There are two ping pong tables in the northwest corner of Bryant Park.
I noticed an attendant with a clipboard, paddles and balls.
“You can sign up to play for 10 minutes,” he told me.
I said I didn’t have a partner. He pointed to several men nearby.
A guy from Ghana dressed in a white button-down shirt and suit pants jumped up. He said he was the reigning park champion.
We rallied for a few minutes. He was very skilled, but I was also hitting the ball well.
Once he served, he started to trash talk. He said I really needed to practice. He said I didn’t know how to stand correctly. He said I held the paddle wrong.
I thought it was funny. You see it in the NBA and NFL. I didn’t realize trash talking was a thing in Bryant Park ping pong.
Nevertheless, we were pretty evenly matched, each scoring some incredible shots.
We battled back and forth, I was down 4 to 2, then it was 6 to 6 and then 10 to 8. And so it went, until we were tied 18 to 18.
It was his serve. He delivered three straight points to win 21 to 18.
He told me I’d played well and that I should come back.
I felt good about myself. I’d held my own against the self-proclaimed reigning champ even though I had barely played since high school.
I sat down on the bench to watch his next match. The new challenger was much better than me. They had long rallies with the score see-sawing back and forth in the same way.
As they got close to match point the same dynamic kicked in and the man in the white shirt from Ghana pulled ahead to win by just a few points.
It was then that I realized what was happening.
The champ was adjusting his level of play to each opponent. Always winning, but making sure it was a close enough game that the person would want to come back.
It was one of those great New York moments when a total stranger teaches you an unexpected lesson.