“The Chief”—that’s a perfect appellative for Hall of Famer George Braithwaite’s four-decade sense of responsibility to self and to Table Tennis.
It’s little known, though, that George first feathered his cap in another country and in a different kind of competition. Before coming to the U.S., he represented Guyana in the 1958 Caribbean Games, winning medals in the “400 metre relay and the 100 metre sprint.”
Even while initially working at the United Nations he was still much involved in Track and Field.
However, one day he discovered the U.N.’s Table Tennis Club—and with it a life-changing, new pursuit. He began playing daily with an old hard-rubber racket he’d picked up, taking delight in acquiring a defense.
George’s first win? The Men’s B Consolation at the ’65 Long Island Closed. Yep, he was on his way, at the ready—ranked Long Island #8.
Don’t snicker. Only five months later, in March of 1966, at Detroit’s Cobo Hall, Braithwaite won his first U.S. Open Championship—and so graduated from the Class B’s forever.
George knew, though, if he wanted to be really good he’d have to make the change from defense to offense. Playing with inverted rubber, he began working on a topspin game, practicing daily. In 1968 he won his second and third U.S. Open Championships—Class A Singles and (with Fuarnado Roberts) Class A Doubles. By the close of the ’68-69 season he was ranked U.S. #14.
At the 1969 Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) tournament in Toronto, Braithwaite defeated the 3-time Canadian Closed Champ Derek Wall, pleased, as he said, that he was able to “guard against being worn down by Derek’s exceptionally graceful game.” The idea of Brathwaite being worn down, though, had to have seemed ridiculous to anyone who’d seen how fit he was. Meanwhile, his play had shaped up too. Having mastered a forehand-looping and backhand-countering game,” George would gradually add “a looping backhand” to form an attacking style he called “Controlled aggression.”
At the ’69 USOTC’s, playing for his victorious N.Y. #2 team with Bernie Bukiet, Roberts, and Rory Brassington, Braithwaite came through against the Jack Howard-led California team, beating Glenn Cowan in the deciding 9th match to post an impressive 19-3 record.
In April, 1970, Braithwaite wrote about his tour of Central America with U.S. Champ D-J Lee. Their primary aim was to give exhibitions and coaching clinics. But George also got a chance to practice. At a Managua nite club he not only dined but danced—“two or three boleros and a pachanga, which he pronounced “very good for your footwork.”
The Chief, now U.S. #8 after beating 3-time U.S. Champ Bukiet at the CNE, added more feathers to his cap by taking the Long Island Open. In the semi’s, he stopped Dick Miles (though it wasn’t easy: George rallied from down 2-0 and 10-4 in the 3rd), and then in the final he defeated his winning 1971 USOTC teammate Errol Resek. As a result, Braithwaite was selected for the U.S. Team to the Nagoya World’s…and so became part of the historic “Ping-Pong Diplomacy” Team that Time camera-caught at the Great Wall. Elsewhere in China, George was surrounded by new fans— in Peking, and at the Ma Lou Commune outside Shanghai.
Later, in the U.S. with the visiting China Team, he played the diplomat at the U.N. with U.N. Ambassador and future President George H.W. Bush. He also got to play a Tour match against the famous Liang Ko-liang.
In 1971, a wing of the U.S. Team—Capt. Jack Howard, along with Boggan, Braithwaite, Resek and their wives—received an all-expenses paid, five-day trip to Paris, so that Radio-Television Luxembourg and the magazine Paris Match, during a two-hour press conference at the Eiffel Tower, could see what truthful innocents we all were. Afterwards we were rewarded with an evening at the Lido surrounded in this photo by the floorshow’s Bluebell girls.
More free-wheeling fun, on court and off, at the first Kingston, Jamaica Benson and Hedges Love Bird Invitational Tournament. Dramatic action aplenty for the USA team of George, Danny Seemiller, and Angelita Rosal. In the semi’s, with the tie against Canada 2-2, George prevailed in the deciding 3rd when, as the Jamaica News colorfully put it, Rod Young “fizzed out like wet squib.”
Then in the final against England, with the tie again 2-2, The Chief showed he was ready to don the ceremonial headdress. He held on to win, 21-19 in the 3rd, against Ian Horsham, and did a little fist-up victory dance.
George had a noteworthy win at the 1973 U.S. Open—knocked out U.S. #1 Danny Seemiller.
