Blade: Stellan Bengtsson Alpha

6. How often do you currently play and train?
I try to play once a day on the table approximately for 2 hours. I serve practice at home. I lift weights and also do some running. I try to play competition as many weekends as possible.

7. What are your short-term and long-term goals with regards to table tennis?
Personally, I want to get better. I strive for a 2700 level again in the next 4 years... more important than my level of play is to rebrand our sports image and current model. Our sport is not small because of the game itself. We all know we have a great game. We are one of the best highlight sports there is. We can put a table in small spaces and perform in all kinds of venues. Celebrities and other sports players love to play ping pong for their parties and events. I'm on my way to a MLB appearance as I write this, to play with MLB players at a party being hosted for them. 

Our sport allows spectators to sit right on top of our courts, to see and to feel the action within arms length of the players. Our sport can be played by people young and old. We have so many advantages other sports do not have. It is time we start marketing and presenting our strengths. It is time to run table tennis like a business... to emulate the NBA in their approach and creativity.

Where are our featured courts at our 4-star tourneys? Where is our VIP and court side seating around the featured courts? Where is the schedule of our featured matches? What kind of entertainment are we offering during our featured matches? Where is our regular season, and playoffs (or regular season tour and tour finals)? Where are the highlight videos after all our big events? Are we conscious of how our court presentation looks when we do film our major events and put them on youtube? Are we showing a bunch of empty seats in the background? Are we showing an angle that has no spectators in the background because we weren't wise enough to surround the court with spectator seating?

These are some areas to start with. There is nothing wrong with our game. Having an Olympic medalist or great American player will not change our sports growth like some like to believe. How we present our product is a reflection of the popularity of our sport. 

8. What has been your best win and worst loss so far?
Best win since coming back is Shi Mingyu (2798) at the 2014 Butterfly Cary Cup. Worst loss - don't have one. 

9. Who is your favorite international table tennis player? Why?
I enjoy watching the women play the most. There is nothing more beautiful to me than a woman that can play good table tennis.

10. If you could go back in time and get a "do-over" for any one match from any tournament that you have ever played, which one would that be? Why?
I'd like a do over playing Waldner in the Swedish Open in 1991. I led 2-0 in games (best of 5 to 21 points). I was up 19-18 in the 4th. He pushed short to my backhand. I backhand flipped it so hard that it normally wouldn't come back against anyone. He guessed right, and blocked my flick with his backhand and won the point to tie it at 19-19. I wish I could go back and flick that ball to his middle. He came back to win the match. 

11. If you could get anyone in the world, from the past or the present, to coach you during the most important match of your life, who would it be? Why?
I would choose Stellan Bengtsson first because he gave up his time and energy to help me become successful in table tennis and because he has the mind of a World Champion, and he knows me better than anyone. Second choice would be Li Zhen Shi. Winning a World Team Cup bronze medal with him as the USA coach was the highlight of my career. He is a brilliant tactician between games and a great man. (Jimmy is referring to the 1995 World Cup, when the USA team won a bronze medal, finishing ahead of China and Sweden for the first time in history. It was also the first time an American team had ever earned a World Cup medal. Jimmy's performance earned him the 70th spot on the world ranking chart, the third-highest ranking ever for an American.)

12. You have become an icon of resilience. You've come back to win an important match after being down by a lot, come back from illness and a long break to reclaim a major title, etc. I recently witnessed Tahl Leibovitz chant your name during a match as he made a comeback to win the 5th game after being down 1-5, or something close to that score. How do you feel about that?
Tahl Leibovitz I would say is the icon of resilience. If you see what he has accomplished with the limitations he was dealt with, I think we can all look to Tahl and learn a thing or two.

13. Based on your own experiences, do you have any advice for junior players?  
My advice to juniors is to practice everyday, surround yourself with good players, and play as much competition as possible. Strive to beat the top Chinese in this country. Get advice from coaches like Stellan Bengtsson, Li Zhen Shi, Sean O'Neill, Danny Seemiller, Masimo Constantini, Lily Yip, Jasna Rather, and many other great coaches in this country. 

14. Anything else that you would like to add?
Let's build a model in this country we can all be proud of. Many of us have been around USATT for many many years. We have learned what not to do. Let's all use our individual talents and start emulating the other big and successful sport models in this country. As we clean up our product and make it more presentable, we will begin to attract more business people to table tennis. I have no doubt we can do it and the most exciting time is now. We have nowhere to go, but up. 


********************

Jim, thanks for your time and for continuing to inspire so many of us with your fighting spirit!