By Lenn Robbins
This was before COVID-19, before hospitals were overrun with the sick and dying, and frontline workers were putting themselves at risk, grinding 16-hour days and returning the next day for another 16.
Wally Green and his wife, Ayako, took their son Aiden to the hospital. He had the flu, among other health concerns. When a child isn’t even a year old, the flu can be life-threatening. Wally and Ayako were filled with worry.
“It was crazy,” said Green. “There were so many doctors in the room and they were all super, super helpful, explaining everything to us, what he has, what were all the possibilities. It was really, really cool seeing these people doing what not many people in the world can do.”
Aiden recovered just fine and recently celebrated his 1st birthday. His parents did a Zoom celebration so Aiden’s relatives in Japan could share the joy. Green never stopped thinking about those frontline workers, trying to imagine what a daunting existence they were leading as the pandemic brought this city to its knees.
That’s when Green, a cofounder of SPiN New York 23 along with actress Susan Sarandon and several others, realized he has a unique way to thank the frontline workers, like those that cared for his son. He’s offering free, 30-minute ping pong lessons on Wednesdays and Sundays from 5-9 p.m. at the East 23rd Street location.
“I just have so much respect for those people,” said Green. “I wanted to bring a little fun into their lives. I thought, ‘What do I have the most fun doing? What do I know best?’ Ping pong.”
Green is the epitome of the “Brooklyn boy turns his life around story.” By the time he was 13, Green, who grew up in the Marlboro projects in Gravesend, owned six guns, was in a gang and his road seemingly had two destinations – death or prison.
He found ping pong when he walked into a pool hall and saw a couple of Asian teenagers playing ping pong. Green gave it a try and after initially thinking it was “stupid,” he was soon enamored with the ping pong the sport that would save him.
He began playing in ping pong halls throughout the city where he learned of a program that sent inner city kids around the world to further master the sport and get out of the life. He went to Germany and now, instead of owning six guns, he owns five ping pong rackets, four paddle tennis rackets, three sandpaper paddles and one, “beat up,” tennis rackets.
Green has represented the United States in Pro Tour ping pong competitions around the world. He even visited North Korea on his own and played in exhibitions.
“I’m the Dennis Rodman of ping pong,” he joked.
The plight of frontline workers in the metropolitan area, of course, is no joke. There are concerns that a second wave of the novel coronavirus will hit when the weather turns colder and the flu begins to spread.
“The people that worked at the height of the pandemic didn’t get any breaks,” said Green. “So I’m not going to take any breaks. Every Wednesday and Sunday, from five till nine, I’m offering free, 30-minute lessons to frontline workers. It will be a ping pong marathon of thanks.”