Wally Green’s unlikely path from gang member to ping-pong star

Wally Green’s rise to professional ping-pong star is remarkable in more ways than one. The number of people internationally who make a living on table tennis is small. The number in the United States — where ping-pong is far less popular than in many Asian countries — even smaller. The number of ping-pong phenoms who didn’t pick up a paddle until their late teens and yet still became internationally famous is likely smaller still. And that Green emerged from a childhood that he self-describes as “rough” makes it even more unlikely.

“At 13 I owned 6 guns,” Green told me. He describes his upbringing to me as being characterized by gang violence, anger, and an abusive family. “I grew up with domestic violence, like really bad domestic violence,” he told me. “I was a really angry kid. I just hated everyone. The only people I didn’t hate were the people that were in my gang.”

In his early twenties, Green’s ping-pong career bloomed: he has traveled around the world representing the U.S. in tournaments, been sponsored to travel to Pro Tours, and is featured in a new documentary, “The Tables.” His body motions were tracked and recorded by Rockstar Studios for their ping-pong game for Xbox, meaning that the 3D motions performed by the digital avatars in that game are technically reproductions of Green’s movement.

Green has an interest in the potential for sports to heal partisan divides: he compares himself (modestly, I might add) to Dennis Rodman, who, like Green, traveled to North Korea to use sport to bridge a political divide. Green references “ping-pong diplomacy,” the athletic exchange between U.S. and Chinese table-tennis players during the Nixon administration, which is credited with helping improve Sino-American relations and mutual goodwill. Green’s North Korea excursion paved the way for a film he is currently working on about his experience.

Green spoke to Salon at the Original Thinkers festival in Telluride, Colorado, where he was a featured speaker. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Keith Spencer: You’ve said that ping-pong saved your life. Can you tell us what you mean by that? 

Wally Green: You mean, how did it save my life? Well when I was younger, I used to be in a lot of trouble, and at [age] 13 I owned six guns. I was a really crazy kid. I grew up in Brooklyn. I was a really, really bad kid. I was doing all kinds of crazy stuff. The short version of the story is I met [a sponsor] who paid for me to go to Germany to learn ping-pong.

I’m skipping a lot of the story. There’s a lot of in between.

But yes, the bottom line is an angel came and he paid for me to go to Germany and learn ping-pong. Then I left my circle of people for the first time, got out of America for the first time, and then that was the start of the change in my life.

Right, and so how old were you when that happened?

I was 19.

I imagine to get started at 19 and then become one of the best ping-pong players in the country, that’s pretty rare.

Yes, I was always athletic. I’m not the best player in the world, but I’m definitely the coolest. I’m sure of it. That beats being the best.

But yes, I played every sport as a kid. Every sport on a pretty high level. I did basketball, volleyball, tennis, wrestling, football. I mean everything. I just love sports. Sports was a way to [escape.] I grew up with domestic violence, like really bad domestic violence. Sports was a way to get out of the house and just not be around it. That’s why I’m able to play all sports.

What brought you to first pick up a paddle?

Well, the way I started ping-pong is, I was shooting pool. I wound up stealing this pool stick. I changed the price of a $40 pool stick and put that $40 on a $400 pool stick.

Sure. As one does. 

It’s not really stealing, it’s kind of just bargaining. Anyway, I thought I was good at pool. I went to a pool hall, I played some pool games and the guy [I was playing] was like, “Let’s play for some money.” I was like, “All right, yeah.” I had a little bit of money on me. It was a hustle, and I wind up losing miserably. I just got angry and I kind of tossed the stick on the table and it shattered.

Then, I was at the pool [hall] with nothing to do. I was tight, angry. There were some Asian kids playing ping-pong. I was like, “Yo, can I get a hit?” They were like, “Yeah. You play?” I was like, “No, I just want to hit something.” They hit the ball to me. I hid it at the table and it went right on the table the first time. Just luck. Plus, I played tennis, at least a little bit.

Then they were like, “Oh, you play?” I was like, “No, not really…” He’s like, “Oh, there’s a club, a ping-pong club in midtown Manhattan. You should go check it out.” I was like, “What, there’s actually a club for this? Are you kidding?”

Then I went down there — it was actually a pool hall, but it had a huge table tennis section, lots of people playing, but nobody would play me. That’s where I met the guy that would eventually save my life and send me to Germany.

Who was the patron that you met who was willing to sponsor you?

This guy was completely random. I was sitting there [at the ping-pong club] one day and the guy came up to me and he goes, “Hey, do you have a partner?” I was like, “No, I’m just waiting to play somebody.” Nobody would play with me. That’s how really good ping-pong players are. They won’t play with you if they don’t know you because they think you’re not good. So I just sat there.

