The other day it was reported that KC had successfully defended their Urban Schoolboy Under 19 Table Tennis title and it is expected that the team will go on to win the all-island title as well. I had planned, or rather I was encouraged, to write about KC's table tennis fortunes about three months ago when 'young' Old Boy Kane Watson, son of my class-mate Basil Watson, became the national table tennis champion. There is no doubt that KC has been the top school in table tennis for the past 40 years, and many will try to figure out the secret of our success.
When I started at KC, we were already the school to beat in TT. I am not sure if this was the reason why scores of us first and second form students turned up at Melbourne very early in the morning to play in the old pavilion and on makeshift table tennis tables, including those fashioned from old doors and warped pieces of plywood. I never played TT before I came to KC, as at my rural primary school, boys only played cricket. However, since I lived practically next-door to Melbourne, I was one of the first in the queue for the morning TT ritual called 'one love chip'. The essence of this ritual is that a king was crowned from among the first two players, and all who wanted to replace the so-called king had to win three points against him. Challengers who lost the first point against the king had to go to the back of the queue and await their next turn. That's how scores of us learnt the game; we got the opportunity morning after morning to play against the best players - who usually reigned long as the kings - and we had ample turns to practise our serves, loops, smashes and defensive skills. I had friends back then who came to school with a TT bat in one back pocket and a comic strip in the other.
By the time we got to North Street we were avid TT fans and the biggest cheerleaders for the players who represented the school in the Kelall Cup. In the early to mid-1970s, some of the players who brought us TT glory were Michael Melbourne, Glen Bowlin, Wigmore Francis, Winston Cowans, Dennis Duncan, Junior Allwood and the dynamic Richard Stephenson who was very much a child prodigy. In the late 70s, the mantle was successfully passed to others like Randy Fagan, David Marshalleck and the present coach of the TT team, Colin McNeish.
A few years ago, Tony Becca wrote a piece in the Gleaner about table tennis in Jamaica, and he mentioned that in the 70s he would turn up at North Street to watch KC play George's, Calabar or Wolmer's. As far as he was concerned, all lovers of TT had to see these games. What excited him was not just the quality of the KC players, including those I mentioned above, but also the fact that hundreds of KC boys packed the Assembly Hall to watch every game! While I was in 5th form, my classroom was adjacent to the Assembly Hall, but even then, I had to hurry after the last class had ended to get a seat in the Hall when KC had a home game.
In his article Becca also mentioned that in that era, the Jamaica team was strong when the KC team was strong. (Echoes of the England cricket is strong when Yorkshire is strong?) In fact in those days, the Jamaican national team invariably had KC students on it, and in 1973 Richard Stephenson was crowned national singles champion at the tender age of 14 – a feat still unequalled.
Such was our love for the game that on a Friday afternoon some of my class-mates and I would travel for miles to the homes of any of our friends who had a TT table. We will all recall that back then Tastee's patties were the hot dietary item (yes, the pun is intended!) and we would gather at Tastee's HQ in Cross Roads – there was only one Tastee's outlet back then - to dine on patty and soft drinks before taking the bus to Constant Spring or Havendale or wherever we would be playing that afternoon. (At Tastee's we often had a patty eating contest but that story is for another article.)
On one of our trips to a class-mate's home along Washington Boulevard, one of my friends – not a particularly good player - was hit by a car as he crossed the busy boulevard. (X still marks the spot where his time and space dimensions and those same coordinates of the car all intersected!) He had to be hospitalized for observation and a check-up that evening. Years later, he recalled that his greatest fear while in the hospital was not that he might have suffered a broken bone or a bruised and twisted ankle, but rather how he was going to explain to his mother his reason for being on Washington Boulevard when he should have been on the bus home. Cross Roads to Red Hills via Ziadie Garden was always going to stretch the imagination.
Basil Watson also had a table and we sometimes journeyed to his house, and on a few occasions, we ended up at Steve Vacsiannie's house as well. I recall that Steve's brother Dennis Duncan never played with us, probably because he was considered a TT pro while we were merely a bunch of amateurs learning the game. (Dennis later paired with Richard Stephenson and also with Winston Cowans to become national double champion on many occasions.) Later, when we were in fourth form, and after saving up his salary from a summer holiday job, Patrick Dallas also acquired a table.
Both Patrick and his brother George became very good players, but preferred to play for enjoyment and hardly entered tournaments. In fact, at any other school they would have been on the team as I and scores of players from Vineyard Town and its environs, including Randy Fagan, Colin McNeish, Everett Jackson, Michael Harris, Delmike Vernon, Rudyard Gordon and Basil Coombs, knew of their prowess at the game.
It was not only at school and at the homes of our friends that my friends and I played TT. We also played at my downtown church where there was a TT table in the hall. After the weekly youth fellowship meetings, we would play until the caretaker declared that it was time for us to go, usually around 10 pm! It turned out that our priest, a Wolmerian and Rhodes Scholar in the 50s, was a brilliant TT player and I had a hard time winning a set against him.
Let us fast forward to TT at KC in the 1990s and in the new millenium. Many of us followed the fortunes of the team in those years when Daryl Strachan was the captain and number one player on the team. He also represented Jamaica for many years. Later on, the team continued its run of success with coach Sandra Rettie at the helm. I think that she was the only female TT coach KC ever had. She brought much success to KC during her stint as coach which was not a surprise, since she was national female champion on many occasions and is regarded as one of Jamaica's top female TT player of all times. After Sandra Rettie left to coach another school, KC Old Boy Colin McNeish took over the job, and he is still the coach today. He will probably rank as one of KC's best players of all times and he represented Jamaica with distinction while he was still at school. Like Stephenson, he was also national champion at one time.
I mentioned that Kane Watson is the current national champion and some will say that they saw it coming ever since his days at KC. His father Basil Watson will probably say that the youngster has it in his genes. I am not sure if Kane learnt to play TT at KC or at home. Probably he is like Richard Stephenson who once said that he learnt to play TT in first form at KC and would practise by himself on his wall at home to improve his skills. Stephenson thus went from novice to Jamaica national champion in less than 4 years, a truly remarkable feat. But then at KC he had training partners who were already on the Jamaican team, and if he was like the rest of us, he got to practice his serves and loops while taking part in the daily 'one love chip' ritual.