In the summer of ‘75 the highly controversial Players Association was formed, and George was one of those who wanted to make people “aware” that the top players were “being treated…like second-class citizens.” He and others took the unprecedented step of picketing the 1976 Philadelphia U.S. Open. Why? Because it offered only $1500 total prize money—an amount disastrously contrary to the trend of increased prize money tournaments throughout the country.
Competing at tournament after tournament was financially draining, but for George and other aficionados, professional players really, participation was a must. It defined them—continued to give them an identity, a stature, they could be proud of.
In 1979, The Chief followed his win at the Caribbean Championships by defeating France’s former two-time National Champion Vincent Purkart at the CNE. They played a two-hour marathon match—“unexpedited by the presiding international umpire because, as one official watching said, ‘It looked so good we didn’t want to stop it.’”
And no wonder. Braithwaite, who was into his 5th season as a Senior, was named Most Valuable Player at the 1980 USOTC’s, and his rating went up to 2427.
At the ’81 CNE, George teamed with Eric Boggan to win the Men’s Doubles—over North America’s best: first, Canada’s Zoki Kosanovic/Joe Ng, then the Seemiller brothers. In 1984, after he’d made the 1983 Pan-Am Team to Caracas, George, approaching 50, caused a sensation at the CNE by taking, perhaps with Coach Bong-Mo Lee’s help, not just the Senior’s but the Men’s! One onlooker watching him said, “The Chief sleeps in a cooler—he never ages.” And I myself wrote at the time, “Braithwaite “is now playing the best table tennis of his long and distinguished career.” He was named 1984 Olympian magazine’s Sportsman of the Year, and the 1984-85 USTTA’s Amateur Athlete of the Year.
Of course in the near quarter-century yet to come what a future he’d have in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s—often with Dave Sakai as his winning Doubles partner and Dick Hicks as his ever-testing Singles opponent.
In 1989 Braithwaite was inducted into the U.S. Table Tennis Hall of Fame. Caron Leff praised George, wrote, “His demeanor and good sportsmanship set a standard of behavior that we can all learn from, especially the youth.”
On into the next decade and the 25th reunion of “Ping-Pong Diplomacy.” All met socially in the Delegates’ Lounge of the U.N., including members of the 1971 U.S. and China Teams that made History, along with such celebrated visitors as speaker Henry Kissinger, Tricia Nixon Cox, and ITTF President (Shoe) Xu Yinsheng. George himself organized a “Friendship First, Competition Second” series of fun exhibitions enjoyed by the diplomacy-minded crowd.
Brathwaite’s more than 40-year accomplishments are more than impressive. How does he keep winning? In my interview with him a couple of years ago, he told me he takes care of himself. He never seems to have an ache or pain or injury. For the occasional cold he gulps down two Dristan tablets—and, voila, the cold is gone. Ideally, he starts off the day with a grapefruit, a big bowl of oatmeal, and a banana; then in the afternoon has a bagel and coffee; and in the evening maybe a Caesar salad and salmon. He does calisthenics, 30-yard sprints, jogs for a mile every other day, and, as he’s retired from the U.N., plays for three hours at a stretch five times a week. Does he ever sleep? Well, maybe he rests a little—though not from exhaustion.
Also he wins because he has focus, determination, steadiness. “He doesn’t have an earth-shattering smash,” former U.S. Olympic Festival Commissioner Dick Butler said of him (though this one looks pretty good), “but you have to blow him off the table to beat him. Mentally he just wears people down because he’s so consistent. Never have I seen him give up. Never.”
Of course George found time to promote his ambitious Northeastern League project. However, to keep it going was just too difficult. Sponsors were hard to come by, and there weren’t many accessible venues. But again one could see that George’s contribution to table tennis was always more than being a player.
And yet Champion player he was, and is. I count—it’s unbelievable really—more than 70 U.S. Open/Closed Championships he’s won. Not played in—won! It seems impossible, but, except for 1993 when he didn’t compete, George, for 27 straight years, has won at least one U.S. Open or Closed title, and often more.
This makes him, at many a player’s powwow, unquestionably The Chief of all chiefs. Ladies and Gentlemen, our 2007 Mark Matthews Lifetime Award winner: George Braithwaite. (Reprinted from the USA TT magazine)