The guy said, “Okay, I’ll pay you $20 for each time you play with me.” I was like, “What?” Twenty dollars, I was like, “Man that’s a hustle. Twenty bucks. I can get 20 bucks just to play ping-pong? I was like, “Yeah, all right. Cool, let’s do it.” He didn’t know me, I didn’t know him.

Then we started playing and then we started talking a lot. Then he asked me about my life and stuff like that. I was like, “Yes, I’m in a gang, blah blah blah.” For him, for most people who have never been in that situation, it’s like TV. If it’s like TV, they’re “No, it’s not really that real.” Or it’s not really that serious.

One day, I went to the club, and a gun fell out of my bag and he saw it. In most cases, people would just run away from you, right? The first thing I thought was like, “Damn! Man, there goes my $20 hustle.”

We just kind of left it like that. It was just a weird situation and I was like, “Yeah, I got to go.” I left and he just kind of stood there. But two days later he called me and he was like, “Hey, are we still playing?” I was like, “What?” “Are we playing?” I was like, “Yes.”

So, I came back and played. After like a month or two the guy was like, “Listen, I see you’re interested in ping-pong. I really want to help you. I have a connection with a sports school in Germany that I’m going to send you to. I’m going to pay for you to go to Germany to learn ping-pong.”

At first I was like, “What is this dude trying to get?” Maybe this dude is on some other stuff, I don’t know. Why do you want to pay for me to go to Germany? It doesn’t make sense. It’s so weird, right? Some random dude tells you oh, I want to pay for you to go to Germany for six weeks. Like, “What?”

Anyway, eventually I was like, “All right.” It was real. He paid for me. I went to Germany. I lived in the school with all these sport kids, who are really good at sports. Like not just table tennis, all sports. That was how I got into it.

You were saying when you were 13, you had all these guns, you were in a gang. When you were 13, if someone came up to you and asked you, “What do you see in your future?” Would you have had any idea that you would end up this international ping-pong phenomenon? 

I think if someone asked me when I was 13 that question, I’d probably slap the fire out of you. Like for real. If someone came up to me and was like, “Oh, where do you see yourself…?” “What? Are you crazy? Who are you?”

Yes, that’s the kind of kid I was. I was crazy. I was a really angry kid. I just hated everyone. The only people I didn’t hate were the people that were in my gang. Everybody else I couldn’t stand. I hated everyone else, if you weren’t part of our gang. That’s the kind of mentality I was on. I was always very defensive.

Even now… a lot of things don’t leave you. Even now, like now I’m still very defensive. I’ll tell you a quick story. When I first started doing social media, people — what do you call those guys that go in there always trying to trash you? There’s a name for them.

Trolls.

Trolls, yes. I used to fight with trolls. If you go to any of my earlier YouTube stuff, like early stuff, you’ll see I’m like, “Are you f**king crazy?” I was always fighting with trolls. Because if they said something I didn’t like or was wrong, I got very defensive.

That’s from being a child. It’s the way I grew up. Now, it’s a little better.

Do you feel like your experiences now, having a career in table tennis, that it was therapeutic in some ways? Did it help you?

What it did was, it took me out of the situation I was in and it kept me out. That’s the hardest thing for a lot of kids that were like me. To get out of that circle. I got lucky. I happened to be at the right place at the right time. I got lucky to get out. But a lot of kids can’t get out, right?

For me, like I said, it took me out of the circle completely. And I don’t just mean to Manhattan — it was out of the circle, out of the country. Once I started playing pro tour — well, let me tell you how I started playing pro tour.

It’s very expensive to play pro tour. Like each pro tour is going to cost you, maybe over $2,000. I’m a young cat, I had no money. But what happened was is I made that game with Rockstar Games [called “Rockstar’s Table Tennis“].

Oh yes, and your movements were motion-captured for the game, right?

Right. And I was always a smart kid. I was always about the hustle, I was always thinking ahead. So I became really friendly with the people at Rockstar. After we did the game, I got paid for each shoot, right? Then I said, “Okay, they want to promote this game for sure, they have to. So, I’m going to come up with a sponsorship budget for two years.” That’s how I got money to travel all over the world [doing Pro Tour].

Once I was able to travel to all these countries, I was like, “Oh man, this is so cool.” It was like a whole new thinking for me. I was in different countries and people were nicer and just being cool to me. I was the star now. I go to Japan, I’m the big star. Who is this black guy, hip-hop guy playing ping-pong? Yes, that was how I was able to change. That was really instrumental and important.

Speaking of traveling, I wanted to ask you about your experience in North Korea. You have a really interesting story about going there for a tournament. You were the only American.

Not even the only American — the only Westerner!

Oh, the only Westerner. Wow. I was just curious what that experience was like, of going to North Korea and being the only Westerner there.

Through the years of playing ping-pong, like I’ve done a lot of media stuff. All the AP articles and The New York Times, Daily News, USA Today, a lot of stuff. I like to do something different. I always check the international table tennis regulation for tournaments.

