The Inappropriate Cho

By Mark Thompson | June 23, 2020, 5:30 p.m. (ET)

The 1970 tragic-romance tear-jerker, Love Story, which was based on the Erich Segal novel of the same name, centers around, as one might expect from the title, a love story between a rebellious, arrogant, hard-headed and over-indulged trust funder, Oliver Barrett IV, played by the unfairly (to the rest of us) handsome Ryan O’Neal and his sweet but tough, genuine, working class, artistic and intelligent foil, Jenny Cavilleri, played by an even better looking Ali McGraw. Of course, as things have a tendency to work out in star-crossed love affairs, the beautiful young raven-haired McGraw is diagnosed with a terminal illness, and the erstwhile jerk (O’Neal) learns his lesson as his heart smashed to bits by the fates.

It’s a pretty sappy affair that, despite taking home the Golden Globe (but not Oscar) for best motion picture of that year, really may not have weathered the test of time all that well. Nonetheless, the knock-out line delivered by a tearful (and, yes, stunning) doe-eyed McGraw to a repentant O’Neal after a domestic spat had sent McGraw scurrying into a bitter cold northeastern night (without a coat), despite battling the throes of cancer, was “love means never having to say you’re sorry.” A line O’Neal repeats to his cold and distant father in the penultimate scene.

Of course, in 1970, as a ten-year-old kid with more than a little mischief on his mind, the whole concept of a love story was more than a little lost on me, but I was glued to my seat at the movie theatre – and not just because of the soda that had been apparently spilled in my chair by the person who’d sat there previously. No, it was because Oliver Barrett IV, despite being a pampered, obnoxious brat, was a hockey player – for Harvard University no less; and to me, at that age at least, there was nothing more interesting, intriguing, or captivating than that, being a hockey player.

In fact, I was in the throes of my own little love affair with that sport that allows you to fly around on skates with a stick in your hands, shoot a hard rubber disc at some idiot protecting a goal – and, yes, take out more than a little bit of angst by running over (and/or getting run over by) your opponents at every available opportunity. With all due respect to the experts on modern day concussion protocol – and understanding that times have changed – hockey in that era, at least, was the perfect excuse for marginally hyperactive ten year-olds who needed some permissible outlet to vent all of the pent up energy that ten-year-olds are famous for.

But even as a naïve ten-year-old, the irony of McGraw telling O’Neal that he didn’t have to say he was sorry wasn’t lost on me. Of course Oliver Barrett IV isn’t going to say he’s sorry – he’s a hockey player for crying out loud! No one who has ever strapped on the skates and jumped over the boards has ever said he (or she) was sorry… for anything (that happened on the ice, at least). Sorry for what? Running you over? Sticking the butt end of my stick against the side of your head as we battle for a loose puck in the corner? “Sorry”? Not likely…

As anyone who has ever skated in front of the opposing bench after intentionally creating some borderline mayhem at the other end of the ice can attest, the barrage of untold vitriol streaming from sixteen incensed opponents – and their coaching staff – is quite unlikely to include the word “sorry” (unless, of course, it’s a reference to how “sorry” one of your relatives – and usually your mother – is…). One can only imagine what would happen if the guy who scored the overtime game winner in the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Finals went up to the defeated and demoralized goaltender he just humiliated in front of the entire sporting world and said “I’m sorry” because the puck happened to take a crazy and fortuitous bounce off the seat of his pants and ended up in the net! Nope…not going to happen.

So you can imagine my surprise, when, in my first exposure to competitive table tennis at the 2017 US Nationals, I heard competitors saying they were “sorry” to their opponents on a fairly regular basis. Players were sorry that their shot nicked the edge of the table and precluded the opponent from having any chance to proffer a return. Players were sorry when their brilliantly struck power loop just caught the top of the net and tumbled untouchably onto the opponent’s side.

What? Players are sorry for that. Hmmm… I never quite thought of that way. This was counter to every sporting instinct that had been inculcated into my being since lacing up my first set of spikes at the Lower Perkiomen Little League field in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, when I was five. These players were apologizing for getting what appeared to be a lucky break.

Although it struck me as odd sat first, I quickly concluded that there was something right about this exceedingly polite and gracious expression. Something honorable. Something respectful. Something worthy of praise. A proper humility in light of – and in spite of – victory…even if it did run directly counter to the modern American directive, as more than one coach has rather succinctly put it to me, to “step on your opponent’s neck” while you have him down.

At these same US Nationals, I also heard another type of verbal exchange, which appeared to be the direct polar opposite of the meek and apologetic “sorry” that was being bantered about: the “CHO!” Now, this exclamation of excitement seemed much more in keeping with what I was used to in American sporting venues. An exhortation of power, aggression, and self-congratulation verbally hurled towards the opponent after striking a perfectly placed rocket that leaves no chance for an answer whatsoever. The quick, deep and guttural “CHO” (with fists clenched at your side) leaves no doubt as to who just won that point – and why.

So naturally, still not having outgrown my mischievous ten-year-old self – I felt an uncontrollable urge to combine these two apparently contradictory verbal traditions of competitive table tennis into our “friendly” matches at USATT’s Colorado Springs headquarters amongst the staff – and, thus was coined the name with which I have christened this column: “The Inappropriate Cho”.

Now truth be told, I was originally drawn to the apparent irony of that term because I thought it would be the perfect name for a punk rock band playing at CBGB’s on the lower east side of Manhattan circa 1979. But putting my punk rock aspirations aside for the moment, the Inappropriate Cho in our office table tennis matches has become a staple - the shout of choice when you do catch a break off the edge of the table or the top of the net.

Quite frankly, in our office matches, we’re not sorry. To the contrary, we gleefully “CHO” the occasional edge and net. And, interestingly, the master of the Inappropriate Cho has proven to be (really) our best player in the office (well, perhaps other than the CEO), young Tina Ren. Sweet and quiet and innocent - with an exceptionally diligent work ethic, by the way – Tina who has come to USATT from Nanjing, China, by way of Springfield (Massachusetts) College (and who really can play) has perfected the dagger of “Sorry…” (and then after just the perfectly timed pause) “…NOT sorry…”

To hear Tina say it, the Inappropriate Cho carries more than just a little irony – and there’s nothing really more you can do other than smile – and accept the frowning fates of the moment.

And, to me, that really is the point. In my mind, honor is not so much about being gracious when things go your way – although I must say that I really do applaud the extraordinary display of sportsmanship so evident in competitive table tennis when one humbly recognizes that he or she has been the beneficiary of a fortuitous break. And, in light of the way certain people in modern America have treated “winning” as a way of clubbing the less fortunate over the head, I do believe our society could use a healthy dose of this table tennis etiquette.

But, to me, the real test of a champion rests not on how a person handles a “lucky” break, but rather how one suffers the cruelty of random misfortune. The person who watches the ball tip off the edge – or drop hopelessly from the top of the net. That is where we face the true test of our honor and integrity and humility. How do we react and respond when fortune gives you a cold, hard slap in the face. To me, the question we must ask ourselves is not so much how do we behave when we are winners, but whether in table tennis or more generally in life – or perhaps even in our own love stories – who are we when things don’t go our way?… how do we handle the Inappropriate Cho?