Guest columnist Bob Flaherty: Serve it, spin it, slam it — just show up for the Pong-a-thon

  • Bob Flaherty in action. Photo by John Sheirer

For the Gazette
Published: 10/9/2018 8:18:13 AM

A year ago, in Easthampton, during the 11th hour of my self-imposed paean to pingpong, my son Pat fought his way through Mass Pike congestion to take me on. The first time he played pong, only his eager face and paddle were visible above the table, but Pat is now considered the ace of our family’s long line of pingpong players, who’ve plied 90 percent of their trade on warped, bowlegged tables in dank basements of rented family cottages at the shore. Not only would this particular game take place at Zing! Table Tennis Center in Easthampton, it would also be broadcast live on WHMP. After beating me (of course), Patrick grabbed the mic and intoned to our “vast” news/talk audience: “My dad first played me when I was in diapers. Now that he’s in diapers, I thought I’d return the favor.”  


My grandson Calvin, a junior at Easthampton High, has been serving as my sparring partner as I prepare for Pong-a-thon 2, Oct. 12. Like all Flaherty pongstahs, he tries like hell to return every shot, and his Boris Becker-like tenacity caught the eye of Zing!’s owner Noel Abbott, who offered to refine his game a bit, starting with his grip. “A couple of tweaks here and there and you’ll be beating your granddad every time,” he coached. Noel has tried to change Granddad’s grip, too, but after 50-plus years of the old one, it felt as clumsy to the old coot as shaving with his foot.   

What Noel Abbott and I agree on, though, is the need to do something for refugees coming to live, and work, in Northampton. Knock on wood, but my family has never been driven out of its home by bullet or bomb, has never marched shoeless for days at a time with bag on back and baby on hip, and has never known the hissing heat of malaria-drenched refugee camps.  

Ibrahim Nuru, a native of Tanzania, and a caseworker for Catholic Charities in Springfield, has become the face of America to many newcomers, the first friendly face a refugee sees upon landing. It is Nuru who takes them to their new city, their new apartment, their prospective employers. Nuru tells of a man and his family of eight, all moved in, with the 5-year-old boy coming to his father’s bedside late at night, worried that someone would kick them out in the street come sunrise: “Is this really our place? Am I dreaming?” But the father, too, said he felt like a child, and did not have an answer for his son. Until reassured by Nuru.   


“I am a Muslim,” says Nuru, “and I’m working for a Christian organization. But I am doing God’s work. To me, a Christian, a Muslim, they are all brothers.”  

But God’s work is tough, a day-to-day battle of equal parts triumph and heartbreak, with dwindling budgets and presidential scorn. With Trump reducing next year’s cap on refugee admissions to only 30,000, there are fears that agencies like Catholic Charities could go belly up. So we do what we can. Noel opens his business free to the world. I take on all comers on Table One, and anyone who can grip a paddle or support those who can does the rest.       

I had a dream the other night about last year’s pong fest — every match, every point, 12 vivid hours mashed into my usual five hours of sleep — and here’s Holyoke’s Mayor Morse returning volleys and Easthampton’s LaChapelle and Northampton’s Narkewicz, decked out chin-to-toe like fictional table tennis savant Forrest Gump. Onto District Attorney Sullivan bowing in ceremonial robes; and the casually-moving Bill Dwight, winning games with bedeviling spin; and the all-out dig of cartoonist Hilary Price, winning them with heart.  

And just before the alarm goes off comes the match of the day, nay, of a lifetime, against the young state rep from Amherst, Solomon Goldstein-Rose. Tied at 11, tied at 15, tied at 21, tied at 27, as my colleague Monte Belmonte, doing radio play-by-play alongside Chris Collins, cannot bring himself to break for a scheduled slate of ads. “We can’t leave!” Monte cries, “this is too good — as Flaherty makes a wicked return six feet from the table and OHHH Goldstein-Rose lunges … and slams it back … for the WIN!”

How often does an “athlete” hear the action described as it actually unfolds? Mookie Betts should have it so good. BZZZZT! OK, I’m up.     

Last month, after my grandson and I finished two back-to-back series at Zing!, I asked Cal what he thought of Noel Abbott’s offer to train him. “I don’t know,” he said and shrugged. “I’ve always just played pong for fun, something to do with the family. If I get so good that no one can beat me, what fun would that be?”  


But last week he did let Noel work with him for a few, while I ate a sandwich and stretched. He then beat me best out of seven. I can guarantee you he had fun.  

WHMP morning host Bob Flaherty stages his 2nd annual Pong-a-thon for Refugee Resettlement Friday, Oct. 12, 7 a.m.-7 p.m. at Zing! Table Tennis Center in Easthampton. He will attempt to play pingpong for 12 straight hours. The idea is to beat him. Or just come out and play with friends. All the details at

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