Table tennis club SPiN is a hit
On a typical Friday night, New Yorkers have a million options to choose from when it comes to nightclubs. Yet somehow, one of Manhattan's most popular hotspots grew out of a unique - and fairly unusual - sport: table tennis.
Though it may sound odd, the combination of dance music, cocktails and ping pong works extremely well - so much so that SPiN New York, tucked below a row of nondescript buildings on the south side of Madison Square Park, often reaches near-capacity on weekend evenings with close to 500 visitors. Billed as a "ping-pong social club," SPiN New York features dozens of sporting tables and bleachers between its beautiful, mural-covered walls. You can even see the innards of the 23rd Street 6 train station through a glass pane.
SPiN New York is so successful, a Chicago location opened just a few months ago - following expansions to Toronto and Los Angeles. On Thursday, May 19, SPiN will launch a new club in San Francisco.
"[Co-owners] Jonathan [Bricklin], Franck [Raharinosy], Susan [Sarandon] really love the game, and they really want to promote the sport as well," says comedian Judah Friedlander, who frequently attends - and even trains - at SPiN New York. "It's more than a bar with ping pong tables making money. They love the art and the spirit of ping pong."
Friedlander is perhaps best known for his prominent role on NBC's sitcom "30 Rock," and more locally for his frequent appearances at the Comedy Cellar and other New York City-based stand-up clubs. But his passion for table tennis is genuine - and well-documented: A New York Times piece this past March explored the mentorship between Wu "Jennifer" Yue, who will compete in women's singles at this summer's Rio Games, and the comedian.
"For people going out, it's a social game - it's physical," Friedlander says of amateur-level table tennis. The comedian has played off-and-on competitively since age 13, learning techniques from his brother and a neighbor who lived down the block. He took table tennis more seriously after watching the sport live during the Beijing Olympics.
Shortly afterward, Friedlander first competed against Bricklin and Raharinosy in Tri-State Area tournaments. SPiN materialized about a year later, and the comedian has supported both the game and the club ever since.
"People don't realize that table tennis is great exercise," Friedlander continues. "When you're playing seriously, you break a sweat, you burn calories."
But SPiN isn't always about playing "seriously." Just before a show one mid-May Friday evening, co-founder and occasional emcee Wally Green emphasizes that weekends at SPiN are all about fun.
"The professional level of ping pong kind of deters the average person," Green says, citing the high-intensity, extremely technical level of play present in professional matches. "If you took your girlfriend to a table tennis club, that'd probably be the last date you have with her. This is a social ping pong club, it's totally different ... We try to remove the seriousness from the sport and make it hip and cool."
Back in 2009, the Brooklyn born-and-raised Green - who, with his bleached, buzzed hair, refers to himself as the "Dennis Rodman of ping pong" - met three documentary filmmakers at a local table tennis tournament. The four quickly became friends, often playing the game daily at the documentarians' loft apartment.
This ultimately gave way to SPiN's loft-based forerunner, referred to as "naked ping pong" parties - named such not because the players were literally nude, but because "naked was the state of mind." Every weekend, party-goers would compete against one another in a tournament spread across four tables.
Since then, Green has participated in international tournaments, started coaching and frequently emcees SPiN's Friday night show, "Dirty Dozen." While almost each night at the club has its own event, "Dirty Dozen" sees a colorful competition featuring high-profile contestants that run the gauntlet from men wearing tutus to national table tennis team members. Players hit shots from a distance greater than the table's full length.
Like the city in which it's based, one of SPiN NYC's most appealing aspects is its diversity.
"[Table tennis] has brought more cultures together than any other sport I know," Green says, referring to the almost one billion people around the globe who play the game in some way. He mentions the ping pong tables SPiN donated to Bryant Park - two of more than 60 the organization has provided to public and youth-focused organizations. Disparate groups of people will often play one another: corporate higher-ups will take on teenagers, visitors from Belgium will compete against native New Yorkers.
"We have every culture here in New York," Green says. "From India, from Africa ... Ping pong brings people from all walks of life - rich, poor - everyone together under one roof. To me, that's the greatest thing about the sport."
This proves true not only at the "Dirty Dozen" event later that night, but also at the packed surrounding tables. Among those visiting the club tonight are middle-aged couples from Australia and England, a newcomer to the sport who calls Colorado home and a group of New Yorkers celebrating a teenager's birthday party. There's even an office party going in the club's VIP room.
"She's better than I am," Joe Radler says of his daughter, who's turning 23. Radler - whose preferred sport is tennis - has been playing ping pong since he was just a boy, but this is his first time at SPiN. "It's high-energy, got great music. A great place to bring family."
On the other side of the spectrum, SPiN also provides a home for those more dedicated to the sport -those who refer to the game strictly as "table tennis" and never "ping pong." "Dirty Dozen" participant Alex Porush, 26, picked up the sport one winter "as a filler" after an injury sidelined him. Now, he's training to represent the United States at Israel's Maccabiah Games in 2017.
"When a match ends, you should be more mentally tired than physically tired," Porush says, wiping sweat off his forehead. "It's such a mental game - it's very humbling."
Still, Porush - a recent New York University graduate who works by day as a math tutor - sees the appeal in a more casual table tennis club. "SPiN's a great alternative to the typical bar scene," he says. "It's more interesting than a crowded bar. You can talk to the people you're playing with."
SPiN co-founder Franck Raharinosy embodies the diversity that SPiN strives for: A native of Madagascar, Africa, Raharinosy still speaks with the French accent of his youth. He studied law before moving to New York as a young man, where he got involved with the entertainment industry.
"It's a dream come true," Raharinosy says of SPiN NYC, which celebrated its sixth anniversary with a redesign last September. He mentions the "crazy cast" of people involved, which for a time included the late American table tennis champion Marty Reisman. Reisman - well-recognized for his distinctive style, including a trademark fedora and occasional tendency to use a frying pan as a paddle - played frequently at SPiN until his December 2012 death at 82 years old.
So what's the appeal that brings together musicians, Olympians and casual players? "There's something very innocent and immediate about [table tennis]," Raharinosy says. "On dates, you break the ice right away. It's something fun to do instead of going to these expensive night clubs."
One common trait Raharinosy sees among visitors - particularly club regulars - is their desire to better their skills. Even casual players will try to engage in faster rallies, hit more accurate serves.
Raharinosy smiles: "At the end of the day, everyone is trying to improve."
You can learn more about SPiN - or reserve a table - on the club's site: http://wearespin.com/
You can find more information about Judah Friedlander's stand-up dates through his Twitter page: twitter.com/JudahWorldChamp