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Follow the bouncing ball

Pearl District pingpong club is 'passion project' for Duane Smith


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Pure Space is the home for Pure Pong in the Pearl, a club of 100-something players who utilize the buildings 16,500 square feet of space. Up to 30 tables can fit in the building, and founder Duane Smith anticipates growth in club members.It’s table tennis for the aficionados and pingpong to everybody else. Either way, Duane Smith says that Portland needed more of the paddle-and-ball sport.

So, he started a club, for anybody and everybody.

Pure Pong in the Pearl, which has been open for 3 1/2 months at Pure Space, 1315 N.W. Overton St., draws in scores of players of all abilities. Smith, whose West Coast Event Productions leases the space and runs the club, has big plans for Pure Pong.

“My goal is to get 100,000 or 200,000 players in Portland to play pingpong,” he says. “Everybody loves it. Anybody can play it. It’s the healthiest sport in the world. You can play it from the time you’re young till you’re 90. Grandkids can play grandparents. It’s cross-generational.”

Smith plays, and plays quite well, along with the regulars at the 16,500- square-foot, high-ceilinged, glass-walled Pearl District location, which holds up to 30 tables — including a mezzanine with eight tables, making it the largest club in the country, he says. Smith, 72, who played pingpong in high school, “gave it up for 4 1/2 decades,” and then resumed playing about the same time he thought of the bright idea of opening the Pure Space venue.

“I lost 22 pounds in the first month playing,” he says. And, “it’s the one sport that keeps your mind sharp.”

Pure Pong (pureponginthepearl.com) offers hours of play daily — 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through August. Hours will extended to 11 p.m. during the fall. “We’ve been open until 1 (a.m.) before,” Smith adds. “If there are players, we let them play.” Pure Space usually houses big events, but it also sits dormant at times, so in stepped Pure Pong. Rates are $5 per hour before 5 p.m., $7.50 per hour after.

More than 100 people are members of the club. League play takes place Wednesdays and tournaments Fridays.

Among the participants are Sean O’Neill, a highly ranked U.S. player who calls Portland home, Tim Aikey, a state champion, and Jeff Mason, a former national team coach. In recent days, Thai standout Apichart Sears has been whacking balls at the club.

Good players and beginners are welcome, Smith says.

“I came from the largest club in the U.S. 20 years ago,” says Mason, 61, of Sacramento’s Table Tennis World. “To see this, it’s on a high-class level. Mine was in a warehouse. We had a lot of players, but it didn’t look like this. This is sharp.

by: PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JAIME VALDEZ - Longtime Portland player Steve Marceno returns a volley during a match on a recent night at Pure Space. He likes the new environment for table tennis in the Pearl District. This is by far the best (in Portland), he says.“Duane’s bringing beginners into it, much more than what we did. It’s nice for the sport.”

Steve Marceno of Portland, 54, has been playing for more than four decades. He’s a good player, able to match point-for-point with Sears at times. He had been playing at local clubs, but has been impressed with Pure Pong.

“It’s the most awesome sport in the world, and I’m so proud of Duane for bringing it to Northwest Portland,” he says. “This is by far the best (in Portland), in terms of environment and the folks here. Duane makes it a total pleasure to come and play.”

Starting in early September, Smith says he’ll hold a tournament tentatively titled “The Dirty Dozen,” during which top players from Portland — as well as possibly Seattle and San Francisco — square off for seven weeks of play. The first six weeks there’ll be weekly winners; the seventh will be for the top players, with a $500 grand prize. And, regular Joes and Janes will get their chance at the top players, with the person with the most accumulation of points against them also earning prize money.

Smith says he simply wanted to start a pingpong club in an urban space — a “passion project” — but he also watched as actress Susan Sarandon’s Spin Galactic clubs opened in Los Angeles and New York, and have expanded to Milwaukee, Toronto and Dubai.

“It’s a trend,” he says. “Every day five to 10 people thank me for opening this club.

“I think 98 percent of all Americans have played pingpong,” Smith adds, guessing for effect. “As much as everybody has played it, it’s also the least common sport (compared to other countries). We’re just starting to come around.”

The hardcore enthusiasts, like Mason, would love to see more people playing. He coaches at Pure Pong three nights a week.

His advice? “Learn a ready position — paddle over the table end line, feet about shoulder’s width apart, knees bent, eyes not blinking,” he says. “And, a lot of people don’t know how to hold the racquet, and the stroke. With the new rubber they have, called sponge rubber, you can actually impart top spin on the ball — close your racquet at the end of the stroke, and you can get the ball arcing down. That’s table tennis.”

And, it’s a workout. Just try it, Mason adds. “You gotta train for it. At the top level, it’s just as physically demanding as tennis or any other sport.”

A lot of people have asked Smith the same question: How long will the club be open?

It’s not a fly-by-night operation, he insists.

He answers, “I’m only going to do it for 50 years, and give it up.”