FAYETTEVILLE, Tenn. - When Mal McGeehee, now 68, thinks about
his years at Central High School in Fayetteville, he mostly remembers
the pain of watching while other boys played basketball.
He wanted to play.
But even though McGeehee as a teen-ager had the height and agility
to make a basketball coach drool, he was benched - betrayed by his
``At times, I couldn't breathe,'' McGeehee says. ``And it just
didn't seem worth it when I couldn't get a breath.''
McGeehee, who won a bronze medal for table tennis in his age
bracket at the national Senior Olympics earlier this month, shakes
his white head at the memory. He's sorting through a box of programs,
pictures and medals from his table tennis games as he talks.
``The doctors just didn't understand asthma as well back then,''
he says. ``We're talking the '40s now - I'm an old man.''
That early deprivation, he says, left him with a hunger for
competition that grew during his college years when he played tennis
for Tennessee Technical University. He could play because he
outgrew the worst years of asthma and because drugs were developed
to help him control the symptoms.
But McGeehee still didn't play team sports. If his asthma kicked
in during a tennis tournament, after all, he let no one down but
Then he came to realize that tennis and racquetball, his two
favorite games, were more lifetime sports than basketball, anyway
- sports easy to continue to play when a kid leaves college.
``The lifetime sports really aren't pushed or initiated enough
at an early age,'' McGeehee says. ``Kids tend to worship sports
heroes in team sports, when actually they should be preparing
themselves for keeping fit down the line.''
Water-skiing and racquetball
McGeehee taught P.E. for years at Broward Community College in
Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He taught everything from water skiing to
bowling and horseshoes, but he specialized in tennis and racquetball.
In his spare time, he became, he'll admit, the racquetball player
everyone in south Florida tried without success to beat for 15 years.
And then, in the early '80s, his body betrayed him again: a rotator
cuff injury in his right shoulder forced him to switch to his left
arm for teaching. By 1985, overuse of that arm froze his left
shoulder; he can hardly use it now.
McGeehee retired years before he expected to, locked in
competition with the most serious opponents he had ever faced:
pain and depression.
Pain clinics and physical therapy helped. Prayer kept him alive.
But pingpong saved him.
Well, not pingpong, but table tennis, a game that resembles
basement pingpong about as much as the NBA resembles a game of horse
around a garage basketball hoop. A game complete with $200 paddles,
secret rubber thicknesses, and special glues and shoes.
And a game McGeehee could play with the limited strength and
ability he had left in his right arm.
The contender was back.
In an arena that matched his limited ability, he found a way to
play a racket sport again. His early skills accent the style he uses
at table tennis.
``In essence, I'm not really a table tennis player,'' McGeehee
says. ``I just play tennis on a smaller court.''
He will play anyone anywhere, and has volunteered to coach table
tennis at the local Senior Citizen Center and recreation center,
if they get tables and interested players.
North Alabama table tennis tussles
But, generally, McGeehee's smaller courts are set up in the
gym at Brahan Spring Recreation Center in Huntsville on Thursday
nights when he joins his friends at the North Alabama Table Tennis
Club, home of a bronze-medal Junior Olympian, a 16-time state
champion, and the reigning state champion.
McGeehee's tennis background has given him a serious advantage,
says Michael Wetzel, a vice president of the club who supervised
sports information for the '96 Olympic table tennis games.
``He has good serves,'' Wetzel commented, watching recently
as McGeehee matched Don Gaither of Hazel Green, the tennis table
legend who held the Alabama title for 16 years. ``Mal has good
serves and one of the strongest forehands in the club - probably
the strongest forehand for his age in the nation.''
Wetzel confided that he tries to hit to McGeehee's backhand
when he plays him, but that the strategy doesn't always work. ``Mal
attacks with his forehand, but his backhand surprises you sometimes,''
``And he's sneaky-quick,'' adds Mo Brooks, a Madison County
commissioner and member of the club, passing Wetzel on his way to
Quick? Not as quick as he used to be, McGeehee himself assesses
after he plays his angular game against Gaither's smooth, consistent
returns. And not near as quick as he'd like to be, he says later, still
breathing fast from playing David Landry, 14, who moves as fast
as a hummingbird, sending blurred balls across the table with the
skill that won him a bronze medal in doubles at the Junior Olympics
And, anyway, McGeehee would rather talk about the players in
the club than about himself. About how he bets Don Gaither could
hit a ball to land on a dime laid anywhere on a table nine times out
About how David Landry has the making of a champion, with a playing
style and size that reminds him of Ralph Kissel, another club member
who was state champion three times. About the strength of Ernesto
Kawamoto, a club member who is the current Alabama champion and
And McGeehee would rather talk more people into playing.
``You should try it,'' he'll say to anyone who seems interested,
proving that those years of coaching have left an indelible teaching
gift. ``Come on down and I'll hit some balls with you.''