The sound of nearly a dozen celluloid ping pong balls being rhythmically “pocked” back and forth by each its own pair of wooden paddles wielded by people from all walks of life isn’t just a workday for Elmo Morales; it’s his dream come true.
Or at least the first stage of a dream that seems a little strange at first. Elmo has erected Elmo’s Ping Pong Palace within the walls of the Oxford Properties strip mall on the southwest corner of Dan Hoey and Ann Arbor Street across the way from Busch’s and Lafontaine Chevrolet.
“The ultimate mission is to create an Olympic ping pong champion from this area,” Morales says mater-of-factly while greeting people joining the nearly packed palace within which areeight professional grade ping pong tables, the likes of which are played upon by the sport’s Olympic greats.
The problem for Morales is that none of those greats are American, due to the sport being dominated by countries whose people take their ping-ponging much more seriously than folks in this country, who have relegated the sport to the garages and basements of the land and as a result unwittingly doomed America from ever being a serious contender in a sport that’s been a bonafide Olympic game since 1988.
“We’re never won a medal and we’re not going to win a medal anytime soon,” Morales says matter-of-factly with a shrug. But then his eyes light up and he continues with a look of determination, “In 20 years from now, in the 2036 Olympics, we’ll create a champion from Dexter.”
Elmo can’t do it on his own. He’s just one man — a retired gym teacher from Ann Arbor’s Community High School. In his view, he’s done the important work of building “it” and now all folks need to do is follow that old bit of wisdom and “come” to the palace.
The palace is a stark space adorned with small posters and lit up with fluorescent drop ceiling lighting. Then there are the tables and some metal frame and canvass dividers. Yet there’s something about the atmosphere. The people who decide to come visit Elmo from 7 to 9 p.m. each Thursday are quietly focused on that little ball and sometimes move so fast they blur as much as the ball to the naked eye.
There are all types of people playing at Elmo’s tables, young and old, man and woman, trim and stocky. If you can move around a few paces side-to-side on your feet, move your arms with paddle in hand, and focus then you’ve got what it takes to get started. If you keep with it, you’ll get better, get some light exercise, and most importantly you’ll have a good time.
Some nights Elmo leads everyone in a game of “musical ping pong tables,” where each time the ball is hit everyone runs to the table next to them to jump into the game a table over, while someone else does the same from the table on the opposite side. It’s fun little twists like that along with the social interaction and the aforementioned virtues of the game that have attracted the Saline Senior Center to make the trek to Dexter for a good time at Elmo’s. Many Dexter locals have similarly caught on.
Elmo says he fell in love with the sport slowly over time. As a gym teacher, he is familiar with all sports and has an appreciation for all of their benefits, but ping pong was special. It was a sport that Elmo could direct the special education students towards, whether they had mental disabilities or mild physical impairments, ping pong offered each of them an opportunity to feel good about themselves through sport and have a lot of fun in the process.
“I’d play ping pong as a kid in New York at our youth recreation center, so I’ve always appreciated it, and at Community High School I found that the special ed kids could do ping pong a lot easier than other sports,” Elmo said. “Then in 2014 my wife and I were watching international table tennis championships on TV and the next thing we know we’re heading down to Grand Rapids to watching national championships.
“I remember walking into the center where it was being held at and seeing 93 tables — there were just tables in every direction and there are kids and seniors and people in wheelchairs. We thought it was wonderful. I immediately wanted to open my own club.”
After purchasing his tables from the championship event and carting them home, Elmo set about making come true his dream of simultaneously offering this great opportunity for children, seniors, and the disabled, while attempting to foster and grow a culture of excellence that will cultivate some gifted locals into the best-of-the-best ping pong talent.
Elmo says he hopes the adults in Dexter will lead the way in utilizing the palace for recreation and light exercise.
“We first start with the adults, because they’re the ones that are going to feed the engine in all of this so we can cover the rent and hire more coaches,” Elmo explained. From there the idea is to appeal to the kids who eschew the football team for the marching band, chess club, or robotics team. It’s from these youths that Elmo’s full dream will come to fruition.
“This is a sport where motor skills and mental focus matter much more than in soccer, baseball, or basketball,” — sports in which the participating athletes rely much more on raw physicality.
Now’s the time to get out to the palace and be a part of Elmo’s dream. The folks at Oxford Properties were generous enough to provide free and reduced months of rent, but the full monthly rent is starting to kick in and there needs to be as many people using this ping pong space as possible.
Since opening this past March, players who come in are asked to make a donation. Eventually Elmo would like to charge a reasonable club membership, but for now he is willing to walk the financial tightrope to allow the culture to establish itself and grow.
“We’re seeing new people all the time and I think the Dexter Senior Center is interested, I’d open at 10 a.m. for their exercise time,” Elmo said, adding that he’s open to feedback on the day and hours he is open.
Check out Elmo’s Facebook page and give him a like and maybe even a message/comment.
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