Courtesy of Sean O’Neill, US Table Tennis Hall of Fame President
We shared many table tennis moments together for which I will always appreciate your kindness, fortitude, and tutelage. Many of our friends have written of your on and off the table greatness, your willingness to help grow the sport, and ambassadorship for table tennis. I know how you found that hardbat paddle from a co-worker at the UN and decided to give it try, but I am sure you never imagined the impact the sport would have on you and you on the sport. I would like to recall some of the meaningful times our paths crossed over the years.
As a wide-eyed 4-year-old, I witnessed the 1972 Ping-Pong Diplomacy Tour stop at Cole Field House in Maryland. My father Patrick was a former junior player from Toledo, Ohio, and wasn’t going to miss a chance to see the best in the world play his favorite childhood sport. I remember seeing you play and wondering if you needed any help and might ask my dad to join you for some doubles against the World Champions. After all, he had a Butterfly racket with two red sheets of Sriver rubber. That meant he was a serious player. It turns out you didn’t need his help and continue to show Americans how sport can bring us together. That patriotic evening in Maryland led our family to seek out our local USATT club in Northern Virginia and rekindled my dad’s interest in loops, smashes, and the occasional chops.
Four short years later, the Eastern Open was going to be held in Maryland and two players from Thailand were looking for free lodging to save on costs. Our family said we would be thrilled to host these experts and maybe they could give me a couple of pointers as I now had my own paddle, a Butterfly Surbek blade with Sriver on each side. I played in the tournament, lost both of my matches in the U-11 RR, finished 3rd, and went home without a trophy. But I did get to see you play once again against our guest from Bangkok, ChuChai Chan in the Open Singles. Chan was a complete player, with beautiful strokes, an amazing high toss serve and superb footwork. Unfortunately for Chan, you were spinnier, more consistent, and could match him point for point. I kept thinking how does this guy everyone calls “Chief” bring back every ball hit at him so strongly.
I practiced hard thanks to the Thai’s, especially Chan who lived at my home and found myself in the finals of the Boy’s under 11 at the 1978 US Open in Oklahoma City. Scott Butler and I would have a serious rivalry thru the junior ranks, this was our second major final as we had played at Caesar’s in December. I forget what happened prior to the match, but somehow when I went to the corner for advice, you were there offering my clear tactics, strategy, and encouragement. The crowd let out an “oooh,” when I missed my high toss down-the-line by inches while trailing 19-20 in a pivotal game. After the tough loss, seeing me try to hold back tears, you assured me it was the right serve to take and not to be discouraged.
Table Tennis continued to grow in Northern Virginia and our seasonal tournament attracted some top players especially from NY. A young Eric Boggan racing up the rating charts and you met him in the finals of Men’s singles on center court at the Washington Tennis Center. Up 20-15 in the fifth, things looked good for future top 18 in the world star. Unfortunately for Eric, his opponent always had an extra gear or two. Seven points later the crowd was lit up watching The Chief’s arm raised victory dance. I learned first-hand why they called you “The Chief!”
Yvonne Kronlage ran her monthly tournaments in Columbia, Maryland at the Wild Lake High School and somehow, we were opponents for a late Sunday night match. Literally, no spectators or players were left in the building except for Yvonne and my mom. You have probably forgotten the match amongst the many thousands that you played, but it was a big deal for me because I won a game or two against you. You like David Sakai or Houshang were the ultimate measuring stick for us as juniors. To be competitive with our heroes allowed us to know we were on the right track.
We both tried out for the 1983 Pan Am Team in Colorado Springs and both made it. I believe my one loss in the trials was to you as your spinning openings in the thin air were tougher than nails to contain. We had a great time as roommates for our prep camps at the Olympic Training Center and practicing with you was so much fun as just like with Chan in 1976, you still never missed! Playing in Caracas on Team USA was a super thrill for me as a 15-year-old and it was even more fun being in the village meeting so many of your track and field friends from Guyana. The entire Village knew your nickname!
At the ’81 CNE, you teamed with Eric Boggan to win the Men’s Doubles—over North America’s best: first, Canada’s Zoki Kosanovic/Joe Ng, then the Seemiller brothers. In 1984, approaching 50, you caused a sensation at the CNE by taking, not just the Senior’s, but the Men’s! One onlooker watching you said, “The Chief sleeps in a cooler—he never ages.” And as Tim Boggan wrote at the time, “Braithwaite “is now playing the best table tennis of his long and distinguished career.” You were named 1984 Olympian magazine’s Sportsman of the Year, and the 1984-85 USTTA’s Amateur Athlete of the Year.
My big goal in 1985 was to qualify for the World Team that I had missed in 1983. Tim Boggan further wrote in the History of U.S. Table Tennis Vol XIII this summary:
“George Braithwaite finished last in the final round robin-against a group that contained players 31 years his junior. “The Chief” was proud of that finish. For at least he got to the final 12, whereas Dean Doyle, Mike Bush, Ray Guillen, Charles Butler and Jim Lane (thanks to George) didn’t make it. Brathwaite’s single win was against Sean O’Neill, something to feel good about given Sean’s outstanding performance. Even though George continued to lose, he never slacked off, never played but his best, extending youngsters like Brandon Olson and Khoa Nguyen into third-game confrontations.
”What Tim failed to mention was I was leading you in the preliminary RR with carry-over matches just like Eric had led in Virginia. Up 20-15 in the final game, I couldn’t figure out a way to put you away. The turning point was “after the match,” you again offered encouragement and explained, “Sean, this tournament is far from over, keep playing hard and you’ll do fine in the final 12.” I took your words to heart and copied your attitude for the rest of the event and finished behind Eric and Danny for my first Worlds Team. I learned directly from you how to play large round-robin trials when one takes an early loss.
We continued to battle, and you beat me again at the 1986 US Olympic Festival in Houston on the opening day of teams. I took your prior words to heart and managed to beat Khoa in the singles finals. Afterward, you congratulated me and reminded me what happened just a few days earlier with a big grin!
The Festivals were so much fun, and we got to be both teammates and doubles partners in 1989. Our team of Clark Yeh, Mike Veillette took home the gold and then we teamed up for the doubles to grab gold as well. It was just a blast for us to go into lockdown mode in doubles and not give a free point with you spinning and me driving the ball. Learning how to play each shot with pure concentration and focus while on center stage was another great lesson, I took from your table tennis bag of tricks. I guess I should have figured it out earlier based on the number of comebacks you were responsible for.
I would say it was only fitting on the day I was inducted into the US Table Tennis Hall of Fame in 2007 as a player you were honored with the Mark Matthew Lifetime Achievement Award. So once again we shared a special night together as teammates after 35 years of friendship.
George, all that played, watched or got to work with you to promote the sport were better for it. Thank you for setting a great example for all of us as your spirit and legacy will outlast your much too short time with us.
Your teammate, doubles partner, student, and friend,