The streets near Compton are a long way from Shanghai, Seoul, Tokyo, Budapest and other places where table tennis is a major sport.
But nestled on one of those streets near the western edge of town is the home of James D. West, who assembles customized paddles that have earned him a loyal following among Southern California’s circle of about 500 serious table tennis players.
“I would like to feel it’s because I’m good,” West said. “But maybe it’s like the crap game that everybody knows is crooked, but they go anyway because it’s the only game in town.”
West is one of the few people in the Los Angeles area who can whip together what a pro would call an inverted dimple defensive model for a person with a pinhole grip, all in less than five minutes.
It’s not because he lacks competition that he gets business. “There are other (assemblers) around,” said Dick Badger, president of the Long Beach Table Tennis Club. “But (West) prospers because he has the greatest reputation.”
A lanky, graying man of 61 with a friendly manner, West is a Crenshaw High School guidance counselor during the workday. But by avocation, he is both a devotee and oral historian of table tennis.
The parlor of West’s home is his shop and showroom. There are four filing cabinets filled with table tennis paddles, and a corner shelf stuffed with balls and nets. The walls are decorated with playing awards that he and his two daughters have won over the years. A scrapbook highlighting his and his wife Ola’s 37th anniversary trip to Asia lies nearby, a vacation during which West spent much of his time traipsing through the streets of China, Japan and South Korea looking for a game.
“When I first came out to Los Angeles from Oklahoma with my father in 1938, I would follow my cousin over to McKinley School (now Carver Elementary),” West said. “School was still in session, so I would watch some people on the playground playing Ping-Pong. My father bought us a set before we went back to Oklahoma and we would play on the dining room table.”
After three years in the Army and four in college, always honing his game during idle hours, West returned to Los Angeles in the early 1950s to find that playing professionally was not a possibility, at least for him.
“I heard about a pro-type club that was over on Highland,” West said. “That was the first time I had ever seen good table tennis. What I had been playing was Ping-Pong,” a term he uses almost derisively.
“I started going to tournaments and I quickly realized that I was not a championship-caliber player,” West said. “So I had to find a new niche.”
He said he realized that there was no place locally for good players to buy top-notch equipment. So he began his business.
“First I bought one of everything, then two, then four, then six,” West said. He said the only time it looked like his business might suffer was when table tennis was at its peak of popularity in this country.
With President Richard Nixon opening doors to China by sending over the U. S. table tennis team in the early 1970s, major department and sporting goods stores began stocking quality supplies in anticipation of a boom in the number of the sport’s participants.
“It looked like table tennis was going to be a big thing and all of the companies that had avoided it like the plague began opening up factories to make the equipment,” West said. “Little people like myself got pushed off to the side.”
But that boom proved to be a passing fad and within a year Americans had returned to thinking of table tennis as recreation-room fare.
Tournament-level players come to West because like serious golfers, they want specific things in their equipment that they can’t buy off the rack.
Using different size and shape paddles and types of dimpled rubber sheeting, both of which he imports from the Orient, West is able to customize a paddle to meet a player’s style. Prices can go up to $125, “as much as a tennis racket,” West said.
“The first thing I want to know from a player is if he has a pinhole or a shake-hand (common) grip,” West said. In the pinhole grip, popular among Asian players, a player holds the paddle handle between the index and middle fingers with its head pointed down.
He said other considerations are whether the player likes to add spin to the ball or take spin off, which dictates the type of rubber surface West applies. Some players even resort to inverting the rubber sheets, placing the smooth side out to increase the ball’s spin when returned. Others like their paddles particularly heavy or light.
“If a guy is a draftsman and the heaviest thing he lifts at work is a pencil, he wants the lightest paddle he can get,” West said. “But if the guy is a carpenter swinging a hammer all day, he wants the heaviest thing he can get.”
After determining the player’s needs, West takes the paddle that has been selected, applies a layer of foam rubber and then the outer layer of sheeting. He then shaves the rubber edges and wraps a layer of tape around it.
West said his strangest request came one day from a guy who was playing in a tournament in Oxnard.
“After his first-round match, he called and said he felt he could have played better with fresh rubber on his paddle,” West said. “He told me to meet him at the Compton Airport. I took my equipment over there and sure enough, the guy flies a plane in. I changed the rubber and he flew back up. He never called me back though to tell me how it turned out.”