Marty Reisman, Ping-Pong Hustler
Credit: Dario Cantatore / Getty Images

It's not often that one meets a man who, at age 82, is trying to recapture something that he lost at 19. But Marty Reisman, as he'd be the first to tell you, is not a normal man. Just look at the guy, seated across the table at a noisy Chinese restaurant near the United Nations Building in New York City. Men in dashikis and turbans walk past the open windows, but it's Marty who turns heads – dressed head to toe in custom-tailored black, wearing both aviator sunglasses and a Panama hat indoors. Even in Manhattan, octogenarians don't typically leave the house dressed like Huggy Bear's Caucasian twin. They also don't introduce themselves by saying "I'm going to step around the corner to get one of those big bottles of beer. You want one?" If Marty didn't carry himself with the swagger of a champion, even a champion six decades removed from his greatest triumph, he'd be ridiculous.

Such is the paradox of life as Marty "The Needle" Reisman, ping-pong hustler. On the one hand, he styles himself as an athletic assassin, a killer ever alert for his next duel. On the other hand, his weapon of choice is a paddle that, stapled to a rubber ball and string, might be handed out at a child's birthday party. Nobody understands this absurdity better than Marty. He once described his illustrious career in table tennis as "a funny way to spend a life." Most sports that the average American male imagines he could, with a little practice, compete in professionally – golf, bowling, stock-car racing – are at least contested in manly, back-slapping environments. Ping-pong is played in the basement next to the clothes dryer. Even Marty admits that the game to which he's given his life tends to be seen as "the lowest athletic endeavor on the world totem pole, next to marbles maybe."

And yet here he is, talking faster than I can scribble, jabbering on about how he's still working the kinks out of his stroke, how he's sniffing around for a serious winner-take-all "money game," how in the past couple of years he has almost single-handedly sparked a renaissance in his beloved sport. He might even be right. After decades of slow decline, table tennis has staged a miraculous rally.

Despite American ping-pong's long hibernation, Marty was never one of those athletes who reach retirement age, crank the La-Z-Boy to full recline, and announce that upon further review, they wouldn't change a thing about their lives. "I've gone back and replayed every point in every match I ever played," Marty told me more than once during conversations we had over several months. (I was not, I quickly learned, the first reporter to invite himself for a visit into Marty's life only to find that there was no exit door.) Something about Marty reminded me of Johnny Cash, and not just his monochromatic sartorial taste. Both men realized early on that if a man devotes his life to his God-given talent and never abandons it, even when everyone else has moved on to other things, the world might just come back around eventually and admit that he'd been right all along.

In the video below, Reisman demonstrates how to properly grip a paddle and execute a backhand push stroke.