You can see all the tournaments up to maybe up to two years in advance. They are all listed, but they can change. But generally you know, “okay, in November of next year I’m going to play this,” or not. I saw [an upcoming tournament] in North Korea and I was like, “What? There’s a North Korea tournament?” I had been interested in North Korea because Dennis Rodman was going there.

He was also a sports figure and sort of doing diplomacy.

Yes, exactly. I would say he was very instrumental in my final decision to go. I contacted people from the team, nobody wanted to go. I contacted my friends, my international friends. I said, “Hey, I want to go to this tournament in North Korea. You guys should have your country sign you up and let’s go together.” Everyone was like, “Are you crazy? I’m not going there.”

Nobody wanted to go. In my mind, I was like, “well if Dennis Rodman can do it I can do it.” I went there for a reason, I went there with something in mind — I wanted to change the way North Korean people think about Westerners.

Like I said, I’ve been all over the world. I’ve experienced real racism. Like real… not that American racism. Like real, like Nazi-like racism stuff. I believe one person can make a difference. It’s so true. One person in front of 5,000 people can make a little difference, right? It has to start small.

My thing was: I’m going to go there, I’m going to try to make a difference. I’m going to try to engage real North Korean people. Not the people that you see in the documentaries. Those are not real. That was my goal.

1971 was this big historical moment in America: ping-pong diplomacy. America established relations and a friendship through ping-pong. They sent the US ping-pong team to play against China. I wanted to re-create that living historical moment and make it my own. That was the reason I went.

Nobody [was] willing to go, so I did pretty much everything myself. I made the contacts. The US team entered me of course, and then I made the contacts and I lined up going there.

What was the experience like, of playing in front of this crowd of North Koreans? 

That was probably one of the most intense moments in my life, besides having a gun put to my head. But it was equally intense. Honestly, it was about the same level. Because I had to play a North Korean.

If you play a North Korean in North Korea, all the fans are North Koreans. It’s not like there’s some British [people] hanging out, some Americans or Europeans. It’s all North Koreans. It’s a sea of North Koreans.

I started playing the first match against the North Korean guy. I quickly went up 5-0. I was feeling good. I said all right, maybe I can win this match. But every time I won a point the crowd just made this weird noise.

It was so weird. If you have 5,000 people making this noise at the same time, it’s really creepy. It’s weird. Then he made one point and they went, “Yay!” He started clapping. Then he made another one and he got louder.

So the audience is just screaming for him? 

It was insane. I was like, “Yo, this is crazy.” Normally, I would get mad and be like, “Yo, shut the f**k up!” But I thought about the reason I went there. The reason I went there was not to win the match. It was to make a connection.

I was like saying in my brain, this is my opportunity to make this connection right now. Because I got the whole crowd watching this match. Everybody’s on me. Everybody’s on this guy. So at one point, he made another point, he was like really loud, and I just stopped. I put my hands up and I was like, “Really?”
But I was laughing. I wasn’t mad… I was laughing. Once I did that, it was like a chain reaction. Like, everybody just started laughing. It was crazy.

So the crowd reacted positively.

Yes. It was everyone. It was weird. I was like, “Oh, this is cool.” Then, every time I lost a point… every time I would look up and then laugh, they would laugh. I thought, that’s the real connection I wanted. That’s what I’ll do here. Because that’s not fake. That’s not rehearsed. You can’t plan for that. Because they don’t know what I’m going to do. I could’ve been angry, right? That was the real reaction maybe they expect.

Then after the match — I wound up losing the match of course, and then the guy came over to shake. First, you’ve got to shake hands with the umpires, and then my opponent came to shake my hand. The way he was trying to shake my hand was like I had some kind of disease or something. But I just grabbed his arm, pulled him in and gave him a big hug. The crowd went crazy.

The look on his face was priceless. I had a camera filming from there, and his face was towards my camera. At first he looked like, “what the f**k?” Then he smiled.

That’s the reason I went to North Korea. That’s what I wanted to get.

But he might’ve got chopped up for that smile, I don’t know. But hopefully, I’m the only one with that footage.

But yes, that was the reason I went. That was my version of ping-pong diplomacy.

You were in this documentary, “The Tables,” and you’re working on one of your own about that experience, is that correct? What is it called? 

Yeah. It’s called “My North Korean Ping-Pong Diplomacy.” I’m going to submit to film festivals. Hopefully it’s going to be done soon.


Keith A. Spencer

Keith A. Spencer is the cover editor for Salon, and manages Salon’s science, tech and health coverage. His book, “A People’s History of Silicon Valley: How the Tech Industry Exploits Workers, Erodes Privacy and Undermines Democracy,” was released in 2018 from Eyewear Publishing. Follow him on Twitter at @keithspencer. MORE FROM Keith A. SpencerFOLLOW keithspencer

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